Writing about Sihanoukville Cambodia: the real story

This post was updated 14 June 2015 after a change in the title. It’s up to 80,000 words now and I’m working on the final draft.

The impetus for this blog was never profit. It’s always been to present Sihanoukville Cambodia through my eyes: the eyes of an expat who loves his adopted culture. It’s never been quite enough, though. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my personal life like? What’s the inside story about my Cambodian family? Except for the odd snippet, I rarely write about that side of life on my blog.

long way home 3dEvery week, I get together with the members of our small writing group. Writing can be lonely work and unless you get feedback, it can be hard to stay motivated. Since our group was formed, my book-in-progress, Long Way Home, has grown from about 10,000 random words to a full blown book. My original intention was to write about my wife’s amazing life and share stories about the equally amazing things I’ve witnessed here, but never blogged about. I kept stories about my life to a minimum because I didn’t want to write about myself. When I did write paragraphs about my past, the other members of our group wanted to know more.

“I don’t want to write a memoir!” I protested with a grimace. They laughed and said, “Yeah, but we want you to.” It didn’t click that writing a memoir didn’t have to be egotistical self-indulgence until another member of our group wrote a short story about her life. We all wanted more details. She has lived an amazing life, but her story is not about her. It’s about the people she’s met, the places she’s lived and the events that have shaped her worldview. I couldn’t exactly encourage her to keep writing her memoir when mine was exactly the same, so I reconsidered my anti-memoir stance.

It dawned on me, too, that I only see Cambodia as I see it because of the experiences I’ve had in the course of my life — experiences that have taken me from a middle class upbringing at a town in Southern California mentioned by the Beach Boys (“all over Manhattan and down Doheny way, everybody’s gone surfing, surfing USA”); to a yoga retreat in the Sierra Mountains; Maui at the close of the sixties; India in the early seventies; and back to the Sierras where I lived on a commune for several years. Then I moved on to San Francisco and the east coast of Australia, where I lived for 20 years until my comfortable life unravelled. After giving Bali a shot and deciding I liked visiting, but didn’t want to live there, I moved on to this part of the world and finally found myself living in and loving a place that wasn’t even on my list: Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Some chapters in my book include:

  • Worlds Apart, the opening chapter, gives a brief summary of Sopheak’s life in Cambodia versus my early upbringing in the U.S.
  • The Fool on the Hill tells about my first months in Sihanoukville, when I was living on the Hill.
  • A Cambodian Ghost Story is a true ghost story. Why do I think it’s true? Because the things the ghost told Sopheak were true, but she had no way of knowing about them.
  • Surrealistic Pillow is the story of an exorcism I witnessed.
  • Inside Tree is about the 3 years Sopheak spent wandering in the jungle. She was with a phnong family at first, but left them and continued on alone for another 2 years. She was about 9 years old at the time.

Other chapters are about more mundane things like building our house, running out of money and starting a freelance writing career from scratch. Mundane they may have been, but through it all, I have felt the guiding hand of fate. She is a palpable reality to me. I call her Serendipity and I don’t know what I’d have done without her, because if she hadn’t interceded in my life, I’d probably be back in Australia now, living off the dole. Woo Hoo.

I’m only about six chapters short of completing a first draft of about 18 chapters, so I decided it was time to start advertising Long Way Home*. If you’re the down-to-earth practical type, you may find it amusing and are more than welcome to write me off as a nut case. If you’re comfortable with stories about ghosts, the paranormal, reincarnation, natural healing and other stuff of that nature, you might find it inspiring. Either way, I think you’ll find it entertaining unless you’re looking for salacious stories about a sexpat’s adventures in S.E. Asia, crime in Sihanoukville or corruption in Cambodia. I cover those topics in a few chapters and the stories are juicy, so maybe my book will be of interest even to you.

If you want to look at the final product, please sign up for my new newsletter. I’ll keep you up-to-date with my progress and when I finally finish the online edition, I’ll give you a discount on the price of the book.

* 14 June 2015: Now editing the first 22 chapters. Saving the final chapter until I’m happy with those.

Why I Love Sihanoukville

Hawaii beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

They say Cambodia has only two seasons — wet and dry. That may be true, but there are also transition periods when it’s a little of each. The in-between season leading up to Khmer New Year is my least favourite. Hot and humid, there’s little respite from the heat day or night. I was riding my motorbike down the least appealing stretch of Ekareach Street on a particularly humid day last week when it struck me like a benign bolt of lightning: I don’t just like it here, I love Sihanoukville.

