Monday, January 6, 2014

Backwater





An isolated inlet of still water in a moving river. Lots of activity nearby but very calm in the backwater; thus I was a bit surprised when a friend referred to Kampot as such. He’s an artist and finds a lot more interesting subjects to draw in Phnom Penh. And truth is Kampot isn’t on the way to anywhere, excepting only Bokor Park, so there’s a kernel of truth in that description.
And being ‘nowhere’ has its advantages; for one, traffic, tension and high costs don’t bear down on you as they do in the capital and it isn’t overrun with tourists as in Siem Reap or Sihanoukville… some of my long-time Cambodia friends are positively repelled by touristy places.
That makes it a lot easier to create a community feeling; as opposed to the tourist magnets where faces are changing every day and the local expats are a small part of the total feel of the place. Backwaters also let you get closer to what’s happening and know most of the long –term residents. They also are great incubators of gossip, but you can’t have everything.
Our little burg is nonetheless changing fast and so there’s the inevitable debate about growth and what the influx of new residents and additional tourists is going to do to the town. Fortunately, we’re so small to begin with it’ll take a long time before traffic reaches a point of feeling oppressive; what’s more, it’s possible to live on the edge of town, you know, in the proximity of rice paddies and lotus ponds, and still go anywhere in less than ten minutes on bicycle. The many new people are also bringing a wider choice of restaurants, bars,  entertainment – live music, etc – and things to do. David, aka Climbodia, is doing rock climbing tours – we’ve got those limestone karsts all around – and Anne is doing paddle boarding tours; for herself and another enthusiast she’s planning a fundraising trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, so you know she’s serious.
There’s an old saying that goes: If you find the perfect place don’t stay because it’ll no longer be perfect. Many people who come either want to stay or have plans to return later. Regardless, it’s a great place for my needs and I’ll stay as long as the changes stay within reason. Maybe even longer while lamenting how great things used to be. Meanwhile, all told, our newcomers tend to fit right in.
One thing you see here is expats working service jobs for not much more than local wages… how’s $7.50 for a 5-hour bartender shift sound? I haven’t worked for that little since 1960. Most people doing that have other resources and are using the work as a supplement and/or just to be there meeting people and/or to have something to do to justify hanging around. One factor that makes that more acceptable is the cost of housing. I know lots of people living in new one-room apartments that rent for $40 per month – and that’s the Barang price. In one single-story row of seven units there are 6 expats. The apartments aren’t spacious, just a kitchenette, bath and a room big enough for a double bed, desk, chair and a few odds and ends, but still would rent for upwards of $1000 in New York, London or Hong Kong. There are other apartments being built that are much nicer that rent for about double the cheapies.
The above has been made possible by Cambodia’s open-door visa policy. Anywhere else in the region you’d need legitimate paperwork or money in the bank to stay, which would exclude a large portion of the expats here, including myself. We still contribute a lot, even if not enough for the likes of uppity Thailand. That also gives Cambo a younger, livelier, more interesting set of expats.
This year saw the second annual river clean up day in which hundreds of school kids riding in locally offered fishing boats go up and down the river picking up random trash. They expected 200 kids, but 600 showed up. This year they dispensed with the music and free food of last year – too much work – and concentrated on the trash pickup. You still see lots of their T-shirts around. More recently, an expat fundraiser was held with the theme of traffic safety in which $1600 was raised; I was duly impressed. The event included a roast pig, with dinner costing only $3.50, an auction, backgammon tournament, trivia quiz and a DJ spinning tunes later on. It was held on the first floor (second floor American) patio at Moon River Guest House, south of town on the river, a perfect spot for fifty or so people to gather. All had a great time and more events will come regularly – I’ll attend for sure.
The new ‘old’ market – who knows what to call it now? – has now rented all of its outside stalls and quite a few vendors have opted to extend their shops into the inner space, the owner offering a discount, wisely deciding they weren’t going to go at the full price. It’s got a mix of shops oriented towards locals, expats and travelers and it’s really enlivened the area. In other news of local Khmer exploits, a night market has opened on the main durian traffic circle replete with a food court, ring-toss games, kids’ carnival rides and the ubiquitous clothes shops. Once again ‘progress’.
