Saturday, April 12, 2008

Knyom roo nugh Kampong Cham.

Before I left for Cambodia, I asked a friend of a friend for some advice. When I told her where I was living she immediately suggested I consider commuting to Phnom Penh at least on the weekends -- "Kampong Cham? That's in the middle of nowhere!" In fact, some of my coworkers do live in Phnom Penh and do commute on the weekends, but I suspect it's more a question of the availability of employment for other family members than a desire to be entertained.

I guess compared to Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham could be considered a small-ish "nowhere" but in fact it is a provincial capital complete with three markets, three gas stations with air-conditioned minimarts, a governor's mansion, a bridge over the Mekong, an abandoned American airstrip, a couple of temples, a beautiful promenade along the riverbank, and two western-style bar-restaurants that serve fish and chips and spaghetti for $2.50 (expensive by most standards). To top it all off, we recently got two 24-hour ATMs, from which you can withdraw USD for a small finance charge. Apparently, there are also a few Karaoke joints in town, which I (unfortunately) have yet to explore.

The city was built way-back-when by the French and there are some lingering signs of the colonial architecture -- in particular, the main road in town is a broad boulevard with a wide paved center divider with lamps, punctuated by open spaces where the neatly arranged streets of the town run across (read: moto death trap). The area along the river also has a European flair with a broad paved sidewalk, lit by tall streetlamps, overlooking the steep bank down to the water and with a view of the bridge, built more recently by the Japanese.

In the "downtown" economic center of Kampong Cham, the roads are paved. We also have the recently built Highway 7 which goes direct all the way to Phnom Penh, but my street and many of the residential streets are uneven dirt. In general, people keep their own houses and yards very clean, but public spaces are a different story. I still haven't gotten used the habit of nonchalantly tossing an empty can, water bottle, or other random piece of garbage on the side of the road, or in a ditch, or under a tree, but I guess I can't expect all the cultural things to come to me quickly. With the litter and seemingly constant (mostly private) construction, Kampong Cham has the feel of a living, expanding town, changing to accommodate economic development in the province and in the country.

In general, the town wakes up around 5:30 and goes home a little after sundown. In the mornings, the markets are bustling with people and motos, but by noon, the shoppers, deterred by the heat and the flies, all retreat to someplace cooler. My first trip to the market was to the Bangkot Market with Brigitte to buy random house supplies & instant noodles. My second trip alone, I braved the fruit, veggie, and meat sections of the Big Market and left triumphantly with a huge bottle of fish sauce, some random veggies, a huge pomelo, some mangoes, duck eggs, a loaf of french bread, a half kilo of rice, and a whole chicken. The market is awesome -- just-picked produce and newly butchered meat in every direction -- all under a high metal roof. Stall vendors perch in the middle of large platforms with their wares neatly arranged all around. Depending on the set-up, you can often pick the best fruits and veggies from a couple of sections, pay just one person, and they split it accordingly. Everything is organized logically -- fish together, pork together, chicken together, eggs nearby, then all the veggies, and the fruit near the periphery. If you come early enough, you can watch as they expertly turn a whole pig into chops and loin and ribs.

The only place I've seen to buy refrigerated goods are the two minimarts attached to two of the three legitimate gas stations in town. Caltex (StarMart) and FreshShop have yogurt, milk, ice cream, and your occasional cheese, as well as some western snacks like Pringles and peanut butter.

All around town are small semi-outdoor eating establishments with tables and plastic stools arranged around a main cooking area where you can watch your food being prepared fresh right in front of you. My coworkers have already kindly pointed me to some of the best in town where you can wait up to 5 minutes (imagine!) to get the best sauce in town.

Some shops are easy to pick out -- for example, all mobile phone shops seem to have the same orange sign with white lettering but a different name -- but some places are not so obvious: houses often double as laundry services or keep small snack shops in the living room downstairs.

Last Saturday, Brigitte took me for a bicycle ride around town and we took some pictures of the fantastic signs advertising various services: wedding costume tailoring, bakery, moto repair, electronics, veterinarian. Each one with its own pictogram to cater to the illiterate (folks like us!) who can't make heads or tails of the Khmer script. We then rode down a few kilometers outside of town along the river to a more rural area. We saw some of the floating settlements along the river and returned many shouted "he-ll-os!" from the children of local farmers. Then we turned around in the other direction, back up past the post-office, "cinema," and governor's mansion to Highway 7, and rode in the blazing sun up to Wat Nokor, a pre-Angkorian temple which also houses a working Buddhist community. After paying an inflated fee to the police "guarding" the site, we wandered around with an unsolicited and unwanted guide who could only speak enough words of English to ask us "why didn't we love him." In one of the working temples, we tried to decipher the gorgeous colorful mural depicting Buddha's life, and in another temple with a reclining Buddha, we watched a fortune-teller deliver what must have been bad news to a teary girl and her supportive friend.

I'd like to start a little project to draw out a better map of the town to remember where everything is (e.g. the cheap bread shop, the best veggies, the place to buy my brand of mosquito repellent), but it's difficult because during the day I only want to go about on moto because of the heat (and the scary traffic trying to run you over) which isn't so conducive to taking notes.

That's all for now, folks. Miss you all and love you lots,


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