Sihanoukville and Kampot, Kampuchea: Foreign Arrogance, French Elegance, Khmer Endurance…

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Serendipity Beach Road barely existed ten years ago…

First the bad news: Cambodia is the trashiest place on Earth, bar none, so you won’t have to wait for my end-of-year Worst List. And this is not cool for what once was SE Asia’s premier culture, mother to all others and father to a few, too. At first I thought maybe it was just Koh Kong, since that’s where I entered, but no—it’s everywhere. I haven’t seen trash on the street like this since Paracas, Peru, and Africa is infamous, of course…

Other than that, it’s a pretty nice place, and a far cry from what you would’ve found twenty, ten, even five years ago, when cops would stop you on the street to get paid, and 16-year-old hookers from Vietnam would do pretty much the same. But that was before the big tourism boom, what with casinos, easy visas and ancient ruins the big draws, unless you go for the Dark Side. I’m sure some of that still exists. All that glitters is not Gary…

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School kids clean up

So Sihanoukville proceeds to develop lickety-split, from certain origins to uncertain destinations, gobbling up islands for tourist consumption, and leaving marginal neighborhoods in the dust from which they came, giving the town a schizzy personality that has always been the case, apparently…

I knew I’d be shocked to see all the beach-side development, and tourist ground zero shifting ever so rapidly that way, but I was even more surprised to visit Victory Hill, which pre-dates ‘downtown’ apparently, and which I never even saw during my previous visit ten years ago, since it lies two to three miles away. Considering that the town didn’t even exist until after the French left in 1954, this scattered approach seems typical…

So Otres Beach, a five-dollar ride down the beach, is the hot new spot for foreign involvement, whether tourism residence or investments, and the islands are prime targets, in the Leonardo-like search for the ultimate beach—and I’m not talking Da Vinci. Islands that are currently without power will have it next year, and WiFi will then follow, in some expansive pattern that is logarithmic, if not algorithmic. If you don’t find exactly what you like, then wait until next year; or better yet: do it yourself!

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They’re all over Sihanoukville

Because on first glance, if casinos seem like the engine to investment, on second glance the easy visas available to foreigners may indeed be the spark-plug. For this is the Holy Grail of tourism, to find a place you like, and then just stay there. Only problem is that most countries are very strict about this, and Thailand is having fits trying to clean out the riff-raff, i.e. ‘digital nomads’. Thailand’s loss just may be Kampuchea’s gain, if my math is correct, and only the future will tell whether the plan is a good one…

Bottom line: anything is better than where Cambodia was twenty years ago, where the only engine for tourist interest was Angkor Wat and teenage twat, two dollars a pop at kilometer number such-and-such on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and not much different at a then-dormant Siem Reap, which my 1995 Khmer language manual brags about its 70,000 tourists per year, probably a regular day in high season nowadays…

And all foreign Westerners love a good beach , of course, so this is the perfect counterweight to Siem Reap/Angkok Wat’s cultural juggernaut in the north, and Phnom Penh’s urban transportation and commercial dominance in the center. So I’m glad for the locals, even if it offers new challenges to the traveler-cum-culture-vulture like me…

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Past is present in Kampot

If you speak the language you can just retreat farther up into the hills, I guess, fleeing the advance of tourist civilization. If you don’t then just go to the next island out, and everybody else will follow soon thereafter. But first there’s Kampot, which offers a genuine alternative to both extremes. This is a colonial gem, a bit down at the heels, but not for long, if the culinary offerings are to be taken as the yardstick for measurement…

Here the main pleasure is simply walking around, digging on the ambience, since the beach is a healthy few dozen klicks down the road at Kep—fine by me. I’m not a beach guy; I’m a mountain guy, the Cambodian equivalent of Vietnam’s Sapa hill-station preferred, complete with hill-tribes and crisp mornings, wood smoke and good coffee. But that’ll be up in Mondulkiri Province, I hope, in and around Sen Monorom, if I’m lucky, and I’ve calculated correctly, 2500 feet or bust, but after Phnom Penh, next stop on the ever-flexible hyper-travel tourist not-so-itinerary….

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The old bridge in Kampot

Thailand may still be a better bang for the buck, to be honest, here typically straddling a toilet to take a shower in a ten-dollar room, but highly convenient that $1USD= 4000KHR, almost exactly, and universally inter-changeable, or rough sums would be tough sums, and easy for THB too, at 35:1 simply an extra 10% factored into exchange computations, so that a 2000 riel purchase is a half-dollar USD and not much different from 20 THB…

But the Big News is that my T-Mobile US-based free data works here, something I’d given up on in Thailand, in addition to the phone service itself, so this is huge! Now the search is on for brown rice, and we may just have a tentative working equation for the requirements of life. But that’s later. Next stop is Phnom Penh…

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