On Friday the 23rd of June I picked up my not-so-brand-new 1999 Honda xr250 from Lyda, the finest motorcycle mechanic in Phnom Penh. The following day, my lady and I had plans to ride the 144 kilometers down to the Southern coast of Cambodia to visit the beach town of Kep and nearby Kampot, home to the famous Kampot peppercorns. No, the peppercorns aren’t a Cambodian rugby team; I mean literal peppercorns. Unfortunately, Shalma and I went out with a few friends here Friday night, and I am not sure how many pints I had, but we both stayed out a little too late for an early Saturday morning departure. Nonetheless, I would not be deterred–I had a new motorbike and I needed to check things out. Ah, sweet freedom to not be at the whims of tuk tuk drivers! And so it was that we set out for a local Saturday excursion to Wat Phnom and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (AKA S21).
Wat Phnom is often referred to as the “monkey temple” by tuk tuk drivers. Evidently, there used to be a lot of monkeys at the temple and there still may be some now. After doing a bit of research, I learned that there were pretty aggressive monkeys there as recently as 2011, and they even had to shoot one at some point. Poor monkey! I am not sure whether there are any macaques lurking about the temple grounds these days, but I can assure you that neither Shalma nor I spotted one.
The temple is not far from our digs by the river. It is a short jaunt by motorbike, maybe five minutes at the most. We headed over there and it is quite a sight to see! It is a relatively large temple compound on a human-made hill in the middle of a roundabout. It is a massively busy roundabout like most in this city, full of diesel-spewing busses and vehicles of all kinds, tuk tuks, 125cc motorbikes hauling flat beds full of propane tanks, and all the usual chaos of Cambodian roads.
We pulled my bike up right onto the sidewalk in front of the temple and paid our admission of a dollar each. We then proceeded by foot to the top of the hill to the main temple on the mount. There was a man selling candles, incense, and some long stemmed lotus flowers. We slipped our shoes off and stepped inside the temple. I set my five incense sticks alight on a giant candle that was over a meter high and as big around as a 4 inch toilet pipe. I planted my sticks of incense in a vase full of sand or ash and proceeded to light my candle and place it on something that looked a bit like a wooden boat.
As I was about to complete my final task of slipping my flower into the urn where all the actual Buddhists are putting their flowers (I have no idea what is going on, just following queues), I turned and saw Shalma trying to place her candle on the wooden boat thingy. As she was attempting this brave feat, a woman who was incredibly involved in praying knocked over the massive toilet-pipe candle and it nailed Shalma in the back of the foot. Remarkably, although her heel was covered in yellow candle wax that made her look like a 10th century leper, she was unharmed by the hot wax. We surmised that she was protected by her offerings to the Buddha.
From the research I have done, it appears the temple was originally built in the 14th century. It looks very old, but much of it has been rebuilt. I am not sure which parts are old or new. I would like to also point out how lush and green the compound is. Although you are in the center of a roundabout, you really feel like you are at a temple in the middle of the jungle somewhere. Below is a gallery of photos. I have not captioned any of them because I really don’t know much about Buddhist temples. I hope to learn more as time goes on.
S21: The school turned prison and torture chamber
We left the temple with a light and airy feeling. The day was bright and sunny, and the clouds were like happy little white cotton balls smiling down on us. We went back to our little apartment by the river and sent a message to Dimitri. Hey, want to go to S21 with us? He replied that he would like to go. He lives right across the street from the former Khmer Rouge complex and yet he had never gone. We headed straight over to his place. Almost immediately the weather and mood became ominous. Fluffy clouds had turned dark and brooding. Needless to say we got drenched on the short ride over to Dimitri’s place. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t gotten lost along the way. By the time we had gotten to Dimitri’s top floor apartment the sky had gone into full-on monsoon mode.
We waited for the rain to quiet a bit. Dimitri made me his famously delicious Greek frappe ice coffee. We got a little hungry and had some french fries, then it was time to leave to see the prison.
I didn’t take any pictures at S21. You aren’t really supposed to, but I did see people doing it. I don’t even know where to begin with this place. It was the last stop before a paranoid and genocidal regime drove people to the killing fields to murder them. The Khmer Rouge implemented all methods of torture in this place. They would hang people by their feet until they passed out, then lower their heads into giant vats of human waste and water to revive them. Almost every one of them confessed to all manner of things. A New Zealander who was caught by the Khmer Rouge while sailing around the world even admitted to working for the CIA under orders from Colonel Sanders.
