Kampot, Cambodia

Kampot Writers and Readers Festival


The second annual writers festival was a great success with lots of people coming from all over Cambodia and sometimes beyond to take part. Similar to the first one at least 500 people showed up and filled the town’s hotels and guest houses.

There were a couple dozen venues and nearly 90 separate events which included music, dance and art as well as writing. Highlights included the opening ceremony at the Kampot Traditional Arts School where the local governor, diplomats and important figures spoke, Nerd Night at the Fish Market upscale restaurant where the house was packed with nerdy talkers and listeners and closing night music at the streetside stage in front of KAMA, Kampot Arts and Music Association, where Julien Poulson, main organizer of the event holds sway.

The evening program at the stage began with the Bokor Mountain Magic Band which after a shaky start showed some solid chops, a really tight sound. Their lead singer, good as her voice was, had some fine dance moves, I was very impressed.

That was followed by Carlos Andres Gomez, a master storyteller, who ad libbed a beautiful message taken from disparate keywords from the audience.  He prompted the audience for the first word; creative came up. Last word was moist. An audience member came up with one theme: living in Cambodia, a second theme was Donald Trump. Difficult as that may sound, it took him less than 30 seconds to start to weave a tale about all of us being together here in Cambo and how we’re creating a new life in our adopted homeland, etc. I forgot how he got Trump in there, but it really worked. His message was so inspirational that at one point he called for people to come forward near the stage and quite a few did. He wasn’t even intending for them to do that, he was just riffing on his story.  Gomez could clean up as a cult leader, live high off the hog, I hope he’s never tempted.

The Kampot Playboys finished the night and as usual filled the dance floor, which as it happened wasn’t in the best condition. While many of our streets have been upgraded recently, it was a sordid mess in front of the stage with the road partly broken up into gravel and due to an unfortunately timed and smallish but significant rain, there was a nice big puddle right in the center of the dancing area. Didn’t stop people from showing their stuff and having a good time.

A highlight for me was the presence of Kingdom beer. It hadn’t been around Kampot for quite a long time, but they brought some down for the festival to try to get the ball rolling again. The good part was they didn’t want to haul any back so they sold off everything they had left for a dollar. What a treat, excellent beer.

Unfortunately the festival didn’t seem to be as organized as last time. It is a big and very complicated event, so some slack is in order. But still, no big beautiful schedule, only a simple one printed on white paper and Thursday’s wasn’t even ready on time. Also in many cases there was no or not much description of what was taking place. And timing was way off at times

I had a very disappointing Saturday night. I saw Nerd Night on the schedule with no accompanying details, but figured it had to be right for me. I got there half hour after it was supposed to start, but absolutely nothing was happening so I headed down to the Mad Monkey where a band I wanted to hear was playing. I hadn’t been there before so I thought it was a good opportunity to check the place out. It’s a backpacker haunt so not a place I would normally go. I got there, but no band. I wandered back to the heart of town and did a few ordinary things. There were quite a few people drinking beer at KAMA later that night so it wasn’t a total loss. It was only the next day that I found out that Nerd Night at the Fish Market didn’t get started until the time it was supposed to end and it was packed and a really good time was had by all… so not pleased about that.

The highlight for me personally was a session entitled ‘Writers on Acid’ involving myself and two other writers. I was surprised by the title they had bestowed upon the session, though having partaken plenty in the distant past, it wasn’t totally out of place. All three of us had asked to be on the agenda for quite some time, but our requests had gotten lost in the confusion and disorganization so staff compensated by lumping us all together. Which turned out fine, all together we got 18 to 20 people to attend; it might have been mighty sparse doing it separately.

In addition to myself, there was Todd Fahey who’s written a novel titled ‘Wisdom’s Maw’. It describes the part the CIA had in the early days of the spread of LSD. He’s done his homework and describes in novel form the participation of Aldous Huxley and lots of other memorable icons in the CIA program called MK Ultra which was intended to find drugs they could use to control people’s minds. He transitions from Huxley to the beats to the hippies to tell the long story. It was good.

Also there was James Newman who’s written a series of books that take place in a moderately dystopian near future in ‘Fun City’, a tawdry place on the order of Pattaya or Angeles City. It goes noir in lots of directions, makes you smile and is worthy of a read.

Together we talked about psychedelics in general, the effects on us and our books. While I’m still incredulous, Todd says he actually wrote while tripping. I had some good ideas while tripping, but getting them onto paper – last time for me was 44 years ago, so being before computers, paper was it – would’ve been an unimaginable task.

While I’m on the subject it must be time for me to plug my own books. Mine weren’t written on acid, but it certainly laid the background for both my novel Y3K and my memoir A Hitchhiker’s Tao. Y3K takes place in the waning months of 2999. It’s primarily a look back from then to the environmental breakdown – which I refer to as Entropy Gaia – that’s about to befall our planet and the Ecotopia that the people who are left create out of the ashes. It includes a faithful description of my five years living in a commune in the mountains of southwest Oregon, updated to the future of course, and an exploration of mysticism, the belief that all things are connected and all are represented in the cosmic mind, the repository of all knowledge, past and future. The experience of acid is the closest most of us will come to feeling that connection.

