If sihanoukville was a mad circus of drinking and kids selling bracelets my next destination, the quiet town of Kampot, was supposed to be a detox. Our bus to kampot was supposed to leave at midday, and the journey was to take only an hour and a half, of course such things rarely go to plan. To start with we were told that it was the middle of a Cambodian festival called P’chum Ben, a celebration of ghosts and the dead. This means a lot of Cambodians travel back to their home villages and go to temples and pagodas to make offerings. What it ment for us was transport nightmares. Our bus was a mini bus, which back home would legally seat about 15 people sans luggage. Maybe half that many with typical sized backpacker packs. They wanted to fit in 18 backpackers, each with a large backpack, plus the 2 drivers. With around 15 of us crammed in, bags under seats and on laps with the boot half open and unable to close because of bags hanging out held down with rope, we started driving. We only drove around the corner to another guesthouse to pick up more people.
We were sitting in the ridiculously crowded bus joking that the next people would be rugby players. Then out walks a huge man holding two giant backpacks. This guy had a neck that started at his ears and then took a straight line to his shoulders, a huge chest and giant arms, and essentially looked like a distant cousin of Donkey Kong. Someone in the backseat exclaimed “That’s a silverback of a man!” and we collectively cringed at the prospect of him an his girlfriend fitting in the bus. Thankfully as soon as he saw our sardine can he started turning green and looking furious. I half expected him to tear off his shirt and yell “Hulk smash!” before pounding our diminutive driver into oblivion. That didn’t happen, but he did refuse to get on the bus and made the driver organize a taxi for him. After driving around in circles for another half an hour we finally were on our way to Kampot, leaving Sihanoukville at the time we were supposed to arrive at the other end.
The town of Kampot itself was a blissful respite from constant hawkers an touts. Walking around town people would generally just ignore you. Incidentally a bunch of us from the bus stayed at a place called Blissful Guesthouse which was run by two grizzly middle-aged guys from Manchester. There was myself, Kristina, Owen, Chantel, Martin, another English guy Tristan, a spacey German Ella, and a quiet Belgium Karen. This place was kinda divey, but in a charming way, so long a you didn’t mind the swarms of geckos running along the walls, or the fruit bats living in the rafters of the tv chillout room dive bombing you occasionally. According to Owen the whole point of coming to Kampot is to visit the old french colonial ruins at the top of a nearby mountain in Bokor national park. Thus we booked our tour at a place called Two Fat Poor Boys across the road from our guesthouse. This little street side shack of a bar ended up being my favorite part of Kampot.
I ended up going back to the Two fat poor boys for dinner and got talking to the owner behind the bar. One of the Two fat poor boys, his name was Si (short for his last name Simonson) and he was stocky American from Minneapolis and had been living in Kampot working as an anthropology lecturer at the local university. He started the bar as a moonlighting gig to get some extra coin, and as a place to get drunk for free. As we started knocking back the beers he put on The Hold Steady record Boys and girls of America (my favorite of theirs) and we got talking about music. For a supposed detox a lot of drinking got done that night. Everyone emptied out but me, Martin and Si, and at some point we stopped paying for drinks as Si got drunk and started giving us shots on the house. This started when he poured us all a shot of vodka for a toast “May you arrive in heaven fifteen minutes before the devil knows you’re dead”.
Later in the evening some of Si’s friends came by. There was another expat Mark and his beautiful Cambodian girlfriend who I never got the name of. Mark was a musician and said he would bring some instruments along the next night for a jam. There was also an older Cambodian giant, Vweng. Now Vweng was 6ft 6 and couldn’t speak English, but he could understand it. Si was telling me his nickname was two legs because he had a huge dick. I said “don’t you mean three legs?”, “No, one of his legs was blown off by a land mine in the Khmer Rouge” relied Si before he slurred “And the man drinks like he had a wooden leg…. Because he has a wooden leg!”. Vweng also mimed to us some trick his friend could apparently do with an egg and a beer. From what we could decipher he would empty the whites out of an egg and somehow throw it at the side of a beer can an split the can in half. We said he would have to bring some eggs tomorrow night and demonstrate. At about this point I noticed Neutral milk Hotel was playing and was further amazed to be chilling in a bar in South east asia that plays music I genuinely love.
