SE Asia is an interesting place to live – and politics and politicians have a huge impact on life.
Thailand has been through – and is still going through – interesting political and regal and legal times. A troubled and scandal-chased Malaysian PM was recently received by a troubled and Soviet-linked US President. Aung San Suu Kyi – long imagined to be the saviour of her country is now facing accusations of inaction over the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Duterte and his war on crime and drugs in the Philippines invoke memories of ex-PM Thaksin’s war on drugs in Thailand – and the former’s refusal to disclose financial dealings is again a sadly familiar tale, as the Shinawatr family fortunes – and personal whereabouts – are still under scrutiny here.
My visit to this country last year was marked by the huge funerary observations for Kem Ley – a “holy man” according to one person I spoke to, but a corrupt and illegal or treacherous opportunist according to government spokesmen.
No travel in any country can be totally free from political considerations – or terrorist threats or worries about Delhi belly – but at a rather basic level I guess we can travel here and there and find that the food is good, that the people are friendly, that massages are inexpensive and that great and affordable boutique hotels are popping up everywhere.
And ignore the killing fields and torture museums.
And so I went back to Cambodia
And so I went back to Cambodia last month – for my third or fourth visit.
On previous occasions I had limited my time to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Angkor, so this time I jumped onto motor bikes, wonky aeroplanes, tuk tuks that are called in Cambodia by the rather more grand name of moto-remorques, trains and buses and motorised skateboards and visited Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville: quite a round-the-nation tour in eighty (or so) days.
OK – I lied about the skateboards.
And I only had a couple of weeks there this time.
The World Bank reported that in 2014, Cambodia’s poverty rate was 13.5% compared to 47.8% in 2007. About 90% of the poor live in the countryside.
This would account, perhaps, for the remarkable juxtapositions seen in the country, where glossy three-storey “McMansions” complete with faux Corinthian columns and mirror-glass windows are found, with neighbours living in houses or shanties built from discarded corrugated iron and woven bamboo sheets, and whose only waterproofing is pirated plastic signs advertising Cambodian beer, and where drying laundry is slung over barbed-wire fences. This would also account for the fact that at street-side stalls you can buy cardboard copies of these two- or three-storey houses which can burned along with paper money and clothing, hoping that the gods will look more favourably on the devout.
There are signs of money pouring into the country with scores of Mercedes, Lexus, Audi, Bentley and Rolls Royce cars seen in the capital – but there are also places such as the Bodaiju Residences near Phnom Penh’s airport offering glorious condominium buildings, swimming pools and gardens and scheduled to open in December 2017 … but which are currently nothing more than a hole in the ground.
In Phnom Penh and to a lesser extent elsewhere in the country, there are luxury hotels and hundreds of restaurants including the small but excellent Bistrot Langka off the end of Street 288, innovative Chef Al Schaaf’s Black Bambu in 228 Street (where kids from the Cambodian Children’s Fund are given training and opportunities), and the Four Season Resort-standard restaurant at the White Boutique Hotel at Otres Beach near Sihanoukville. Knowing the poverty levels in the country I felt rather guilty eating a superb meal of grilled red snapper with a red fruit (dragon fruit, watermelon and papaya) salsa at the latter – but enjoyed it immensely – and went back the next night to have a hamburger.
The garment industry is very important to the Kingdom and PM Hun Sen has recently announced that the monthly salary for garment workers will be raised from the current US$154.00 to “at least” US$168.00.
My red snapper and a glass of wine at the White Boutique Hotel came to about US$12.00 – or about two and a half days’ wages for one of Hun Sen’s garment factory workers. Hmmm.
Perhaps to pay for proposed increase wages nationally, the government imposed a multi-million dollar fine on the English-language newspaper The Cambodian Daily (“All the news without fear or favour”). The Prime Minister was reported as saying that the newspaper would have to pay the disputed tax bill or “pack up and go.”
The newspaper has now closed.
In Phnom Penh I had dinner with various friends from Thailand – all of whom are now working at international schools in this small and developing national capital of about two million people. While the top international school is reputedly the ISPP (International School of Phnom Penh), others of note are the new Australian International School (http://aispp.edu.kh/en) and Northbridge International School near the very modern international airport.
One friend commented:
Just thirty or forty years ago the Khmer Rouge wiped out over two million people from a population of just eight million. Those killed were the schoolteachers, the intellectuals, the leaders. I am glad that the kids I am teaching today will one day become the new leaders of the country, those who will make a difference.
International school fees generally are affordable only by the wealthy – or by government or military or ex-pat officials – and there are over one hundred such schools in the capital.
In addition to the ones already mentioned, and despite the country’s French heritage, the “international” schools seem to favour British links, with places named
- Eton House International School
- Harrods International Academy
- Regency International School
- Brighton International School
and there were also
- The American School near Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, which has been offering “an education for children and adults at an affordable cost” since 1979
- Genius International School
- Bamboo International School
but my favourite was the
- CIA First International School of Phnom Penh
Yes! Langley gets ‘em young, trains ‘em up and sets ‘em on pathways of mayhem and destruction around the world.
