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Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 9 – Touring Kompong Cham and Beyond

Kompong Cham, located on the Mekong River in the eastern part of the country, had been an important market center during the time of the French. It must have been a charming place attested to by the collection of stately colonial buildings composing the central market area and the considerable number of large villas scattered throughout the town. When the Khmer Rouge ordered all the people out of the city, forcing them to live in the countryside, Kompong Cham, like other Cambodian cities, became a ghost town. Today, the city has achieved a position on the tourist map. The first bridge in Cambodia to span the Mekong River is located in Kompong Cham. Called the Spean Kazuna, it was built and paid for by the Japanese. The linkage between the two sides of the river has not only improved the flow of goods but has also allowed the city to become the stopping off point for tourists interested in traveling to north eastern Cambodia. The revitalized economic activity, driven in part by the agricultural activity and booming rubber market, as well as the nascent tourist business, has enabled the town to begin sprucing up. We saw recently repainted buildings, shades of ocher covering over the black streaks created by a kind of fungus that thrives on humidity and monsoon rains. The graceful French villas, instead of being torn down, as witnessed in Phnom Penh, are being restored and taken over by government agencies. Complexes of two and three story Chinese style shop houses are under construction and, of course, I prefer those that blend in with the French colonial architectures rather than those clad in opaque blue glass, the Khmer version of ultra chic. Shops seemed to be over flowing with merchandise whether necessities or motor bikes, bicycles, and clothing, along with shops selling luxuries, such as home décor and fancy wedding dresses. Soon I am sure they will be repairing their streets along with their sidewalks.

We headed out of town driving south until we came to the Koh Paen, a small island connected to the mainland by a bamboo bridge, which, after the rainy season, has the distinction of being rebuilt each year. Instead of attempting to drive over the bridge, we observed the scene below from a lookout point and then continued our drive to the temple of Wat Nokor. This complex, more bizarre than traditional, consists of a new pagoda placed inside that of a 11th shrine as well as images of figures from the Buddhist iconography seen through our eyes as more kitsch than religious.

Back in town, we crossed the bridge to get a closer look at the old lighthouse on the east bank of the river. It was originally built by the French in the 1940″s in a moorish style blended with someone”s idea of medieval. It has recently been restored, acquiring a new paint job, an odd shade of rosy pink, and a new staircase, described as lacking safety features. Its contemporary history is connected to Hun Sen. While this tower was being shot at from all sides, this is reputed to be the site of the firefight where he lost his eye. Like other Khmer cities, Kompong Cham is charming, the kind of place where you would want to hang out for a while but, similar to these other places, after beer drinking and people watching, there is not that much to do. But then again, we were only spending one night and then passing through. I always like to save something to go back for and we will return to visit the cottage industries making the karma, the ubiquitous Khmer scarf, and to taste once again that wonderful hamburger.

THE REST OF THE KOMPONG CHAM STORY

The afternoon had been easy, driving around soaking up charm in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle but reality raised its sweaty head when we returned to the hotel to discover the air conditioning in our room was not working as promised. If something is wrong in your room, you ask the hotel to fix it or give you another room and I was out the door heading for the reception area when I encountered Eddie. Not having much else to do, he volunteered to investigate the situation. It is not often that one checks into a hotel only to fix its problems but soon Eddie was standing on a chair pulling the front panel off the unit. He found the problem, a dirty filter and after he rinsed it off and replaced it, the temperature rapidly decreased from about 100 degrees to a pleasant 75. All of this in about ten minutes. As Donald and I have often said, it is always better when Eddie is around.

The late afternoon surrendered to twilight, that contemplative pause between day and night when swallows fill the air, flying the thermals and people spring back to life, emerging from sanctuaries sought out during the unbearable heat of the day. Looking out the window, the last rays of a brilliant sunset had finished streaking across the sky and the moon, just a thin sliver, hung in its rightful place. On the streetbelow, I could see the local people beginning to enjoy the evening, walking along the riverbank while shirtless young men gathered in circles for their nightly game of kicking the shuttlecock. The yapping street dogs had returned full throated and children whizzed up and down the street on that Chinese bicycle where one size fits all. The grassy area along the riverbank was soon occupied by food vendors who rolled in their portable restaurants, firing up their woks as they set up their small folding tables and the present Asian plastic chairs. It was a festive air as the local people came to eat or drink beer under the soft glow of kerosene lamps and the sparkling fairy lights powered by car batteries. Down below, at the edge of the river, small shallow bottom boats had tied up for the night.

