Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Kampot postscript.

Have been here for over two weeks at Kampot River Bungalows, run by Mama, who gives the place a real family feel. She high-fives everyone when they arrive in the morning and cooks all day. This has allowed her to build a large modern house in the grounds, a reward she really deserves. She has huge energy, making time for the family and at present clearing more of the land to build bungalows. She gives everyone individual treatment and obviously revels in the role of Mama to all and sundry.
Marvellous Mama.

Mr. T is her trusty assistant and front of house. One quick call on his mobile and it's organized whether it's a visa application or getting a Tuktuk.

The wonderful Mr.T.

The place in general reminds me of the Hotel de Nesle, in Paris, where I once lived for about 18 months. There are a lot of people passing through who know SE Asia very well. Not only do they give advice about places to visit, but also places to avoid and stories of various scams and pitfalls to watch out for. In my Hotel Nesle days, I was pretty streetwise. I've started thinking that I have to re-learn a few things, having become an effete neo-Sauvain in the intervening years.

A few of us looked up reviews of the place last night. In general, it gets very good reports, but a negative one was more interesting. The couple complained that there were rats running around on the cabin roofs and geckos actually in the room. OMG.

Yes, there are geckos and they do get in the rooms. It's part of the charm as far as I'm concerned. As for the putative rats, well maybe,but even small critters sound quite loud on a dry palm-leaf roof.

If you want super relaxed and funky, this is the place. No geckos, or local fauna in general? Probably be better to stay at home.

Thanks Mama and Mr.T for the warm welcome. Hope to see you again.

Available through: booking.com

Tel: 033 66 66418

Facebook: Bungalow Kampot River.




Monday, 18 May 2015

Market Day.

Went into town this morning, three on a scooter. Halfway there, the heavens opened, which was quite refreshing. I've stayed in Kampot a week longer than I intended, due to heat exhaustion caused by a lot of messing around in boats, going around on motorbikes and wandering about taking pictures. I also forgot to apply for my visa for Vietnam at the end of the week, so can't leave until Wednesday.


Rain curtains.

Went around the market while the rain continued and saw some ingenious ways of diverting it into the gutters. We came across a guy selling tobacco. He had three large piles of the stuff in front of him and was puffing away himself. We asked if we could try some. Graham rolled a cigarette: 'It's pretty strong, want to try it?' I took one small puff and nearly collapsed in a fit of coughing. I thought there was the possibility that I might even vomit. It was like smoking a packet of the strongest cigarettes in one puff.

Still, for the determined kamikaze smoker, it's a bargain at 1$ for a huge bag.


Tobacco seller.

Along with the great fish, fruit and veg, the market also had things which are less to the taste of westerners, such as the pigs' heads and unidentifiable pieces of animal. Looked around for tasty looking insects, but was unsuccessful.

Pig accessories.
Got a nice, slightly surreal reflection photo though.

See you in 'Nam.



Friday, 15 May 2015

It's got a head on it like a rabbit - Viv Stanshall.

Decided to have a day or two on a place called Rabbit Island. The locals, probably after a session with the local brew, decided that it has the shape of a rabbit. Tookatuktuk to a place called Kep, about 45 minutes away from Kampot, which is a small, pleasant seaside resort. The island is only about half an hour away by fishing boat.

We arrived to find a large shack with locals and ferrymen drinking beer. There seemed to be nothing else there. I asked about accommodation, but here no-one seemed to speak anything but Khmer. Finally, they called an eight year old boy. 'I take you there.' He took my guitar, which until now has been a hindrance, and proudly set off through the jungle, a trip of no more than ten minutes to the other side of the island.

On arrival, I found a beach with huts, a restaurant and a few places offering massages. There is no electricity during the day and certainly no internet. Nor is there any real system of rubbish collection, so the area behind the beach is a bit scruffy, with plastic strewn about.

A cloudy afternoon.

The bar without the normal collection of cats and dogs.

The charming lady patron.

I checked in and got a hut with a beach view (like all the others). To use the lightbulb at night, you push two bare wires into a socket. I can cope with that, except, I suddenly felt slightly queasy and exhausted. I think it was due to several days out in the sun on boats and motorbikes, so I had a nap. I awoke later and still felt the same. After a great lunch, fresh grilled fish, I slept most of the afternoon, then had a swim. Snorkelled around for a while, but once again didn't see anything interesting. In fact, the most interesting incident was when I felt something crawling up my leg a good 7-8 centimetres long. Don't really mind big insects too much after 18 years in Southern France, but still have a problem with spiders. It was just a gecko.

