Have I told you that Cambodia is the country of gateways? That every temple, school, hamlet, alley, will have it’s own beautiful, ornate gate? If any one thing doesn’t have a gate, it’s not worth seeing.
Kep is no different. This tiny, dusty, old resort town is pretty much demarcated by the gates of country schools. Some are even in the same dated style as much of the rest of the town’s architecture–60’s modernism. Kep is a strange and wonderful place. It is chock full of abandoned houses, just sitting amongst the acreage of their old lands, inside walls still standing with stripped metal gates. It doesn’t help that I was reading Tolstoy’s obloquy on the landed gentry and their eventual demise.
These lonely remnants of a spectacular bourgeoisie were like candy to me. There is almost nothing I love more than exploring old houses. While in many cases only the concrete of the original dwelling remained, one could still get a good sense of the house that used to be. This activity remained exceedingly pleasant to me, until one day when I stumbled upon a house missing it’s second-story floors. That was creepy, but not the creepiest part. On the wall of the house, there was a painted chalkboard, with the words, “Wednesday 22 September 1995,” written upon it, and the patchy sentence, “May be we can’t to met for today.” It gave me the horrifying realization that a family had lived here, and one day, lived there no longer, leaving only a hastily abandoned blackboard and missing floors. What had happened to that family? Were they all brutally murdered? Was the domicile now jammed full with angry, hungry ghosts? Had one attached to me by my thoughtless intrusion? Was it hovering, unseen, by my bed this very moment?
These, and other thoughts, are what kept me awake three nights in a row. Luckily, the beneficent owner of the guest house I was at, the illustrious Arun Rass, had taken me under the aegis of her care. Chantoeurn assured me that her guest house was built in a good place to prevent ghosts, and that her young children had never cried the whole time they had lived there (a good sign, as it’s the young that see ghosts). She also informed me that the bracelet I had received from a silent nun (more on that later) protected against ghosts. Then she told me about how in Cambodia the pomegranate tree is seen as protection against ghosts, and she left a potted sapling on my veranda that I dragged into my room, to her amusement. Then her husband took pity on me, asked which house I’d gone into, and said that the stripped houses all occurred after the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese War killings, and that the poverty of the Khmer people required them to strip their house of all salable items (read: tiles, metal fittings, etc.) and sell them in Viet Nam for rice–the border being just 30km away. Then I felt better. I still slept with a tree in my room.
And now, I’ll start at the beginning. I arrived at Kep via bus from Phnom Penh, an unremarkable journey. We pulled into Kep sometime in the afternoon, and I chartered a tuk-tuk to take me to the bungalows which I’d investigated ahead of time, Tree Top. When I arrived, I was informed that there wasn’t any more $5 bungalows, and that they only had $8. I agreed to this heist, and spent the night in a not unpleasant, but not $8-worth shack on a hill.
I ate at the notorious Crab Market of Kep. I bought a fried fish from a stand on the pier, not at any of the restaurants, as well as two little bags of “sides” and some rice. The fish was fine, certainly very fishy, and too much for one person to eat. The sides were so salty as to be inedible. It tasted like sea water with extra salt dumped on vegetables. Even the rice was slightly salted. I felt a bit ill the next day.
On the way back from the Crab Market, I stopped in front of an edifice that looked like a new apartment complex. I hearkened back to advice I heard from some other trekkers whilst having fish eat the scum off my feet, “When you go to Kep, stay at Kep Arun Rass. It looks like a half-finished set of flats.” And so it did, or rather more than half-finished. So I walked over to check the rates. The proprietress and her family were at dinner, but she and her husband hastily stood up and told me they had a room to rent. $12 a night. Did I want to see it? I said I’d look tomorrow. They looked concerned, surely I wanted to see it now? So I went to see the room. It was beautiful–spacious, with a beautiful green wall, and a giant bathroom. Hot water, even, the first in 2 months! I said I’d be back in the morning. They still looked worried. Did I have a place to stay tonight? I said I did. Their faces cleared. Ok, see you tomorrow morning!
So, I headed down the hill to Arun Rass. It was lovely. I immediately took a hot shower. I scratched all my itches with almost scalding water. Did I tell you I had a massive case of heat rash? Around 1:30PM, the tuk-tuk driver showed up to escort me to the nearby caves, as agreed upon yesterday. We set off and soon arrived. Scaling the massive staircase, I was approached by a scholarly young man who began the tour. We first passed a magnificently beautiful temple, much better than the caves, in my opinion.
Coming into the caves, I saw the White Elephant stalactite, and was proceeding deeper into the cave with my guide when another guide came up. He took me by the hand, and said he would show me the Bat Cave. He hustled me up, down, outside, inside; until I was steaming hot and highly confused, not to mention skeptical.
He finally stopped, and pulled me into a small cranny. “Do you know the Batman?” he said. I explained that I did, and he shone his flashlight overhead into the tower filled with flitting bats. Ok, great, bat cave. After a few minutes of polite viewing, with his hands around my waist, supposedly pulling me into proper position, I tried to walk away. He pulled me back again. “Do you know the Batman? Do you want to see the Bat Cave?” He wouldn’t leave me alone, and pressed uncomfortably close, closer, way too close. Finally I yanked free and walked off. But the rascal had no shame. He tried to drag me to another bat cave. Luckily, my original guide had caught up and escorted me out. However, as I was trying to peer through the slats of a stupa further along the tour, Creep Alert came up behind me, grabbed me, and hoarsely croaked his query about the Batman into my ear. As I rushed down the steps, he tried to call me back multiple times. Never, in all of Cambodia, have I felt so uncomfortable and put-upon by a local as I did in that place.
