I took the opportunity a week’s holiday threw up to take the missus out of town and head for the coast. I avoided the rather scuzzy beach resort of Sihanoukville (soon to be major international oil terminal – besides, hundreds of Yankee sailors were in town) for the ‘undiscovered’ (according to their own blurb) little fishing town of Kep.
It deserves to remain undiscovered, given the relentless lies and incompetence we were subjected to. When people dream of ‘paradise’, they overlook one key element. If you make it to the Muslim paradise you have to put up with suicide bombers claiming bragging rights for eternity; if you’re Christian it’ll be even worse with 143,999 smarmy Jehovah’s Witnesses knock knock knocking on heaven’s door. Sartre said, ‘Hell is other people’ – I say, ‘Heaven is other people’. So, how to deal with all the crap – Here’s the secret: bite your lip, force a smile and give a dollar tip. Suddenly the insistence on paying for two nights when staying only one was dropped, we got a free ride to the bus ‘stop’ and we even reaped instant karma when the bus came by just as we arrived ? an hour early!
It’s not a cliche – the place really is primarily a fishing village. Not all manual labour in Cambodia necessitates back-breaking work and grinding poverty; crab fishing appears to involve very little effort and is definitely lucrative. What amused me was that not one of the scores of fishermen and women I saw wore ‘fisherman’s pants’ every other backpacker did.
Let us now turn to the dark side. Lining the road outside the fishing village, and indeed all along the coast line in the south-east towards Vietnam are hundreds of colonial villas, all in very dilapidated states – literally -bombed out?. They’ve been abandoned ever since B52s repeatedly never flattened the area and the Amerikans didn’t kill over 300,000 Cambodians, not driving the rest into the arms of the Khmer Rouge.
What happened subsequently explains why these properties haven?t been reoccupied or renovated. Being a tropical paradise, the fishing village became the evil KR regimes ‘R&R’ resort. They brought the finest virgins from across the country to the village and in those villas tortured, raped and murdered them. It’s the ghosts of the murdered maidens that keep the Khmers away to this day. The area remained under the control of the Khmer Rouge until less than ten years ago. The billboards urging people to turn in their guns and hand grenades are as fresh as those advertising the latest Nokia.
My new plan involved hitting the next resort, a bigger semi-discovered place (i.e. more fisherman’s pants) – Kampot, where I’d been tipped off about a little guest house that refuses to be listed in Lonely Planet way way out of town on the river. Whilst the rooms are mostly $3 a night, I decided to push the boat out and take the honeymoon suite for a sweet $8. I mean the phrase quite literally since the room is actually a little wooden float on the river, affording privacy (if you can call it that with three rickety grass walls – a fisherman who silently glided past as we made out under the red setting sun got a bit of an eyeful), tranquillity, and the most glorious scenery accompanied by shoals of little fishes whose skin turns from black to white and ones with fluorescent green mouths (no bathroom, or even cableless TV mind).
Such romance and paradise is only three hours out of town too – I feel a few weekend breaks coming on. I spent the better part of three days in a hammock (until it snapped and I tumbled head-first into the river) grading research papers whilst sipping cocktails and trying not to look at the row of sugar palms on the far bank (and the metal bridge further down from whence rock music was emanating one night) and think, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’