Few developing countries DON’T have a murky past, but Cambodia is surely at the top of the list for recent psychological and physical trauma. Yet now, in 2014, and despite depressing levels of government corruption, it seems to be climbing out of its deep and tragic 20th century hole. Hole? Perhaps I should say bomb crater – because there are many of those. But it’s definitely time to paint a more uplifting picture.
In contrast to the majority of tourists who make a beeline for Angkor (and yes, I did go there back in 1997 when Pol Pot lived in the jungle not too far away), we (that’s my trusty man and I) headed south from Phnom Penh to hit the coast at Kep, on the Gulf of Thailand. This is one of those idyllic tropical regions where mangoes drop off trees, bananas ripen before your eyes, coconuts sit by roadsides waiting to be chopped open, and crabs, prawns and fish bounce out of the ocean onto plates. Sunsets are dazzling, the temperature is tropically embracing, and at this time of year morning breaks with clear blue skies – just the ticket while blighted UK drowns in floods.
According to local expat entrepreneurs, in the last few years business (in this case tourism) in Kep has boomed (read my other post on Kep here). As small-scale hotels and restaurants multiply, down at the waterfront venues are looking decidedly hip and westernised. This is a two-sided coin, as I hope it doesn’t spell the end of the local shacks jutting out over the waves that serve divine seafood for a song (pic above). I found the adjoining crab market a foodie paradise, still genuine and untainted by tourism.
Kep is an odd, sprawling place, with no real centre, a blinding white artificial beach (the genuine ones are on islands) and a surreal backdrop of abandoned modernist villas from the golden era of the 1960s. Yet it feels like a rare discovery. It was chilling to learn though that until 1999, Khmer Rouge guerillas were still active in the hills – one good reason for its backwater status. Below is the best beach at Rabbit Island, a 20-minue boat-ride away – where grilled fish, beer and hammocks are plentiful.
25km west of Kep, in the pretty estuarine town of Kampot, the same boom mantra applies, and here you sense that there’s plenty of potential for more upmarket lures. In tandem with the slow creep of colonial-style and riverside hotels, cool little backstreet restaurants create a welcoming evening buzz. French expats are trying hard, along with a few wayward Aussies, Brits, Germans and Dutch, and luckily Cambodians are also involved. And mornings will always light up with a monk or two on the rounds—
The hotel we stayed at (above), right on the banks of the river, is a perfect example. Natural Bungalows has been owned and run for the last four years by a local family – so a handful of brothers, a sister, mother and various kids all came and went as the torpid days slid by. The bungalows on stilts were spacious and comfortable – albeit not exactly high style. We loved the garden location a 15-minute walk from the centre and being able to collapse on a sun-lounger on their little riverbank beach to read or watch boats glide by, or fixate on yet another riotous sunset behind the mountains and bridge.
On our way back to the capital, another illuminating experience awaited us in the form of a few days at a homestay near Takeo. Here we were hosted by a dynamic young couple, Siphen and Mach, both teachers, and endlessly active helping run English libraries, sourcing second-hand computers for schools and supporting a weaving business for abused women. All impressive. Their home is an attractive, walled complex with room for chickens, cattle, plants, a lily-pond and a dozen or so guests. Some sleep in more comfort than others, but all are fed royally three times a day.
Early morning strolls past skinny cattle grazing in the surrounding rice-fields revealed even more ponds. Mystified, we asked our host, Mach, the reason for them. He explained that they were in fact old bomb craters. Once again, you can’t avoid that deadly past – in this case the carpet bombing by U.S. B52 bombers that from 1963 to 1974 dropped more ordnance on this little country than was used during the whole of World War II. The 2,756,941 tons not only killed well over 150,000 people (the figure is vague) but helped set into motion the rise of the Khmer Rouge. That regime was ultimately responsible for the genocide of around 3 million people. No adjective is strong enough.
At the homestay, guests are encouraged to give English lessons in a small, challengingly airless classroom next to the homestay. 40 or so teenage pupils squeezed onto benches were all (or nearly all) eager to improve their English and hear about our lives. It was fun, if exhausting for anyone unused to teaching such an energetic class for 1 1/2 hours. Despite differences in abilities, their confidence and optimism was striking. Asked what they wanted to do in the future, it was doctor, engineer, teacher, IT etc – all high-flying professional jobs – and these were mainly country children.
So there’s clearly hope for Cambodia’s future – a huge contrast to what I encountered on my last trip there 17 years ago. Then the trauma was disturbingly evident, now the next generation is emerging, seemingly intact.