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Monday, January 1, 2018

Christmas in Cambodia

“Merry Christmas, Jingle bells, Christ is born and the devil’s in hell.” —Buffy Sainte-Marie

We hadn't made special plans for Christmas. We knew we were still going to be in southeast Asia, and being so far from our families and friends, we wanted to do something we could only do here. So we decided to leave the devil behind in Phnom Penh and, as Ella Fitzgerald sang, spend Christmas on “Christmas Island.”

Koh Rong is actually one of the Southern Islands in the Gulf of Thailand. How could it be Koh Rong when it feels Koh Right? Ever since we headed north to Chiang Mai from our first stop in Thailand, we’ve been feeling more and more like backpackers. A beach in Cambodia was a heavenly place to spend a white (sand) Christmas.

Getting there, as usual, was half the fun. The bus from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, on the coast, was as uncomfortable as most of the other buses—sitting around waiting for a toilet stop—but at least this time we didn’t spend an extra hour at lunchtime watching guys peer through an opening in the back of the bus and shouting in Khmer. I wasn’t sure when we’d get to the port or what ferry we’d take when we got there, but in the event, our transit time was ten minutes. From getting off the bus to our remork to boarding the fast ferry, including a stop to buy tickets! My previous best transit time was in the Munich airport, but I think Sihanoukville has even that beat.

So we reached the “village” on Koh Rong, the main beach, and then we had to wait for our free shuttle. Little did I know the shuttle, in the absence of roads on the island, was a longtail boat, and that we’d have to wait for the supply boat to come in and for the guys to finish loading all that stuff. And thus it was that more than an hour later we, along with the mattresses and eggs, proceeded to our “resort.” The final leg of the trip was from the boat to the beach via a raft, literally just a bunch of planks stuck together on some oil drums. I told T. I felt like we were landing at Normandy, not going on Christmas vacation.

The thing is, no one ever tells you what’s in store on these journeys. The raft was a total surprise (my balance has improved just climbing on and off so many of these rickety things). And at the Cambodian border, the bus conductor took our passports and then the bus just drove away. We had to ask the driver when and where we would actually get our passports back. But when we finally got to Long Set Beach and our bungalow, it was like a cross between our own tropical island and the Algonquin Log Cabin in Ontario. (The stars at night!)

As if to prove that backpackers keep bumping into the same people further along the route, I spotted Apostle-looking Guy walking along the beach as soon as we got to Koh Rong. We had last seen him at the boat dock in Nong Khiaw, Laos! We’d done the whole circuit of Vietnam across Cambodia and now here he was again. I speculated that he was on the island to play Joseph in a nativity play.

On the shuttle boat, we also met a guy from County Derry. He now lives in England, but has been following the scuba diving season around the world, which seems like a pretty cool gig if you’re into diving. He recommended a place down the beach that did a proper roast dinner on Sunday afternoons. So we went down there and booked Christmas dinner.

Between landing and Christmas Eve, there’s not a lot to report. Our host was stingy enough that we had to request more T.P. every day (except Christmas Day--what a great present!) But he had a moment of generosity and upgraded us to a bungalow facing the beach. The first morning at breakfast, a Scottish woman and a couple of little Cambodian girls (part of the staff family) were decorating a Christmas tree. During the first part of the week, when it was quiet, I fell asleep to only the sound of the waves. And by day, we swapped between a lounge chair by the ocean and a hammock strung up between two nearby trees. So we were together, but not too close!
Not many boats. The occasional motorbike. Even fewer hawkers. There were times, from the porch in the afternoon, that it felt like we had the beach all to ourselves.

We did have a couple of adventures. We walked back to the village, half an hour of beach and woods, one day. Not much to see there except a Western woman keeping a shop, smoking a cigarette in front of an enormous cigarette display labeled SMOKING KILLS. And then there was the partly cloudy day we decided to go for a hike. 
I emphasize that this is a marked trail.
The interior of Koh Rong is jungle and, we were told, rich in wildlife. We decided to take a walk that our host told us led from our beach to the next, through some woods and over a hill. “Not much to see,” he said.

There was something to see. T. heard a rustle in the undergrowth (which means it was a really loud rustle) and the next thing I knew, she was face to face with an enormous snake, a cobra by the look of it. It “stood” a few feet off the ground and had its hood open. She very wisely backed away, and we decided to abandon our hike. So we don’t have a picture of our snake but it was definitely a cobra. We found a picture online and the island does have them, even though everyone we talked to said they had never seen one there. Kind of made us feel lucky. In retrospect.
Indochinese spitting cobra. Photo from Wikipedia!
By comparison, the enormous "geckoes" haunting our front porch didn't seem as startling anymore. So the next night, we went snorkeling with plankton. This was thrilling in a somewhat different way. We got back on the raft and then the boat, and swam out from there. It was a little disconcerting in the dark, but the plankton weren’t just in one clump; they were everywhere. Looking down, even without a snorkel, we appeared to be walking and moving our hands through living body glitter. We went with three Brazilians and, judging by the excited chatter in Portuguese, everybody had a good time.

