Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

International Village, Kampot

 

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.

 

 

 

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Kamp-Art + Updates on Kampot and Bokor Park

Up on the first floor (second floor American) in a corner building facing old bridge road, in the heart of Kampot’s late-night, streetside market for local treats like borbor – rice porridge with chicken – and other not-quite delicacies, is Light Box, a community art space put together by Kat, a young Aussie dynamo.
The entrance, down the side street and up an alley a ways, is up a narrow, steep wooden staircase and, typical for many community spaces in Cambodia, the stairwell looks like it hasn’t been painted since the building was built many decades ago, so it has a dark and dank look to it. At first it was a bit confusing to find until she painted an arrow pointing up and installed a lighted box on top of the entrance. But once in the double-wide space; that is, equivalent to two shophouses, you’re in a completely different world with a new black and white checkered tile floor and a soaring roofline made specially interesting by being a corner building with lots of different angles.
At first I thought, art space? In Kampot? Like a gallery? What can happen there? Didn’t take long to find out, starting with lessons in traditional Khmer instruments and a Made in Cambodia event that packed the house which – though it included performances like breakdancing, not quite a traditional Cambo art – was all done by Cambodians. More recently the Cambodian Space Project also played for a packed venue with about 150 people participating over the night. It was a great time and the new smooth tile floor makes it perfect for dancing. There were lots of locals attending though with any event of that type, the majority were internationals. The Space Project’s songs are mostly Khmer, classic Khmer rock-n-roll in fact, and it was a hoot thinking about all the locals in the neighborhood enjoying live music with their borbor.
Then on Halloween and November 1st Kat put together Hanuman Spaceman with the help of Australian and other arts grants. It was billed somewhat expansively as ‘a psychedelic jungle cabaret’ and was held on the grounds of Kampot Traditional Music School, which is specially dedicated to orphans and handicapped children. The weather gods were smiling on them on the 31st since it rained like hell at 6 pm, took a break at 8 just in time for the show to go on then went back into torrential mode about 11.
The event began with an introduction of traditional music, but when the Space Project came on the Khmer musicians remained and a fusion of the two sounds was created. There was original music, dancing, skits, light show, sound effects, a video complementing the action and all on a large stage. Almost all of the dialog was in Khmer, which in a sense is the coolest thing – performance art for the local masses – but since about half of the audience was expats, it would’ve been nice to have subtitles. They could’ve been projected along with the continuous video. In fact, it’d be good if CSP could figure out how to include subtitles in all their sets. We enjoy their music regardless, but it’d be a nice touch to know what they’re singing about… is it love, a cheating husband, mango trees, cyclos?
After the cabaret was finished the chairs were removed and the Space Project played a set for dancing. I guessed about 250 people attended the Saturday night show. They plan to continue and expand the performance: it can only get better. It was great fun and a gift to the community.
Word is that CSP has rented a place in town and will set up their home base here, so I expect they’ll be playing often. It sure was no problem filling up Light Box. CSP will complement the Kampot Playboys who also play Khmer rock music. They play their Thursday night sets at Chiet’s place, Madi Bar, on the river. He’s the lead singer and the force behind the band. It’s always well attended and when the live music is finished the disco goes on till the last few revelers stagger out in the wee hours of the morning.
Bodhi Villa, on the river about a kilometer out of town, takes over the dancing scene on Friday nights starting (usually) with couple of rockabilly sets of live music and it too sometimes goes on all night. A recent pajama party there got pretty risqué, so I hear. It never ceases to amaze me how it can sometimes have only a smattering of people at 10, but then be packed at midnight. Where do all those people come from in little Kampot?
Finally, Naga House, not far from Bodhi completes the disco trifecta on Saturday with live music on some occasions and all night disco. Naga is beautifully set up with tables and chairs built on a platform with provision for previously existing mature trees to grow through it and it’s right on the river. ABC bar has back to having live music on Tuesdays and Saturdays and Bokor Mt. Lodge is back on Sunday live music.
There is a large local disco called Dragon Club that’s interesting for a one time stop. It’s excruciatingly loud, more so than any of the foreigner oriented places, which are also sometimes too loud for my battered and tired old geezer ears. Drinks are very expensive, much more than any western oriented place and 80% to 90% of the customers are young Khmer boys, though quite a few KTV hostess girls will stop by when their places close at 11 or 12.
Lots of new places to eat and drink are opening up. There’s NOLA, which, for the uninitiated, stands for New Orleans, LA, with authentic Cajun food. Their bar is very comfortable. Honeymoon Creperie specializes in pates and cheeses as well as crepes. There’s also Baraca, a Belgian/French restaurant with tapas and very tasty European food. A Spanish woman living here liked it a lot saying it was very European so it must be true.
The Garden, just opening up, is bound to be a success since it’s such a cool spot. It’s a triple-wide lot near the center of old town with lots of greenery under a mini mango plantation. There’s also a mini banana forest. There’re artsy murals on all the walls facing the garden and it’s got to be the most relaxing place in town. They also have an excellent pool table and cue sticks that’re actually straight!!! It’ll be great for big parties – with 100 people it wouldn’t feel the least bit crowded.
O’Neil’s Irish Bar has added a Texas BBQ since my last Kampot update, with its burgers reputed to be the best in town. There’re other new bars and restaurants, but I can’t get around enough to critique them all.
