Memories of Cambodia

Everything is negotiable. Lime and black pepper dipping sauces. Groin grabbingly great Fried Crab and Green Kampot Pepper. Ankor Larger and ice. The strip of dreams for the discerning diner, Street 278. Badminton being a really shit sport. The fortunes of an entire family revolving around a compressor. The newspaper girl who smiled. Never buy a Lexus. Tuk Tuk rides. Tuk Tuk and moto drivers. The water festival crush. The worlds greatest music store, Boom Boom Records. Living the unemployed expat dream. Ankgor Wat. Drinking coffee and cheap icy beer. Reading Moby Dick in a hammock on a nearly deserted beach at Koh Tonsay. Discovering the Phnom Penh Flyer. Eating barbeque beef, tripe and liver prepared over hot coals on the dirt floors of packed ramshackle restaurants. Corruption. New friends. The quickly diminishing waters of Boeng Kak Lake. Discovering Leonard Cohen, Dostoyevsky and the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club. The ruined French seaside villas on the Kep coastline. Aerobics Cambodia style. Deep fried crickets and tarantulas. The horror of Toul Sleng.

Submerged and slapping about in Singapore

The action gets underway
The action gets underway

It had been a while since our last slap about on the bottom of a pool so we were both pretty chuffed to be able to sneak a trip across to Singapore for the Asian Underwater Hockey Championships.

We were both looking forward to a couple of cheeky games and our hosts certainly didn’t disappoint. Singapore is well and truly a melting pot of Asian cultures, so it provided an ideal place to host an Asian Championships. This diversity definitely showed in the water with each country bringing their unique style and game: the Japanese with their power forwards and kamikaze runs; the Philippines their pressure, physicality and long flicking; Singapore had exuberant forwards, solid backs and the Doctor; the (West) Australians, a clean open game and far too much class.

Then there was us, the internationals a team of miscreants and misfits. Two from Australia, three from Hong Kong (via the UK) and five from Japan. We bridged cultural divides, overcame language barriers and showed great improvement and brief glimpses of competitiveness.

At 1.8m deep and with a recently retiled bottom, the Queenstown Swimming Complex proved an ideal venue for great competitive hockey across the two competitions (Nations Cup and Challenge Cup) and various divisions (Men and Women’s and Mixed). The games between Singapore and the Philippines provided particularly spirited contests.

Being an outdoor pool provided an added the bonus, we were treated to some spectacular sunsets and lighting displays. Apparently the Singapore poolies are dynamite on getting the punters out of the water at the first hint of lighting but thankfully the gods saw fit to keep it well off in the distance.

Our nights were spent enjoying a quintessential Singapore food court dinning. I have never really rated the food court experience, too many bogans and bainmaries, but visiting Singapore provided a glimpse of what they could and should be; aisles of deviously delicious, simple and cheap food. The problem is it will just make me hate all subsequent food courts even more.

The finals provided an aptly mixed bag of results:


Women’s Division
3rd & 4th: JPN (4) vs PHI B (8)

Final: PHI A (4) vs SIN (3)
Men’s Division A

Final: PHI A (1) vs SIN A (4)


Mixed Division B
3rd & 4th: PHI/SIN 3a (7) vs PHI/SIN 3b (4)
PHI 2 (7) vs SIN 2 (3)
Mixed Division A

3rd & 4th: JPN (3) vs PHI 1 (9)
Final: AUS (13) vs SIN 1 (0)

Exhibition matches featuring a random hodgepodge of nationalities in both the Men’s and Women’s also provided a highlight.

With the formalities out of the way the scene was set of the real action to begin. The venue was Harry’s Bar, the location Central Quay. It was a presentation night that didn’t disappoint. The food was good and booze flowed.

The strip paper rock scissors proved to be nights true highlight. Two blokes stood on the table top, the crowd chanted, they danced, they paper, rocked or scissored, then the loser stripped. Young McKenzie showed some mettle to dominate his bout.

Arm wrestling was another pastime embraced in earnest on the night. More shots and booze followed as did acrobatics, chanting and dancing. Gavan the Wise was worshiped as the water gladiator that he is. The further the night progressed the further the adults regressed into adolescence. By the end it we were back to Blue Light Disco debauchery, and that means good fun was had by all.

Strip paper, rock, scissors
Strip paper, rock, scissors
Another round please
Another round please
Gavan the wise sharing his knowledge
Gavan the wise sharing his knowledge

Schmick streets and Singapore Slings

Bloody Mary at the Raffles Hotel
Bloody Mary at the Raffles Hotel

Arriving a day early for our long overdue weekend of slapping about on the bottom of a pool we had a little time to sample a small section of Singapore.

For a visitor coming from any other Asian country the thing that most stands out about Singapore is the fastidious cleanliness and order. While there isn’t a police officer in sight, a million signs indicate that you can and will be fined if you so much as break wind at an inappropriate time.

We walked the river at the Quay and marveled at the maze of malls and high-rises. We explored the jumble of shops and restaurants in Little India then braved the mecca of shoddy electronic charlatans at Sim Lim Square. We were dazzled by the lights of Orchid Road and could have spent much longer at the Asian Civilizations Museum.