Hawaii Beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

I spent most of the rest of the week wondering why. Yesterday, I got my answer. It started in the morning, when some friends invited us to Hawaii Beach for lunch. We usually go to a little place at the end of the beach. It will never make the Michelin guide with its flimsy chairs and plastic covered tables, but it beats the plastic atmosphere of far more upmarket restaurants by miles. Where else can you sit in the shade of a natural umbrella and watch squirrels play in the branches above your head or take 10 steps into balmy seas to go for a dip after lunch?

Hawaii beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

How’s this for a setting?

Our friends didn’t speak much English, so I had plenty of time to daydream during the meal while they chatted with Sopheak. It occurred to me then that one reason I love it here is because I feel so comfortable with Cambodians. I used to try too hard to communicate with our friends, but now I just enjoy their company and they seem to enjoy mine.

I got pulled over by the police the other day for not having my lights on. Fair enough, but I didn’t have any money to pay the whopping $1 fine. No problem. I went on my way, got money out of the ATM, had breakfast and paid them on the way back home. “Accuun (thank you), Papa,” the policeman smiled as I rode away. Getting pulled over by the police in Sihanoukville is a far-cry from being pulled over in Australia or the U.S.

The sandy road fronting Hawaii beach leaves something to be desired, but that’s just one more thing I like about it: it’s sand, not hot asphalt and the surface forces everyone to drive slowly. As a bonus, the restaurants at the far end fill up more slowly than those closer to the entrance and the trees haven’t been chopped down to make way for parking areas. This is what it looks like:

Road to Hawaii beach, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Sihanoukville: The International City

Other cities brag about their “international flavour,” but I’ve never been to a more truly international city than Sihanoukville. Last year, tourist numbers topped a million for the first time. Over half of them were Cambodian, but the other half was a nearly equal mix of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, European, Russian, Australian, American and just about every other country. We watched a Ukrainian belly dancer perform on Valentine’s Day and had dinner with an American and two delightful Siberian couples last week. A Crimean sat down and had a beer with us the other night. He didn’t speak much English, but we were able to communicate enough for me to learn that he was relieved that Crimea chose to become part of Russia rather than the Ukraine.

Having such an international mix of expats pays big bonuses when it comes to dining. Off the top of my head, I can think of several authentic Italian, French, Indian, Mexican (Southern California style), Greek, and Japanese restaurants and cafes in town, not to mention some great Khmer restaurants. Some of them have sprung up in just the past few years, since Sihanoukville has become more popular. I complain about its growth sometimes, but have to admit I do appreciate the wider variety of restaurants in town and the improved facilities.

All of the above is good, but it still didn’t quite tell me why I love it here.

I was supposed to go to my weekly writing workshop yesterday, but got a flat tyre on the way home from Hawaii beach and by the time I got it fixed it was too late, so I skipped it and went to Escape for a snack instead. I ran into a friend there who loves it here as much as I do. Somewhere along the line, I mentioned the Welcome post in my new blog, in which I wrote about the worker on the neighbouring property who cooked a dog that had been hit by a car. That would have shocked me seven years ago, but I am more shocked now by Western supermarkets, the sanitising of imperialistic wars by the media and the institutionalised corruption of wealthy governments, corporations and financial institutions.

Escape on Serendipity Road, Sihanoukville Cambodia

After my brief rant, my friend summed it up for me:

“It’s real here,” he said.

That hit the nail on the head. Cambodians are by and large real people. Like most real people, they are friendly, hospitable and unpretentious. Sure, there are exceptions, but even what’s bad about the country is right there on the surface rather than hidden behind the scenes.

There’s more to how I’ve come to love Sihanoukville and Cambodia than I can summarise in a short blog. That’s why I’m working on a book. Living here has been an ongoing learning and unlearning process. Hopefully I can share that process with readers in my book and give them a little unique insight into Cambodia and Cambodians. I had to shed a lot of preconceptions and prejudices to get to this point, but it’s been worth it. I feel more real now than I did before and as a consequence, feel more a part of the family of humanity than I ever felt when I saw the world through Western eyes.

In the meantime, my blog will have to do. Sorry I sound so harshly critical of Westerners sometimes. I don’t hate us as much as it might seem, but we do drive me nuts. Like other Westerners, I came here thinking I had something to offer Cambodia. Now I’ve learned that Cambodia has so much more to offer us. Once we learn that, then maybe we can share what’s good about our culture with them and stop trying to mould Cambodia (and other “Third World” countries) into our image.

