Road to Kampot
Siem Reap was a slow burn. Anderson was sick and the extreme temperatures along with Sabine’s open wound made it very hard to do anything for two days. Finally we made it out of the hotel for a late afternoon tour and some food. Siem Reap is busy, extremely touristy – it seems that it’s entire reason for existence is Angkor Wat and the thousands and upon thousands of people that traipse through. Our place was off the track – through the most “authentic” market I have seen. I bracket authentic because really how am I to know except that there were no tourists there and nothing to buy except raw meat, vegetables and fruit all buzzing with flies. It was a narrow passageway that was rammed with motorcycles, scooters and tuk tuks all but on top of the stalls. There was no room to move freely. And the smell was intense. I had read the the reviews of our place and all had mentioned having to go through a market but I thought how bad can it be we have been to a lot of markets! I quickly realized this was different. It was fine, we made it through daily, holding our breath and trying not to see the giant rats scurrying underfoot and sometimes overtop of the stalls. I didn’t even want to think about where the food we had been eating at the hotel a mere 50 feet away was coming from.
We started the next day with a 4:30am pickup. I chose a tour company from Air BnB excursions – mainly because they were small, had an air conditioned van, water, cool towels and had excellent reviews. Reviews that specifically mentioned how the tour took a slightly different route than other big tour buses. Surprisingly the kids were in good spirits. We parked on the east side and walked up a long pathway flanked by trees and jungle it was dawn light pale and slightly misty. The temple emerged from the jungle. Honestly it might be impossible to describe. It is totally awe inspiring. Angkor Wat is a huge temple that is surrounded by a moat. It is essentially a microcosm of the Hindu universe, mystical and moving. The carvings, etchings and reliefs tell the story of creation as well as depicting other teachings. Unfortunately the kids were not awestruck which is something that we had sort of guessed would happen. I held out hope but it just wasn’t to be – this was keeping in line with many other parents descriptions of kids at Angkor Wat. It was just too hot, the distances to walk were too long and the stairs were too steep. On top of this we got separated – Chris with Anderson and myself with Sabine and none of us with our group. When that minor fiasco was cleared it left Chris in a frustrated mood that was exacerbated by the tour taking the EXACT same route as all the giant Chinese tour buses. There is no love lost between the Cambodians and Chinese. This we heard frequently from Cambodians – always big loud groups. Directing us to stay away from places that are over run with Chinese. It’s never nice to be confronted with blatant racism. I think it’s more of a volume issue – the tour busses are full so of course that many people are loud. We got a little taste of the sheer volume. This sardine like atmosphere combined with the extreme heat and total assholery of the kids set off Chris further because he had specifically not wanted to follow the tour. This is also combined with his desire to stay off the beaten path – which I felt was nearly impossible if not totally impossible at a world renown historical site….. anyway it was one for the books – the highs of seeing these beautiful and impossible to fully take in temples coupled with my intense annoyance with my family. We honestly didn’t even debrief through the experience for a few days. We just got home – hit the the pool and lay in air conditioning until going to the circus in the evening.
The circus was amazing – no animals it was more of a cirque de Soleil style. What I have seen in Cambodia is a very strong drive to foster the arts and to provide places to learn and grow as artists. The country is still actively healing and growing after war. We were asked frequently if we had been to the Killing Fields or the museum – I always felt the need to explain that we chose not to take the kids – we want to focus on the positive and peace building side. People nod in agreement but I felt like part of the healing for them is having that horror seen and exposed. To better understand Cambodia and the strength of the people. We did stop at Apopo – a nonprofit humanitarian de mining agency that trains and uses giant rats to sniff out land mines. The was a big stop on our “peace” tour and even though the rats were cool – it was so hot the kids were more cranky than enlightened. This circus was similar to the dance show we saw in Siem Reap in that it was funded and supported for working with disadvantaged youth and providing a place to foster and grow talent as well as keep some art forms alive. The performers were incredible and it was a great night for all of us.
We worked through some of our temple trauma to manage two more trips back to the temples. An evening drive past rice paddies and lotus fields with perfect rows of thatched roofs, restaurants with hammocks adjacent to every table led us to Banteay Srei. Temples atop a small mountain or really more of a large hill. We hiked up carrying some street food snacks that our wonderful driver had helped us procure. Rambutan, mango salad and bbq chicken. The best part was seeing the countryside stretch out from the base of the “mountain”. Patchwork of rice paddies with huge fires burning – at the end of the dry season the farmers burn their land to fertilize the soil and prepare for planting. Unfortunately we didn’t get a crazy sunset because is was overcast and a little smokey from the fires. The temples at the top were crumbling and closed off to the public but we could hear them teeming with bats. Just about a minute after the sun dipped below the horizon the bats winged out en masse through the dusk air. Anderson spotted the huge wave of them cutting through the sky and exclaimed loudly enough to gather people nearby to watch the excitement.