After that harrowing tour, I headed along to Kampot. Unfortunately, I had not done any research on what to do there, so the trip was largely wasted, besides my visiting a Canadia Bank ATM, where one can withdraw without fees. However, I got to see much of the surrounding countryside! The next day, I elected to go to Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island.
To get to this illustrious island, one must charter a boat. Mine was chartered through my tuk-tuk driver at $10 round-trip. I think I could have gotten it for less, but I was itchier than anything and didn’t care so much. Arriving on the island, one can see the entirety of available sleeping quarters in one eye-full. There is a strip of beach where the boats land–that’s where all the housing is located. Dotted along this beach are separate locations for eating and lounging, each affiliated with it’s parent bungalow vender. I didn’t know it before, but there is no electricity on the island, besides one time per day, between 6 and 10PM. You are cooled by the ocean breeze, if there is one, and you have to unplug your lights to charge your camera.
My bungalow was $8 per night, and came with hammock, mosquito net, and en-suite hovel bathroom that I was constantly banging my head in. I think Rabbit Island is more of a day-trip type place, unless you’re old, then it’s probably heaven. You sit, eating moderately (expensive for Cambodia, cheap for U.S.) priced meals, drinking coconut milk, enjoying the warm ocean, and the stingless jellyfish. I read a lot in the sun. I ate once per day, to save on food costs. The meals hover around $4, and it gets you a lot of food, but it feels so expensive after a month of fifty cent dining.
I stayed two nights, and then I was ready to go home. Unfortunately, the boats only come three times per day: 7AM, 9AM, and 4PM. I had missed the morning run, but met another couple whose bungalow owners had called for a boat. They had been waiting half an hour. No boat was in sight. I went to have breakfast. As I was waiting for breakfast, the boat arrived. I gulped it down, paid up, and ran towards the boat. It had to come back to the shore, but I made it!
I was happy to return to Arun Rass. I had a new room, but the owners were happy to see me back. I felt as though I had been welcomed into the family. Staying there was more like a homestay than anywhere else I’d found. Daily, I was invited to Khmer meals. Daily, I borrowed a bike. Daily, the proprietress came to sit on my front porch and talk to me about Cambodia, Cambodian peoples, and Khmer.
I’d come upon a $3 hot water maker in Phnom Penh, and had since been using it to both actually heat water for coffee and tea, and to cook one-pot meals in. I’ve become quite adept at making fried noodles with vegetable stir-fries, noodle soups, and curries. I went to the market almost daily, buying fresh vegetables for discount prices, like my twelve cent pumpkin. Along the way, I pushed my bike up the monster hill to Veranda, a swank resort nearby. They had an in-house bakery, where you could by meter long baguettes for $1. They also offer a completely orgasmic passionfruit panna cotta, and an $8 breakfast buffet. The buffet is completely worth it. I went once, but I would have gone every day.
Kep also offers a National Park. I went once. I’m not one for National Parks. It was fair. It cost me $1 to get in. It’s a giant forest. It does have butterflies, but it’s also mostly uphill. The way down is great, brakes squealing the entire way, as you whizz down the cyclist version of the Indiana Jones ride.
So, about the nun! I took a back path home from the market, and I was stopped by the beauty of a golden-roofed temple and the tinkling of bells emanating therein. I pushed my bike through the gate, to take a closer look, when all at once a diminutive nun was at my elbow. Nuns in Asia generally have shaved heads. If you see a woman with a shaved head, she’s either a nun, or a widow. If she’s wearing all white, or a particularly wrapped white and black outfit, she’s a nun. This nun had a friendly brown face like a wizened apple. She signaled that I should pull up my skirt–I tried to tell her I’d come back tomorrow, in better garb–and led me towards the temple. She showed me how they were doing renovations on the temple, and the formation of new statuettes, and paintings. She then offered me a plain red braided bracelet. I offered her a dollar, but she wouldn’t keep it, and changed me 2,000 riel back. She had to go through her entire (about 15) selection of bracelets before she came upon one which would tie around my wrist. The entire time, she spoke not a word. I wondered if she had undertaken a vow of silence. Her complete quietude, the surrounding chiming of fluttering golden bells, the chirruping of birds, the setting sun gilding every blossom and tile…it was an otherworldly experience.
And then I got food poisoning! Actually, it was after I discovered my favorite dessert. Remember when I told you about how you can buy desserts on the street in Cambodia? Well, it is the same in the countryside. My favorite is one composed of jelly slivers, fake pomegranate seeds, coconut milk, condensed milk, and ice. It’s pink, pink, pink. It tastes like happiness. Then, later that night, you’re losing all the pumpkin curry you ate for dinner out of both ends. You can’t even keep down water, even though you’re dying of thirst. You lie curled in the fetal position in a towel, because you keep showering off, because you’ve run out of toilet paper. At least this toilet is Western style, so you can sit down and hold the trashcan at the same time.
Chanteourn said my favorite dessert gave me food poisoning. She said part of it isn’t cooked. It seemed so innocuous, I even had it two days in a row! At two different places though. For 2 days thereafter, Chanteourn brought me plain borbor with a little salt–what she said Khmer people ate when they were sick–for each meal. She also sat on the bed and chatted with me while I lay there feeling half-dead. It was in this way that I learned much about Cambodian ways.