 

Christmas in Sihanoukville — 7 years of change

Taking a head count of kids at our annual Christmas party

Taking a head count of kids at our annual Christmas party

25 December marked the seventh consecutive Christmas I’ve celebrated in Sihanoukville. I think I’ve finally got the hang of it.

The first couple of years, there were no kids older than about a year in the house and they couldn’t have cared less about Christmas. I did, though. I tried to keep up the time-honoured tradition of opening gifts early Christmas morning, but that seemed like a dumb idea to Sophie. Why put someone through the agony of waiting if you’ve already purchased a gift?

By the third Christmas, we had a routine that worked for everyone. Sophie and I would exchange gifts a few days before Christmas, but not buy expensive gifts for the kids in our family, since it’s not traditional in Cambodia and the other children in our village would just be jealous. Instead, we bought little gifts for all the neighbourhood kids and called them over at about 5pm when they were all sure to be home. Otherwise, many of them would be in school and miss out.

pizzana1

Psychedelic indoor playground at Pizzana

How long we can keep this up remains to be seen. The first year, only about a dozen showed up. This year, there were over two dozen, including the triplets who made the news a few years ago when they were born. When you consider that most of those who came the first couple of years are now almost teenagers and no longer show up, you get an idea of how our village has grown.

After the kids left, we used to throw a party for adults, but that didn’t work out very well. The men tended to hang around and get drunk. One in particular reached a peak of “Christmas cheer” and then came crashing down, becoming angry and abusive. Because of him, we decided not to have a party for adults this year. Instead, we took our three kids to Pizzana for dinner. Not a very original idea, it was so packed we had to wait for a table for half an hour.

I’m accustomed now to doing nothing on Christmas morning, so this year I road my motorbike up to Wat Leu and did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: I took a new photograph for my header from the same location I took the original one. That’s it at the top of the page. A lot has changed in Sihanoukville, but the area between Wat Leu and the place where I took my photographs is exactly as it has always been.

Some things in Sihanoukville haven't changed. That's Wat Leu in the distance

Some things in Sihanoukville haven’t changed. That’s Wat Leu in the distance

Such is not the case in town. Six years ago, there were more green spaces between clumps of buildings than there are today. There are still large areas of undeveloped land, but it’s filling in fast. Sihanoukville became just the right size for me a couple of years ago, after Otres beach became easier to get to and about a dozen really good restaurants opened up on Serendipity Beach Road and elsewhere in town and at the beaches. Now I’m feeling a little squeezed out.

But I’m being selfish. The town is growing because so many new employment opportunities are opening up here. I just got word that the new power plant employs some 200 workers, most of whom came here from Phnom Penh. Closer to home, about 8 waitresses were being run off their feet in Pizzana; Sarat just scored a great job working as a bartender in a casino; and another one of Sophie’s brothers is working steadily as a builder after years of sketchy employment. Down at the port, they’ve taken on untold numbers of new workers and the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) just opposite the port has attracted hundreds of new workers as well.

Meanwhile, in Phnom Penh, garment workers have gone on strike. They want a minimum wage of $160 a month, while the government has “only” offered a 19% increase, to $95 a month. From what I understand, the government has offered incremental yearly increases, but the unions are demanding more.

Seven Christmases in Cambodia and seven years of change. As much as I understand the reasons for discontent, I’d like to emphasise the positive. In spite of a slowdown in the world economy, Cambodia has continued to grow. I’ve seen improvements everywhere and hope average Cambodians continue to take advantage of new opportunities while peacefully working towards improving their living conditions and preserving their environment.

I can’t stress the word “peacefully” enough. You don’t need to look far back in history to see the results of violence. Iraq and Libya have been destroyed and Syria is fighting for survival as I write this. The leaders of those countries can be compared to Hun Sen, but killing the leaders of Iraq and Libya and attempting to depose Syria’s Assad by force have created nothing but misery for the people of those countries. You’ve made great strides forward, Cambodia. Keep up the peaceful pressure and you have a bright future to look forward to.

Cambodia the Land of Smiles? Gallup poll says yes

Every now and then we get visitors from Svay Rieng, Sophie’s native province, or the little village of Kmeng Wat, near Virh Rieng, where the family lived for a long time. Both of them are poor, rural areas. Our visitors stay for a few days or a few weeks, but they always end up missing their home villages and eventually leave.

Singin' in the rain - Khmeng Wat village

Singin’ in the rain – Khmeng Wat village

Sophie and her family, too, occasionally get fed up with the traffic and tourists in Sihanoukville and long to move back to the country. They get over it, though, because this is a better place to raise children in the new Cambodia, where having an education and knowledge of English are increasingly important.

