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.