Ecran, our ‘art house’ cinema has moved to a better location just opposite the new old market close to the river. In addition to showing a very wide range of international films, cult classics and all time favorites like Taxi Driver in the upstairs theater, Stephane has opened a handmade Chinese noodle and dumpling shop on the ground floor. It’s great stuff and draws in enough patrons to insure enough income to help keep the theater afloat financially. I go at least twice a week but sometimes attendance is very sparse. Twice weekly showings of The Killing Fields brings in the traveler crowds and also helps pay the rent.
It’s a great gift for the community and for the variety of films shown is better than anything one might find in the states, at least anywhere I’ve been. I know most people today prefer watching films on their smart phones or tablets or small TV screens or big TV screens but if it isn’t on a theater-sized screen – Ecran’s is 4 meters wide – I’m not interested. I can’t even barely make out what’s happening on a small screen and besides the idea is to be immersed in the action, not watch a movie as a distraction or time-killer. The other cool thing about the theater for me is all films are subtitled in English, including the English ones. Considering the state of my geezer ears and the way so much dialog in American films is incomprehensibly mumbled, subtitles tremendously enhance the experience.
High season is here and we now have live music 7 nights a week, though the big events are at Bodhi Villa on Fridays and Naga House on Saturdays. Both are river resorts not far from town and both bring crowds of upwards of 50 people who are drawn from the traveler crowd as well as expats who go to meet up with friends. Live music starts early and goes until around 11pm or midnight when they switch to DJs and rock all night.
Friday night has been a long tradition at Bodhi, but unfortunately the space is inadequate to the task; too small and poorly laid out. Sometimes there are so many people on the dance floor there’s no room to dance. For my taste it’s also way too loud, but I’m a fogey so that’s understandable. It’s somewhat paradoxical but the worse your ears get the more that loud sounds become uncomfortable bordering on insufferable; without earplugs impossible. I especially can’t stand it when the treble is turned up… I feel like a power drill is boring into my skull. Naga House has a much larger and more usable space with extensive use of very thick slabs of wood for the bar and tables, it’s beautifully done.
Unfortunately, the canned music in both places is rarely to my taste – techno-house type tunes leave me lifeless and limp, they are too technically based, repetitive and devoid of feeling or warmth or even proper rhythm for dancing that includes any sensuality. Of course once again, being an old fart, you might guess my tastes don’t jive with the younger crowd... too bad because dancing is great exercise and I still love it. Madi Bar on the river in town also has a disco following live music on Thursday nights. Cheit, a young Khmer fellow who also owns Naga House, alternates music I can dance to with the awful stuff.
My problem is getting to be that there’s too much happening at night to stay up so late and drink so much so often. I’m having too much fun. I try to stay home two nights a week, but usually it’s a lost cause.
My favorite watering hole, where I can’t help going almost every night is O Neil’s on the river. I have lots of bar-owner friends who I like to stop and visit, but gravity invariably pulls me towards Neil’s. For one thing, it’s got the best ambiance around. He started off building a thatched shed roof between two buildings. It was an immediate success, only dampened by the buckets of water that managed to find its way in during every rainfall. It took five tries at bolstering the roof’s rain-shedding capabilities before it actually worked. It also was extremely vulnerable to small-time thieves who took beer and soft drinks but left the expensive spirits. He took an embarrassing number of hits before he was able to make it thief-proof.
By then it was time to move to a real building. He took all the d├ęcor, including the thatched roof with him, maintaining the bar’s cozy island-like setting. That also made it acoustically superior, enhanced by 15 speakers – three $50 sets and six extra tweeters – that surround the room. Most of his music is geezer-pleasing blues and rock from the 60s to the 80s.
The move also made it possible to double the length of the bar, which, by the way, is decorated with coins from around the world - one of the favorites is a triangular coin from the Cook Islands.
The lighting is superior to most bars because the bar itself is lit up with spots, while everything else is subdued. The walls are covered with concert shots and posters and intimate photos of all your favorite old artists. Finally, while the ergonomics are far from perfect, it’s still more comfortable, taken as a whole, than almost all other bars in town, which doesn’t say much for ergonomics in Cambodia.
I feel a bit odd at times about by-passing my other friends’ bars so often but you gotta go where your feet take you, so I have little choice. With new places opening every month, it’s getting worse, there just are not enough days in the week.

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