Why never to ride a minivan in Cambodia, bribery (business as usual) in Phnom Penh, sackless hackey-sack, and a first impression of Kampot

Hon greeted us to say goodbye during our final morning in Siem Reap, all smiles.  An hour after he had dropped us off the night before when we were leaving for dinner, we saw him drinking with a few of his buddies outside the hotel.  He was merrily intoxicated off a few Angkor beers and with the successful week of business we had given him – he came over to us with his friends and introduced us to all of them – they were all smiles too, probably because Hon was buying the rounds that night.

It was a great five days of temple hiking around Siem Reap, but five days in the sweat and sun left me exhausted and wanting to be in a city with a slower pace.  After researching Kratie, Sihanoukville, Kampot, and Kep (all towns within 3-4 hours of Phnom Penh), I decided on Kampot.  Kampot would have been a long day trip (6 hours to Phnom Penh, 3.5 to Kampot) from Siem Reap, so we decided to stay a night in Phnom Penh.

We were somewhat rushed into a mini-van ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh –they promised it would be “faster” than the bus.  I soon learned that what you gain in speed, you pay for threefold in comfort.  It was the minivan ride from hell.  Six hours of bumpy, BUMPY roads (no shocks with on this thing) with a madman behind the wheel.  It was this man’s prerogative to pass EVERYONE on the road.  Every 30 seconds he would execute a death-defying pass while blaring his horn, which apparently rendered the suicidal swoop “safe”.   But his passes probably saved us a total of 10 minutes over the 6 hour haul, so they were totally worth it.  The ride miraculously ended with no one dying, though we did see a moto smash into a cow on the road though – surprised that was the first time I’d seen a moto accident since I’ve been here.  Needless to say, I will not be taking a minivan ride through SE Asia again.  For me, the wheels on the bus go round and round for the rest of the way.

Our hotel in Phnom Penh was right on the riverfront, just a block away from the Royal Palace.

Around 9pm, there was still a considerable crowd gathered, still mourning the passing of the late king-father.

Apparently this has been going on for a while.  They really loved this guy and from what the locals tell me, his son is set to be loved as well, untainted by much of the political strife that the late king-father had to deal with.

We grabbed a quick dinner and gave thanks for the lizards on the sign above us.

These guys are all over SE Asia. They like to gather near lighted signs where getting an insect is easy as waiting 3 seconds. If you them in your room, its a bonus – they don’t bother us and they eat the things that will.

Feeling the frenzy of the big city the next morning, we got out of Phnom Penh as early as possible.

Ben elected to rent a moto and ride it to Kampot while I chose the bus route.  Ben’s first time on a moto was a memorable experience.  It took him less than one block on the bike before a Phnom Penh police officer was waving him over.  Ben didn’t panic, because he had researched this and almost expected it.  The officer couldn’t speak much English but after finding out Ben’s name, he had all he needed.  With a knowing and confident smile on his face, “Oh Benjamin!  You see my buddies over there?” (pointing at fellow police officers at a nearby table) “We need $5 for a coke, Benjamin!  You understand, right Benjamin?  You my friend, right Benjamin?” Ben pulled out $5 and handed it to the officers.  The officer smiled and waved Ben on his way.  Business as usual here in Phnom Penh.

Ben proceeded to drive the 150km to Kampot on the highway but not before he ran out of gas.  After walking his bike for 10 minutes along the highway, he finally came to a house.  All over Cambodia, houses have wine racks full of liquor bottles displayed on their front lawns but they are not to encourage a driver to have a drink while driving – they hold no liquor.  They are for people in Ben’s situation – they hold gas and Ben was able to purchase enough fuel to get him the rest of the way.

