Published: May 29th 2011March 10th 2011
(N) Aaahhh, Cambodia... I love Cambodia. Matt loves Cambodia. I cannot imagine how anybody could not love Cambodia. It is a beautiful country, less unspoilt than, say, the north of Laos, but incredibly touching and real. Poverty is omnipresent and harsh, but Cambodia’s people are continuously smiling. Seemingly no matter what hardships are presented to them or what conditions they live in, they are overwhelmingly and sincerely lovely.
I am not the only one to have developed a deep admiration and love for the Cambodian people. This is proven by the countless NGOs operating in the country and the charity-funded schools and drinking water wells that are staple features of any rural town or village. After the closure of the country’s brutal chapter that was the Khmer Rouge, a lot of people came to Cambodia to help and while there is still a very real need for assistance and I do not want to deny anyone’s charitable aspirations, I cannot help but think that part of the reason the country is packed with NGO workers is not entirely selfless... they simply don’t want to leave this beautiful place.
When we entered the country, it felt like receiving a big
hug. The border officials stamped us in with big smiles and wished us a nice stay. The tuk tuks were super comfy and the drivers were not after our money but friendly chit chat. Our first hostel was clean, fabulous and cheap and the coffee tasted great. Every fibre of Cambodia seemed to call “Welcome, friends!” Coming from hectic and moody Vietnam, it was like we could finally exhale.
For the next week and a half, we did just that. It so happened that our favourite two couples we’d met travelling were in the same place at the same time as us. In the south-eastern town of Kep, we met Ced and Virginie and spent a lovely day on Rabbit Island, laughing and yabbering away, and exchanging useful travel tips for Vietnam and Cambodia respectively. In the evening, we had seafood on our minds and went to investigate Kep’s famous crab market. But Cambodia had other plans for us... as we walked from one stall to the next comparing the prices of a kilo of crab like the cheap backpackers we are, a young local guy stopped us and invited us to join in his nephew’s birthday party. Now,
anywhere else a party for a 9 year-old may be dull, but this one was a rather grand affair...
Approximately 120 people had gathered for the occasion; relatives, friends, high ranking police officials and a bunch of children. Women worked the kitchen hard to feed the crowd, bringing out one delicious dish after the next. Beer was in free flow. We were sat on a table with around 15 people, none of whom spoke English but it didn’t matter. Communication consisted of smiles and courteous gestures, and collective, enthusiastic toasts every time one of us lifted our glass of beer to take a sip. When the guy sitting to the right of Matt (the two had been “communicating”) had to go to the bathroom, he actually asked Matt to be excused from the table. Politeness and hospitality taken to another level. It wasn’t long before the many beers (if diluted with ice - the things you do whilst travelling!) went to our heads a little, and the next thing we knew, we were cheering and waving sparklers as the birthday cake was being cut, and people started to throw whipped cream at each other, and us. Next on the
agenda was the giving of gifts. Which goes as follows: party guest presents birthday boy with gift or money, birthday boy spoon feeds guest with a piece of cake and they pose for a photograph whilst doing so. Next guest, repeat. This went on for quite some time and the birthday boy had an undisguised look of relief on his face when it was over and announced that dancing time had arrived!
What followed was one of the most wonderful moments of our travels. They played slow dance music. And danced slow dance. Like in the Eighties. An arm-length’s distance was strictly observed, and the men’s hands were only barely touching the women’s waists. Nevertheless, in conservative Cambodia, this constituted the height of public affection, and throughout, people were giggling away with naughty looks in their eyes. We joined in, one step left, one step right, one step left, one step right. And it was one of the most innocent, romantic moments ever.