The following morning we did an other 5am rise but this time we had our now trusted driver Leung to take us to a few temples not as popular as Angkor Wat. This was so much better. Despite my misgivings Chris was totally right – we were able to get off the beaten path. We walked about 60 meters up to a temple undergoing some repairs but with an incredible view down to Angkor Wat and only about five other people there. As opposed to our other morning of hundred and hundreds. Then we drove through the complex of temples past Elephant terrace and across the bridge lined with giant statues depicting the tug of war creation story. We got to Ta Prohm before it officially opened at 7:30. Anderson had zero desire to see an other pile of rocks and statues exactly the same as every other temple so we left him with Leung and the tuk tuk and walked around the wall surrounding the temple – we could glimpse inside and see the cleaners along with their children sweeping and picking up garbage. We came all the way around to the back where there was an other entry way – an archway with a tree growing over it. We started through hoping that once we got closer to the front it would be 7:30 and okay for us to be inside. Just through the arch we met a woman and a small child and it turned out she was a vendor – she was with her grandson and heading to her booth – she had been a vendor there for twenty years. She paid $20 USD a month for her stall but was having troubles since they had allowed new vendors to open just inside the archway. She said the Chinese tourists didn’t travel past the other vendors to see the archway. She complained that they were loud and rude. We bought some water from her and headed in. This was my favourite temple. It was like a hallway of mirrors with yoni and linga alters in building all perfectly aligned so you could look down this straight line. There were no other people there so we were able to feel that feeling of being the first explorer – to image the life that flowed through there hundreds of years previously and the hands of the builders and artists putting it together piece by piece. By 9 we were drinking fruit shakes and on our way home to relax in the air conditioning. We had a final night checking out the night market – by now we are a little saturated with the night markets and this one was the classic tourist trap lined with beer parlours, American foods and cheap trinkets. No real food stalls once inside – sort of like Bourbon Street at West Edmonton Mall.
We struck out for Kampot the next day. Hiring a taxi for the day as the morning bus was sold out and the night bus had some sketchy reviews. Our driver, Piet, was a friendly man and an aggressive driver. The roads operate on a totally counter intuitive set of rules with the onus on the guy behind to make certain they don’t hit the person in front cutting them off. It feels lawless and scary. Everyone merges by just driving in – no checking to see if someone else is there or moving along faster than you – just drive on into the road and who ever you cut off better be ready. Giant trucks barrel along beside scooters and bicycles. Swerving around tuk tuks. Scooters and motos turn into oncoming traffic and then swerve over to the other side of the road and it is the drivers that they are cutting off responsibility to not hit them. It’s crazy. Chris was asking about accidents – if the roads really are as dangerous as they seem to us. Piet said that he drives his kids to school and will not let them ride their bikes. Not more than half an hour later an accident happens right in front of us. I cover the kids eyes as Chris says, “Don’t look!” I see a truck bearing down on us as it travels diagonally across from the wrong side of the road. There seem to be two forms lying on the road not moving. I closed my eyes and we went past. I opened my eyes to streams of people running toward the scene. Chris assured me it was one person on the road not two. Although he had said – in the moment – “that is someone’s child” he also assured me it was an adult. Piet explained that if the driver of the truck had remained at the scene he most likely would have been beaten by the crowd that was gathering. Horrific. We just carried on. The kids asked no questions and seemed oblivious to the fact that I had slammed my open palms over their eyes while gasping. We carried on in silence. After sometime Piet said, “that is why I don’t let my children on the road.” We just carried on.
Flat earth, terracotta dust outlineing every rib on emaciated white cows. The black soil and tufts of dry grass circling farmers plots. The landscape dotted with lollipop palms.