A single fingernail of moon just visible through the trees. Perfect shades of blue and green water.  Children playing in the sea and sand that squeaked under my feet, like Squeaky Beach. I figured I could do without wrapping paper this one Christmas, if the Grinch could manage it. (“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!”)


When Christmas Eve came, we were on the beach, where we’d been most of the week. The club that did the Sunday roast dinners was going all out for Christmas dinner, plus, there was an ever-rotating volleyball game going. Given how long it’s been since my last (casual) game of volleyball, I surprised myself by not being bad.

Two of the folks in the game were young Germans whom we ended up sitting next to at dinner. Also there was someone called Jolene, who must have ordered a vegetarian meal. When the waitress came out calling, “Jolene, Jolene!” I couldn’t help myself: “I’m begging of you!”
Please don't take my sandman.
The Germans recommended a place they’d stayed at in Siem Reap, our next destination. They were going around the opposite way; their plan was to buy motorbikes and ride all over Vietnam. I hope their luck was as good as ours. The Joker guesthouse in Siem Reap was worth getting to, even via raft, shuttle boat, speed ferry, airport taxi, prop plane, and finally a taxi driver dim even by the standards we’ve become accustomed to, who drove around and around on the wrong road asking us to identify a hotel we’d never seen before.

Siem Reap is a cool backpacker haunt, but the main draw around there is the ancient city of Angkor. The temples that remain from that time are among the few not wrecked during the Khmer Rouge era—perhaps even that regime had a moment of awe faced by the all-time greats of Khmer civilization. Many people who know little else about Cambodia have heard of Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the entire world.
Central building of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is contemporary with Chartres Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. But when this temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor was a city of a million people, while London had only 50,000 residents. It’s fascinating to think of a whole other world going on, neither having any idea about the other.
Inner temple complex
The Joker booked us a lovely young driver, a young man with a shiny painted remork, like he’d just started off in business with it. "Do you want to eat rice?" he asked solicitously at lunchtime. We quickly realized that "eat rice" is the literal translation of the Khmer "eat." Cambodians ask each other "Did you eat rice?" almost like "How are you?"

From Angkor Wat he took us to Angkor Thom, which was once a city of 9 square kilometers. At its heart is the Bayon, famous for its many faces looking down on the worshipper from all the towers.
The Bayon was built during the reign of King Jayarvarman VII in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. He also built Ta Prohm (dedicated 1186) in honor of his mother, and the goddess of wisdom. Intriguingly, this is the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, rather than Hindu.
Ta Prohm was our favorite. You could find places where people weren’t climbing all over it, but more cool is how it’s gradually getting absorbed back into the jungle. Trees have become parts of the structure and the structure part of the trees. You could even say where man imposed his will on nature in honor of the gods, nature is reimposing herself, but at a much more glacial pace.

At Ta Prohm, we once again saw familiar faces. Outside the gate I heard someone calling “Hello girls!” It was the Brazilian guy and girl from the night of the plankton. All those legs of journey from Koh Rong, and there they were at the same temple at the same time. They agreed with us that Ta Prohm was the best.

I’m not sure what to make of Cambodia overall. I really enjoyed it, but the disparity of wealth is hard to understand: why on earth are there so many Lexus cars? And who pays nearly $12 for imported detergent? 

We found this in a supermarket near the U.S. embassy, one of those enormous, well-stocked places which, when refugees arrived from a communist country, caused them to burst into tears. It was great to be able to buy a Santa hat and a candy cane, but I can’t imagine most Cambodians could afford anything there.

But my recurring impression of Cambodia is: At least it is trying. There’s still one political party that dominates, and you see signs for it everywhere. But that’s because it actually has to compete. There is a viable opposition here. At least Cambodians are trying to have multiparty democracy.

There’s still a big problem with trash, particularly plastic bottles—a problem directly related to the fact you can’t drink the tap water here. How we take for granted drinkable tap water when so many countries can’t! But at least Cambodians are trying to recycle.


Next stop: we transit back through Bangkok.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A delightful and intriguing read: Christmas on Koh Rong, hopes that "Jolene" won't take your sandman, visits to Angkor Wat and Ta Prohn, and thoughts on Cambodia's efforts to develop a multiparty political system that allows divergent points of view. G & P