Kep-sur-Mer, ruined dreams

During La Belle Epoque in France, Parisians built stunning villas and mansions in Normandy at places such as Cabourg, Houlgate and Villiers to escape the stifling summer heat. Almost a century later, French colonial fonctionaires built less elegant villas in Kep, a small coastal village, in southeast Cambodia, for the same purpose.

Cambodian bureaucrats and aristocracy continued the practice following independence. The Lon Nol regime fell in 1975 and Kep was a Khmer Rouge stronghold which held out against the Vietnamese invaders in 1978/9. You can still see bullet holes pockmarking the concrete of villas which were ruined in the conflict.

Some villas have been preserved and renovated, but most remain delapidated and overgrown. You can take a bicycle tour to visit the more famous villas.

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Piranha Attack

Well, not exactly piranhas, more Garra rufa or “doctor” fish. And not so much an attack, more a mouthing. Jasmine Valley Eco Resort has a fish pond and they encourage the guests to feed the fish with the dead skin on their feet. It’s better than buying fish food, and it goes with their recycling philosophy.

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I had to have a go. The fish took their time to get interested. Maybe my feet were not attractive enough. Perhaps the python fat cream had softened them up too much. But then I felt a tickle, and I involuntarily jerked my feet out of the water. Now I knew what it felt like- tiny, toothless jaws sucking at my calloused soles – I could tolerate it.

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Garra rufa fish are one thing, but prawns are something else.

After 15 minutes, the fish had had their easy pickings, and began to lose interest. My feet felt smooth and clean.

A few years ago, that august scientific journal, The Sun newspaper, ran a story about the health risks of fish pedicures. It said that there was a risk of contracting hepatitis C and HIV. Needless to say, this report was almost completely wrong; the risks are infinitesimally small. But there is a skin condition related to contact with fresh fishy water. “Fish tank Granuloma” is caused by Mycobacterium marinum. I have seen one case in UK, as it’s pretty rare.

My feet have yet to erupt with boils, so I think I’m safe.

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Riding Pillion

Earlier this week, I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me from my guesthouse in Kampot (the lovely Les Manguiers) to the ruined French colonial resort of Bokor. He picked me up at 8am and we roared off down the dirt track into town. Well, pootled, rather than roared, really. It was a Honda 125cc scooter with a dodgy back brake. We refueled at the local corner shop. The fumes from the petrol must be bad because the attendant was wearing a surgical facemask.

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The driver was only about five foot tall, and must have weighed less than 55kg, so having a hulking westerner on the back must have altered the normal equilibrium of the bike, especially as there was a stiff breeze gusting intermittently. We passed the oddly named Sonja Killing Memorial Private Hospital. Don’t laugh; it’s the premier health facility in South East Cambodia.

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The Sonja Killing Memorial Private Hospital, Kampot.

Bokor Mountain was “discovered” by the French in 1917. It is over 1,000 metres above sea level, so it offered a respite from the humid heat of the plains during the hot season, reminiscent of Simla and Darjeeling in India. The French constructed a road through the jungle and rainforested slopes of the mountain. On the summit there was a casino/hotel, a town hall, a church, and several other buildings, all fallen into ruins. King Sihanouk built a villa, with accommodation for his retinue of guards and servants.

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Le Bokor Palace was built in 1925 on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.

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It reminded me of the hotel in the film, “The Shining”. You can wander around inside, despite the perfunctory signs saying it may not be safe. The views from the rear are phenomenal. It is said that gamblers, who had lost all their money on the gambling tables, would throw themselves off the cliff. The hotel was in use until 1972.

The church is solidly built, covered with startling orange lichen. The altar remains, but the interior is covered in graffiti. Some of the stone window shutters still work, allowing the cool breeze to provide natural air conditioning.

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The Royal Villa is set apart from the main buildings, past the town hall. It’s tiled inner walls have been vandalised and the site is overgrown. If you listen closely, perhaps you can hear the ghostly tinkling of champagne glasses being used to toast His Majesty, of perhaps that was just the wind blowing through the empty window frames.

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This building was the town hall. It was constructed in local stone supplemented with reinforced concrete. It looks squat and ugly.

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The Damnak Sla Kmao, or Black Royal Villa, with the servants’ and guards’ quarters nearby.
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The interior is sadly wrecked.

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A few years ago, some developers decided that it was time to redevelop the site, to renovate Le Bokor Palace, with a new casino and hotel complex, “the first and only highland resort in the Mekong Sub-Region amid pristine jungle wilderness and pleasant cool weather on the top of the mountain.”

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Thansur Bokor Highland Resort looks soulless and empty. There are no windows at all on the back of the casino, to concentrate the minds of the gamblers on the serious business of chancing their luck. The children’s play palace looks like ToysRUs on steroids. A great warehouse shed the size of an aircraft hangar, stands by an old Buddhist temple, small and simple in its design. One wonders about planning regulations in Cambodia.

Wat Sampov Pram means Five Boats Temple, named after the wind-sculpted rocks nearby, which look like boats.

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Of course, if a business syndicate is going to built a massive gambling complex on top of a mountain, there needs to be an easy way to get there. The new road is reputedly the best road in the country. That didn’t help the 125ccs of the scooter, as it crawled up the hairpin bends on the immaculate tarmac.

My driver was as astonished as I was by the new development. He had to keep stopping to ask directions as the roads had changed since he had last been here. He wanted to give me the full tour of all the sights to justify his fee of $15.

We visited a waterfall which had almost dried up. This didn’t deter a host of Khmer tourists out for a picnic. It was a shame that they all brought their own food, leaving the aircraft hangar-cum-cafeteria empty.

