Welcome to Kampuchea: Koh Kong, Life on the Border…

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Sunset at Koh Kong, Kampuchea

…any border, is weird, by definition, sample TJ (Tijuana), TG (Tangier), TK (Tachilek) and TU (Tecun Uman) for starters, and a few thousand others, where cultures clash and vehicles collide and the simple act of of ‘crossing over’ takes on new meaning, not to mention the modern airline-hub Big Meta-Border cities, e.g. Istanbul, Moscow, Dubai, Bangkok, Singapore, Cairo, Jo-burg, Lima, Delhi and others…

And Koh Kong on the border of Thailand and Kampuchea is no different, Kampuchea (Cambodia) the bastard big brother of Thailand, long ago fallen on hard times and left to fend for itself against the predations of its offspring, only rescued by the noblesse oblige of the Foreign Legion francais…

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Following the money in Koh Kong

Fast forward to the present, and Kampuchea is developing rapidly, no small thanks to Chinese interests and investments, I’m sure. And it scares me, to be honest, the too-rapid development of the world’s last frontiers, to what end I’m not sure, but I’m afraid it’s not all good, notwithstanding the fact that life has probably never been better for the average citizen of the average country on any average day in the life of the world, clock ticking…

One of the phenomena of border life is the presence of two currencies, especially where the two countries are unequal, and here you can make it three, thanks to the meta-presence of the dollar uber-currency, which is denaro franco by default, in addition to the Thai baht and the local riel, which is suitable really only for small purchases, and which you find most readily as change for dollars. Notice the similarity in pronunciation between the local riel and various reales, rials and riyals around the world…

And if that sounds rather pathetic that USD is big-boy currency by default, then be assured that it’s no different in more than a dozen other countries and political entities around the world. Zimbabwe uses eight currencies as legal tender! That saves on printing costs, I guess. And now that Koh Kong is better connected to the rest of Cambodia, the future of the Thai baht here may be limited, but still…

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Over easy, please…

Ditto languages: I count three, so use ’em if you got ’em. Since my Khmer is in its nascent phase and my Thai is probably better than most people’s English, then I use it intentionally, just to survey its prevalence and not to have to resort to English, which puts me in a category I’d rather not be in—tourist. So if you don’t know the total bill in your new lingo, just break a large bill and hope for the best, the traveler’s equivalent of religious faith…

Now I’ll be the first to admit that, such as it is, English is the international language by default, and a smidgen of pidgin can go a long way to keep you in room and board as you travel around the world, BUT—not much more than that IMHO. It’ll also get you some false friends, fast and furious, and those I’d rather do without. English is the language of aggression, and overcharging. Khmer—or Thai—is the language of politeness, and fairness…

If you want to penetrate to the heart of a place, then you learn the language, or at least you do your best. And contrary to popular belief, they won’t always appreciate it, but you do it anyway. Or at least I do, anyway, if I think I’ll be spending more than a month in a place. And that’s why I’m here, testing the waters, for possible long-stay, given the favorable visa situation. I first came to Kampuchea in 1997, and again in 2007, so it’s that time again…

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Water village at Koh Kong

And I thought I was too late, given the number of accommodations listed on booking sites for Sihanoukville and elsewhere, places which were just barely on the map a decade ago. But that rush is blissfully far away here, and the bark is always worse than the bite, i.e. there is always more supply than demand, since nobody wants to plant rice, certainly no one of mixed Chinese heritage. That’s the lot of the local peasantry…

So Koh Kong is dirty, shabby, undeveloped, and unexciting. I love it! If that means no wild parties, then so be it. If I wanted a full moon party, then I’d be in Koh Pha Ngan, not Koh Kong. BTW ‘koh’ means island, so this is best referred to as ‘Koh Kong City’, since the island itself is down the road, and nobody says ‘Khemara Phumin’, as sometimes seen on maps. And there are a few Western-oriented pubs and restos here, pizza especially, so you shouldn’t have too many withdrawal symptoms if that’s your predilection…

And yes, Thai language and Khmer have much in common, but not all, so you have about a 20-25% head start if you’re fluent in Thai and want to try it, so maybe half that of Lao. But it’s here mostly at the mid-level of commerce, especially hotels, transportation and up-market transactions, the same places where the local currency would not likely go too far…

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Clucking trash

Sanitation alert! Yes, Kampuchea is not the cleanest place in the world, and there’s always the border syndrome of Motecuzoma’s revenge, i.e. diarrhea, even though I’m cautious by nature and conservative by default. Fried rice should be the safest thing around town, but not when the weather’s hot and the sun’s going down, I guess. So I recuperate with Frenchy baguettes and nutella-like spread, just what the doctor ordered, and safe as can be…

But there’s not really much to do—perfect! The town is on the water, but prime beach is some 4km/2.5miles away, so pack a lunch, or take your chances. I’ll wait for Sihanoukville, where I’m hoping to be not too shocked at all the beachy development, none of which was there ten years ago—absolutely none. Fingers are crossed…

 

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