We completed our pre-competition preparations by heading to the Raffles. Wow man! That’s a swish hotel. Amy got herself a Singapore Sling and seeing a beer was $16, I opted instead for a cocktail at $18. Best Bloody Mary I have ever had. With those formalities out of the way we were both physically and mentally prepared for a weekend of water hockey.

The Caradamons for the conscientious

Me enjoying a natural spa at the Talai waterfall
Me enjoying a natural spa at the Talai waterfall

For our last Cambodian weekend away we headed to the Thai border and the Cardamon Mountains. An untouched expanse of jungle covered mountains, plunging gorges and winding streams. Home to an abundant range of wildlife: tigers, elephants, gibbons and crocodiles. Refuge for the deposed Khmer Rouge resistance. Our abode was to be the Rainbow Lodge, an eco-resort nestled into the green shores of the Kep River.

The booking confirmation included very specific instructions on getting there. We caught the Virak Buntham bus and started counting bridges. About four hours after leaving Phnom Penh we hit the third which was our queue to send a text message to the lodge owner Janet. About half an hour later we slowly wound our way down to the Phum Doung Bridge and reaching the other side hailed the driver to pull over.

Stepping off the bus is both breathtaking and a little daunting. Jungle covered slopes tower majestically over the gently winding waters of the Kep River. But when the bus disappears up the mountain in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes you quickly become aware of your more immediate surrounds. An abandoned quarry littered with a couple of sheds, broken down earthmovers and heaps of busted rock spread around both sides of road while the rusty hulls of sunken barges rot in the shallows beneath the bridge. A small village, little more than a couple of huts and sheds sits on the other side of the bridge. You really feel how far you are from civilization.

It wasn’t long before we noticed our guide G leaning in the shade of the bridge. We loaded our bags into the skiff and were off up the river. Soon our abode came into view. Nestled on the riverbank is Rainbow Lodge, green painted peaks towering above. We worked our way up the trail to the bar where we checked in and received the first of a series of talks pitched to the conscientious traveler. Topics include responsible use of power, responsible use of water and responsible eating (food is included in the package). For its electricity, the lodge relies on solar with sparingly used generators providing a back-up.

Rainbow Lodge is by no means lavish, seven reserved but comfortable bungalows are linked together by a series of raised walkways. You get the basics, bathroom, fan, cold water (if there is power) and a resident Tokay (a colourful large gecko named after its distinctive call). In the centre sits a plain, open-air but surprisingly well-stocked bar.

Being English Janet makes a mean G&T and also has an interesting story to tell. Tiring of a London legal career she took a year sabbatical and did some volunteering. During that time she discovered Cambodia and got it in her head that eco-toursim was the go. She spent six months on the back of a rented motobike exploring every mud track and goat trail she came across until she found her spot. After six months of construction she opened Rainbow Lodge. There she, her dog Sunny and cat Psar Chma (market cat) pile their eco-tourist trade.

The lack of creature comforts is well and truly compensated for by the beautiful surrounds, relaxed vibe and fantastic food. You can sit, relax and enjoy the quiet. Lounge by the river and watch local fishermen with their skiffs and cast nets. They also offer a range of boat trips, sunset cruises and guided jungles treks.

The first day we thumbed a lift with a camping trip up the river. The boat ride was amazing, still and hot as hell to start with then in a heart beat the wind picked up and a crowd of low hanging clouds brought a torrential rain down from the mountains. An hour so up the river, just as the rain cleared we arrived at a series of rapids. We spent a couple of hours swimming and exploring the rocky river bank while a tarp and hammocks were set up for the Dutch couple staying there the night. Not a soul or electric light for miles, just the sound of the river and the light of the moon and stars. We waved our goodbyes and headed back downstream jealous as hell. That jealously did fade a little later that evening once an exquisite barbeque buffet had been demolished.

The following day we joined Mr Lei, a former ranger at the Botum Sakor National Park, on a guided trek to the Talai waterfall. To be honest, only the first three hundred metres could really be construed as trekking after that it was three hours on a gentle jungle trail. Beautifully coloured butterflies, dragonflies, birds of all sorts, shapes and sizes accompanied by the elusive call of Gibbons. Oh, and loads of leeches.

The Talai waterfall changes with the ebb and flow of the river: following the rains it is a gushing torrent that spans the entire gorge and at the height of the dry it is reduced to a gentle cascade. They say no two visits to the waterfall are ever the same. That was certainly true in Amy’s case; her first view was obscured by the bare arses of two French retirees. That aside, the day we visited the waterfall was at its pristine best. A series of cascading falls feed dozens of pools transforming them into natural spas. We spent the remainder of the day watching our cares wash away in a relaxed stupor. It was late afternoon when the boat arrived to take us back to the lodge. Later that evening we were joined by a snowy owl who through luminous eyes watched us devour every morsel of a delicious three course dinner.

If you are looking for luxury on your weekend away don’t go to Rainbow lodge. But if you are looking for great food, to relax and enjoy the quiet or hike stunning and untouched wilderness whilst leaving the smallest footprint possible then Rainbow Lodge is the place of you.

