Published: March 7th 2012February 5th 2012
Welcoming Cambodia beer
not a very creative name.
Even though we just had a holiday in England for Christmas....another holiday was forced upon us as preparations were made for another new year. Lunar new year. Tet in Vietnam, Chinese new year around the world. In China they're leaving the year of the rabbit, in Vietnam they're leaving the year of the cat (for undisclosed taxonomic disagreements), but they're both entering the year of the dragon. Which is what Kate is, appartantly. I'm not being rude. She was born in the year of the dragon, 1976. I'm a goat (1979). If anyone sees that as appropriate, you've known us a while....
Anyway, it was Tet. So we went to the Kingdom of Cambodia!
We worked out en route, on the bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, that we've visited Cambodia 6 times
. Sometimes for holidays, but often just to get a visa stamp either for Vietnam or Thailand. We've visited the temples, the beaches, the cities and even passed through the dodgiest border crossings I've ever seen (all mud and dirty unshaven 'immigration officers' with guns asking for extra cash). Anyway, this makes Cambodia our most visited country other than places we've lived.
Cambodia. When I lived in Thailand I read something about it in Lonely Planet. Yeah, the tragic history bit. Then I became fascinated and consumed books on it. If anyone's interested in a real historical (if heavy going) account, try Ben Kiernan's 'The Pol Pot Regime". For something with a more 1st person feel, try 'Daughter of the Killing Fields' by Theary C. Seng.
That over with, there are other reasons to like Cambodia. It's a beautiful place and I've always found the people incredibly friendly, especially when you consider what they've been through....But we'd never visited Kampot and Kep. Which is where we headed after a brief overnight stay in Phnom Penh.
Kampot on the River
Kampot is a pretty little town by the river, full of lovely colonial style buildings. We checked into Ny Ny Guesthouse and had a lovely few days hanging out. It's one of those places you can (we can...?) see imagine yourself retiring in and enjoying the quietness. There are some great bars with live music (ABC) and a cool English pub called the Rusty Keyhole that even serves Cornish pasties (Yeah, tropical south east Asia plus Cornish pasties = nirvana
. All I need now is a pint of Old Speckled Hen...). Anyway, in one bar, during an impromptu live music set I pointed out a grey bearded, long haired American expat guy playing guitar to Kate and said 'There's me in 20 years'. She gave a strange, tight-lipped smile and downed her red wine.
One night we went out on a sunset cruise on the river. And despite the hazardous leap from boat to dock at the end - it was lovely. It's a beautiful country.
Kep's about 40 minutes from Kampot, but by the sea. We headed there by tuk tuk and stayed at an amazing place. Jasmine Valley eco-resort
is a guesthouse of huts and treehouses in the jungle a little way from the coast, complete with 'natural' swimming pool full of those fish that eat skin off your feet, skateboard bowl, a wood fired pizza oven and even a bar with a piano. We checked in to a jungle bungalow made of mud bricks with solar powered electricity, and settled in for 3 days surrounded by trees and animals. Bloody hell, the jungle is a noisy place at night
A short scramble up a track at the back of the resort (and it is a scramble, don't try it in flip flops) takes you onto a circular path around the national park and to an amazing view across the jungle to the sea and over to Vietnam. We walked miles around the national park. We sweated a lot. We dreamed of seeing monkeys, snakes and clouded leopards (actually, monkeys would do - the other 2 sound a bit scary). Alas all we saw were butterflies, a big squirrel and some rabid-looking dogs who I had to try and look tough around to make bugger off. As you know, I'm ace at looking tough and dog's hate it...
Still. Cool. Oh and we ate rat meat
. Yeah, rat. Now, I've killed more rats than the average person, but I'd never eaten one. Until Cambodia. I didn't narrow down the species, but I reckon not Rattus norvegicus. Jungle rat apparently. Tastes a bit like rabbit. Anyway, official recommendation - go to Jasmine Valley in Kep. Amazing place and lovely people. Enjoy.