Still feeling tired, went for a massage on the beach. I was pushed and shoved in every direction, although not as violently as in Thailand and it seemed to do the trick, as I felt much better, especially when I heard how much it cost; (7$ for an hour). Obviously a dodgy, misplaced Chakra.

After two days, was feeling a bit at a loose end, so headed back to Kampot. The return trip was pretty good, as the weather had changed, so we spent half an hour crashing through the water and getting soaked. The old French lady sitting next to me didn't seem so enthusiastic.

Back at the bungalows, saw myself in a mirror. I'd developed a look similar, but balder, to the guy who staggers over the sand dunes at the beginning of Monty Python; beard, pretty filthy clothes, dirty fingernails, (beach tar on my feet), something the laundry service hasn't managed to entirely eradicate.

Next day went into town to explore some more. Even a small town like Kampot can only be explored slowly, due to the debilitating heat. It's very French Colonial, architecture-wise, with a surprising number of European ex-pats.

Guard dogs.

Along with the Durian, it is also a producer of some of the finest pepper in the World, the production of which was stopped by the Khmer Rouge, as they turned all the land over to rice production. There's a factory near where I'm I staying, so I went and had a look.Women are paid to sort each individual peppercorn, with tweezers, before packaging. The small and misshapen peppercorns are separated from the perfect ones and go to local restaurants. The rest is for export. A good sorter, and they're all good sorters, can do three or four trays per day.

A young woman showed me around and I had a degustation. She ground the black, red and white pepper onto my hand and like wine, I was asked to smell it before tasting. It was all fantastic and each variety had a different perfume and taste. You lucky people in Sauve will get a chance to sample the red and black, as I bought as much as I could carry to bring back.

The pepper is used a lot in cooking here. I've eaten the fish with peppercorns a lot, which is subtle and delicious. Anyone familiar with Rick Stein's Eastern cookbook will be familiar with the sauce made from black pepper and lime juice. Here it is a completely different animal; complex and fruity. You'll see Sauvains.

Pepper graders.

Pepper bushes. Just for show. It's grown by various farms in the area.

Had a night out yesterday. Captain Tom has a scooter, so Khmer-style, with Stevenage Graham, we all three got on and drove 5 or 6 km further down the road to an Australian bar, which is also on the river. There was something very Australian about it, with a few incredibly dangerous looking devices set up to throw you into the water at maximum velocity. Being Aussies, they were very friendly, with lots of tattoos.

After a few beers we heard a splash and a few minutes later saw a girl standing on a high floating diving board. She started twirling fire-sticks around which showed her to be stark naked. After her performance, she returned and my two companions started chatting her up. Much to my surprise, she ignored them and bought me a beer and started chatting me up. It turned out that she was from California and madder than nine aardvarks. I didn't notice, but the guys told me afterwards that she had scars all over her arms from self-harming. I sure know how to get picked up by them!

Have been here nearly two weeks, so think I'll head off to Viet Nam in the next few days. Looking forward to the smell of Vietnamese food in the morning - reputedly the best in SE Asia.


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Eternal, Easy, Big Durian Fruit of Light.

Went out with Thomas on his boat last night. It was his maiden voyage since buying it. 'I'm not much of a skipper, but we probably won't drown' was his morale-sapping comment as we set out in the moonlight. It was wonderful. At ten at night, there isn't much river traffic, so we had it more or less to ourselves. We drove up to the next bend in the river; (why do we always need to know what's around the next bend?), and then turned off the engine and drifted about for a while. For an old boat, it ships a bit of water, but otherwise, performed well.

Captain Tom.


We came back, moored up and decided to go to the bar next door. There was an English guy sitting at the bar and we started chatting. The usual 'where are you from?' ensued. 'I'm from a town just north of London.'

'Oh yeah, where exactly.'

'Stevenage.' (I passed my teenage years there.) his name is Graham and he's a boat fan too, so we're planning an afternoon trip today.