We Westerners tend to equate happiness with wealth. If my experience and the results of a recent Gallup poll are anything to go by, we might be missing the point.

I first stumbled across the 2013 Positive Experience Index poll in the Cambodia daily. Poll Finds Cambodians Generally Happy With Life understandably focused more on Cambodia and other countries in SE Asia, but another article I found online, Poll: Syrians, Iraqis least positive, Latin Americans most positive was more global in scope. Here are some of the numbers I came up with after reading both articles. The percentages are the percentages of people who “experienced enjoyment a lot, felt respected, were well-rested, laughed and smiled a lot, and learned or did something interesting the previous day.”

  • Cambodia: 72%
  • Iraq: 47%
  • United States: 77%
  • Paraguay: 86%

In general, Cambodia scored slightly higher than Vietnam and Laos and slightly lower than Thailand and Malaysia, but all of Southeast Asia and China were in the same range as the United States. Paraguay topped the list, but South America in general also scored the highest, with every country in the 80 percent range.

The Cambodia Daily acknowledged that the accuracy of the poll could be called into question, but went on to say, “Gallup’s research follows a number of other surveys showing that Cambodians generally have a positive perception of their lives.” They also quoted 63 year old Ouch Sarin, who said, “I agree with the report because I always feel happy”. He qualified his statement slightly when he said that the recent dispute between the CPP and CNRP was making him feel “a little bit” less happy.

So why would one of the world’s poorest countries be a “land of smiles” alongside nearby Thailand and only 5 percentage points behind the world’s richest and most powerful country? It’s not that they don’t know they’re poor. In fact, in an earlier poll, 75% of Cambodians acknowledged they were “struggling” and 22% said they were “suffering,” yet the same poll came up with a 76% “positive experience” with life indicator.

Living the simple life in Svay Rieng

Living the simple life in Svay Rieng

Analysts came up with a variety of reasons why Cambodians could be struggling and happy at the same time. One said it was because of “lowered expectations” while another said it was because the country had been making so many positive economic gains. That was interesting because the two analysts contradicted each other. I’d like to offer another explanation.

When Sophie was just a girl, she spent over two years in the jungle alone. Sure she was going to die, she coped by telling herself, “Maybe I die today. Not dead yet, though” every morning when she set out to find food and “Maybe I die tonight” to allay her fears at night and allow herself to fall asleep. Although she was often lonely and sometimes went without food for days, she has a lot of fond memories of  the time she spent “inside tree” as she puts it. In fact, sometimes she wants to go back to the simplicity of that life and the magnificent beauty of the jungle.

Since Ram Dass published Be Here Now in the 60s, “living in the moment” has been a multi-million dollar industry in the United States. It’s such a radical concept to us Westerners, we’ve elevated it to the status of a religion or spiritual practice. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but perhaps Cambodia is the land of smiles because living in the moment is a way of life for Cambodians and they instinctively know what we have to learn from books and gurus — that happiness lies within.

Expats and Ethnocentrism

We’re all ethnocentric. We can’t help it since much of who we are (or think we are) is a product of our upbringing. If we remain in our home countries our entire lives, our ethnocentricity doesn’t really affect our daily lives too much. It does limit our perspective, though, often in more profound ways than we imagine.

Capture

Click image for source

I ran across an article on the Expat Everyday Support Center the other day that addressed the issue of ethnocentrism. The subtitle of Another Take on Cultural Differences was “how we tricked ourselves into thinking our brains are the center of the universe.” As soon as I read those words, I knew I was on to something good. The subject of expats and ethnocentrism is one I think about frequently.

The opening sentence got to the specifics:

Sometimes we westerners think we are the standard by which the rest of the world should be measured and evaluated.

Similar words have been going through my mind like a mantra since the day I arrived in Cambodia. It seemed like every traveller and expat I met had come to snap conclusions about this country. That included those who were here with the best of intentions as well as those who were here to take advantage of the country in one way or the other. Worse, most of those who had been here a long time still clung to their cultural belief systems like life rafts.

Some of those I met were laughable, others annoying. Still others were infuriating because they did a lot of damage with their assumption that they knew what was best for Cambodians. Then there are those who can’t open their mouths without comparing Cambodia unfavourably to their country. Americans are particularly prone to do this.

Picking on others, though, has done me no good. Taking a look at my own cultural prejudices has. I can think of a dozen examples off the top of my head, but let me share just one of the less embarrassing or controversial ones with you.

