Kamp-Art and More

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 especially 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.

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.


Cambodia Food Tour

“I remember stealing my first potato.” Our guide, Mr Lee, takes off his glasses and rubs the bridge of his nose. He is small and smiley. Even in the midday heat, a crisp crease runs down his khaki trousers.

We are standing at the exit to Choeung Ek, the most famous of the Killing Fields, south of Phnom Penh, after our official tour. “The Khmer Rouge had moved us to our final village,” says Lee. We ate watery rice in the evening. They pretended they ate the same, but we knew they had food after dark. It was all you could think of. Everything became edible.”

It is a legacy that lives on, perhaps, in Cambodia’s cuisine, where seemingly few things are off the menu. As a food enthusiast, I have come with an open mind and an empty stomach, keen to get to grips with the country’s unusual fare. My journey starts with me joining the intriguingly named Ducky and Mr Smiley (an animated Australian ex-pat and a toothy tuk-tuk driver) from Urban Forage for a food tour of the night markets of the capital.

In a fug of alien noise and smells we pass neat pyramids of tiny glistening brains, huge papillated curly tongues and duck-egg foetuses (pong tia koon). The latter, boiled and eaten with pepper and lime juice, supposedly give strength to the consumer. Holding the smooth white eggs up to the stall’s strip lighting reveals a fluffy silhouette curled inside, beak and feet tucked in tightly. It’s a bit too “out there” for me but some locals seem to be enjoying it.

I spend too long inspecting a spiky green rugby ball, which I find out is a jackfruit. The stall-keeper smiles, takes the knife she has been decapitating prawns with, and scoops out a bright yellow section. It tastes of bubblegum. And, of course, prawns.

Sleepy children sit atop piles of shiny vegetables while mopeds carve non-existent routes between tightly packed stalls. Trays of deep-fried grasshoppers are frozen in tableaux mid-leap. A man inspects a basket of black “thousand-year” eggs: duck eggs that have been stored in ash and salt until the shells blacken, the whites turn to a brown fetid jelly and the yolks to a gentle green slime. Nearby, a purple-edged crab scutters past my toes as it escapes from a bucket and makes a bid for freedom, only to find itself square in a moped’s path.

Ducky encourages us to try the offerings from the stalls surrounding the market. We start with kaw sach tru, wobbly pork belly oozing over hot coals, followed by muscular frogs’ legs dipped in lime, salt and pepper – both surprisingly delicious. We drink sharp pomelo juice from a plastic bag with straws and round off our Cambodian canapés with a handful of rambutans: delicately perfumed fruits encased in hairy, scrotum-like packaging.

The next morning we join a cookery class run by Frizz restaurant (half-day course £10, full-day course £14). Together with a dozen other inept barang (foreigners), we are coaxed through the basics of making fish amok: coconut fish curry steamed in a boat of banana leaves. Pummelling spices in a huge wooden pestle and mortar takes its toll on three American ladies, who opt instead for a seat and a cold Angkor beer. A small serious-faced Cambodian boy quietly takes over, swiftly producing perfect curry paste for each of them. In a nod to bushcraft specialist Ray Mears, we are encouraged to make a vessel for the steaming curry using only a banana leaf and two toothpicks. My husband tests his banana boat by filling it with curry and holding it over my head.

That evening we have dinner at Romdeng, a training restaurant for former street children housed in a handsome colonial villa. Our waiter’s trousers are two inches too long for him and he introduces himself timidly. His face beams when we order the deep-fried tarantula. “Scary, but very tasty, yes?”

When they arrive, the arachnids have been arranged as if they are chasing each other around the plate. Their legs crunch like hairy Twiglets; their abdomens are full of nondescript bitter brown sludge. I can’t imagine developing a taste for them.

The next morning we board the bus to Siem Reap where we are welcomed by a rotund lady with goody bags containing a plain baguette and a bottle of water. She informs us over the PA that we are “about to travel a very bumbly road” and advises that seatbelts must be worn at all time. She subsequently unfolds a battered red deckchair and sits in the middle of the aisle, eating crisps and watching Spiderman on the DVD player.