S21, a former school with a grand garden, was once the site of children playing and preparing for the excitement of their lives ahead. It is much larger than it appears in pictures or even looking down on it from Dimitri’s roof. Each building is three stories tall. The large classrooms were turned into torture chambers. Some prisoners were in shackles attached to thick rebar. They were crammed like sardines with no room to move. Others were placed into the tiniest makeshift cells that were made of either wood or brick. There was nothing but a can to defecate and piss into. If you missed and made a mess you were forced to lick it up. People were tortured throughout the night and day.
There were only a handful of survivors who made it out. One of them was at the prison the day we were there. I had found myself silenced after what seemed like an eternity inside this pit that still resonated with the evil of its past. My brain seemed to have shut down because I could not process my imagination of the pain and torment that happened at this place. I know I was stone-faced. I felt like the wind was knocked out of me and I could not react. Then we walked by this old man who had survived being tortured and housed in this hell. He was selling a book on his ordeal, and as we passed him he smiled at us. I have to admit, it was his smile that finally broke me down. It was devastating to see a man who had gone through so much turn and flash a kind smile. I could hardly control my emotions. I grabbed Shalma’s hand and practically ran from that place. I never want to go back ever again.
My first bribery
On Sunday morning our plan to go south was a go. We should have packed the night before, but we neglected to do so. We meant to leave at 7 AM, but it turned out to be closer to 8 AM, right in the midst of the chaos of Phnom Penh rush hour. When I say chaos, I mean that there are few rules evident, and people seem to believe in a strict system of anarchy on the roads. I hear there is some sort of method, but so far I have seen none. This is not to say that you won’t get pulled over for a little bribery. This particular morning was my turn to pay a bribe for going the wrong way down a one way street. Mind you, it isn’t completely obvious that the street is one way since there is a constant stream of traffic flowing in both directions throughout the day.
We had gotten a little lost. Apple maps isn’t as dependable as one might imagine. I had to go a single block up the wrong way. There were plenty of other people around on scooters who suddenly did an about face. I was too slow to recognize what was happening and a young man in a blue uniform jumped right out in front of my bike with his arms out saying something in Khmer. I imagine it was the word for stop but I did not comprehend much since I was just trying to avoid mowing him over at that point. I managed to stop without hitting him and pulled my motorbike to the side of the street.
What’s up, I asked. He said “wrong way” in somewhat choppy English and motioned for me to go talk to this other guy who was dressed in the same type of uniform. Both looked like teenagers, but I assumed that the guy he motioned toward was the boss. I stepped up to him. He was slight of build and appeared to be a little nervous–not the type of police intimidation I am used to. I asked him what he wanted but he spoke seemingly no English. There was another young man operating a coffee cart and blaring some god-awful pop music out of a small radio. Shalma later informed me that this was all taking place to a Justin Bieber soundtrack, making the situation seem more absurd. The officer motioned over to have the coffee cart Belieber come and translate.
I asked the Bieber fan what the officer wanted. He said that the officer wanted five dollars because I had gone the wrong way. I told him to tell the officer that he was out of his mind and that I would give him two dollars. The officer immediately conceded and said he would take the two. I began to wonder if this was his first bribery experience too. I felt kind of bad for him since he had come down from the five dollar mark so easily. I handed him the two dollars, and then almost reflexively, I handed him another dollar as a tip. He let me go about my business and we were off to the races.
The road to Kep
It was tricky getting out of town, again with all the crazy traffic. I really need to strap my GoPro to my head one of these days and post the experience. When we finally got on the road the monsoon rains began. I had a small poncho that Dimitri gave me, but I bought another from a lady on the side of the road. Real American rain gear would be pretty heavy in this heat and humidity. Having said that, it was cooler than one might have expected and I probably could have used a little more gear. At the very least I should have worn my motocross boots instead of my Converse Chuck Taylors.
All of the roads consist of a single lane in each direction. Cars often drive with the yellow line situated in the middle of their bumper for no apparent reason. When the roads are congested it is a dangerous symphony indeed! There will be mopeds, tractors, very small busses that are loaded with people, and Toyota Hiluxes all going different speeds. All the cars act as though they are in a terrible hurry and tend to go way too fast for the conditions. Cars will pass your motorbike only inches from your shoulder at high speed. When an oncoming car goes to pass the the car in front of them, they completely ignore you if you are on a motorcycle; they simply expect you to go onto the shoulder. At one point there was a car passing a tuk tuk, and then a Toyota truck passed the car while it was in mid-overtake. They were three vehicles deep, taking up the whole road and coming in my direction!