We started building our house just a couple of months after I moved to Cambodia. While I tried to listen to my wife’s input, there were some things I was “sure” about. One of them was the kitchen. Since it was my money paying for the house, nobody protested very loudly about my kitchen design. For six years, Mama and others who worked in my kitchen stood on a stool Papa made so they could work comfortably. For six years, Mama did most of the cooking outside in the front of the house, where she had set up a little charcoal stove.

Sopheak started making good money a few months ago. One of the first things she did with it was build a new outdoor kitchen. It has a roof and two walls to keep out the rain, but is wide open in the back. The kitchen bench is much lower than mine was and alongside my gas cooktop, they have installed two charcoal pots. The ceiling is very high, so what little smoke that comes from the charcoal dissipates quickly.

newkitchen

Our new kitchen

Mama is afraid of gas. It can explode and a gas fire is an open flame. She’s been cooking with charcoal her entire life and is very adept at it. She uses just as much charcoal as she needs for any particular dish and she times her cooking so that the embers die down at just the time she wants a dish to simmer.

Not long ago, I read an article about some NGO’s initiative to teach rural Cambodians to switch from charcoal to gas. Why? To reduce greenhouse emissions. That made me laugh out loud. Here was some earnest journalist, typing away in a well-lighted room somewhere in England. She was using electricity made at a coal burning power plant spilling out tons of greenhouse emissions and complaining that a relative handful of Cambodians using charcoal once or twice a day were a cause of global warming. That’s ethnocentrism for you.

It runs even deeper than that, though. Take a look at this infographic I pinched from Norman’s article cited above. Pay special attention to the information at the bottom of the infographic where it says, “Perception Shaped by Culture.” Literally, the way we perceive the world is shaped by our culture. Just think how much we could learn from each other if we bridged the vast cultural divide.

Infographic Source: Best College Degrees

By the way, I love our new kitchen, too.

Blast from Sihanoukville’s Past: the resurrection of Phsar Leu

30 May 2013: I published this post on 5 January, 2008, just 2 days after publishing the previous post about the fire. Looking at the photographs now, I can distinctly remember how impressed I was by the stallholders’ ability to bounce back so quickly after such a tragedy. That defines Cambodia and Cambodians. No matter what happens, they bounce back.

aftermath of psar leu fire, 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Only two days after having burned to the ground, the stallholders at Phsar Leu are back in business! The first to come back were the meat and fish vendors: their stalls at the back of the markets had not been totally destroyed by the fire.

aftermath of psar leu fire, 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Then the produce vendors arrived. They have to replenish their stock every day anyway, so their loss was not as great as others. A couple of dry goods dealers have swept up their stall areas and set up shop on the floor, four sticks and a plastic tarpaulin ceiling or an umbrella provide shade and mark their space. Elsewhere in Phsar Leu, stallholders are busily sweeping their spaces clean. Wooden posts with spray-painted numbers are being erected everywhere and their message is clear: “this is our stall and we intend to come back.”

aftermath of psar leu fire, 2008, sihanoukville cambodiaThe mood is nothing short of ebullient, in stark contrast to the despair that mingled with the black smoke only two days ago.

Outside, a big crowd is gathered around a speaker. While Sopheak joins the crowd to listen to what he has to say I enjoy a cold sugar cane drink at the same spot, from the same vendor we have always gone to just outside the motorbike parking garage, which has already been rebuilt. Sopheak comes back and tells me what is being announced: Yesterday a delegation of 250 stallholders went to Phnom Penh to discuss their plight with the government. As a result, Hun Sen (Cambodia’s Prime Minister) has pledged $230,000 in relief money and promised that the market will not be closed for another year and a half. aftermath of psar leu fire, 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Blast from Sihanoukville’s Past: RIP Phsah Leu

Wow! Here’s a blast from the past. Long before I started my Sihanoukville Journal, I gave blogging a stab on a dotWordPress site. I only made a couple of entries and soon forgot all about it. This blog about the fire that destroyed Phsar Leu was originally published on January 3, 2008. I may never have rediscovered these blogs if not for a happy accident this morning. After you’ve read this, please read the follow-up blog that shows how quickly the people of Sihanoukville responded to and recovered from this tragedy.

psar leu fire 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Last night we were awakened by Papa at 2am. “Phsah Leu mien pleung!” he told me in simple Cambodian I could understand: the local market was burning! We could see the orange glow easily from our new balcony at the back of the house. It was a sickening sight even for me, whose connection with it is more tenuous than it is for others. Everyone does their shopping at Phsar Leu. Its 1800 stalls have sold everything from meat, fish and produce to dry goods, clothing and jewellery for decades. Now it’s gone.