This morning, thought it was about time that I went into Kampot Town and had a look around. Thomas gave me a lift in on his scooter. It was very, very hot. I particularly wanted to see the sleazy tourist types I'd heard so much about, but it was too early.

Before leaving, I asked Mr. T how much I owed him so far. The hut is 7$ a night. It was the beer tab that I was worried about. Normally, in Summer, I drink about three beers a day. Here I'm going through gallons of the stuff. Haven't had a hangover since I got here and more interestingly, don't seem to need a pee every 20 minutes. I guess it's because you sweat it out almost immediately.

Thought you needed to know that.

Went into a Western Union and asked for 200$ on my card. It must be a legacy from colonial times, but the Khmer mentality seems to have appropriated the méfiance, bordering on paranoia, which still characterises my adoptive country's way of doing things. Firstly, the two women asked for my passport, which they inspected page by page. I then had to fill in a form with home address, nationality etc and a signature. My signature, over the years, has become a scribble which would make most medics proud. In their opinion, it didn't match the one square centimetre scribble in my passport.

They wouldn't give me the cash, although I did manage to gulp down two cups of iced water from their machine. I walked about 20 metres and got 100$ from an ATM.

New York: The Big Apple, Paris: City of Light, The Eternal City, The Big Easy, I could go on. The point being that great cities always seem to have a soubriquet or nickname. Kampot is the Big Durian. There's a large roundabout in town with French Colonial lamp-posts and in the middle a huge statue of the odiferous fruit.

The Big Durian 1.


Big Durian 2.



Durian has a reputation as being a foul smelling foodstuff, which most westerners find disgusting. I'd heard so many stories about it that I had resevations myself. You see signs in hotels and guest houses: NO SMOKING OR DURIAN FRUIT.


Durian seller.


I tried some the other day; it wasn't anything like as fearsome as its reputation, sweet with not even a particularly unpleasant smell. A good, ripe Camembert, something I love, must be much more intimidating to the uninitiated. Compared to Surströmming* which I wrote about last year, it was a doddle.


I didn't hang around in town very long as it was too hot, but looked around the cooler parts of the daily market. The fish market was impressive. We're on the coast here and fisherman cast their nets each evening in front of where I'm staying. The variety and freshness was mouthwatering.

Fish market.

* Surströmming. A Swedish delicacy which is fermented fish in a can. You open the can in water, as the smell given off is unbearable, even for the experienced surströmmer. I don't drinks spirits very often, but when I tried it, (I spat it out), I got through half a bottle of Vodka, the traditional accompaniment, in an effort to dispel the lingering stench. It smells like a Third World city in summer with a drainage problem. I'm sitting with a Swedish guy as I write this. No way for him either.









Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Siam Reap, Sihanookville and Kampot.

Well here I am. Home from home sweet home. At the moment, I'm staying in a thatched hut in Kampon, in Cambodia. It's midnight and something seems to scrambling around on the roof, making a strange squeaking sound.... There it is again. Hang on a sec.

Chez moi.



Can't see where the critter is, but don't fancy putting my hand through the thatch, in case it's something more than a gecko.

Anyway, where was I?

It took me the best part of a month here in Asia to really get the hang of it. I spent too much money and went to a couple of places which were not great destinations. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat put an end to all that.

Got the bus from Siem Reap on Thursday. Got up at 5 once again, found somewhere open for coffee, and got the bus headed to Sihanookville, a 13 hour trip, but cheap. (There's that noise again). Cambodia doesn't have a very developed road system. What does exist was very bumpy. Took the back seat, as you can sometimes stretch out and have a nap. A young woman obviously had the same idea and took the opposite window seat. It was impossible to sleep, as every time you dozed off, which was rarely, the bus hit another enormous bump, or hole and you were lifted out of the seat. We stopped every so often for a break, where I bought sliced mango, which tasted rather strange and came with a sachet of salt and spices and finally arrived at Phnom Pen, where we were told for the first time that we had to wait for three hours for another bus.


Phnom Pen traffic.


The lady on the bus started talking on her phone in French and gave a very good description of the trip so far. She saw me grinning and we got chatting. A great idea, as it turned out that she's an experienced traveller and better at haggling than me. I've now got the hang of it too.