Shalma and I motored on for hours. There was traffic the whole way. It was mentally exhausting since there isn’t a moment to put your mind at ease. It is a constant sensory extravaganza where the participator is constantly looking for the danger that is, and anticipating the danger that is very soon to be! In all of this motoring, we did take some breaks. We had a bahn mi type sandwich made on the side of the road by what was probably an eight-year-old girl, and we took a couple leg-stretching breaks as well.
At one point we found ourselves gazing over rice paddies as we motored along. They are the most beautiful shades of green and the aromatic scent is reminiscent of opium incense. The green of the rice paddies is punctuated with emaciated cows and rather well-fed water buffalos. It caused me to wonder, how do the buffalos eat so well while the cows appear to be starving? The whole time I kept thinking about how much the scenery looked the way Vietnam looks in photographs and all those war movies I grew up with. Shalma later confirmed she had been thinking the same thing. After a while the road stopped and we found that we could go no farther. We had taken a wrong turn and ended up at the Vietnam border crossing. No wonder it looked so familiar…
We headed back the way we came and found our way onto the correct road. It took us five and a half hours to go on a trip that should have only been 150km. I should again stress, it is relatively difficult to go fast on these roads if you want to live, especially if it is raining. We were both ready to get off the bike and get some food and rest–me especially since my forearms were burnt to a crisp from the sun. We found our way to Kep and got into a room in a guesthouse for $15 per night. And then we tried to eat tacos, which wasn’t the best idea we had ever come up with.
After we got into the room we just kind of headed over to the first food place within sight, and that place was a taco stand. We ordered a three tacos each and I ordered a Cambodia beer. There was nothing really taco-ish about the tacos except for the shape. The worst part was the taco shell, which was really whatever fried spring rolls are wrapped in instead of a tortilla. Don’t get me wrong, I have no complaint about rice-based wrapped goods, but it sort of defies the beauty that is a taco. Needless to say, we both walked away hungry. We managed to forage some sliced mangos from a street vender and I bought some squid on a stick from another.
We were still hungry and needed a place to go. We collected ourselves and figured out that the good stuff to eat was down the road at the crab market. A friend of ours suggested going to a place called Mr. Mab’s down there. We took a tuk tuk over there and had a pretty romantic perch that sat just above the water on Mr. Mab’s back deck. The sea was in tumult due to high tides and the monsoons, so once in a while we would get hit in the face with a bit of sea water. You could hear the water rushing under the deck just inches away from our feet. The water (or whatever it carried) would hit the deck below our feet periodically. Shalma, who does not swim, found this unnerving. I, on the other hand, thought it to be utterly delightful. I asked her if she would like to sit inside anyway and she declined.
This all brings me to the Kampot peppered crab. When our plates arrived Shalma was so excited that she completely lost her fear of the sea. The dish is made up of a couple of crabs covered in a red chili sauce with green bell peppers and sprigs of green Kampot peppercorns. I have never had anything like it, and it is amazing but very messy. The peppercorns are very special. They have so much flavor. Sure, it tastes like pepper, but there is also a strong and almost astringent quality and flavor that is more similar to cloves than typical pepper. Below are some pictures of our walk around Kep. These pictures include this unique and delicious crab dish, and the squid on a stick too!
Kampot, Odin’s balls, and the Khmer Rouge–oh, and some Buddhist stuff too!
The road from Kep to Kampot is not a long one, nor is it particularly fraught with danger. However, not long after leaving I Kep I realized I wasn’t going to make it unless I covered my sunburnt arms. I didn’t have a long sleeved shirt with me so I told Shalma to keep an eye out to see what is being sold on the side of the road. She eventually tapped me to get me to pull over. Shalma said she found a yellow shirt for me. I circled back with Shalma and we found a thin yellow ladies cardigan. And of course, Shalma tried to talk me into buying it in order to save my arms from the damage. I refused, as she would have expected. Fortunately, a few kilometers down the road I found a suitable linen shirt for only $2.50. I think this shirt is going to be my friend for a long time.
When we pulled into Kampot I realized for the first time that it isn’t a beach town but a river town. It is one of those places that is a lot sleepier during the day than at night. It wasn’t immediately obvious where the best place to stay would be. As we rode my trusty xr down the riverfront road, I saw a giant Swedish flag hanging in front of a driveway. The place was called Kool Kampot and it really looked nice enough. I wanted to give Shalma a nicer place to stay than our digs from the night before, and we found a nice room there for $20 per night.
Kool Kampot is a fantastic place to stay. The rooms are spacious and clean with pleasing decor. They are also well air conditioned except for one that goes for $15 per night. There is a lovely upstairs bar that overlooks the river, and it is a fantastic place to catch the sunset. The staff is friendly and the owner Jeff is a truly kind Australian gent who goes out of his way to make sure his guests are comfortable. If you’re in Kampot it is a great place to stay.