psar leu fire 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

As we watched the glow Sopheak called a couple of her friends who have stalls there. One, a vegetable dealer, just burst into tears and couldn’t speak. Another, the proprietor of a jewellery stall, managed a few distraught sentences before she too became overcome with tears. Later we heard that another acquaintance walked to work as usual this morning and simply fainted when she saw the devastation.psar leu fire 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Of course it was arson. The New Market is set to open in 2008 but has had trouble attracting stallholders. I’m not saying the owners are responsible for the fire. There are many other interested parties as well. They (whoever ‘they’ are) want to make the Phsah Leu site into the new bus station, while another ‘they’ want to build a multi-storey market shopping centre where the bus station currently stands. Any, all or none of them could be responsible. It’s pointless to speculate. I do know that the price of a stall in the New Market was $4000 a week ago. Today they’re asking $5500. I know this because we’ve been thinking about buying one. We’re not thinking about it any more.

psar leu fire 2008, sihanoukville cambodia

Update 30 May 2013 – Psar Leu was rebuilt, the bus station was knocked down and replaced by shops and apartments and a new permanent bus station is yet to be completed. I’m not sure I was correct in my assumption that it was arson. The new market never really took off after Psar Leu was rebuilt and that led to speculation that Psar Leu was burned down just so they could rebuild it and not have a competitor. I was more of a sucker for rumours back then than I am now.

Our Khmer New Year 2013

Buddha on hill

Well, Khmer New Year 2013 is finally over and life is back to normal. Every year, my family goes to at least one wat a day and then we have a Big Day Out. After going to a wat outside of town, we proceed to a picnic spot. This year, we did a grand tour, starting with a wat far outside of town. From there, we made a loop, first on a little-used road to Steung Hau and then a back road to Kbal Chhai waterfall.

Buddha on hill

I love this wat because it’s on a hill and there are lots of mini-wats scattered up the hillside until you reach the big Buddha that looks down over Route 4 and sweeping views of the countryside. There are no groomed paths – you have to pick your way up the rocky hill – and there are even some wild monkeys. By wild, I mean wild. Some little boys chased one and it bit one of them on the hand. Poor kid.

Khmer New Year was good to us this year. After too long without rain, the rains came around the beginning of the celebrations and hung around throughout the week. At the same time, we got our power back; almost full-time. After the reservoir went dry, they had to use the power to get water from the big reservoir near Kbal Chhai and we were without power about 12 hours a day.

new power grid in Steung Hau

Of course, throughout that period the expat rumour mill was going full tilt. There’s a vocal minority of Sihanoukville expats who say with all the authority in the world that there’s some mysterious corrupt official in charge of the power generator who shuts it off to save money and pockets the savings (or something like that). I know, it doesn’t make sense because:

  1. Shutting it down and starting it up is more costly than keeping it going and
  2. It’s not just us peons who are inconvenienced by power outages. The port facilities, Sokha Resort, the brewery and other influential enterprises have to fire up their generators.

Making sense doesn’t really matter to these disgruntled individuals. Complaining is a way of life for them. It would be funny if not for the fact that they love to go on forums and boast about their “inside knowledge” about corruption in Cambodia. Unfortunately, naive readers take the bait and the rumours are taken at face value. “Hey, this guy has lived in Sihanoukville a long time. He must know the score!” No he just hangs out in bars, swaps rumours with other unhappy expats and passes them on to newcomers.

Anyway, as the photo above shows, that shadowy figure’s days are numbered, because our current generator is soon to be replaced by a real power station. As we drove up the road to Steung Hau, I followed the new power lines from Kampot and not long after passing the entrance to what will become the Steung Hau SEZ (Special Economic Zone), the power poles came to an abrupt halt at that maze of poles in the distance.

back road tro Kbal Chhai waterfall

It seemed like we were taking the long way to Kbal Chhai, but a left turn down this tree-lined dirt road took us to a back entrance on the other side of the river. The river was flowing nicely thanks to the rains and the hordes of Cambodian families were making the most of it.

Kbal Chhai waterfall near Sihanoukville Cambodia

Finally, it was time to go, but everyone in our rented truck were in jovial spirits, so we went for a loop of the back residential roads of Sihanoukville, where groups of children and teenagers were waiting for passers-by to throw water bombs at. Our driver got into the spirit of it all and slowed to a crawl to make sure everyone got thoroughly dowsed.