One of the things about being in a foreign country is the language barrier that is often also compounded by customary behaviour. This came to full light on the drive from Siem Reap to Kampot. I listened to Chris booking the taxi – which took no less than two hours – don’t even get me started on his methodology of question asking and digging and digging – I hate when it’s directed at me – it makes me incredibly uncomfortable when it’s directed at service people and yet – when he books things they generally go smoothly. While my bookings tend to end in some form of frustration like the first morning temple trip. I keep taking people at face value when they say yes they understand and will do what I am requesting. Chris doubles down on the questions. This time he had been assured that we were getting picked up in an air conditioned taxi to take us to Phnom Pehn – it was to stop on the highway outside of the city and there we were getting a second taxi to take us to Kampot. We were picked up at our hotel and then ten minutes later we pulled over and were transferred to an other taxi. So the questions started and the answer was always, “Yes, yes.” As it turned out – no, no – we ended up being driven into the city of Phnom Penh and then changed taxis in the city adding an hour to the drive. Sigh. But at least I know that I’m not crazy – I ask the questions once and accept the answer. It doesn’t matter how many times you ask the question the answer will be yes but the truth is frequently something else.
The final three hours of the drive to Kampot was a little harrowing. The gravel road was under construction and the taxi would just veer into oncoming traffic or veer off onto the “shoulder” which was perilously close to a ditch. There were trucks filled with people standing in the flatbed – I’m talking at least six maybe even seven of these “public transportation” trucks also veering around tuk tuks and motorcycles. There were also – completely unmarked and unlit piles of gravel like speed bumps that the driver would have to slam on the brakes and slow down for. Plus it was now dark. So we white knuckled it until finally arriving at our hotel.
Villa Verdici. Our room was far from the main building but a good size and modern and clean. When we woke up the next morning we realized what a gem we had hit upon. A breathtaking view over the river onto the national park. The pool is ringed with terraced rooms, a pool and ping pong table and a lounge with couch and tv. The guys went kiting and Sabine and I headed into Kampot to get Anderson a birthday present. Kampot, the city, is small and Sabine and I stayed on the main drag so it ewas mostly restaurants and tourist shops. Each open aired restaurant had at least one if not two retirement aged men – usually fairly unkempt, sipping beer – 0.50 cents a glass – no other customers. I imagine it’s the Thailand of 30 years ago or Mexico where you can live out your golden years cheaply, warmly and treated like a king. We managed to find some good gifts and snacks. We returned that night for dinner and were treated to a magnificent dinner from a South African chef. Pork belly, coq au vin, pate, sea bass, a meal that would have cost at least $30 a plate in Toronto for $9 dollars. As it turns out there are many great restaurants here – chefs from all over hanging there hats at little twenty or thirty seat spots open to the street. Then it was Anderson’s birthday – he so wanted his traditional birthday morning which is chocolate covered strawberries a giant ballon and one birthday gift. Strawberries were not to be found neither were balloons so he started the day playing hot and cold for a present – a Toblerone bar – then having Nutella pancakes and heading out to kite. Sabine and I shared a tuk tuk with a fellow Canadian from Moncton to La Plantation a pepper farm an hour away. Of course I didn’t realize that it was an hour away when we started but there you have it. Parenting my way – blindly jumping in and not asking any questions. Luckily I had a roll of Oreos in my purse and the farm had food. It was a beautiful and incredibly bumpy ride through farm land and past a secret lake and a little way up a mountain to the farm. The rainy season has started and just like that the temperatures are dropping – the rain feels glorious. I love the moody grey skies that highlight the greens of the trees and jungle. The roads are terracotta dirt that seem to glow under stormy skies.
La Plantation is owned by a husband and wife from France and Belgium. It is incredibly well run and employs over 100 people from the neighbouring rural villages. They grow pepper, pineapple, passion fruit, kefir limes and banana. We got to tour through and see the picking and processing as well as the packaging. Then we had a pepper tasting. I loved every minute of it. The pepper was so delicious and all the ways they processed it made it even more delicious. Some was fermented, some smoked, some mixed with other seasonings. The farm also sponsored a school in the area and awarded three scholarships a year to send students to private school.
We returned along the bumpy road playing eye spy – sorry Matilde from Moncton! Chris and Anderson had not gone kiting because of the rain so we resumed the birthday celebrations with late lunch, movie and popcorn and then cake and an other gift. Anderson had decided that he wanted his other gifts the moment he turned ten which would be at 8:59 am the following day. The kid can delay gratification unlike any I have ever known. He seems happier. This place on the edge of the river with kiting and a safe, calm and rural vibe is perfect for him. He has even said, “Next time we go traveling….” that have me giant pause and – I’m not going to lie – a little shock. I feel a slight – no more a real trepidation thinking about an other year abroad. But that he spoke of it made everything seem better even just for a moment.