I didn’t need to bribe anyone like Ben in order to get to Kampot, but the bus ride to Kampot was quite pleasant.  Unlike the day before, I didn’t once fear for my life.  Oh, also the VIP entrance.  I have become so desensitized to tuk-tuk drivers shouting in my face as I exit a bus (they know most of the arrivals will need a ride somewhere) that by this point it was my instinct to ignore all of them until getting at least 15 feet away from the bus when it stopped in Kampot.  After achieving this separation and announcing to the group of drivers now swarming me that I would need a ride to Orchid Guesthouse, I realized I had failed to see the only silent one in the group who was holding a piece of paper with neon green handwriting that said “MR. MATTHEW BROWN – ORCHID GUESTHOUSE”.  Ha, guess hes my ride.  First time I’ve ever had the welcome sign and VIP limo (tuk-tuk) waiting for me on arrival.

Kampot was exactly as I hoped.  Our guesthouse was a 30 second tuk-tuk drive from the small bus “station”.  There is nothing to “see” or “do” in Kampot.  On a quick walk “downtown”, we saw a few slow moving motos, a few men drinking beers at a bar, and that was about it.  Perfect.

We settled in for a beer at the Rusty Keyhole, a popular restaurant and bar overlooking the river and Bokor National Park in the distance.  About 50 feet away, a group of young guys started a game closely resembling what we would call “hacky sack” in the states, with a couple important differences.  First, they were not hacking a “sack” – on closer examination of the object, it is a badminton birdie and every time the kids would strike it to keep the volley alive, the birdie would make a “pop”ping sound.  The second notable difference is that the most common move (or “hack”) to keep the birdie aloft was not a hit on the inside of the foot in front of a player (as is common in hacky sack), but generally a blind kick with the foot after the birdie has passed over the player’s shoulder or his side.  80% of the volleys were shots where the player would read the birdie going over his shoulder or side, lean forward, and flip his rear left or right leg up or to the side, striking the birdie and sending in a nice arch back to one of his friends in the circle, who would then do the same.  Many times, two of the guys in the circle could keep the birdie going between just the two of them for at least 12-14 volleys.   I took a video of a decent volley that you can check out here.  I didn’t even try to get in this game – I was never a good hacky-sacker back in the states and this game seemed even more difficult, making the ease with which they laughed and played impressive to me.

The ribs at the Rusty Keyhole were fantastic.  I might even venture to say the best ribs I’ve ever had. Apparently the Keyhole has won two awards for the best ribs in all of Cambodia. The Keyhole had a woman whose only job at the restaurant was to cook these ribs – she would sit by this big slow grill cooker contraption all night and if no ribs were being ordered, she would still just sit there.  But there was rarely a time when ribs weren’t being order and she didn’t have at least 2 racks on the trill. 

mmmmm

They were fall-off-the-bone tender and their texture and sauce were just right.  A full rack was $8 and came with a heaping side of potatoes and deliciously creamy cole-slaw.   Mighty satisfying while enjoying a beautiful sunset next to the riverside restaurant.

Cloudy sunset over the “old bridge” in Kampot, with Bokor National Park in the distance

We would come back to Keyhole every day over the next 3 we were in Kampot.  All but one of those days I got the ribs and that was only because I wanted a light lunch.  By the time we left Kampot the manager was coming over to our table every night to chat with us – we were surely her best customers that week – a local woman from Kampot with a good success story, she’d been running the restaurant for 8 years.  And of course the restaurant had a dog named Tung Tung that Ben liked.  The restaurant’s menu literally said “This is our dog Tung Tung.  Please do not feed him because he is already a bit of a fatty.”

Walking home from the restaurant was a unusually silent experience.  Most stores closed, only a few people on the streets and not one person trying to solicit me.  This was the first time in SE Asia I have not been solicited or seen another tourist and it felt great.

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One thought on “Why never to ride a minivan in Cambodia, bribery (business as usual) in Phnom Penh, sackless hackey-sack, and a first impression of Kampot

  1. Matt,

    What a delightful blog post! I felt like I was there. You almost match your brother’s writing skills, almost ))))) Thanks for sharing!

    Love, Moms

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