We spend our days exploring the incredible sights of Angkor Wat and our evenings exploring the vast choice of local restaurants. On our last night, we treat ourselves to the six-course tasting menu at Cuisine Wat Damnak. We sit in a cool, quiet courtyard drinking dry French wine. Heavy cutlery clinks politely and impeccably observant waiters anticipate our needs. But even here, in the most renowned of the city’s restaurants, there is still no ingredient that is out of bounds. The menu includes crispy beef tongue, stir-fried frog meat, and a salad of lotus: lotus roots, lotus stem and fresh lotus seeds.

The cooking may be fancy but the flavours are strong, proud and true. We are a world away from a stolen potato, but even here, in the long shadow of the regime, food serves as a reminder that everything is precious and nothing should be taken for granted.

BP behind explosion in Takhmau?

No this not the BP of the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but your very own BP Bayon Pearnik after its feature last October on Kandal’s Black Grandfather provincial capital.

It seems there are now many more visitors especially foreigners, probably taking advantage of the “beer wars” that gives you a jug of Angkor for as little as 5,000 riels (US$1.25). And if you do over-imbibe and need a rest, the “guesthouse wars” mean no problem finding a bed any time of the day or night! There is a proliferation of new guesthouses. Two have replaced the former garment girls’ ghettoes that stood empty since the demise of the Yung Wah factory – the one that housed the sun bears! And to accompany this uptake, the town has added three new banks to the existing four. They must be expecting new business with the new Chinese bridge across the Tonle Bassac about to open.

Takhmau’s cosmopolitan credentials, that already boast Pizza Company and Lucky Supermarket, now have its first classy café -bar “Nexión”, rather peculiarly located in a back street. Three Khmer owners have been inspired by Phnom Penh’s burgeoning coffee culture. They serve Italian coffee, cocktails at $2.50, and a half yard of Tiger Beer while some young acoustic musicians try to entertain themselves. (Facebook – connexion.coffee.pub)

A more traditional restaurant, “99c”, turn left at Westland School on the main road, has an enterprising Australian Cambodian owner, Channa invites any BP reader to go there for a meal, and he will give you your first drink free!

Cardamom Mountains – Chi Phat village

Deep in the southern Cardamom Mountains, beyond Chi Phat village, lies an untamed jungle, traversed by surging rivers and sheltering wildlife that, until recently, was little more than a commodity to locals.

The southern Cardamom Mountains were until very recently Cambodia’s Wild West, the centre of the country’s thriving wildlife trade and the hiding place of a few diehard Khmer Rouge communities, who are reported to have lived there until as late as 2002.

The lucrative wildlife and logging trades provided a much needed supplement to the meagre income earned by the rural poor in this area of Cambodia, a country where some two thirds of the population still work in agriculture, often at subsistence level.

Realising that any attempt to protect the Cardamoms would also have to involve the communities that depended on the jungle, Wildlife Alliance — a local charity — set up an ecotourism initiative, called the Chi Phat Community-Based Ecotourism Project (CBET) in 2007. Now, ecominded travellers and nature-lovers can visit the area, while also contributing to its preservation.

It is a hugely ambitious project. The first step was demarcating an area that rangers from the Ministry of Forestry would patrol. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation missions began soon afterwards. (If you visit the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge near Phnom Penh, which is also run by Wildlife Alliance, a number of the animals will have been rescued at Chi Phat.)

A handful of ex-poachers now work as service providers – including as jungle guides, guesthouse owners, garbage collectors, mototaxi drivers and cooks — and have begun to see the potential of a continuous income stream from tourists. Women in particular, who generally invest more in the health and education of their families than men, have been employed in reforestation efforts which provide an alternative, long-term source of income to logging or slash and burn farming.

One billion trees have been replanted so far, and the coveted rosewood tree — worth as much as $8,000 per cubic metre — is at last being protected to a degree. Since the ecotourism initiative began, wildlife trade in the region has been reduced by a remarkable 70 percent, and between January 2009 and May 2010, the project brought in $100,000 — 80 percent of which goes to the village. The remaining 20 percent of earnings go into a fund for maintenance and operation costs. In the future, the community intends to use the funds to make village improvements.

Chi Phat village is a pleasant place to relax with a book, rent a bicycle or go for walks, but getting out into the jungle is the real attraction. The Visitors’ Centre (T: +855 092720925; [email protected] ) can arrange a variety of guided outdoor activities, such as sunset dinners in a riverboat, three day trekking, rafting and mountain-biking adventures, sighting wildlife and visiting ancient burial jar sites in the jungle. If you’re relatively fit, an overnight trek in the jungle is a happy medium.

