Kampot, Cambodia

Moto Mayhem, Riding the Rails… more

 

Moto Mayhem, Kampot’s semi-annual funky-bike drag race, took place at the end of April. It was a blast, as the estimated 200 hundred attendees would attest. Races were divided into three categories 50cc Chalys, 100 cc Daelims and 110cc Honda Wins and such. Newer bikes were excluded to keep the contests fair and anything over 110 was deemed to be too fast and getting into the possibilities of accidents and danger. Didn’t want to get too serious about it, it was just for fun. There was only one mishap which caused no injury. All dragsters were required to wear helmets.

Last time it was held outside of town with few spectators who were inclined to attend. This time the organizers got the bright idea to ask about using our Olympic stadium. With a concrete track, a viewing stand and location in the heart of town, it was the perfect spot. It took a bit of negotiating and convincing to get the authorities behind it, going all the way to the top gun to get approval, but in the end they realized it was going to be harmless enjoyment. It was put together by an all volunteer crew.

A 100 meter section of the track was reserved for the race and all the proceeds from the one dollar registration fee for dragsters – about $60 – was dedicated to purchase building materials to improve the space. Great trade-off. It was actually only the second time I’d been in the space and the first in daylight since I came to Kampot nine years ago, and I was impressed, they really are trying to make something worthy of it. In addition to the running track there’s a football pitch, which is somewhat scruffy to date, and a basketball court, so the city is committed to improve it.

There’s always the fear that they’ll sell it off for development and build something new far out of town. That’s exactly what the big timers in Phnom Penh talk about doing to its Olympic stadium. ‘It’s’ too valuable to be used for sports’ they say. Sure, that’s exactly what the capital needs: an Olympic stadium, the only public space outside of the riverside, turned into condos and malls, but that’s how people with money think and, I expect, many people in government too.

The Daelim class was won by a woman who’s married to a westerner. Four of the sixty racers were women. Curiously, she was approached by local bigwigs and told she shouldn’t be competing in that kind of race or hanging out with foreigners. Knowing her, I’m sure she told them – in a respectful way – to fuck off. And the winner’s time? 100 meters in 9.7 seconds, the same as an Olympic athlete.

The only drawback that I heard mention was that it took too long; it started at 1pm and finished at 5. There were only 2 racers at a time, the organizers thinking more would be potentially dangerous so it took a long time to go through the list. There were lots of curious locals and it seems likely a lot more people, both local and expat, will want to partake in the future so it may start to take too long and adjustments have to be made.

The weather for much of April was very unusual with frequent rains and, in some places in Cambodia, low temperatures. Whereas April in Kampot usually sees temperatures above 35C – 95F – and as high as 37, it rarely went above 32 or 33. And instead of severe drought, we had rain fall in 9 days in the first half of the month with one day of 77mm: That is an exceptional amount for any season. Now as I write in the beginning of May the temperatures are more normal, 36 lately. Kampot being near the sea, which serves as a modifying influence, never gets as hot or as cold as the interior of the country. Now in mid May, we’re having rain or at least heavy clouds almost every day, more like September, height of the rainy season, than May

On a related note: A sewage outfall in the north of Phnom Penh got so nasty recently that the many people living in houseboats who fish farmed from them were forced to flee by it’s rankness and the death of their fish. A government spokesperson said the fish deaths had nothing to do with the sewage, but was a result of global warming. Yeah, sure. Besides the fact that temperatures recently have been below average, climate change wouldn’t change conditions from one day to the next.

Sewage is generally thought of as toilet water, but in Cambodia very little of that goes into the sewers. Almost every house has it’s own septic tank. If you’re in Cambodia very long you’ll see funky old tanker trucks roaming around; they’re pumping out septic tanks. Some of the older houses have no tanks and some owners don’t empty their tanks in a timely manner, so it slows into the sewers, but except for that relatively small amount, there’s no shit in the sewers, it’s almost exclusively gray water – wash water – and rainwater. In America it’s all mixed together and sent off to a sewage treatment plant, even though gray water makes up more than 90% of the total. In a sense that is not an efficient way to organize waste water processing, since there’s no reason whatever that rainwater needs to go through the same complex process that toilet water does. Gray water can easily be processed in a plant if necessary, but the best, most ecological way is to filter it through wetlands, they do a great job of cleansing that wash water. Of course that takes up a lot of space.

The problem in America is the high cost of duplicating pipes and the difficulty in leaving sewage treatment to the individual. In Cambodia it seems to be no problem.

As usual after Khmer New Year in the middle of the month there was a precipitous drop in travelers. Some bars will always have some customers, but most are really slow. In this part of the world you have to make your money in high season and hope you can break even when the customer base fizzles out.

I finally got a chance to take the train. I hardly go anywhere anymore, so when the chance came I had to ride the rails. I’ve always loved trains and have even taken Amtrak across America – a 3 day trip – more than once. Amtrak’s a luxurious ride, but slow and lumbering. It does go up to 80mph – 130kph – but on a 3000 mile trip, it still feels sluggish and endless. A high speed train could do the trip in 10 to 12 hours.

The train from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, with stops in Kampot and Takeo, is hardly luxurious, but it’s a fine trip nonetheless. And while it does take 7 hours, the extra time is well spent. Kampot to PP takes 5 hours and since it takes two hours from S-ville to KP, it leaves at a leisurely 9am from KP, which fits right in with my dislike of early morning departures. You can bring your bicycle for an extra dollar, moto for two dollars, even a car, but not from Kampot.

