Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Kampot Chronicles - August 2012
A friend, who I’ve known practically since I first came to Cambodia almost ten years ago, stopped by in Kampot, first time for him in several years: his observation; This town is really boutiquey. Being as he’d just spent several months in Koh Kong, just about anything would seem boutiquey… but still… the little Pot has definitely become a destination for travelers and expats, indicated by the number of shops selling trinkets, tourist clothes and Kampot pepper that’ve cropped up in the past year or so. Kampot pepper now has a geographic designation, which means the name cannot be used elsewhere and has considerably raised demand for it. We’re also Cambodia’s center of sea salt production, so salt and pepper town.
Kampot is nothing compared to the tourist/expat Mecca’s of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, but it’s also far from the foreigner deserts of all the other small towns in Cambo. A friend, who’s lived in Battambang - Cambodia’s second largest city - for quite a long time came to visit last year; he was amazed at the number of white faces ambling around town.
There are advantages of a little boutiqueiness. While I’m perfectly comfortable in local restaurants and bars outfitted with plastic chairs, fold-up metal tables, glaring bright white florescent lights and décor consisting exclusively of beer posters and pennants, there is some comfort in surroundings created with the Westerner in mind. For one, in place of a TV blasting out Khmer karaoke songs or cartoons or soap-opera-dramas dubbed in Khmer, you get to hear those old familiar songs and musical styles. While I’m capable of handling an el cheapo cup of bitter, low quality coffee embellished with a super-sweet, pseudo-milk dairy creamer, a real cup of quality java is a positive treat. Kampot now has two, soon-to-be three, coffee shops in the western tradition.
It takes a minimum of expat/travelers to support those types of venues. I don’t have any problem seeing lots of backpackers around as do some of my friends who get nervous and tetchy in their presence (actually, seeing people wheeling suitcases around rough third world streets and sidewalks looks a lot stranger to me) and I do appreciate that there’re enough of them around to enable a variety of businesses to sprout.
It wasn’t that long ago that I had a couple or three bars to go to and had some days off in between. I’d get my entertainment kicks in the capital and return for an R and R in Kampot. Now, what with all that’s happening around town, I have to force myself to take a night or two off.
For one there’s the Tuesday night trivia quiz at Blissful Guest House. The quiz consists of a picture round where you need to name people or places - one time it was boobs - followed by two general questions rounds - quick, What’s the coldest capital city in the world? Ulan Bator, Mongolia. How many languages does BBC broadcast in? 27. What century was the main temple at Angkor Wat built? 12th. Finally there’s a music round where you have to identify both song and artist from the first five or ten seconds of the track. Since my team is a bunch of geriatrics, we pretty much fall down on almost anything recorded past the seventies and eighties, so we have to do very good on the general questions before the music round or we’re sunk. After bringing up the rear for a couple of weeks, and not winning for about two months, we’ve won twice in a row as of this writing. Prize is a 3-liter tower of beer.
Then there’s live music. It’s the August mini-high season and there are 5 nights a week of scheduled music. A lot of the same guys are involved but there’s a different mix on almost every occasion. Since I play conga drums I can sit in almost any night. There are also special events; the Greenhouse had a Saturday night 2 band party with more than 50 people attending. One friend, being too drunk to drive home, rented a room at 2am, another found himself crashed out on the tiny sand beach in the morning. A great time was had by all.
The Greenhouse is the reincarnation of the former Snow’s bar which sat on the river in Phnom Penh for quite a long time. It was carefully dismantled, hauled down here and reassembled in a beautiful spot on Kampot’s river about 7 kilometers from town. About 15% of the building had to be replaced. Now the floor is actually level. The building was improved by removing the low ceiling on the front one third of the structure thus opening it up to the high vaulted ceiling. It’s a special place.
While I tremendously appreciate the live music and have become addicted to quiz night, the greatest improvement for me personally is Ecran, our new movie theater. There are quite a few things I can say I miss about living in the states; Portland, Oregon in particular. My kids and grandkids and lifelong friends, mountains and forests and seashore crisscrossed with well maintained and marked trails, beautifully preserved architecture and respect for the past, but what I’ve really been missing is intelligent, artistic, brain-teaser flicks. Real movies, not car chase, crash and explode, shoot-em’-ups designed to appeal to teenage boys. Those kind of movies are slick and crafty and the special effects are spectacular, all right, but after 3 or 5 minutes of brilliantly choreographed car chases (or if it’s a Chinese movie, flying-through-the-air kung-fu-fighting) I’m bored silly.
Well, in this case, in terms of my own preferences, we’ve got it all. I’ve been going about twice a week since it opened a month ago, but almost every movie is one I want to see. The Artist, the silent movie that won lots of awards, started it off. Then there was Mr. Nice and Blow, two big-time-drug-dealer movies. 127 hours, the flick about the guy who gets his arm wedged in between two rocks while out hiking and, after more than five days stuck there, has to cut it off to survive. The new Woody Allen; Dangerous Method, the film about the relationship between Jung and Freud; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; three music-hero movies; Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and The Doors: What more could you ask for? And the set up is perfect: 4-meter screen with an excellent sound system and comfortable seating including two platforms with cushions and pillows.