After a relatively uneventful first few hours in Kampot, we found ourselves on the roof bar at 4PM waiting for the bar tender to show up. The beers are a bit more expensive but cheap enough that I lost count of how many I had. Shalma was drinking soda pop until she switched to a bloody mary. We had a marvelous time and made friends with two young ladies, one American and the other Dutch. Eventually, Shalma and I both got a little hungry and set off down the road to acquire food.
We stumbled across a place called Pépé & the Viking. Evidently it is owned by two people, one French and the other Danish. One of the dishes on the menu that caught my eye was called Odin’s Balls, and it was described as frikadeller with mashed potatoes. For those who aren’t in the know, frikadeller are magical traditional Danish meat balls. They are made of a 50/50 mixture of ground pork and ground veal. They are simple to make with just a bit of egg, super finely diced onion, and some salt and pepper. In my slightly inebriated state, Odin’s balls it is!
We went in and sat at a lovely table out front. Unfortunately we sat near two American douchebags who were bragging about money and cars, but it was a lovely table nonetheless. Our food came out relatively quickly and came with a wee side of yogurt. This excited my Persian girlfriend who is keen to put yogurt on just about anything. I had never seen this dish served with yogurt and tried to tell Shalma, baby, this isn’t a bloody Kefta kebab! Mind you, it wasn’t really a true frikadeller either. They were far too small, like an Ikea meatball, and didn’t seem to have veal in them. Unfortunately, Odin doesn’t like having his balls dipped in yogurt.
Shalma and I had been eating the exact same foods over the entire day. The only time we diverged from this is when she dipped Odin’s balls in yogurt. This unsettled the gods of my ancestors and she was cursed with a foul stomach that ended up turning into something far worse. The next day we were meant to ride the motorcycle into Preah Monivong National Park together, but Shalma was not well enough to do so. Shalma told me she just had a bit of an upset stomach. She said she was fine but just really couldn’t go. Being the kind girlfriend she is, she asked me to go and promised she would be okay. I got onto my trusty steed and headed for the mountains, and what a beautiful place it is!
I headed toward the park, also called Bokor for the mountain that essentially is the park. It was about twenty minutes by motorbike from our guest house to the park’s entrance. Entrance costs a dollar and is well worth it. The minute you pull into the park you can tell you are someplace special. You take a long road in and begin climbing the hill. The roads are beautiful; the area hadn’t been paved until five or six years ago, a fact that had previously made it difficult to access.
The inaccessibility of the mountain made it a desirable place for both French colonists and the Khmer Rouge alike. Upon this mountain, which rises over 1000 meters above sea level, the French colonists built a holiday area in the 1920s called Bokor Hill Station. Many of the buildings still remain, although some have crumbled or been demolished. One can easily see why the French chose this area with its spectacular views and moderate climate compared to the rest of Cambodia. This area would later be the last holdout for the Khmer Rouge until the early 1990s. It holds a strategic military tactical position being on top of a hill with roads that are easy to protect from enemies. Two of the most important remaining structures are the Bokor Palace hotel and an old abandoned French church. The hotel was actually used as the the final headquarters for the Khmer Rouge. Long abandoned, when I was there I saw people working atop the structure, and it appears that there are plans to bring it back to life. In the gallery below I have included pictures of both the church and the hotel.
The roads going up the mountain are twisty, and the greenery is quite impressive. For a seasoned motorcyclist like myself, it was an extremely pleasant ride. They took care to bank each turn to perfection. However, one must proceed with caution. Locals driving on these roads cross far over the yellow line in turns. Some of the corners have mirrors, which is helpful, but not all of them do. Another danger is the gaggles of European and American tourists on scooters. They will rent a scooter to anyone in Cambodia. In Kampot, the going rate is $5 for 24 hours. People with no motorcycle experience often think they will be fine on a scooter because they can ride a bicycle. This is simply not the case. Tourists all over the world are regularly killed or injured from this line of thinking.
As you ascend the mountain, you come across this massive Loc Yeay Mao statue. Evidently she is an important goddess figure in Cambodian Buddhism. Near the highest point in the mountain, there is a roundabout and in one direction is Bokor Hill Station. To the right is the incredible and picturesque meditation waterfalls. Below are all the pictures from this section of my blog. I hope you enjoy them!
If you are still reading this blog post I am grateful for your attention span. Shalma is feeling better. The ride back home to Phnom Penh was much easier, and it took us only 3.5 hours. We may be going to Siem Reap for our next trip to see the famed ancient temples of Angkor Wat. It is twice as far, at about 340km. I will keep you posted!