The train I took was on a Sunday, it had four passenger cars and was mostly empty.

You could lay down and take a nap if you had a mind to it since some of the cars have (somewhat strange) lengthwise seating.

That makes it a bit awkward to look out the window, something I always want to do. On trains gazing out the window is far superior to road gazing since on the train you mostly see beautiful unabridged countryside rather than roadside trash, referring to both buildings and pure garbage.

Still with the empty car it was not a problem turning sideways to look out. The one car with more normal transverse seating was uncomfortable and also had suspension problems and bounced around a lot so I opted for the longitudinal. The cars are very clean and well-maintained, the toilets impressive, they were spotless, spacious – never seen one so big on a train – and spiffed out with brass fittings.

None of the seating was very comfortable, but would only be a problem in a crowded train. Besides you get to walk around, you’re not stuck in a seat with only small breaks to exercise your legs and move your bum. When you get tired of the air-con, you can open the car door and, while holding firmly on to the handrails of course, hang out the doorway and breathe hot fresh air while the countryside rolls by. I noticed unused stations along the way, and certainly the train should stop in Kep.

I was disappointed in the state of the tracks. They were fine as far as being straight and level, there was no getting tossed back and forth, but often the sections were not welded together. It’s brand new track so they were just being cheap and saving money by only bolting them together. When they’re not welded you get the clickity clack sound and with each clack a jerking or vibration. Otherwise the ride would’ve been smooth and perfect: certainly, magnitudes better than a bus ride.

The train rolled into Phnom Penh at 2pm, right on time. They give themselves lots of leeway: there’s a 20 minute break at Takeo for food; we were holed up on a siding for about 15 minutes – with only a single track, one train has to wait while the other passes by; it also moved at a snails pace once it got near the city. And good news: trains are now running every day, though on weekdays they operate in only one direction.

In fact that was the second time I took the train here. The last time was in 2002: A world of difference for sure. The train pulled into Kampot station at about 1pm, six hours after leaving Sihanoukville. I didn’t see any passenger cars so I went back to the ticket office and was told there were only boxcars on this line. The Battambang line still had passenger cars. After an hour lunch break and shuffling back and forth for I don’t know what reason, the train took off at 2pm.

The car I chose had a stack of poles upon which people were sitting, there were also several hammocks strung up. A local guy next to me asked where my hammock was… he was clairvoyant, I always carried my hammock with me back then. When I pulled out the hammock a woman said one dollar. I looked askance; could that be? She then said niyeah laing, literally speak fun. It turned out to be a lot more comfortable in a hammock than a real seat would’ve been let alone sitting on top of a stack of poles. Though maximum speed was 25kph, it mostly trudged along at 15kph. Still even at that slow pace the car bucked and bounced quite fiercely at times, making the hammock a perfect ride since it evened out that jostling.

At one station people had to move aside as 100kg sacks of salt were loaded on which were more comfortable to sit on than the poles. And at one point, with all the crew at the ready, while the train was moving, the logs were quickly, almost frantically, shoved out the boxcar door. We chugged into Phnom Penh at 11pm, a 9 hour trip for 175kms. It was an experience, all right, but I prefer the new incarnation.

Both lines shut down in 2003 and the new tracks were supposed to have been finished in 2008 or 2009, but it took until 2013 for the new tracks to be ready, the ballast wasn’t properly laid the first time and quite a bit of remedial work needed to be done. Freight trains were running for 3 years until the new passenger service was inaugurated.

In mid may it was announced that China is proposing to build new rail lines from the capital to Seam Reap and the Vietnam border as well as a high-speed train to Sihanoukville. I’m not sure if the traffic to S-ville would warrant the extreme cost of high speed, but whatever, any improvement is welcome. The question is what the Chinese will extract in compensation. Refurbishing the old lines cost $180 million and the right-of-way was already there. I expect that building those lines new would’ve cost several times as much. Trains are the most efficient way to travel, especially if powered with electricity.

Kampot radio is on the air. It’s now only on the internet – kampotradio.com – eventually maybe it’ll also be broadcast on FM. It’s mostly music now provided by Darryl who’s put the whole thing together, but people are quickly picking up time slots for talking and/or DJing. Yours truly is doing a daily weather report – I’m Stan the weatherman here in Kampot – which will expand from strictly weather to include more topics but mostly related to climate, I’m hoping for a call-in show, but that part is not ready yet.

An amazing thing happened recently on Kampot’s riverfront. I’ve been complaining right along about cars parking in the riverside park, then about a week ago they all, with a few rare exceptions, began parking on the curb where they belong. It’s more than just a problem for walking and enjoying the riverside, heavy vehicles wreck the paving tiles and are hard on the tree roots. I checked around but saw no signs. Then talking to a friend I discovered that the police had come by and told everyone not to park there. The surprising part is how almost everyone knew that prohibition without any signs. Regardless it’s a very welcome change: it was getting uncomfortable, and sometimes difficult to walk there.

A final note about the old bridge. It’s usable but not great for pedestrians. The old sections have narrow sidewalks, the new sections that replaced the bombed-out part have none so you’re dodging traffic, or I should say, traffic is dodging you… not a pleasant experience. It wouldn’t be that difficult and not even that expensive to hang a pedestrian walkway off one side of the bridge. In addition to serving people who need it for transportation, lots of people would go there just for the view. It would be a tourist attraction.

 

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