We’d been told that typically, a car/taxi in Cambodia would be filled to capacity in order to maximize passenger fares, in fact, to maintain ticket price the taxi must have four passengers in the back and two (optimally three) in the front, maybe more, if the passengers are Cambodian. We buy tickets anyway from our Sihanoukville guest house and are picked up on time and delivered to a taxi rank to find more passengers. It’s an unusual, privileged experience for us. Public buses, crammed to the hilt and blaring Cambodian kareoke had been our only means for the past few weeks.
It’s at this point we are told ‘pay more, taxi go now’, and we remember some of the nicer elements of the polarizing bus experiences. No toutish behavior. We decline and sit for 20 minutes before another cab with 2 more passengers arrives.
Amidst the taxi rank, the drivers sit amongst the trademark red Cambodian dust that seemingly finds itself across the whitewash of buildings and on the ducos of cars. We are told to pile into the car with two Norwegian guys and are told ‘pay one more dollar each, we go now’. So not wanting to ride the two hours in discomfort we relent.
The Camry (every Cambodian car is a Camry) rattles into an open-air service station and a tyre is banged onto a rim and fitted to the front right side. After half an hour an a humorous argument about payment between the driver and the attendant, we’re off. The Norwegian guys speak perfect English and we pass 2 hours of driving terror in discussion.
There’s no official law to roads here. Though theres double-lines painted to mark unsafe overtaking sections, they’re completely ignored. Taxis are the worst. Our driver hurtles up a bad road at around 80 km/h to a motorbike with 2 dozen live chickens on the back. He overtakes into the path of an oncoming mattress truck, with mattresses piled so high they lean to one side, and there’s STILL two Khmer guys sitting on top! Fred, one of our Norwegian buddies later confesses he had to close his eyes. Kampot is somewhat like Battambang. It is a river town rich in dilapidated and rotting French buildings. It is set amidst the mighty Prek Kompong Bay river at the foot of the mountains of Bokor national park. It’s river trade, relaxed atmosphere and incredible sunsets give it a Chinese village feel, only with French buildings.
Though the town is rich in character, again the roads and poor and swirls of red dust leave their impressions in smudges on the buildings that are simply not maintained. Faded yellow paint is overgrown with black moss and red dirt as broken shutters and crumbling fences are left in a state of ruin. Pigs and cow stagger along the road, gnawing at tufts of grass and bits of rubbish.
As we stop to photograph the buildings, we are confronted by a young English girl with a paintbrush. She explains that she’s renovating a cake shop due to open in a week or so. She explains the cakes are made by some of Kampots deaf and disabled and wonders if we’d like to sample their wares, explaining it would mean a lot to them to see business beginning. So we agree. The cafe is in a state of renovation, bathroom seaside murals still wet with paint. The two English girls are hard at work and a handful of Khmer men and women are working with baking trays and mixing bowls. One deaf, albino woman gives us sign names. Rebeccas actions emphasizing her smile, mine emphasizing my big nose. We spend close to an hour talking to the English girls and eating cakes and coffee before wishing them well and leaving a tip.
We arrange the next day for a day trip to Bokor National Park which during the French colonial era was home to several buildings now left to ruin. The buildings are dotted throughout the park but most reside around the summit (1080m) and include relics such as a colonial hotel, a casino, a post office and a Catholic church. Though they were built in the 1920’s, they were abandoned in the 1940’s when they came under attack from Vietnamese Liberation forces. They were abandoned a second time when the Lon Nol regime left them to the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970’s. The Khmer Rouge seeing the elevated position for strategic potential.
The old hotel is perched on a vertical cliff-face. A look down is met with a swirling updraft of whisping clouds. The building itself is formidable, rising from the summit of grassy plains, swirling cloud and much cooler air. It’s former grandeur now stripped to smashed windows and a rich smothering of red and black moss and mould. The Lonely Planet describes it as being right out of ‘The Shining’ and it’s easy to see why. Soulless, gaping windows, vacant balconies, eroding wooden window frames. Inside the once glorious French tiles are cracked and covered in dirt and the high ceiling corridors now stink of mould.
Bathrooms with washed pebble tiling, elegant ballrooms with grand fireplaces, charcoal burn to the ceiling and everywhere etched graffiti of prior visitors. Looking through corroded windows out to grassy plains and swirling cloud, trying to imagine the colony’s finest doing the same. The two hour trip back through some serious 4WD turf felt longer than it was.
That night after dinner, our guest house had arranged for a band to play. Counting the rooms quickly, I determined the crowd of guests couldn’t possibly number more than 20, yet as we walked in after dinner, the band were setup and ready to rock.
The band were actually more of a promotional team from Phnom Penh assembled by Number One Plus condoms. 6 plastic seats were assembled in front of the band (actually 1 guy and a mixer and a troupe of dancers) as they launched into a version of ‘Dirty Diana’, young Khmers partner dancing like it was 50’s high school dance. After a Khmer rap, we were invited to have a dance-off with the hope of winning prizes. I think we all felt a little awkward but gave it a go anyway, drowning the unusualness of it all by doing stupid moves like the robot. The band finished and at the request of the audience played more songs into the night while Westerners and Cambodians did their stupid dances to each others music.
Definetely one of the weirder nights in my life..
Part of my journal whilst in Cambodia last year