When it comes to restaurants, Jean Paul is not that adventurous, so we agreed to meet him at the same restaurant for dinner. With the help of the restaurant owner who volunteered to translate, we found out more about Jean Paul”s colorful life. Apparently, he served in the Frencharmy, assigned to France”s former colonies in the Caribbean where he learned the construction business. There he worked for a general and when the general was reassigned to Cambodia in 1992, Jean Paul went with him and by 1993, he had decided to remain in Cambodia permanently. In an expansive mood, fortified by a glass of cognac and the lighting of one of his Cuba cigars, he started to tell us about his ten wives. Unfortunately, our translator became busy with other customers and once again, we were left with only the big picture, devoid of those far more interesting details.

While Jean Paul stayed in the restaurant , Eddie, Donald and I walked back to the hotel , embracing a night still gauzy with heat and the air crackling with the sounds of the cicadas. Walking up the stairs to our rooms, we encountered a local woman. She stopped both Donald and Eddie, wanting to know if they were the ones who had requested her “services”. No, it was not them and since the four of us were the only ones in the hotel, it was not hard to figure out who had placed the call. About an hour later, we saw her walking down the street and being diplomatic, no one questioned Jean Paul the next morning. Cambodia has been very good to him.

RETURN TO PHNOM PENH

At the first gesture of morning, we were up, planning to begin our drive to Phnom Penh before the sun had a chance to warm up. Donald rode with Jean Paul and I rode with Eddie. We were definitely a curious sight with the trike on the trailer and an eighteen foot long canvas bag, containing the wing, attached to the roof of his car. We crossed the mighty Mekong River running red with silt and soon took a right turn and headed south on National Highway 11. We were back in the idyllic countryside where everyday life is lived alongside the road and fields of rice or plantations of rubber trees spread into the distance. We noticed trucks loaded down with plastic jerry cans filled with gasoline that had been smuggled over the border from Vietnam. We passed the charred ruins where a few nights before a truck smuggling gasoline was chased off the road by the police, crashed into a house, ignited, leaving all the inhabitants dead.

Eddie set the pace and Jean Paul and Donald stayed behind, ready to pick up the pieces if necessary. Eddie”s foot was heavy on the gas pedal, sending segments of landscape and fragments of other people”s lives flashing past. He used his horn as an offensive weapon scattering ducks, chickens, cows, dogs and anything else that dared to cross in front of him. My presence in the front seat provided Eddie all the audience he needed and soon he began his rant, phrases repeated so often they had become part of his wardrobe. But he is the one living in Cambodia and driving their roads so I guess he is entitled to tirades against their driving habits, the condition of the roads, and the corruption of the government. He spoke with animated hand motions as if drawing pictures in the air and creating shapes would improve my understanding. When he starts this, it is hard to stop him and I just nodded in the appropriate places.

Zipping past dust blown villages and taking our turn on one lane bridges, we crossed into Pre Veng Province and rolled to a stop at a gas station in the town of the same name. The French colonial buildings that are scattered about the town attest to its importance during the time of the French but today its main attraction is Ba Phnom, the earliest pre-Angkorian civilization. As always, we immediately attracted a crowd, curious as to what we were hauling and anxious to touch any part of it. A young man stepped out of the throng of people and in perfect English told me he had seen a plane similar to this one in Phnom Penh as well Siem Reap. I am always amazed at the number of people spread all over Cambodia that are familiar with the ultralight. We continued our conversation and he told me he worked for MAC, a land mine removal organization, and as a baby, he had been adopted from an orphanage by a British couple. While he taught them to speak Khmer, they taught him English. This couple apparently gave up living in the UK and they live together as a family in Phnom Penh.

Back on the road, we had one more stop to make before we reached Phnom Penh. We had to continue south and cross the Mekong River by ferry at Neak Luong. Donald and I had crossed there in 1993 when we hired a driver to take us from Saigon to Phnom Penh and I was looking forward to seeing this place once again.

NEAK LUONG BACKGROUND

Neak Luong, approximately twenty miles south of Pre Veng and thirty-eight miles southeast of Phnom Penh, is situated on the banks of the Mekong River astride National Highway 1, the main road connecting Phnom Penh with Saigon. During the Vietnam War and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge, anti communist forces in control of Neak Luong guarded the river supply line between Saigon and Phnom Penh as well as the land route, making it a strategic river crossing point. As a way to root out the North Vietnamese sanctuaries on Cambodian soil as well as prop up the American sponsored Cambodian government of Lon Nol in their fight against the Khmer Rouge, Nixon instituted a secret B-52 bombing campaign. Unfortunately, on August 7, 1973, a pilot made a mistake and dropped his bomb load over Neak Luong, creating the worst bombing error in the war. The U.S. government”s attempt at a cover up was uncovered by New York Times correspondent Sidney Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant, Dith Pram. The opening sequence in the movie, The Killing Fields, based on Schanberg”s book, deals with this tragedy.

TO BE CONTINUED

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