My memoir, A Hitchchiker’s Tao; subtitled Thumbing Your Way to Enlightenment, covers the same topics as Y3K except themed on my extensive hitching experience. Between 1968 and 1980 I did 60,000 to 70,000 miles on the road and about half that was without money. I was out on my thumb for weeks at a time, including in very cold weather where I might not have made it if not for the generosity of strangers. I wouldn’t hitch without money today if I had a choice, but I know I can stick out my thumb and go anywhere I need to strictly on cosmic largesse… well okay, in America at least. Either way, with or without money, that’s what it’s all about; when you’re hitching you are at the mercy of the cosmos. It might take one minute for the next ride or a whole day. You have to learn to deal with uncertainty and have faith that it all works out. Y3K and A Hitchhiker’s Tao are available as ebooks.

There’s rumblings in the community about how the festival was conducted with many people feeling that it needs to be a community effort with a lot more transparency. While it was a remarkable achievement under any circumstances a lot of people were left unhappy about the procedure and determined to change it for next year.

Meanwhile Kampot has become the go-to place for expats and Cambodians when they want to escape the big Penh. Last September on Pchum Bun holiday Kampot saw its worst traffic jam since the new bridge was built in 2010. Traffic was backed up for about 300 meters in town heading for the bridge and all the way to the traffic circle on the Sihanoukville side. Kampot traffic police, never having had the challenge before, stood dumbfounded while vehicles locked up at the traffic circle. It took maybe an hour to get through the jam. Along the road from the big city vehicles were moving but there was hardly a break for many kilometers.

This all created a very crowded riverside and the problem was duplicated at the water festival though the jam wasn’t nearly as bad. A very unfortunate trend has taken over the riverside which likely started with the Fish Market restaurant.  It’s the only private property on the river in the middle of 3 kilometers of riverside promenade. The owner of the restaurant set up the front of his place with car and moto parking in such a way that pedestrians now have to go out into the street to get through. There should’ve been a requirement to maintain a place for people to walk.

There are now half dozen cruise and/or restaurant boats parked on the river, most of them garishly lit. They bring visual pollution and block the view for people who want to sit on the river and take in the peaceful aspects of the water. These boats draw a lot of people and maybe with the example of the Fish Market, many people are parking their cars in the promenade transforming a park in to a parking lot. In addition to seriously detracting from the walking experience, having big vehicles in the park damages the pavement and tree roots.

The area just south of the old bridge was the first section of the park to be improved and was done with very low curbs. In most of the later sections the curbs are very high preventing anyone from driving into the park.

There’s talk of forcing the boats down river where it’s much less crowded, but that probably won’t happen soon. Meanwhile people are furiously building new boats to take advantage of the boom in visitors, so it may be impossible to see the river soon with the coming of high season and lots more boats.

The above was written before a tragic accident happened on a tour boat that became grounded. Because of the holiday and influx of visitors the boats have regularly been overcrowded like the one that went down was: it had 80 people on it when it was only built for 50. They were on a nighttime ‘firefly’ cruise and on their return with a very low tide the boat hit a sandbank which tipped it over a bit causing some people to fall into the water. After that lots of people panicked and jumped in the river. Four people wound up dying. The government is banning all cruises for a few days until they draw up some safety rules.

Went to my first air guitar competition. I hadn’t thought much of the idea, but friends were going and it was held at The Pond where my bday party was held, so I stopped by. It was great fun, I had no idea, laughed my ass off. I was too shy to participate this time, but next time I’ll be practicing my air chops and be ready to sweep the competition.

A band called G. C. Riders came to town from their base in S-ville. They said they’d only been together a month, but it sounded like they’d been making music together forever. And what a disparate crew. Vocalist and rhythm guitar is from Australia, drummer from Estonia, bass from Indonesia and lead from Denmark. They started out with Hendrix’s Watchtower: I marveled at the lead guitar’s abilities, I dare say, practically as good as Hendrix himself. The others were all pretty good, but I thought him the exceptional one until the bass player did a 10 minute solo doing tricks on the axe like I’ve never seen before: he used all ten fingers playing it like a harp. Highly recommended.

The Bugger II saga is hopefully over; that is, the hassle of driving a car you think might blow up at any moment. It was more than 5 months from the time it was totaled till just recently when I finally got the second one working properly. I was a big hassle at times riding the bicycle home in the late hours. Now that the car is in working order I won’t be doing that very often. In some ways I’ll miss it: it’s not that big a deal, only about a mile. I don’t even mind getting wet and I can always use the exercise. But there are two exceptions, the first is the Kampot dogs of midnight. No matter how many times you do it and how well prepared you are with rocks to throw at them, there’s always a tension and nervousness involved in running the dog gauntlet, especially since a friend was bitten recently.

The other problem is the last 60 meters to my house. Almost all the way home the road is fine, you can go fast to try to outrun the dogs and when you’re moving, the bicycle light is bright. However when you have a roadway that’s mud intermixed with mud puddles and you’ve been drinking and there’s no moon and your light is barely working because you are moving very slowly, well disaster for sure. Last time I did it I fell down in the mud and dislodged my chain in the process and had to walk through a small pond to get to my house. Once that road is upgraded I’ll ride the bike again sometimes, I promise.  You do get lazy when you have a car, but I promise I’m going back to the bike on occasion. Besides, rainy season is almost over, it won’t be as bad as the road dries up.