The staff at the centre prefer to arrange accommodation themselves because it makes it easier to fairly allocate visitors to guesthouses, so check in to the centre when you arrive. If you have any problems chartering a boat, the CBET staff can assist you via telephone.


One of the more popular guided activities is an 11 kilometre trek to a camp site near Veal Trapak, where you can spend the night in a hammock listening to the sounds of the jungle and the rushing river. Veal Trapak pond, a watering hole for wildlife, is a short walk away, and you may be lucky enough to spot gibbons, hornbills or even a bear if you arrive at sunrise or sunset.

The hike continues to O’Key village the next morning, which you’ll reach in time for lunch, before heading to O’Malu waterfall, 10 kilometres from the campsite, where a cool dip will refresh you for the final 14 kilometres out of the jungle and back to Chi Phat.

Prices for guided treks range from $8 to $20 per person per day. Equipment like canoes or motor boats normally bumps up the price. All treks include a guide, a cook, meals, a few bottles of water and a tent and/or hammock. Extras such as sleeping bags, backpacks and raincoats are available for a nominal fee.

Be aware that the ‘hut accommodation’ available on some routes is no more than a bamboo roof above a wooden platform on stilts. You really will be sleeping in the jungle, so don’t expect more than an outhouse and —maybe — a river to bathe in.

Although the water may be heavenly in the summer months, during the rainy season the river banks are as leech-infested as the trail. In the rainy season, take a bag of salt along to sprinkle on the many leeches that will attach to your skin; the salt makes them fall off painlessly. The smouldering end of a cigarette (any brand will do) also works a treat.


You’ll find a selection of guesthouses ($5 per room) and homestays ($3 for one person/ $4 for two) along the main road. All have shared bathrooms with cold or bucket showers, sit down toilets and mosquito nets. Currently, the CBET centre is the only place with WiFi access. The village’s ecolodge ($20 for twin accommodation) has bungalows with modern ensuite bathroom facilities on a small island about 1.5 kilometres from the CBET centre.

You’ll find a handbook in each guesthouse with amusing pictures to assist communication, including a foreigner pointing at a dirty bathroom, requesting it be cleaned. There is also a section about what you can expect from your guesthouse (towels, a bottle of mineral water) with a code of conduct for both parties to follow; guesthouse owners should respect your privacy and you should dress modestly, for instance. As with all aspects of the Chi Phat project, these are often ideals, not realities.

Electricity in Chi Phat only runs in the early mornings and evenings, except at the CBET centre, where it is available all day, as is WiFi. The lights promptly go out at 23:00 every evening, by which time you are expected to be in your guesthouse.


A couple of eateries line the main road with basic, mostly vegetarian food. The CBET centre also cooks local or Western lunches and dinners for a few dollars if you order half a day in advance. Homestays can provide meals ($5 for one person, $8 for two including accommodation).

Getting There

Transport to Chi Phat starts in Andoung Teuk, which is served by all buses to and from Koh Kong. Tell the driver you want to get out at Andoung Teuk and you’ll be dropped off at a bridge beside a few small shops. If you’re coming from Thailand and reach the Hat Lek/Koh Kong border by mid-morning, you can make it to Chi Phat before nightfall. Note the Khmer side of the border is known for overcharging. Taxi drivers double as touts and try to handle visa applications themselves. Thefts during the confusion have been reported.

From Koh Kong’s central bus station, buses to Phnom Penh (via Andoung Teuk) leave a few times a day, starting from 08:00, and take three and a half hours. From Andoung Teak, you have the choice of following the Preak Piphot River or a dirt track to Chi Phat. Take a boat up the river.

The boat ride to Chi Phat is one of the highlights of a visit. Wooden longtails make the journey in a little under two hours ($20), gliding past mangroves, mountains covered in thick vegetation and an occasional group of swimming children. It is a slow, peaceful journey. Noisy speedboats make the trip too, and charge US$50 for the 30-minute journey. There is also the option of chartering a more comfortable, large wooden boat for groups of up to 20 at a cost of $35 for the two hour trip.

The locals at Andoung Teuk Bridge may think you’re mad not to choose the cheaper, faster motorbike taxi option, even in the rainy season when the track is almost pure mud. It will cost around $7 for the 90-minute journey along a forest track.