Number 9–Koh Kong
Koh Kong (Kong Island) was my first stop in from the Thai border. You go from paved streets in Thailand that are relatively smooth and modern to Cambodia where they are abjectly dusty and ramshackle. Per capita income in Thailand is about one-tenth what it is in the US and Cambodia is about one-tenth what it is in Thailand.
One of the first things you notice over the border into Cambodia is restaurants where all the seats face one direction, towards the TV. They buy the cheapest drink and watch all night. Also coconuts as an important part of economic life. Fresh coconut sellers are everywhere in Cambodia, including Phnom Penh. In Thailand, if you want fresh coconut milk you pretty much have to find a nut – or someone who'll climb a tree – yourself and the trees can get really tall. Coconut trees are very commonplace, especially in the countryside near the beach – they self-seed very easily – and the nuts are very heavy, weighing as much as twenty pounds. The combination means carting a lot of weight around for just a few pennies of value each.
Koh Kong does, however have a high end casino for Thai and foreign visitors – Cambodians are not allowed to gamble. In addition, casinos are not allowed near the capital, only on the border, which Thailand is not terribly happy about. The casino has paid for a new bridge connecting the island to the mainland and even now is helping to finance a new road connecting the province to the capital. The only way to get there at present is to take a boat to Sihanoukville, the port city, first. Old maps show a dotted line where a road once was.
Almost the first words out of the first Khmer I meet, young guy who wanted me to stay at his guest house, was "Do you want Ganja?" Thailand is in the midst of a "Social Order Crusade" which includes a serious drug war. They've got an epidemic of meth crazies and even though, by the government's own statistics, speed constitutes 95% of their drug problem, we all know that all drugs are the same. Unless of course, they're produced by a multinational drug company or have alcoholic content.
A few grams of pot, which used to get you a $50 fine and a slap on the wrist, now involves jail time, and there is no right to privacy in Thailand. A few dozen meth pills makes you a dealer and liable for a death sentence. Nothing like a good drug war to straighten a country out. Two years after this was originally written, Thailand’s prime minister Taksin Shiniwatra went on a rampage and ordered the police to off a lot of drug dealers. As a result twenty-four hundred “suspected” drug dealers were summarily executed. No trial, no evidence, no opportunity to prove one’s innocence; if you had an enemy in the police, you were history regardless of what you might’ve actually been guilty of.
The number of foreigners who get busted is still quite miniscule, but who wants to be the example? In Cambodia, in contrast, a policeman told a friend that they have no interest in small amounts of ganja. It’s pretty cheap also, ten to fifteen dollars an ounce for the best stuff, but still not very good. Nowhere near the quality in Thailand. When I was here back in '94 you could buy a shopping bag full at the public market for a buck. In the four years since this was originally written the quality has improved markedly with Westerners bringing seed and know-how.
The second question was "How about a girl for tonight?''
The first Westerner I met in Cambodia, at one of the handful of restaurants in town with the ability to understand English, introduced himself by saying they call me 'Crazy Jimmy'. Yep, I had to agree. He said he'd been hanging around Asia off and on since the '70's and was from New Jersey. Regardless of the time he's spent in Asia, it was as if he'd never left Jersey, not just the accent and talking speed but he wore a long sleeve, button down shirt that could pass in a pinch for office attire and dressy slacks and shoes with white socks. It was straight out of the straight '70's. He said he always wears shoes. It's so humid here foot fungus can get rampant even when you only wear sandals. He told me he drives a cab in Boston for a month and saves enough to come here for about six months (I thought he was exaggerating a bit here) where he's able to live on $267 month. How'd you get such an exact number?" I asked incredulously. He assured me it was accurate. His only indulgence; sex two or three times a week.
Digression: I had to make a quick trip to Thailand to get a new visa. I didn't talk to enough people, get enough information before I arrived and put a check on the "tourist" box at the border instead of the "business" box. In every other country I'm aware of a business visa requires documentation and hassles; here you just put a check in the right box. Whereas tourist visas can only be extended for one month, business ones can be extended indefinitely.
At any rate it was a good opportunity to get out of town and back down to Sihanoukville (on the way to Thailand to get a new visa) which I can best describe as a dreamy rural city. Though it covers nearly as much space as Phnom Penh it has only about 40,000 people compared to PP's one million. It has a downtown which houses a few thousand and three other village centers and the remainder is institutions, houses on acreage and big vacant spaces. It also is framed on two sides by beaches – miles altogether.
Where I like to stay, a small hill overlooking the sea, is pure backpacker territory with a plethora of guest houses and restaurants interspersed with typically askew old wooden houses that will soon enough be replaced with traveler facilities. It's wonderfully tranquil and laid back, an extremely welcome respite from PP, and I purposely stretched out my trip to spend an extra day there.
I've often speculated about retiring someplace cool and mellow where I can live on my social security and open a hip bookstore for a little supplemental income and something to do while I continue writing. Tourism in Cambodia is just beginning and this spacey little town is as easy as it gets around this part of the world.
And wouldn't you know it I'm swinging in my hammock on the second floor balcony of my guest house and Flavio walks by – remember the effervescent Italian I met at the beginning of the trip in Ayuttaya, Thailand? I actually heard his boisterousness before I saw him. We hung out, drank beer, had dinner and I went off to Thailand next day. He wasn't sure he'd still be around when I got back so we made no plans. Sure enough I sat down for a meal the evening of my return and he was across the street. Small as the 'hill' is, it's still entirely possible, even probable that our paths wouldn't cross. He'd spent time alternatively traveling with his wife and alone but he was then traveling with John from Scotland and they had just met Eric, who's French Swiss, and the three were headed to Vietnam together.
We went back to the room that Flavio and John were sharing after dinner and beers to toke up and sure enough it was right next door to my room. John is a music aficionado who knows more about the sixties than I do – though I did get to turn him on to Blood, Sweat and Tears – and had a tape player and mini speaker system with him. When Pink Floyd came on he had to tell the story of an episode that happened during three weeks he spent in Southern India a couple years back in the wake of eating excessive amounts of opium. It was all he could do, once he came on, to sit nearly motionless for 8 to 12 hours. That time he ate a big chunk but before it took effect he put a Pink tape on, not realizing it was set for continuous play and was forced to listen to it 8 times, unable to move the couple of meters necessary to change the tape.
Flavio was checking out the girlie scene with the guys, just for curiosity, he says, not because he has the intention of being unfaithful. However, it sure was hitting his temptation button.
I got my own apartment. It’s spacious (about 600 sq. ft.) but primitive but at $50 month it’s hard to complain, especially since it's only 5 minutes walk to work. It came with a bed; the owner provided a mattress and sheet but the sheet was some kind of weird nylon material and I couldn't stand sleeping on it more than one night. Otherwise it came with some old wood furniture, some of which might've looked pretty decent in the past. I could get a small fridge for $50 new or $30 used or buy a cooler and pack it with 3 cents worth of ice per day. I probably won't do either. It has no cooking facilities, that too is easy enough to put together, but I probably won't. I'm ok as long as I have my pot for heating water for coffee. It’d be different if I was staying more than a few months.
It has a stoop toilet and douse shower – I can get used to it. However, very strangely, toilet and water facilities are accessed from the other side of the public stairwell. It happens often here, though I have to wonder about the rationale. There's only one apartment above me, so not much of a hassle. I do have to deal with five keys – one for downstairs, two for my main door, one for the kitchen/toilet area and one for my balcony, which is a bit too narrow for the hammock to swing freely; can't have everything for $50.