A run in with the Hash House Harriers

Running through the quarry while the goats look on
Running through the quarry while the goats look on

True to form it took me nearly three months before I got around to doing something that I had planned on doing the week we arrived. I went for a run. Not just any old run but a run with an expat running club. Joining the Phnom Penh Hash House Harriers on their weekly run definitely showed me something of rural Cambodia that I would have otherwise missed.

Come 2:15pm Sunday the tracksuit wearing exercisers congregate at the Phnom Penh train station. At first glace it looks like a club for nerds, misfits and middle aged blokes with no mates who, one afternoon per week, get together, assume imagined identities and escape reality. There certainly was a bit of that but there was also a whole lot more. A closer look revealed quite a diverse group of people: expats and locals, young and old, fit and bordering on obese.

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Bon Om Tuk, Water Festival

Spectators watch the boat racing on the banks of Tonle Sap
Spectators watch the boat racing on the banks of Tonle Sap

All the preparations have been completed. A fresh layer of white paint covers the concrete curves of all the main roads. The propaganda is in place: flags, billboards and enormous effigies of the benevolent Hen Sun are everywhere. The beggars, homeless and mentally unwell have been rounded up, imprisoned and are now being “reeducated”. Vacant blocks which just a week ago were littered with garbage and filth have been cleaned up and are now home to hundreds of market stalls and a concert stage. The exodus of city dwellers has in no way offset the influx of visitors.

The girth of the great Tonle Sap has grown fat and swollen from months spent gorging thirstily on the flow from the Mekong. The rains have lessened with the turning of the seasons and the upstream flow goes slack. The full moon approaches and soon the accumulated water in the lake will begin to seep back downstream making its way for the shores of the South China Sea. In Cambodia this changing of the tides is cause for celebration. Water Festival (Bon Om Tuk) is here.

The festival runs for three days (Sunday through to Tuesday) during which all roads lead to Phnom Penh, traffic comes to a standstill, the population doubles in size, the city doesn’t sleep and crime goes through the roof.

People as far as the eye can see crowd the banks of Tonle Sap to watch the boat racing. Long boats piloted by a crew of up to eighty compete head to head over 1700 metres. Standing upright the crews row like a chain gang furiously hoeing the ground. In some races there seems to be a large gap in talent. This is most obvious when a one of the provincial teams comes up against a team of expats. Even funnier is watching the expat crew struggling to negotiate the upstream row back to the starting line. After two days of heats the results are tallied and the boats are allocated into one of four divisions for the final day.

This racing gig isn’t risk free: while the surface water flows downstream, the undercurrent still flows upstream meaning that if a boat floods the crew better be strong swimmers. This year, the river claimed the life of one unlucky crew member.

When night falls the long boats are replaced by slow moving barges laden to the rails with neon towers of Buddhist kitsch. A fireworks extravaganza provides a fitting backdrop.

While the boat racing and fireworks provide the water festivals obvious highlights, the real joy is to be found treading the pavement. For many people from the provinces the festival will be their only trip into the city. Every piece of pavement and section of park is covered by straw mats on which families eat, sleep and sell anything and everything: secondhand clothes, cutlery and meat skewers.

Negotiating the streets in certain sections of the city is not for the faint of heart. Our house happened to be located next to the thoroughfare closest to the festival that was still open to traffic. This meant that the normally quite streets around our house provided thousands of truck taxis with a drop off point for streams of festival punters.

We pulled up a bar stool at a high-rise bar/restaurant in order to bear witness to the madness. The intersection near our house (Sihanouk Bvd and Street 51) was becoming the bottleneck to end all bottlenecks. Thousands of punters all traveling in different directions converged to strand Tuk Tuks, Motos and cars. People were at a standstill for hours, food stalls collapsed with the press of bodies and the cabins of Tuk Tuks became legitimate thoroughfares. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about our privileged vantage point, six storey’s above the chaos. This feeling dissipated at the moment of our departure when, in order to get home, we were forced to negotiate that crowd. Who would have thought climbing through a maze of thousand parked motorbikes would be quicker than the road? Apparently the number of visitors this year was far less than previous years; I can’t imagine what the crowds would have been like then.

It is easy to understand why the celebrations have such energy; Tonle Sap is the lifeblood of Cambodia. Outside the comforts of the city most of the population live and die by its whims. Its fertile depths provide the lion’s share (eighty percent) of protein for the population as well as the moisture required to grow the country’s rice. On the flip side, regular floods claim the lives of hundreds and leave tens of thousands homeless every year.

Cambodia is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the whims of its neighbors. If the sea level were to rise by one meter a large proportion of the country will be underwater leaving more than eight million Cambodians homeless.

China’s phenomenal growth is an even more immediate threat. When the eight hydroelectric schemes which China has planned for the upper reaches of the Mekong come online, the flood flows into the Tonle Sap will be devastated. This will jeopardise the food supply to more than 60 million people.

I am glad to have experienced the exuberance of water festival as who knows how much longer people will be able to celebrate?

The night crush
The night crush
The moon over the monument
The moon over the monument
Boats race on the river
Boats race on the river