As it is every year, it was a great day.

 

 

From Sihanoukville to Bokor Mountain the hard way

Our local villagers put their heads together and planned a Big Day Out for Pchum Ben this year, wat hopping from Sihanoukville to Bokor Mountain (Phnom Bokor), near Kampot. It was a good plan, but we ran into some unexpected potholes. Here’s how to get from Sihanoukville to Bokor Mountain the hard way.

monks at Wat Krom, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Our day started off auspiciously enough with a visit to Wat Krom

After an auspicious start to the day at Wat Krom, our two car, three motorbike caravan headed out Route 4 to Battrang village, near Sihanoukville Airport. The wat at Battrang was the first of four we stopped at before reaching the turnoff to National Highway 3. With four rest stops in just 50 kilometres, we were still in good spirits when we reached the turnoff. What wasn’t there to be cheerful about? Even the humblest Cambodian wats are beautiful and when Pchum Ben is on, everyone is in a festive mood.

Village wat somewhere on the way to Bokor Mountain, Kampot

Village wat somewhere on the way to Bokor Mountain

Under normal circumstances, the 100 kilometre drive to Kampot takes a leisurely two hours. Since we were nearly at the halfway point when we reached the turnoff, we reckoned the rest of the trip to Bokor Mountain would be a cruise, so we decided to press on and have lunch on the rocks beside the waterfall on top of the mountain. Less than a kilometre after turning south on a bend in the road on Route 3, we ran into the first of a series of potholes created after torrential monsoon rains and that’s when our whole day turned south.

I can take potholed roads in my stride, but when the car is packed to the rafters with six adults and four children, many of whom have rarely if ever ridden in a car before, things can turn ugly as passengers succumb to car sickness and start throwing up unexpectedly. After three such occurrences, one of which happened to occur on my shirt, turning around was briefly discussed, but a stretch of good road encouraged us to soldier on. Alas, those stretches of good road were regularly interrupted by short but excruciatingly slow pot hole crossings and it took over two hours to reach the turnoff to Bokor Mountain.

The last time I went to Bokor was in 2006. At that time, it was only accessible by 4WD. I’d heard about the new road to the top of the mountain, but still wasn’t prepared to be greeted by a world-class highway. Nevertheless, our party was too tired and hungry to press on to the top, so a less-than-idyllic spot about half way up the mountain was chosen as our picnic spot. The view to Kampot was great, but the rough gravel parking area we chose to lay our mats on left something to be desired.

view to Kampot from halfway up Bokor Mountain

View to Kampot from halfway up Bokor Mountain

Cambodians are nothing if not resilient and by the time everyone was fed, they were as keen as ever to get to the top of Bokor Mountain. As the only ones in our party who had been to Bokor before, our car took the lead. Big mistake. After searching for the narrow jungle path to the waterfall we remembered from years before, we ended up finding the falls just 100 metres or so from the first parking lot we had stopped at on top of the mountain an hour previously. Not to worry, though; along the way we re-discovered this magical little Chinese pagoda perched on the edge of a cliff. The pagoda was built in 1924 and seems to have just gotten better with age.

Pagoda atop Bokor Mountain

Not all the magic has left Bokor Mountain

As serene as this looks, it’s only minutes away from the beginnings of what’s going to be Thansur Bokor Highland Resort. Whether building a massive resort/casino on top of this magical mountain is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion, but that’s what’s happening. Fortunately, Bokor National Park covers an area of some 140,000 hectares, so the city sized development centred around the casino isn’t likely to spoil it all for those of us whose idea of heaven (thansur means heaven in Khmer) isn’t Las Vegas.

casino on top of Bokor Mountain, Kampot Cambodia

Thansur? I don’t think so

Finally, after taking two or three accidental side trips on the new Bokor road system, we found the stream that feeds the waterfall. By then, everyone was hungry again, so they settled down on a big rock at the water’s edge for a second meal while I went on an exploratory mission. Unlike the last time, when I picked my way over fallen logs to reach the waterfall, this time a wide concrete path took me to the edge of the falls and my personal idea of thansur: cascading falls surrounded by untrammelled jungle.

Bokor waterfall, Kampot Province, Cambodia

The waterfall, at least, remained as I remembered it.