When the DJ decided to mix things up to prevent things from possibly getting too steamy, the couples moaned but then everybody joined in for traditional Khmer dancing. Virginie and I picked it up quickly
(it’s basically walking around in a big circle, your hands do most of the work), but to see Matt and Ced move their hips and flick their wrists around was a sight to behold! At around midnight, Khmer hip hop started blasting out of the 2 metre-high wall of tortured speakers, and the kids took to the stage... rocking it like the bad boys in the music videos, shaking and bumping and grinding away – at the tender age of 9. It was brilliant. At around 2 am we decided to call it a night, at which the crowd complained noisily and pleaded “just one more dance”, which turned into four. When we finally stepped into our tuk tuk, everybody thanked us for being there and waved us goodbye. It was an unforgettable evening.
The next day, it was time to say goodbye to Ced and Virgie who were heading into Vietnam. We hopped on a bus to take us half an hour further west to Kampot, where we were meeting Geordie Jamie and Scottish Lisa. Kampot is a nice little town by the river, but to be honest we didn’t see very much of it. There was one
reason for this: Bodhi Villa. 2km out of town, Bodhi Villa used to be a meditation centre for Buddhist monks, before a hippie Australian couple snapped up the building and turned it into a “communal space”. The old, wooden Khmer building is absolutely beautiful and sits right on the river, flanked by big purple bougainvillea trees. You can sleep in a floating bungalow or on a mattress on the veranda; we had a small but pretty double room for $5 a night. When I stepped out onto the floating sundeck after our arrival, the sun glistening on the river and Deep Purple playing in the background, I knew we had found paradise.
Amongst those in the know, Bodhi Villa is known as the “Hotel California of Cambodia”, and we also fell victim to it. We had planned to stay two nights but just could not leave. Every day we extended our stay for another day and ended up staying over a week. It was absolute bliss. The place has such a lovely, mellow atmosphere, the music was great (all hippie stuff and 70s rock’n’roll!), and we spent our days reading, writing, playing pool and jumping off the homemade, 3
metre high wooden diving board into the cool river. At night, the river had a stunning surprise for us: gazillions of bio-luminescent plankton... There was so much of it, you felt like you were in a space ship when you opened your eyes under the water. Diving off the board created a huge sparkling circle, and when you lifted your arm out of the water, the plankton rained down like a string of pearls. I have never seen anything like it and I know I will never see it again like that. It was magical, and it became our nightly ritual to have a swim in the dark.
We met some great people in Bodhi Villa, too. There was Anthony, a Russian-American from New York City who had the driest sense of humour; Lisa, a chiropractor from Australia who is trying to set up an aid project in Cambodia and who gave me a free adjustment after I did my back in practising how to dive into the water backwards; and three Danes, talented musicians and hobby film-makers, who bought and modified a tuk tuk to travel up into Laos. On Friday nights, Hughie, the owner, hosts a weekly
party. He is a great guitar player and has his own recording studio, and we were treated to some fab performances by both him and the Danish boys. We clocked up quite a bar bill that night, or should I say every night, in fact when we checked out we were told we qualified for a free t-shirt each... why? Because we had spent $300 in a week. That’s a lot of money in Cambodia.... oops! But in our defence, we had previously been quite well-behaved, and our reunion with Jamie & Lisa and making of new friends called for celebration.
We did leave Bodhi Villa on a couple of occasions. Once to embark on a great boat trip into the beautiful mangroves in the surrounding area, and another time to venture back to Kep for the night, where the “Kep Beach Festival” was held for the first time. Things got off to a slow start thanks to technical problems, but an atmosphere began to develop when Kong Nay took to the stage, a famous chapei player in his 60s, one of the few master musicians to survive the Khmer Rouge. He is known as the “Ray Charles of
Kong Nai...or is it Ray?!
Playing the chapei dong veng
Cambodia”. After that came a local thrash metal band (which I, of course, loved) and an unusual Khmer hip hop/dub/breakbeat fusion band that was so funky that I resolved to track them down and get hold of their music after the first song. At midnight, we headed back home to Kampot, as wanted to make the most of our last day at Bodhi Villa – this time for real. We left on Monday still kicking and screaming, but Hughie assured us that we would be back one day - I guess he’s developed a knack for these things...
There are more photos below