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At 1pm, I had had enough and asked to return to Kampot. It was easier going down the mountain than coming up. To save fuel, he kept putting the bike into neutral and coasting down the less steep inclines.

Because I was clinging to the motorcycle, I could not take photographs to record what I was looking at. I had to use my eyes instead. What a strange experience for me, the compulsive photo snapper. I had to look, and smell, and hear what was going on around me, instead of relying on a digital image to tell me what had occurred. Refreshing, but I’m not over my addiction just yet.

As we approached Kampot, I gestured that we should stop for refreshments. He screeched to a halt at a road side cafe/shack selling rock cakes and sugar cane juice.

The girl who crushed the cane in a mangle looked like she had just gotten out of bed, still wearing her pyjamas (this reminded me of the Saffron Lane Council Estate in Leicester). As I took some photographs, a one handed man came out from the shadows in the back of the shop, to have his picture taken, too. I just wondered if he’d lost his hand in the mangle.
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The sugar cane juice, mixed with like and water from an earthenware jar, tasted wonderful. Even the rock cakes revived me. I retrieved my backpack from the guest house and for another $5, my driver took me to Kep, about half an hour away.

He wanted to show me his new motorbike, which had just 500km on the odometer. “We’ll get there in no time,” I thought, until he picked up his friend. Despite the heavier load of two Khmer men, a large Westerner and his luggage, we sped along the flat dirt road at a good pace, overtaking tuktuks, bicycles and, occasionally, a car. But every time a lorry drove past us, we were cloaked in red dust for ten seconds.

The driver’s navigational skills were still impaired and we got lost in Kep. I would have thought that the clue was in the name, Jasmine VALLEY eco resort, so searching as long the coast wasn’t helpful. We drove back into the centre of Kep but he refused to ask for directions. Not being a typical man, I did ask a tuktuk driver, but he wanted to charge me more than twice the going rate to the trip. And he refused to tell my driver how to get there. “You can’t get there on a motorbike,” he said. “The road’s bad and it’s too steep.”

I had a cunning plan; I would ask at the tourist centre. It was empty. A pastrami-coloured Irishman came out of the bureau and said that it was the fourth time he’d called by, but there never was anyone manning the desk. But he showed me a map he’d acquired. “Dis’ll tellya all the places youse’ll be ripped orf. But, they do it nicely, wid a smile,” he said.

I guided my driver up the valley track to the resort. We nearly came off the bike several times, doing a “wheelie” on a particularly steep bit. But we made it. I gave him a generous tip. I checked into my eco room, and as I stripped off for my cold eco shower, I glanced in the mirror. Seven hours of sun and wind while riding pillion had turned my face a strange colour – beetroot mahogany, I think Farrow & Ball might call it.

Tuol Sleng

This infamous prison of the Pol Pot era used to be a posh school in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge rolled into town in 1975. It’s name translates as “strychnine hill”. Following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, it was “liberated” by Vietnamese troops. They found evidence of at least 17,000 inmates who had been tortured into confessing their crimes of espionage. Some authorities suggest there were 20,000 but not all were documented in the early days.

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This is a torture cell in a former classroom, in A Block.

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This photograph was taken by Vietnamese was photographer, Ho Van Tay. It is displayed on the wall of the cell where it was taken.

The prison was one of 150 execution centres in the country. When the nearby cemetery filled up, prisoners were taken to the killing fields 15km outside the city to be killed by machete or being bludgeoned with a pick axe handle, and buried in mass graves.

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The prison has been renamed the genocide museum, with three of the blocks cleaned up and returned to a semblance of what they once were. The prison rules have been translated into English. One block has photographs of a selection of inmates, another shows the instruments of torture, and another has paintings made by one of the survivors. Another survivor, Chum Mey, was able to fix the typewriters used by interrogators to record the confessions. He says he sympathises with his guards and doesn’t blame them; if they refused to carry out orders, they would be arrested, tortured and killed.

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The prison commander, Comrade Duch, was tracked down and brought to UN trial in 2008. When he was given a light verdict in 2010, I saw Chum Mey complaining to the TV cameras that he should have been sentenced to life imprisonment, and this was what happened on appeal. Perhaps he changed his view of his former captors.

The museum seems cleaner and tidier than when I visited in 2010, sanitised for the tourists. In a way, this made me feel even more nauseated at what inhumanity occurred here. Manicured lawns and shady trees don’t disguise the horror of what went on here. The doctors who drained blood or surgically removed organs (without anaesthetic, of course) from inmates to see how long they could survive must have learned from Dr Mengele. Burning or skinning someone alive was reserved for the most “difficult inmates”. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but it needs to be remembered.

I spent an hour here, but others needed more time to absorb what went on at this awful place.

Cambodian Adventure

I’m taking a week off to visit Cambodia at Christmas. I had just five hours in Phnom Penh this morning before leaving for Kampot and Kep, so I hired a tuk tuk to go sightseeing. He said his name was Sun. “Like Mai Thai Sun, you know him?” No, I didn’t. “You must know him. Famous boxer.” Then the rial dropped. Mike Ty-Son.

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The Genocide Museum at S21 is even more harrowing than when I first visited in 2010. One can visit more floors, more torture chambers, see more photographs of the victims (the message gets diluted when you see some of the photographs are duplicates, but they must have made a strong impression for me to notice).

What’s the difference between these photos of two young boys who were tortured?
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One has a shirt, his number is pinned to it. The other doesn’t have a shirt, so his number is pinned to his skin.