We finally arrived at about 11 in the evening, having met up with a young Turkish guy, who picked up the bus in Phnom Pen. We found a place called Led Zephyr, with constant music from the seventies and a poster of R. Crumb's classic: 'Stoned again,' on the wall.

The Turkish guy had friends there who run a restaurant. He arrived and told us of a party that night a Tuk-tuk drive away. It's called 'Kerfuffle.' I said I wanted to sleep, but after a shower and a snack, felt fine. The place was amazing, except that they played awful, tuneless techno. Luckily, there was a power cut for about half an hour, which was great.

To get to the place, you had to take a raft across a river. There was a rope strung from bank to bank with which you pulled yourself across. The site was quite small, but had a small Ferris wheel, 50 years old at least, about 8 metres high and the most beautiful bamboo walkway around the area. Obviously, I was the oldest person there, by at least 20 years.

We got back at 5.30 in the morning.

Sihanookville is a very young touristy place. There are bars and restaurants all along the beach, with lots of loud music and people quite openly smoking marijuana. I don't know if it's illegal here, but would doubt it, as even the police, who from time to time patrolled the area, didn't seem to be interested. A pizza restaurant openly advertises it's wares as having a 'herb topping.'

I've just been told that in fact it is highly illegal in principal, but no-one seems to care.


Night on the beach.

Koh Rong island.

Took a day trip to Koh Rong island, which is two hours each way by boat. I sloshed sun cream all over me, but like everyone else got pretty burned. I'm also one of many people here who have quite bad burns on the leg. It come from taking rides with people on scooters with no protection over the exhaust.

Koh Rong was great; a real desert island type place with crystal, but hot water and disappointingly no exotic fish. On the way the boat stopped at a smaller island for snorkeling, but it was just different types of coral.

Next day, took a bus to Kampon, about two hours away, which is where I am now. There's a bar which is by the side of a large river, run by the friendly Mr Ti (don't know how you spell his name), and his family. It's very like a Coffee Shop in Amsterdam, with lots of people getting very stoned. I have no objection to that, except that there a few people here who are obsessed with drugs of all descriptions. Most are very young Anglophones, who talk about nothing else. I've managed to keep a distance, by only speaking French with Magali, who speaks perfectly good English, when we picked up on the situation.

These people get really out of their brains. You can buy Ketamine* over the counter here and I dread to think what else. Having now seen what it does to you, I can't imagine why you would want to take it.

The river flowing past is straight of 'Apocalypse Now,' with that thick reedy, grassy stuff along the banks. In the evening, the light is spectacular.

Went on a jolly jaunt to Bagkor National Park yesterday. We decided to hire scooters and have a ride around. I've never driven one in my life. I ended up as the passenger. It was really good fun and very refreshing in the heat. We suddenly noticed that the tank was nearly empty, so we stopped at a service centre: a rack full of coke bottles filled with petrol.

Petrol station.

It has to be said that the park was a bit disappointing. Firstly, it was a more tropical version of where I live, with large hills, rather than mountains and even the same sort of scrubby vegetation that you see on the 'Garrigue,' near us.

National Park


The famous waterfall wasn't falling as we're approaching the end of the dry season.

The jungle walk was only slightly better, with a few colouful birds, geckos and very large crickets. A few jungle noises and cicadas and that was about it, so we went back to the centre of town for late lunch.

Big head.

Coming down the mountain, we passed this. A natural Easter Island type head, which must have impressed for centuries, as it has become a Buddhist shrine.

I like the food here, but after a week without western food, I fancied something else. Found an English run café serving generous helpings for next to nothing. It was the first place I've seen which had the prices in Riel. At the back of the menu, they had some house rules: no shirt, no serve and other such things which presumably are to deter the Brit sex and drug tourists. One rule said: 'Our waitresses are Cambodian. They work very hard and are not prostitutes. Please don't insult them by propositioning them.'

The pork ribs were sensational and copious, I couldn't finish them, and for two people with beers, the bill came to12$.

By this time, my legs and the back of my arms were pretty burnt, so we headed back to our bungalows, then to the bar where I met a young guy. I asked hIm where he was from, meaning in England.

'I'm Spanish.'