For most of you out there, probably 95%, having a legitimate cinema is not such a big deal because you’re probably in the habit of watching the latest flicks on your TV or computer. But since I don’t do TV - I’ve only cohabited with one for a total of four years since 1965 - a real theater is my only option. Besides, at 71 my eyes aren’t the greatest so I miss a lot watching on a small screen. Add the interruptions and casualness of watching at home and I’m just not interested. I want to be immersed, I want it to be an experience rather than time-killing entertainment. To sum up; I’m thrilled, my prayers have been answered, I couldn’t have done it better.
Then there’s the grass hut/karaoke bars, the small town equivalent of big city hostess venues, which I’ve only recently discovered after nearly five years in Kampot. They’re usually out on the edge of town in a outdoor setting. There’ll be a row of karaoke rooms rentable for $3 per hour and tables under thatch roofs for just drinking. Beers range from 3000 riel to a dollar; usually served warm with ice. Similar to the typical low-cost local restaurant, all the décor is beer posters with an occasional mobile phone poster thrown in for good measure. Strangely enough they often display posters for beers they don’t sell. One has posters for a locally brewed wheat beer! Who ever heard of such a thing? Of course they don’t carry it.
They’re fine just for drinking but if you want female companionship there’s a $3 charge for her to sit at your table, but no extra cost for lady drinks or bar fines for her to leave the premises. Hardly any speak English, so it’s a bit of a challenge communicating. Some of the girls are staff, most are floaters. If a venue is busy they make a few calls and like magic, they’re flooded with staff.
All in all a big challenge for me to stay home a couple nights a week.
There’s been a rush of work restoring or rebuilding riverfront properties. I mentioned that to a friend who told me the authorities told property owners to get it together or else. Of course, I have no idea what the ‘or else’ might entail, but we know how it works here in our adopted home. In some ways the old derelict buildings gave the town some character. Boutiquey is okay but not when it completely takes over the vibe. In any case the renovation is happening and is taking place at the start of a new property bubble. I’ve heard one riverfront owner asking $250,000 for a single shophouse. That price might be justifiable on Phnom Penh’s river, but for Kampot somewhere in the stratosphere in terms of true value. The only way that property could be worth that much is if you think someone else will pay even more for it in the future.
For a simple rule of thumb, figure a property costing $250 grand needs to be able to garner 1% a month of that, or $2500, in rent to justify that price. In Kampot, that’s beyond absurd. The little burg is a special place and growing rapidly, but the most profitable business in town couldn’t afford half that in rent without it eating up almost all of its profits. Still, people with money seem to be starry eyed about the town’s potential and so ridiculous prices are being asked and outsize rents are being paid.
For instance, the owner of the town’s new 8 story hotel set up his kid with a bar on the river. It’s cool, modern, nicely decorated but at a rent of $550 per month for a space that doesn’t extent very far back, a pure cash sink. With utilities and two staff, they’d have to sell close to 60 beers a night to break even, yet in the two months it’s been open I haven’t seen a total of 50 customers the whole time. Sure it’s low season, but still it’s quite unimaginable how they’ll make the rent even in high season, especially with new bars opening regularly and with all the renovating being done, even more new spaces are being created for competitors.
Competition will also come from the renovation of the old market which is nearing completion. In addition to about 80 market stalls which are going for $125 month there’ll be room for several restaurant stalls. Once again, I don’t see where the business is going to come from, but I’ve been wrong about these things many times in the past, so who knows?
With all the push for tourism and expats it came as a great surprise when new directional signs - you know the ones with the giant billboard on top - turned out to be only in Khmer. Even the one on the way up to Bokor has no English. Those are the only ones in the country I’ve seen that don’t include English. What could they have been thinking?
The riverfront walkway renovation is almost complete with a public toilet, of all things, at the north end near the new bridge. The only public space yet to be improved is the pond at the south end of town. It’s 4 or 5 hectares and big enough for boating and other water fun. Technically it’s no longer a pond: it’s gotten so overgrown lately it’s more like a wetland. I sure hope the city has sensitive, green recreational plans for the space but I fear the worst.
Finally, next to the governor’s mansion at the southern end of town, which I understand is slated to become a museum, a new elections office has been constructed. It’s been very nicely done in traditional Cambodian architecture except for two garish semi-circular, three story columns of ultra modern blue glass. Who would do such a thing? That’s like putting flashing electric lights on Angkor Wat… Hey, wait… a few years ago the government did want to brighten up the temples with colored lights, only (thankfully) to be shot down by the Angkor Authority… Oh, well.
My friend, mentioned in the first paragraph, who only planned to stay for a few days, stayed for more than ten. It happens a lot, people come expecting to pass quickly through, but then don’t want to leave.