To mark the half-way point of the workshop in Phnom Penh, my colleague and I had decided to take a weekend trip down south to Kep, a sleepy little place on the Gulf of Thailand and just a stone’s throw from the Vietnamese border. (See slide show below.)
A luxury resort tucked away on the coast, fresh seafood and a respite from the capital’s traffic for a few days were refrains of a siren song I had no interest in resisting.
Our driver picked us up on Friday morning and slowly made our way out of the city, heading south past various government ministries, including one that used to be the American embassy, and which was the scene of a hasty US evacuation just days before the Khmer Rouge took the city in 1975.
As we got further from the center, the constant swirl of scooters, cars, carts, bicycles and pedestrians that make up the city’s streets began to thin out. Buildings were replaced by small plots of land and then the landscape opened up to reveal large rice paddies, watery green carpets of spindly stalks.
As Phnom Penh receded, so did those city scenes of young Cambodians on scooters chatting on mobile phones and hulking Lexus SUVs daring any other vehicle to impede their way. Country concerns took over. Scooters here might be loaded with precariously balanced pig carcasses or even live ones, on their way to a meeting with the butcher’s knife.
Twice small motorbikes passed from the other direction with what looked like, from a distance, big bunches of dark foliage tied to a pole balanced behind the driver. They were dead chickens, a lot of them.
Out here, more men and women were wearing the krama, the traditional Cambodian checked scarf that can be used as head covering, sarong, bag, washrag, towel or blanket. Houses got humbler, many up on stilts in the midst of the paddies, some not more than thatched walls and a roof. Often a family would be gathered under it, one or two people in a hammock, others sitting around talking, holding babies, just taking refuge from the tropical sun.
In the villages we passed, small, ramshackle shelters housed shops selling cigarettes and gasoline decanted from old soft-drink bottles. Pigs and dogs ambled among customers of the open-air butcher shops, surely eyeing the large hunks of bloody meat hung on hooks.
On one section of road, roadside stands offered a local delicacy, frog. Smaller ones were a kind of finger food, I suppose, kind of like the fried tarantula other regions are known for. Here, the larger amphibians came bunched on a spit: frogkabob. We politely declined when offered one at the car window.
Kep was not always the quiet, you-can-hardly-call-it-a-town kind of place it is today. In the first half of the 20th century, it was a swanky resort town for the French colonials and Cambodian elites. It was known as Kep-sur-Mer, here the French built large villas along the waterfront and King Sihanouk had a mansion built on a hill overlooking the Gulf.
But as the country descended into civil war and then into full-on living nightmare, Kep was dragged down too. Eerie reminders of that rise and fall are scattered about in the form of those once-grand villas, whose ruins still stand – quiet witnesses of the Khmer Rouge’s lust for destruction.
Since the buildings were seen as examples of bourgeois decadence, they were gutted and burned by the radical egalitarians in their red kramas and black pajamas, and left for the jungle to retake. Where their residents went is unknown to me. Probably some got out of the country before the KR came; others perhaps were not so lucky and ended up in a work camp or those notorious fields.
Some of the villas have disappeared all together, only a gate and stone fence on prime real estate remaining. Others just stand there, crumbling, too far gone to be brought back to life. And besides, superstition prevents many Cambodians from doing much of anything with them. Places where bad things happened are to be avoided.
In fact, the region around Kep was one of the last hold-outs of the Khmer Rouge. One man told us that as late as the mid-90s, Khmer Rouge fighters would occasionally emerge from their jungle hideouts to rob and pillage and generally terrorize everyone.
However, some buildings in Kep have been saved and been brought back quite spectacularly, including a few at the most fabulous resort we stayed at, Knai Bang Chatt. It preserves some of the flavor of what I imagine Kep to have been in its heyday, a little sliver of paradise by the sea.
Two Belgian men found several buildings that had been built by students of Cambodia’s leading architect, Vann Molyvann, who was himself a student of the European modernist masters. As one of the current owners is the son of a well-known Belgian interior designer, as you probably suspect, the design concept is not exactly High Holiday Inn.
Resort with a view
The rooms are simple, almost sparse, but lovely – filled with ochre surfaces, cool tiles, and small touches such as a pitch-perfect bowl or rough hewn table that keep them from being cold and unfeeling.
The landscape is lush, and spills down to the sea side, crossing an infinity pool on the way along with lounging beds and a breakfast table perched out almost on top of the water.
Next door is a sailing club with a former fisherman’s house that is now a restaurant/café, from whose deck we saw one of the most amazing sunsets ever (and I don’t usually gush about these things).
Needless to say, we hung around the grounds most of the time, completely satisfied by the surroundings. I got a class ‘a’ sunburn because I am a class ‘a’ idiot and spent a great deal of time in the pool sans sunscreen trying to figure out why I look like a fish out of water when I’m in it trying to swim.
Sunday rolled around and as a last outing we hopped in a tuk-tuk and asked to see a pepper plantation. The region’s pepper is supposed to be some of the best anywhere. But who knows how pepper is grown? I sure didn’t.
Fruits of the harvest
So, under a scorching sun, we bounced down a dirt path off the main road and came upon a collection of thatch-and-wood shelters, a few mangy dogs and a hen and her chicks pecking around – Tara it wasn’t.
But all around were mango trees and tall, leafy columns that turned out to be pepper vines on poles. Our driver told us to eat some of the green berries off the vine. The taste was sharp and intense and stayed with me for several hours.
Mouths tingling, we set off to look around a bit. As I was heading back to the tuk-tuk, sweating gallons, I heard a sudden noise behind me. I turned around to see a teenage boy in a red krama holding something coming my way. I think I let out an audible gasp as visions of gun-toting teen soldiers, brainwashed and merciless, flashed in my head. The guy just smiled, whirled his stick, and walked on by.
I made a mental note to read no more books on the Khmer Rouge, at least while I’m here.