I'm fascinated by bilingual people, who are wired differently from the rest of us. (His father is English and he went to school there), but even so.. We chatted a bit and he told me that it was his boat moored up on the jetty. He suggested an evening boat trip the next day, which I jumped at. People swim in the river off the jetty. Thomas told me that he'd heard that there are still a few crocodiles around, but admitted that the last one was seen about ten years ago, so I don't think the swimmers are in much danger.

Spent today doing absolutely nothing, just watching the river flow. Magali left for Vietnam this morning and I think I'll stay here another few days, as the centre of Kampot is quite interesting with it's French Colonial architecture, and only 2$ to get there by Tuk-tuk.


*For those of you who have never heard of it, Ketamine is an animal tranquiliser which is sometimes used on humans in intensive care. It is a psychedelic which if used recreationally, turns you into a stumbling zombie. It's also very bad for your bladder for some reason, a fact that they seem to find amusing.

















Sunday, 3 May 2015


Before I start droning on, I'd just like to point out that the strange lettering in my posts is beyond my control. I downloaded an app for my travels, knowing that I couldn't do what I wanted with just an iPad. It's called 'Blogsy,' and isn't bad except that it takes matters into its own hands. Downloading my photos should be in cinch in theory, except that it seems to choose the images it wants. Of course the images that I want don't seem to turn up. I'll just have post them on Facebook.

Went to Angkor Wat today. I really didn't know what to expect, but, apart from it being very touristy, it was absolutely astonishing.

Things got off to a bad start. I set the alarm on the iPad and went off to sleep, having booked a Tuk-tuk for 5 in the morning, so that I could see the famous sunrise over the main temple. I woke up and looked at the time. It was 6.45; somehow the slide thing for am and pm was on pm, when I distinctly remember setting to am. It must have slipped back without me noticing as I set the rest of the time. Rushing downstairs, I found my driver, who had been waiting patiently since 5.

We set off on the twenty minute drive and were soon in a very pleasant suburb, which then became a tree lined avenue. Monkeys frolicked? gamboled? or whatever it is that monkeys do. Couldn't tell you what sort of monkeys, as I'm no expert on primates, only being able to positively identify chimpanzees and American Christian Fundamentalists.

We came round a bend and there it was. The big, famous temple, with the pine cone shaped spires. It's enormous. There's a Stone walkway of a good 400 metres, which approaches the huge wide facade, which must be getting on for the width of Versailles. On arriving, this turns out to be just the first part of something much bigger. Passing through the central gate reveals another walkway which is possibly even longer.

Buddhist monks were pretty well represented and like everyone else were taking lots of pictures. Everywhere you look, there is something of interest. The only other place I've been which has such a powerful feel, vibe or whatever you want to call it is Stonehenge.

I wandered around for an hour or so and climbed the incredibly steep steps to the upper levels. I don't have a head for heights, so took it gingerly. Although it was only about eight thirty, it was already getting hot. After an hour, the 1.5 litre bottle of water I'd brought along was nearly gone. I tipped the remainder over my head, which was like a hot shower.

Back to the Tuk-tuk and on to the next temple. Maybe it's my imagination, but I kept seeing similarities between these structures and the pre-Colombian temples of Central America. There are lots of faces carved into the stone which had the same chunky, intimidating stare that you see in pictures of Inca and Aztec sites. Even the buildings had a similar look, with central stairways up the main edifice. One thing's for sure; the South American boys didn't share the meditative and philosophical ideas of the Hindus, who built the first Angkor temples, nor those of the Buddhists who appropriated the place a few centuries after it was built

Drove to temple after temple and finally decided to have a break for lunch. There are restaurants scattered around the 550 square mile site; this one had a roof with open sides and lots of fans. It turned out to be only 10.30.

There are young kids, normally girls, everywhere trying to sell you stuff you don't need. One girl came up with some postcards. She was about 12 and had masses of personality. 'You wanna buy postcards?' I said that I wasn't really interested. 'But If I sell cards, I can go to school in the morning, get a good education.' Compared to some of the kids I've taught in France, she, and several of the other kids I've come across would, in 'normal' circumstances be destined for great things.

One girl told me that if I didn't buy her wares, she'd cry. 'Go on then.'

'I've changed my mind.' Good banter, much better than what passes for repartée in French schools, the ubiquitous: 'Quoi?' These kids can all speak passable English.

You just hope that they fulfill their potential and don't end up as prostitutes.

