About 5 kms out of Kampot towards Sihanoukville is an area informally dubbed International Village. In Khmer circles it’s called Ghost Thief – Khmaut Jaio – probably not a good name for a newly created ‘village’ of westerners. I put the village in quotes because it I usually associate that term with a place that includes a core of houses close together whereas there they’re all spread out over a large area. I guess there are about 50 westerners scattered in 3 or 4 square kilometers, almost all living in newly built houses, many quite unique and special. Land originally sold there just a few years ago for $5 or $6 per meter. Now it ranges between $12 and $20 though if you’re patient and keep your eyes open, plots can still be found in the general area for $6 to $8.
It’s an indicator of how many expats are settling down here. The international moniker is especially poignant since the expat community includes so many different nationalities. One night at Neil’s Irish bar I counted 10 nationalities out of about 15 patrons. There were the usual suspects from America, UK, Ireland and Australia; also represented was Germany, Netherlands and Belgium and then a few outliers like people from Finland, Hungary and Uruguay. If you look at a week’s patrons then add France, Italy, New Zealand, Israel, Jordan, S. Africa and recently a guy from Lithuania stopped by… and I’m probably forgetting some.
It’s a totally different experience from back home where everybody is just a good old fashioned American. Sure I love my friends back there, friends of a lifetime, but it’s really a pleasure to be able to relate to, in fact, actually create a community of the world, escapees from the dull and mundane lives we’d be living back there.
It’s also a great pleasure to be in a place where people don’t separate by age: everybody can be friends here. I’ve gotten so used to that, the only time I notice or realize how old I am is when I look in a mirror or see a picture of myself amongst my friends. I can go to hear music and dance and not feel out of place even though I’m 40 or 50 years older than the vast majority of people around me.
Lots of people wind up going back to their home countries, but the majority are doing it temporarily to make enough cash to be able to come back and stay awhile. Some are fortunate to be able to teach or earn good wages in tech fields and the really lucky ones do tech work for western wages remotely from Cambodia. The really, really lucky ones have pensions or money in the bank, though there are pitfalls for some in not having enough to do.
It’s just so easy and cheap to drink or do weed, some people forget there are other things in life and sometimes they do the harder drugs so nonchalantly, without considering the consequences, they sail on through the mortal barrier and bring tragedy to their friends and families. As I’ve said before, everybody has a right to their own poison, but really, it’s stupid, negligent and disrespectful to those around you to kill yourself over no damn good reason. A broken heart when you’re only 30 years old?
It is possible to stay here on local hospitality wages, but it’s a very frugal lifestyle. Sure you get to hang around a cool easy place to live – Rough Guides recently did a survey of the friendliest places to travel and Cambodia was by far the first choice. Well, that’s why we’re here, facilitated greatly by ease of obtaining long term visas, of course. The simple beauty and warmth of the place easily compensates for low wages for some. And sets back the need to return to and make the dough. According to our local immigration cop there are 700 foreigners, including Chinese, living in Kampot. It does take them a little while to catch up with newcomers – though they’re very likely to find you in the end – so you can probably add another 100 or so.
One fascinating evolution here is the number of women expats. Even 5 or 6 years ago men outnumbered women about 10 to 1. Men travel easier, they’re less vulnerable and have fewer worries about being taken advantage of, but the times are changing. Today I wouldn’t call it even, but I’d guess at least 30% are women. That gives the town a whole new vibe, it feels very different from a few years ago. The women seem to be developing a special camaraderie and solidarity. I haven’t been around the country much lately so I can’t say what’s happening elsewhere. The comfort they feel here in Kampot may be partly an effect of not having any girlie bars. Whatever, it feels good having a more balanced population.
I finally got to check out the new night market near my house. First thing you encounter when you go in is a shallow wading pool for kids and there were 30 or 40 little buggers screaming and yelling and having a great time. (Digression: There are no free or low cost swimming pools in Kampot or anywhere that I’m aware of in Cambodia. Development needs to be more than bricks and mortar, it also needs to include facilities that enhance lifestyle. Sure, if you have the money to pay for pool time, you can always find a place, but the role of government is to improve the life of all citizens, not leave access up to the private sector to provide for only those with the wherewithal.)
The booths are very nicely designed but only half were occupied and really, it’s just the same old clothes and stuff you find all over: nothing new and not much that’s interesting. There’s a big stage for music events, but as I walked past in front of it while recorded music was happening I had to block my ears from the excessive decibels. Not a problem for most locals and I’m sure they enjoy the local bands. There’s a large seating area to serve the food booths, which also were only half occupied, which fronts on a wide beach. The market stretches more than 100 meters from River Road to the river in a long narrow design. They have about 40 meters of riverfront where kids were also having a good time playing in the sand. Overall the market is nicely done, but it’s in an out-of-the-way location and seeing sparse attendance and lots of empty stalls at this time of year doesn’t auger well for its success. Time will tell.
It’s middle of March and high season is winding down. There’s still quite a few people around but not like January or February. Nowhere near enough to keep all the bars and especially the new ones occupied. After Khmer New Year in the middle of April, tourism takes a dive. A friend who owns a restaurant on Phnom Penh’s riverside that caters almost exclusively to visitors said after ten years being there, his slowest month was always June. When that’s combined with expats who make regular runs back home to enjoy northern summers, it gets really quiet around here between April 15 and July when there’s a small uptick from people who live in northern countries who get there vacations during the summer break.