So there’s lots of new people streaming in, casting a bit of concern over our once sleepy little burg. They come planning to stay a few days and a week later they’re out looking for land. Prices are moving up fast and people are in property-values-can-only-go-up mode so I expect many will get burned, though maybe this time will be different (yeah, sure). My own experience is instructive. I purchased land 3 kilometers outside of Kampot in 2007 for $4.60 per meter. Just a few months earlier it could’ve been had for $3; in the two months between the time I made the deposit and the hard title came through the owners were offered $6.60 per meter. The price didn’t matter that much to me because I was figuring on setting up a little tropical cornucopia and staying there for the duration.
A year-and-a-half later when I realized owning land wasn’t for me, the financial crash of 2008 had intervened to bring the value down to $2 meter. It took five years for its value to return to my purchase price of $4.60 and I sold a year later in March 2013 for $5.5. Now it’s over $7. As long as lots of people have cash and some have money to burn, prices will go up causing pressure for higher rents and our cheap and easy lifestyle will be in danger.
Prices are also rising fast on commercial property. Here’s a rough rule of thumb for determining commercial property value. You should be able to get an income of 1% of the purchase price in monthly rent. In other words a $100,000 property should be able to bring in $1000 per month. When maintenance is included it’d take 10 years just to get back your investment, let alone make a profit. Today with prices the way they are, rents don’t even amount to 1/2% per month. The only justification then for today’s sky-high prices is the belief that they, and rents, will continue to inflate. There’s no place in town that can afford to pay a grand a month and yet some commercial properties are selling in excess of $200,000.
All that said, the influx of new residents has so far shown no negative effects, it just keeps getting better. On the other hand, I have long-time Cambo friends who get a little nervous and uncomfortable with too many tourists or expats around so they hole up in places like Koh Kong, where I hear there’s only one Western place in town. Kampot is definitely not for them.
But it is bringing in a very interesting set of people, including a lot of single women of all ages. There will always be a surplus of men over women in a place like Cambodia since we travel much easier and gravitate more to ‘exotic’ places, but Kampot seems to have an especially large number of women, relatively speaking, and it gives the town a different vibe. Maybe it’s partly the effect of having no girlie bars.
One of the finer points of living as an expat in a developing country is the wide divergence in ages and outlooks you encounter. Back in the states nearly all my friends are in the fogey generation, it would be strange and unseemly to try to make friends there with young people. Here it makes no difference at all, in fact, sometimes, while amongst people of all ages I forget how old I am; that is, until I see a picture of me in a group or look in the mirror behind the bar. Wow! I really am an old fart!
Kampot’s compost plant is so successful they can’t get enough organic material to keep up with demand. It’s all my fault: I put a post on the Kampot noticeboard and the expat community stormed the plant. I only knew of its existence because the top guy’s pickup truck got stuck in the mud in front of my house. The compost is beautiful stuff, but it needs to be aged a bit more to be able to plant directly in it, so mostly it’s good for a top dressing that eventually degrades into and improves the soil. They get dropboxes from the market and sort through the nasty stuff by hand. Actually there’s lots more organic material around, especially from sugar-cane-juice vendors, but they have no way to pick it up. There’s also a plant in Phnom Penh and there could be more around the country but the municipality that wants one has to offer the land and they take over and secure the funding for the plant.
Finally a Bokor National Park update. I’ve now been there six times in all seasons and I’ve yet to see the sea from the cliffside. It’s always been raining or cloudy or even when the plateau is in sun there’s always been a cloud rising up the cliffside which dissipates when it reaches the plateau. It is quite an experience seeing a cloud from above, but it’s about time I could actually see the sea. Once again the casino was deserted with two or three minibuses and a couple of cars parked out front. Admittedly it was early afternoon on a weekday, but still.031
It was early November and tail end of rainy season but plenty enough water to make the waterfall very dramatic. As many times as I’ve been up there it’s the only thing I care to see. It was a bit of a challenge getting across the rushing creek from the entry point, but a must if you really want to see the falls from down below. Meanwhile the dining hall which sits practically on top of the falls which potentially seats about 500 people was empty… stark naked empty. At least the restaurant was open just in case anybody wanted to eat. So tons of money to build a restaurant suitable for grandiose plans, but not enough to build a small pedestrian bridge to safely get across the stream or a trail to view the very impressive lower falls. Now you can only get a narrow view of it from up above. Admittedly it’s a lot easier getting across the stream in dry season, but still.
They’re going ahead with plans to subdivide much of the plateau into 600 and 1300 square meter lots, priced at $227,000 and $454,000 respectively – those are the prices listed on their brochure. So $400 per square meter to live in probably the nastiest climate in Cambodia. Yes, it is quite a bit cooler up there at 1000 meters in April when it’s baking down below, but it gets four-and-a-half meters – 180 inches – of rain a year and when there are occasional flashes of lightning at sea level you can see almost continuous flashes up above; it can be 5 to 10 times a minute and go on for an hour or more. Some people say the development’s real purpose is to launder money, so maybe it doesn’t matter to the richest man in Cambodia, who owns the lease, if nobody goes there. Still he must’ve thought it was going to bring in the bucks, else why build a giant restaurant for a few stragglers a day?
Without wishing ill of anyone in particular, here’s hoping it’s a total bust since casino resorts really have no place in a beautiful natural national park.

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