Walking past a shrine, I saw a monk sitting just in front of the Buddha. He was playing with a telephone and smoking a Winston Light. There was something of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland about him. I said hello and he invited me up to join him in his ten words of English. We tried to communicate and he chain smoked his pack of Winstons, interrupting the basic conversation, from time to time to ask me for a light.

I was unable to pick up any of the finer points of the Theravadic tradition

At that point the elephants turned up, something I wasn't expecting. You can rent an elephant to do the temple tour. It must be many years since I last saw an elephant in the flesh, but they seemed a lot smaller than I remember. They were Indian elephants, but maybe there's a Cambodian sub-species built in proportion to the human population. Even compared to the Thais, the people here tend to be tiny. I'm a giant by comparison.

Near the hotel is a road sign which says: 'Beyond.' Don't know what it says on the back.






Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Angkor away.

Flew to Siem Reap yesterday, which is close to Angkor Watt. I was expecting it to be a small, sleepy town, a sort of Asian equivalent of Knock in Ireland, or Heavies, sorry, Lourdes, whose only raison d'etre is to accommodate the tourists/pilgrims/nutters who visit.

Not a bit of it. It's a city of 300,000 people. For a country decimated by the Khmer Rouge, it's amazingly upbeat. I smile gets you a long way, even with Tuk-tuk drivers and prostitutes - something of a shock for someone living in one of the least smiley countries in the world. You hear 'I will survive' on every sound system. Even the maimed victims of land mines, (there are still a lot lying about), have big grins. Fair play to them. (I really ought to rephrase that penultimate sentence, but what the hell).




Getting in wasn't easy. I suspect that the French influence is responsible for the neurosis with useless pieces of paper. It took an hour to get through customs, with lots of ridiculous forms to fill in. I had some photos taken in Penang, as these were required for entry. On arrival, I couldn't find them anywhere. No problem. On top of a the 30$ visa fee, I was charged 2$ extra. Nobody took my a picture, but that seemed to be OK.

The 30$ really was 30$. The local currency, the Riel, is hardly ever used, apart from small change, a bit like the bon-bons you used to get in Italy at the time of the Lira. The Khmer Rouge abolished currency, along with glasses and laughing. There are now the usual proportion of four eyed folk and lots of laughing, and the dollar somehow slunk in as the principal currency.

After the decadence of Penang, this is very different. Like Thailand, there are Tuk-tuk drivers everywhere. I guy pulled up, this evening on his small motorbike, which had an entire bar on the side of it. Just about any cocktail you like for 1.50$

Guess what this place is called.

Mobile cocktail bar.


Walking down the main strip: Pub Street, I was accosted over and over by Tuk-tuk drivers and prostitutes. The girls actually surrounded me at one point and grabbed hold of me. Some of them look very young indeed.

Of course the reason I'm here is to see Angkor Watt which is only 10km away. (I fall into the tourist/nutter category.) I've booked a Tuk-tuck for 5 in the the morning to catch the legendary sunrise and hopefully get my first memorable shots of the trip. I seem to be doing well at the moment for must see places, having done the Mesquita in Córdoba in November.

The Pyramids and the Taj Mahal go to the top of the list.

I just hope Angkor Watt lives up to the hype. These things can often be disappointing; the Mona Lisa, for example, looks just like the postcards outside The Louvre and the Leaning Tower of Pisa is so familiar that it's a real anticlimax. Maybe the Leaning Pizza of Tours is better.

It really is blisteringly hot here. I went out this morning and finally fitted myself out for the climate with a pair of shorts and a polo shirt, both bearing famous logos, but, I suspect made either in China or locally.*

I realised this morning what it is that is so appealing about the people of south east Asia. They don't take themselves very seriously, unlike some places I could mention. There are jokey things all over the place. A restaurant in Penang called 'No Eyed Deer' and a bar here which proudly trumpets: 'Encouraging irresponsible drinking since 1986.'

Passed a restaurant this morning advertising 'Gordon Bleu.' Betty's brother perhaps.

Night gives the place a completely different aspect. Everything is lit up, less traffic, apart from Tuk-tuks, and lots of people, including locals, doing a sort of passeggiata.



Tuk-tuk driver.

*I hate clothes with logos, but here there was no choice and the shirt was a beautiful green, my favourite color. It ain't easy.