I spent about 15 days in Cambodia, where I met Jay and Gibby in Siem Reap, marveled at the glory of Angkor Wat, then headed down to Sihanoukville, over to Kampot and Kep, and ended in the crazy capital Pnohm Penh. I didn’t write very much there, but now wishing I would’ve because it is one of my favorite countries I’ve been to. I’ve never seen so many smiles in my life anywhere else in the world. After everything the Khmer people have been through, especially the Pol Pot Regime, they seem very warm-hearted and resilient.
On the other hand, they are also very hard to understand; as Serge Thion portrays in his book Watching Cambodia: “The country is like a labyrinth. . .But there’s no final word, no hidden truth at the end. That would require entering all the gates of the labyrinth at the same time.” From my short-lived experience there, to me, the Khmers are a mystical people. Of course they are living in the modern world, but it’s as if they transported from the distant past into it. This might have something to do with their strong beliefs in reincarnation and superstition. There’s a very supernatural quality about them, something almost untouchable or at least unfathomable through western eyes.
And the music. The music is a great example of this mysticism. I picked up a Cambodian rock box-set about a year and a half ago, and every time I listen to it I’m taken to another plane of audio existence. In the late 60s and up till the Khmer Rouge years, dozens of Khmer artists shaped rock music into an almost tribal, yet ethereal mix with traditional Khmer rhythms and scales. Add on the garage-rock rawness of the recordings and it’s something completely rewarding.
One of my favorite moments of the trip was when we travelled from Sihanoukville to Kampot in a hour-long taxi. The driver was playing some CDs on his stereo and I asked him if he had any Sinn Sinsamouth, the king of Cambodian rock. No doubt he did. He just smiled and popped the CD in. There we were, cruising with the ghost of modern Khmer music as a soundtrack to the idyllic scenes and people of the southern stretched countryside. Plowing water buffalo, palm trees lining the horizon, half-naked children staring into distances, and the King crooning over it all. It was a drive I’ll never forget.
This first entry was written in Siem Reap, but is actually about southern Laos.
Siem Reap, Cambodia – July 31, 2010
Got up yesterday at 6:45 am to catch a cross-border bus to Siem Reap. But first, let me tell you about Pakse, Laos. I rented a 150cc Suzuki motorbike and rode around the Bolaven Plateau, a large rural area full of waterfalls and untouched countryside spotted with small farming villages. It was incredible. I had no idea how to get there because the edge is about 70 km outside of Pakse, so the kind lady at the motorbike rental gave me a map and just pointed down the main street and said, “Go this way.” OK, simple enough.
So I hopped on and set off through the congested motorbike traffic, which is more akin to a line of ants stopping, swerving and merging into one another. I had little experience riding a motorbike, but I learned very quickly going through the no-right-of-way and no hesitation swarms of the gasoline clusters. The fuel tank was a little under half full when I left so about 40 km outside of town I stopped at a filling station. I was greeted by three shyly smiling children waiting at the pump. A small, about 10 yr old girl with long black hair pulled out the nozzle and put in 20,000 kip worth to fill it up (3 liters at $1 each). The other kids just stood there looking at me with curious intent. It was completely quiet there, a peaceful quality you would never associate with a filling station. I gave her the money and with a quick ‘Kop jai!’ (thank you), I set off down the road again. Although I had the map, I still had no idea where I was going or what I would run into along the way, but I didn’t care. The sun on my arms, road breeze on my face, and the grass hut lined road was all I needed to enjoy the complete sense of unknown freedom. I couldn’t help gunning the throttle every now and then while letting out a loud hoot and holler to let the world ahead know I was coming. This is what Kerouac must have felt as he aimlessly hitched across America in the 50s. I had to honk and swerve around dogs sleeping in the road, cattle leisurely walking across, and the occasional pig heavily trotting along.
I was completely free.
Coast of Kep, Cambodia – Rabbit Island Beach – August 8, 2010
My paper is bright white today with clear sunshine on my chest and sand under my toes. Almost a week since the last entry because I haven’t had much down time. Not a bad thing because every moment has been ridiculously beautiful. To back up a little, Jay and Gibby arrived at the airport in Siem Reap and I was there to pick them up with Kresna, our tuk-tuk driver. I met Kresna that morning in the guesthouse I stayed at. Turns out, he was also the young man who was sleeping on the pool table and watching midnight soap operas while I was on the lobby computer the night before.
I told him I wanted change guesthouses and go to go to the 13th Villa Guesthouse. I figured he worked at the one I stayed at the night before, but found out he had no affiliation with that guesthouse, they only let him sleep on the pool table. Interesting. Anyways, he didn’t know where the 13th Villa was, but there was something about him that told me he was a cool guy. So I showed him a map and we set off. Keep in mind, this is the place that Jay had booked on the internet for the three of us to stay at.
We headed along the Siem Reap river, bypassing small tin-roof shacks with people selling mostly fruits, drinks and cigarettes. After driving around for about 30 minutes and winding down muddy alleys looking for it, we finally found the 13th Villa. It was dark inside and I asked a man about booking a room and he said they were closed. I told him I had a friend who booked a room here over the internet, but he just said, “Sorry, we are closed for remodeling.” So Jay booked a room for a non-existent guesthouse and they were supposed to pick him and Gibby up from the airport later that day. So, Kresna, being the great soul that he is (I knew it), said he could bring me to a better guesthouse that was closer to the old market area.
We went on down the river again and arrived at the #10 Lodge Guesthouse. I told Kresna I needed to go to the airport to meet my friends and he said no problem, he could take me there and pick them up. Anyways, when we got to the airport it was a hilarious scene. About 15 Khmers, all dressed in formal wear, were waiting at the exit holding up placards with various Korean names and tour groups. At least I knew the plane from Korea hadn’t arrived yet. And of course they would be there, because Koreans almost always travel in huge groups doing the safe, comfortable, “mega-tours”.
So, to fit in, I got some paper and a pen and made my own sign in Hanguel, complete with my buddies’ names on them. They finally arrived and of course were the last ones to get out because, as some of you know, Koreans take no time in getting off an airplane. I knew it was the first sight of the next nine days to come of debaucherous enlightenment.