The other characters of Two Fat Poor Boys were the other fat poor boy Jackie, a Kampot local who runs the tours while Si runs the bar, and his little cousin Nima aka Big Show, who helps out around the bar. Big Show (named because he was the tallest kid in his class) didn’t speak much English, and didn’t drink because he was Muslim, but he was so amazingly nice. He also taught me and Martin to play Cambodian chess that night. Cambodian chess is like normal chess except the pawns can only move one square forward at opening, the bishops move like kings, and the queen can only move a single square at a time, and only in diagonal directions. If ever there was a symbol of sexism in Khmer culture this is it, the queen goes from being the most powerful piece on the board to the weakest. With these changes it was quite difficult to play and we both got cleaned up by Big Show. A bit later Jackie came back and challenged me to a game of normal chess. By this point I was quite intoxicated and hadn’t played chess in years, but I still managed to win by the skin of my teeth.
At around 11 Martin and I retired to go watch a movie back at the guesthouse before heading to bed. By this point Si was very drunk and we were not far behind. Before we could go though he got us to shotgun a beer with him. Vweng tried his first shotgun too but failed hilariously and ended up wearing most of the beer on his shirt. We got back and watched the Tenacious D movie, which was awful but a good wind down on the night before bed. Just as Jack Black and Kyle finished battling the devil in the film every dog in Kampot started howling in unison. It was loud, very loud, and we burst out laughing at the timing.
The next day, feeling slightly hungover, I got on a minibus to head to Bokor. Previously you had to hike up the mountain through mud, snakes and leeches, but today was the opening a new road running to the top. This signals the end of Bokor as industry is a commin’. At the top are old ruins of a casino and other buildings from the days when the French aristocracy used it as a retreat. It was also popular with Chinese who would come to gamble, then climb to the top and this themselves off the terrace to commit suicide if they lost all their money. Later on it was occupied by the Khmer rouge and battles took place here between them and the Vietnamese. Cambodians believe it is haunted by the ghosts of those tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge. As we explored some of the buildings untried using long exposure settings on my camera to fake some ghosts in my photographs. You also get amazing views of the coast and the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc from the top, but when I visited it was covered with thick fog. Not good for views, but does add to the haunted house atmosphere. The rest of the tour wasn’t very exciting, it involved seeing more abandoned buildings and I don’t think it was worth te money we paid. It was also sad to see the development plans for the monolithic resort that will soon engulf the entire mountain.
Back in Kampot we chilled out for the afternoon and then headed back to Si’s bar for dinner. The night before he had said he would arrange for a Khmer buffet, and mountains of food there was, but sadly no Amok or Loc Lac. There was a delicious red soup which was slightly spicy, fried rice and a noodle dish. Perhaps the highlight though, after the soup, was a suprise BLT sandwich. After eating the beers started flowing and then Mark showed up with an acoustic guitar and mandolin. We jammed for awhile, then another ex-pat, Chris, showed up with a fiddle. After a few tries at some songs like All Along The Watchtower, I gave the guitar away and went back to my beers and let Mark and The Fiddler start ripping out some great Irish folk music, with the odd Dylan or Cash song thrown in for good measure. Sadly Vweng never made it out that night to demonstrate his egg trick.
Again it ended up with Martin, myself and the Kampot expats at the bar as everyone else piked it early. Si told us we couldn’t leave until the bar was dry, and dry it we did, topping that off with a second dinner around midnight with all the leftover buffet food. We decided to give him $8 each for the food and drinks, which he said was too much but we made him keep it. Over the two nights there I had drunk a lot of free beers and wanted to give him some compensation. Overall I had more fun at that bar than I did at any other so far in my Asia travels.