After that two month July-August mini-high season we descend into wet season in September and October when lots of establishments don’t even bother to open. With 90% of people here on motorbikes there’s a big incentive to stay home on rainy nights.
Meanwhile there’s lots of music happening now. Almost every night there’s a regular event, some nights more than one. I know, living in the capital or S-ville that’s not a big deal, but for our little burg, a real pleasure. And admittedly, one of the good things about being a tourist town. We expats could never support so much music on our own. Some of my friends think Kampot is too boutiquey, they prefer Koh Kong, but you miss out on variety of food and entertainment living in a backwater like KK. Sure, we’re all worried about what it may become with an influx of people, but for now all is good.
The musicians who’ve been here a while are getting much better, like Andy, for instance who plays around a lot who’ve I not yet mentioned, but some of the new ones are very impressive. First there’s Kat, who has been around, but who I didn’t see much in till recently. Don’t know if I wasn’t hearing her properly or she’s just improved a lot. She alternates between ukulele and guitar. She writes almost all her music and is quite a storyteller. With a slight nasal twang and a heartfelt delivery she’s the essence of cleverly cute or cutesily clever; however way you look at it, she reaches my soft spot.
There’s Howard (he actually has a nearly unpronounceable Scandinavian name) who plays a strong 12 string guitar with a powerful voice to back it up. One piece he does is a medley of Neil Young songs, starting with Heart of Gold and seamlessly segueing into Rockin the Free World and back. He sounds a bit like Young, but much stronger. A real asset to the music scene here.
There’s Luna, who’s just recently arrived, who provides a big change of pace. She plays a jazzy keyboard to back up a very strong voice with all original songs that she calls melancholy, though I would add moody, introspective, torchy to describe them. She’s only 18, which duly impressed me, so I expect her to become very well known as she improves her sound.
However in a panoply of musical precious gems, Cristina takes the crown. She brings tears to my eyes, a musical friend said she gives him goosebumps. She strongly reminds me of Billie Holiday with a lilting voice that’s effortlessly suspended somewhere in the stratosphere. Her depth, inflections, purity of tone are devastating. And when she needs to at crucial moments in the song, packs the power of an Aretha and the raw, gutsy, raspy energy of a Janis. Absolutely a singer to watch because she has the potential to make it big.
Speaking of music, a few words about acoustics. For some bar owners music is like an afterthought. It’s there in the background and they don’t give it much attention. For me it’s an important part of pubbing it. I’ve got lots of music on my hard drive, but I never want to listen at home, there it’s only quiet that I crave. But by the evening it’s just the opposite, I’m starved for good tunes and the energy and vibes memories that they often conjure up. Therefore I’m going to gravitate at night to where the sound quality is good.
I can enjoy all kinds of music so with few exceptions that’s not a problem and can tolerate more that I don’t especially like, but I can’t abide by motherfucker music. You know, Ho, ho, ho, ho, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, m-fucker, etc, etc, etc. Drives me crazy. Lots of times locals will play that stuff not realizing how gross and disgusting the words are. If you play more than one Ho tune, I’ll ask politely for you to change it, otherwise I’m outta there.
If your seek to draw customers in with enjoyable music and quality sound, then acoustics is all important. No matter how good the sound system, if the acoustics in the room are bad, it’ll sound tinny, echoey, scratchy, cloudy, the sound imprecise and garbled. That happens when the room is all hard or reflective surfaces like concrete, ceramic and glass. Good acoustics requires soft absorbent surfaces like cloth, tapestry, carpet, straw and to a certain extent wood. Good acoustics is pure sound. You can hang materials from the walls and ceiling, or hang specially made acoustic panels from the ceiling, anything to soften the sound and give it depth. There was a new very expensive concert hall built a while back, maybe in the 60s or 70s, with terrible acoustics. After that debacle, the architectural and engineering communities put a lot of effort into understanding acoustics.
Cruise boats are back with new rules about maximum numbers and sufficient lifejackets. They’re lots of fun. The beauty of a river run in Kampot is that the current minimal level of development on the river makes it a beautiful natural cruise and with Bokor mountain in the background a stunning view. It won’t stay that way for long since new venues are opening up on the river all the time, but for now really pleasant.
Pop-ups are popping up all over the place. Pop-up is not a word we use in America, so I was a bit confused at first, to us it’s just a mobile restaurant or food stand. The most prominent of our pop-ups is Butz’s reincarnation of Wunderbar, a successful restaurant on the Kampot scene for 5 or 6 years. Working out of a mobile restaurant, the menu is very basic, though the food is equal quality. He’s set up on the sidewalk of the park strip opposite the old market, (which really should be called the new old market or something to that effect, because it’s anything but old). He’s got a few folding tables with accompanying plastic chairs on the sidewalk and always has customers.
Next to him, though he sometimes sets up on the riverside park, we have Yuki with his sushi rolls and home brew ales and wheat beer, it’s really good stuff. We was set up at his house before, but it was in an odd location, so there’s lots more people to sell to now. The beer is excellent and the sushi authentic. Zeke’s got a pop-up serving nachos and tacos. Peter, the Belgian baker brings his pop-up to the river 5 mornings a week where you can get his fresh breads including tasty multigrains and an array of pastries.
It’s a good life.