But perhaps “CIA” does not in this case stand for the oxymoronically named Central Intelligence Agency, but for something else, such as “Cambodian International Association” but even their website (http://ciaschool.edu.kh) does not offer much help as I could not find the full name of the school.
The huge number of multi-storey buildings springing up in the city reflects the prosperity hinted at by the proliferation of international fee-paying schools. I had drinks one night with friends in the Sky Bar of the Lumière Hotel on 228 Street, overlooking the Monument de l’Indépendance and the city far below us. I am sure the Lumière was not there when I visited a year ago – and I am sure that in a year’s time it will be just one of the new sky scrapers of this pulsing city. As my host mentioned:
- The government has got it about right – international relief funds are still flooding in to this Third World city – but the development is looking more and more like Bangkok every day.
But a block or two away from the Hyatt or the Sheraton or the Lumière, or the superb little boutique men-only A&P Hotel (www.arthurandpaul.com), the streets are pot-holed, lacking footpaths and adequate street lighting, and populated by scurrying rats … and cheerful cigarette-smoking security guards and parking attendants who could blow whistles at a world-championship whistle-blowing competition.
While Khmer is the official language in Cambodia, English and French are also quite widely used. It is common to see official cars with “RCAF”-branded number plates used by the Royal Cambodian Air Force, and public buildings often show names in Khmer and French – “Gendarmerie Royale de la Province de Battam Bang”.
At the excellent International Book Centres you can buy Khmer and French and English books. The English novels seem to be limited to Nancy Drew Mysteries and The Hardy Boys, some Shakespearean texts … and the Raunchy Joke Book (Volumes 3, 5, 6, 9, 10 and 12) which feature big-bosomed women with tiny waists and sweating middle-aged men reminiscent of the old “What the Butler Saw” peep shows and postcards sold on Brighton Pier eighty years ago: Oh Fred! You are terrible!
For some reason the IBC also sells Dunlop running shoes and wall posters of the human lymphatic system.
In the country English and French are less common – apart from signs for Anchor (and Angkor) beer, Ganzberg German premier beer, the many Depot Tela petrol stations and the ubiquitous signs for various mobile telephones.
A friend had recommended that I visit Battambang (pronounced, apparently, “bottom bong” or even “phattom bang”) as it was apparently a lovely country town with old colonial buildings and a relaxed air, so off I went.
A quick flight to Siem Reap, onto a bus along excellent roads to Sisophon or Serey Somphon depending on whether you use the Khmer alphabet or the Thai, with its pretty little Ecole d’Arte et de Culture Khmers, onwards along terrible, crowded roads, past extensive flooding and so to Battambang, where a remorque took me to the lovely little Sanctuary Villa hotel (www.thesanctuaryvillabattambang.com).
I had a slow stroll through the old town, past the Stung Sangke Hotel on Street 5 which offers a spa, a restaurant and a bar … and which has glorious palm tree-decked balconies outside every room – but no doors leading from the rooms to the balconies. After a poke into the Bric à Brac hotel and antique shop, back to the Sanctuary for a swim and a snooze and a return trip back to town for a nice meal of the traditional Khmer dish Lok Lak at Vintage Wine Bar and Restaurant in Street 2 (run by Ramoch – a tiny Khmer woman in high high heels – and Luc – an older French man) … and back through the dark, along potted roads to the hotel … and into my hired car + driver to take me back to Siem Reap.
And that was Battambang.
Old colonial buildings and a relaxed air?
Comatose would perhaps be a better if not very kindly word.
The return journey was along smaller country roads than those followed by the bus a day or two earlier. Many of the roads zigzagged through lush rice fields, and many of the roads were made even narrower by the rice-covered blue sheets of plastic spread over non-existent footpaths and the sides of the road to dry the rice.
Much more lively than Battambang (Cambodia’s third largest city by population) were Sihanoukville and Kampot. While the former is suffering from massive Chinese – stalled – investments, and resort developments that range from concrete walls around otherwise undeveloped weed- and scrub-littered plots by the sea to resorts that are open but not yet quite finished, Kampot is really quite charming.
The town of Sihanoukville is quite tiny – a few straggling streets and a few glorious roundabouts, a supermarket selling everything from Heinz baked beans to flip flops to Super Glue to 18-year-old single malt whiskies – and lots of massage parlours. This tiny provincial town and its casinos serve several beaches, some of which are apparently “party beaches” and others more sedate.
I stayed at one of the quiet beaches – Otres – at the unfinished Mangrove River Resort. It offered nice villas, excellent swimming pools and kayaks for exploring the local river – but despite the glossy brochures, there was no restaurant, no Sky Bar, no sauna and no gym, and it was a seven-kilometre tuk tuk drive from downtown. One afternoon I borrowed a kayak and paddled down to the mouth of the river, past a few houseboats and a small fishing village perched on bamboo stakes by the side of the river. Bizarrely, a sign nailed to a mid-river bamboo pole showed the FIRE EXIT direction.
The Otres Beach nearby was wide and deserted and offered views to the nearby islands, and cool drinks and international and Khmer meals were served in the beachside bamboo and thatch restaurants.