Would I visit Bokor Mountain again? Probably not, unless it was on a day trip from Kampot. When we were there last time, the old buildings had a kind of magic to them. Whether it was black magic or white, I can’t say, since the ghosts who are said to haunt the old casino can’t be too happy. It is said many of them jumped to their deaths off the cliff after losing fortunes at the gaming tables. The waterfall and the old Chinese pagoda had white magic that you can still feel, but it’s hard to immerse yourself in their magic with all those imposing new structures breathing down your back.

I hate to leave on a negative note, so I’ll leave you with one last photograph. You tell me: Which is more beautiful — this or the new casino? Fortunately, views like this remain and they haven’t managed to cut down all the jungle yet. Now that I think about it, maybe I will go back to Bokor. Next time I’ll get away from the main road on motorbike and explore some of the undeveloped parts of Bokor National Park.

view from the top of Bokor Mountain, Kampot Cambodia

This is more like thansur, if you ask me

 

 

Pchum Ben, the Festival of the Dead in Sihanoukville

As I reported this morning on Travelfish, we’re right in the middle of the Pchum Ben season here in Sihanoukville. I say “season” because although Pchum Ben falls on the 15th day of the waning moon in the 10th month of the Cambodian calendar, it actually lasts for over two weeks. Sometimes translated “Festival of the Dead” and sometimes “Festival of the Ancestors,” a lot of Westerners liken it to Halloween and others to All Souls Day. I like to avoid such comparisons, though, because Cambodians and other cultures don’t see the world through Western eyes.

Wat Krom, Sihanoukville Cambodia

Wat Krom

Pchum Ben is a big event in our household every year. When the day approaches, the family gets a stack of 100 and 500 riel notes, cooks a ton of food and sets out for not just one, but up to five wats. This is after having gone to all three of our local wats individually in the two weeks leading up to the big day. Often, we pitch in with the neighbours, pack into rented trucks and go to distant wats.

On the way back from Wat Phnom Tuit, Pchum Ben, 2008

This year, Pchum Ben is of even more significance to my family and neighbours than usual, if that’s possible. The reason is because a lot of people died last year. Most recently, a village neighbour died. Her death highlights the difference between our Western perception of reality and the average Cambodian villager’s well. To us, there’s a yawning gap between life and death; to Cambodians just a thin veil. Just days after her death, her immediate family started seeing her wandering around the upstairs sleeping area of their house. They became so frightened, they all started sleeping together downstairs. Since then, many of our neighbours have seen her walking up and down our street after dark.

I’m not going to speculate about “superstition” or “hallucination” versus reality because in my opinion, reality is largely a matter of perception. What’s noteworthy to me is that observing Pchum Ben is as important to the average Cambodian as income tax time is to the average Westerner. Just as income taxes are taken seriously because of the consequences of not paying them, Pchum Ben is taken seriously because of the consequences of not appeasing deceased relatives, friends and acquaintances.

The income tax analogy is only half the story, though. Pchum Ben is not just about appeasing the dead; it’s also about honouring the dead. One of my most egregious oversights in the eyes of my Cambodian family has been in failing to hang photographs of my deceased parents on the wall of our home. To them, it’s as if I’ve turned my back on my family. I’m making up for it this year by getting some photos printed up today.

Pchum Ben at Wat Samathi near Ream, 2009

Pchum Ben at Wat Samathi near Ream, 2009

If the idea of seeing the dead and believing they are as real as you and I seems primitive or superstitious to you, consider this story. We had a housekeeper living with us during my first year here. She was a sweet girl until one day she was possessed by the spirit of her dead sister. Of course, we awesomely wise Westerners would call it something else, like multiple personality disorder. Call it what you like, her personality changed so much that one day she threatened me with a knife. In my Western way, I tried to “reason” with her. Fortunately, Sopheak stepped in. After whacking me across the head and telling me the obvious, that it wasn’t Sokha I was trying to speak to, she called in her brother and some of the guys who were building my house. After subduing her, one of the workers performed a ritual his father had taught him. That temporarily appeased the sister and she withdrew. It took a few visits to exorcists to finally get the sister to leave for good, but whatever they did, it worked. Compare that to the success rate of shrinks trying to treat “multiple personality disorder” and you can see why I have a lot of respect for traditional “psychology.”

As much as I wish I could have used some of this week’s windfall from some pre-Christmas work I’ve picked up towards buying a Kindle ereader, the money is going to go towards appeasing the dead over Pchum Ben. I don’t resent it, though, because I’ve seen for myself that the “festival” is not just an excuse to take a day off work or go trick-or-treating. It’s deadly serious.

Related posts:

Bon Pchum Ben or Festival for Ancestors

The Trouble with Travel Blogs about Sihanoukville