We left Vietnam to avoid the Tet festivities. Not the dragon dancing, flower festivals and amazing huge
Kep is full of old crumbled buildings
from before the Khymer Rouge, when it was a popular seaside resort for the colonial settlers.
dragon themed decorative displays, but more the crowded streets, inability to travel around and the lack of accommodation anywhere. Cambodia has their new year around the same time as Thailand, relating to the Buddhist calendar so we thought that we would be pretty safe there. How wrong we were
. Cambodia was definately also celebrating new year. Why stick to one I guess? Why not celebrate every new year? Any excuse for a party. The festivities became quite obvious in Kep. At Jasmine Valley, they told us that there was no public holiday in Cambodia. Clearly noone had told anyone else that. As we headed towards the beach in the town, truck after truck passed us full of people. Flat bed Hilux type things with huge families sat in the truck, plus trucks usually associated with carrying cattle, filled with more than 20 people. The beach front was heaving. There were thousands of people enjoying the holiday all the way along.
Now, public holiday celebrations on the beach in South East Asia are at interesting cultural phenomenon. We realised that our first Lunar New Year in SE Asia, spent with a Thai family near Pattaya, was our first introduction to
with the row of families sitting on the wall above
this. The beach backs onto a high wall with the road on top. The road has a wide area of pavement between it and the top of the wall. This area of pavement is covered in large mats and covered in umbrellas and/or big tarpaullin covers. Huge groups of people - extended families and friends - sit on the mats with crates of beer and plates piled high with crabs, prawns and other seafood, fried rice, noodles and salads. Each group is squashed very closely to the next, but this just adds to the party. In SE Asia people are less concerned about their own personal space, prefering to be close to others, even strangers. The food is delivered from restaurants all around the area on big trays. As the cars pull up, waiters run from all directions with menus for various establishments. The road is full of people pushing carts selling drinks, ice cream and other snacks, stalls squeezing sugar cane juice and cutting the tops off coconuts and people encouraging children to buy cheap multicoloured plastic toys. Noone sits on the beach because you don't want to get brown skin
. It makes you look poor. After eating, groups
play in the sea on big inflated inner tubes that you can hire, fully clothed (again, so you don't get brown), taking care not to go too deep because a lot of people can't swim. It's not how we would celebrate such an event in the west - if you think about Christmas dinners behind closed doors with immediate family - but the excitement is very infectious. So long as you don't try to get a seat.
Life's a beach, then you die
Sihanoukville. We first visited Snookyville (get with the jive talk..) back in 2007 when our mates Paul and Sonja had a honeymoon there. We crashed it. As it turned out, it wasn't the only honeymoon we'd crash in SE Asia Gatecrashing the honeymoon
. Well, we returned to get some beach time in.
What a change. 5 years has transformed Sihanoukville. We have pics of a bar we ate in 5 years ago that bears no resemblance to the place we saw now. Fields have been replaced with bars, restaurants and clubs. There are fewer motos and more tuk tuks sporting ads for resorts. There are lots of people not wearing shoes. I don't
mean in a poverty way, I mean in a weird backpacker way. The sort of people who carry juggling sticks around ('yeah, 2 month time they'll be working in a call centre in Slough and no one will give a ....' I always think). I don't wanna sound like an old man (but I do), but back in 2007 there was only 1 ATM in Sihanoukville. Now they're everywhere. 5 years is a long time in Cambodia...
Back in Kep, fellow guests at Jasmine Valley kept telling us that Sihanoukville was full because of Chinese New Year. 'Nonsense' we thought knowledgably, 'there's always somewhere to stay, and anyway, it's not a holiday here'. Wrong again. When we got to Otres beach
, where we had decided to stay, we went from bungalow to bungalow trying to find a room. We were shown some seriously grotty rooms above bars, basically made of packing crates, for $12 a night and nowhere we would stay. Luckily, just as we starting to get worried, we found a room if we could wait for an hour for the existing tenants to leave. Looking back at the packing crate room we agreed and went to the
beach for a beer to wait. Otres Beach is quite quiet and a lot less developed than the centre. It still has the dirt tracks and fields that used to be in Sihanoukville and it still has a laid back, hippy vibe. It's a good place to veg out. We drank Angkor and Anchor and ate food. It was cool. Then I went and got a new tattoo. If anyone's interested, try Sinville Tattoos
, Sihanoukville. English tattooist, reasonable prices.
(of the rails in...) Phnom Penh (I think I did that title already. It's a book. read it) The capital and the squits
. We had planned on spending a few final days hanging out and shopping and listening to live music in Phnom Penh.... Unfortunately, Kate got a stomach problem and we spent the last day reading in a windowless hotel room! Weirdly, the same thing happened last Tet. Except it was me who was ill and we were in Kuta on Bali. I expelled the world from my body. Maybe it's a tradition. My turn next year, wherever that may be.........
There are more photos below