Just a couple of hours away by private taxi is Kampot, passing an Australian-owned abattoir processing local and imported Australian cows into prime rib eye fillet steaks, and a place owned by
- Pappa XXX – Huh – yes – owned by a friend of Hun Sen
- So you do not like this man?
- Humph – he is so bad for this country
My driver took me to the railway station at Kampot (although local signs indicate it is the RAILAWY STATION) so I could book my train ticket to Phnom Penh, but the office was closed, the station dogs were not interested in my questions, and the leaking roof dripped on abandoned soft drink bottles.
The superb The Columns Hotel at Kampot (www.the-columns.com) has a dozen or so rooms scattered over three or four floors in a wonderfully reimagined old French colonial house. My room had a little private balcony looking out onto the street, just two blocks away from the Kampong Bay River. All rooms at this lovely little hotel offered half a dozen novels in English or French or German as bedside reading material – as well as cable TV, air-con and ceiling fans. Nope – no swimming pool – but the river was not far away …
Indeed, in Kampot nothing seemed very far away.
The river was just up there, a few mini-supermarkets or convenience stores were also about there, a massage place or two were over there, and excellent restaurants (the main image is of Atelier – a lovely old house now offering a great restaurant and a small hotel) were here and there and bars and wine bars cleverly filled in any remaining slots in the urban landscape.
Kampot is a small, quiet, charming little town, and one that offers tours to the famous nearby pepper farms, and river cruises down to the mouth of the river. There are several old riverside colonial houses now being offered for sale and renovation – so get in quickly! – as I am sure this little town is going to become a major destination for travellers in the not-too-distant-future.
Cambodia is busily rebuilding its tiny rail system that dates from the 1930s when the French built a line to the Thai border… only for all services to be stopped in 2009 following decades of abuse by the Khmer Rouge, guerrilla activities and lack of maintenance.
An Australian company (Toll) invested huge sums of money in the redevelopment from 2009 – 2014 and a year or two ago the line from Sihanoukville via Kampot to Phnom Penh re-opened with three passenger trains weekly in each direction – and many more freight trains – all now under the ownership and management of local contractors.
Perhaps that is why my 0900 train from Kampot to Sihanoukville left at 1230.
A motorbike took me to the station in plenty of time to buy my ticket and to board the train, but there was no train. An hour and a half later there was excitement and waiting passengers started collecting bags, putting lids of bowls of noodles and gathering grumbling children.
- The train is coming!
but no, it was just a line maintenance trolley with a dozen or so men aboard it. The trolley pulled up grandly in front of the station. The men disembarked, one carrying the engine, two more carrying the platform they had been sitting on, and four more carrying the axles and wheels on which the whole lot rode into town.
Everyone went back to waiting.
More excitement at 1130 when the train from Phnom Penh arrived, bound for Sihanoukville and half an hour early. The waiting food and drink vendors scurried into action, people jumped out of the train, grabbed hard-boiled eggs, fruit, bowls of noodles and bottles of water and the train blew its whistle and moved off with passengers running in hot pursuit. The train then stopped twenty metres down the line and waited.
For Godot, perhaps
Half an hour later it again drew off into the West. Stopped again, backed up a few metres, scuttled down a branch line, and allowed my train to draw in to the station. More frantic sales of refreshments, more whistles, more screaming kids and motorbikes and bicycles rattling in and through and around the station and then – we were off at breakneck speed.
It is about 150 kilometres from Kampot to the capital. In Japan this distance would be gobbled up by the shinkansen or bullet trains in about twenty minutes. In Cambodia it took just under five hours at an average speed of thirty kmh.
The carriages were – mostly – air-conditioned and comfortable, and the lavatories worked for most of the time. We travelled so slowly that for quite some time I opened the carriage door and sat on the step, watching the passing countryside and the water buffalo that looked in our windows, snorted, and went their way leaving us to follow in their footprints. Or hoof prints.
One or two small towns or villages are dotted along the rail lines and excitement builds gradually and inevitably as the train approaches Phnom Penh.
There are duck farms and factories and everlasting lotus ponds, there are level crossings where a barrier comes down to stop motorists from hitting the hurtling locomotive, with attendant railway guards waving little red flags as they must do six times a week for the six trains, there are people playing cards or cooking or eating or just relaxing with a cigarette. A rail-side market gathers its skirts and moves a few centimetres to the side of the track – I could have pinched a ripe durian from one stall as we crawled past – and dogs howled at us as our sirens blew and small children held their ears in protest of the brouhaha.
My last couple of days were at the lovely Rambutan Resort – also in Street 71 and next door to the A&P Hotel where I was able to catch a last few sunbeams by their clothing-optional pool – before jumping into my last remorque, trundling past all the girlie bars and karaoke joints that seem to line the roads leading from the city to the airport, and so to the “civilisation” of Thailand and Chiang Mai.
This was a very different journey from earlier ones – and one I enjoyed perhaps more than the earlier Cambodian experiences – but there is still so much to learn about this fascinating country.
Journey: September 2017
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship