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Posted by Tim on Apr 15, 2007
A Day in Kampot

Dragon fruit. Jackfruit. Mangosteen. Rambutan. Lychee. Tolep. Dragon's eyes. Lang Sam.

These various fruits, native to Southeast Asia (and heartily enjoyed by the two of us in Laos, Thailand, and especially Cambodia) are some of the things I miss most. I'd never heard of any of them before we left, but somehow seem to have trouble living without them now that we're back.

Don't worry, though: this isn't a story about fruit. The fruit's just where it starts. This is a story about one of our favorite places in the world, a place that until now has received only passing mention in this journal.

It's about a place called Kampot.

A Breakfast of Dragon Fruit

The date is January 23, 2006. Jessica, Klaus, and I, fresh off our pilgrimage to Bokor Hill, are relaxing in the charming Orchid restaurant, enjoying a breakfast featuring the world's most marvelous fruit salad. We've seen some of these fruits before, but others (including the sumptuous dragon fruit) are completely new to us. The day is off to a most promising start.

Over by the kitchen, the owner's adorable little girl is playing next to the ice bucket. In Kampot, as elsewhere in Cambodia, ice is big business. It's often produced at local "ice factories" from filtered water, something one local told us was a remnant of French colonialism. The ice is delivered daily in enormous blocks. As it melts, it becomes water that barang (foreigners) can drink without getting sick.

Here at the Orchid, the proprietor has some of his ice in a plastic bucket, melting in the morning heat to yield drinking water for his patrons.

We're amusedly watching his daughter's antics as she plays beside this bucket when, unexpectedly, she turns to it and proceeds to clamber inside.

We've already made plans to come back here for dinner tonight. I make a mental note not to have any ice water when we do.

Walkabout

Kampot is the essence of why we fell in love with Cambodia. This sleepy provincial town could not be more removed from the hustle and bustle of hectic Phnom Penh. Instead of cars and motorcycles, here it seems virtually everyone travels by bicycle.

We take it pretty easy for most of the morning, given that our spines are still recovering from the bone-jarring trip up and down Phnom Bokor yesterday. Just before lunch, though, the three of us begin to set about our mission for the day: to explore this marvelous place, an exercise in random wandering. We’re going on walkabout.

As far as I'm concerned, Cambodia is just the nicest, friendliest place in the world. Everywhere we wander we're greeted by enormous smiles and occasional calls of "hello!"

It is during this pre-lunch meandering that we resolve to stay another day here in paradise, so that we can explore the countryside surrounding it tomorrow.

Scary Indian Guy

Full disclosure: it turns out Scary Indian Guy is in fact from Sri Lanka. Never mind that, though, as he will forever be Scary Indian Guy to us – SIG for short.

We stop at the well-reviewed Bamboo Light Café for lunch. The only other patron is just leaving as we get settled, and the proprietor – the aforementioned SIG – is yelling at him. It seems that another customer paid her bill with an ever-so-slightly torn $1 bill (in Cambodia, any US dollar bill with even the tiniest tear won't be accepted anywhere), and SIG is taking his frustrations out on the guy. SIG then turns to us, and spends a little while complaining about it to us as well. We make sympathetic noises and exchange bemused glances when he isn't looking.

We order our lunch (samosas, chicken with noodles, and apple curry – all of it truly marvelous) and enjoy the riverview while fighting the heat with some ice-cold pineapple shakes. Our relaxation is continually interrupted by SIG, however, who keeps coming over to us to complain about absolutely everything. Of particular annoyance to him are his Cambodian waitresses, who "can't even speak English, can you believe it?"

Satiated, entertained, and perhaps a little scared, we pay our bill with decidedly untorn bills and return to our mission.

The Market

We make our way to the town's central market, a large concrete building that is both filled with and surrounded by dozens upon dozens of rickety little stalls. Klaus's trademark bucket hat has suffered a large tear, and he's looking for a seamstress to patch it for him.

The three of us wander the labyrinthine corridors of the market in search of anyone with a sewing machine. At every turn we are met with looks of astonishment and amusement, with smiles and giggles. We pass collections of tin cookware and plastic flowers, gutted fish and embroidered pillows, ornate vases and plastic toys.

Eventually, we encounter a seamstress. She speaks no English, and we possess only enough Khmer to cover the very basics: hello, goodbye, thank you, etc. But with an inspired bit of charades (and the helpful visual aid of a torn hat), Klaus successfully conveys his request. We sit there for a few minutes in contented silence, listening to the whrr-whrr-whrr of the sewing machine set against the muted marketplace hubbub that surrounds us. Soon enough, the hat is miraculously mended, Klaus pays his bill, and we're off.

The Best Advice We

You are of course free to ignore any of the advice we offer on this website. Go ahead and stay in the lake district of Phnom Penh. Go ahead, if you must, and buy yourself a ticket to Siem Reap from a travel agent or guest house on Khao San Road. (No, seriously though, for the love of God don't do that.)

But if you ignore everything else we say, please, please take this one piece of advice. It is the single best suggestion we will ever make on this website.

Ready?

Walk past a provincial Cambodian school at about 4pm.

You will not be disappointed.

The Clock Strikes Four

On our way back from the market, we happen to be passing by the local school at four o'clock, just as it lets out.

Out pour several dozen kids, all between the ages of five and ten or so. They all gasp and whisper to one another when they see us, and the majority of them keep their distance at first.

One brave little soul starts it. He marches up to us, takes a deep breath, and yells "Hello!" before panicking and running away. The three of us smile and wave, and say "hello" back.

Thus it begins.

Inspired by the fact that we seem relatively harmless, the children get bolder. Another approaches, then another, then three more, and suddenly we're surrounded by the friendliest mob in history. They all desperately want to practice their English on a real, live barang. We're peppered with yells of "Hello!" and "Good day!" and questions like "What is your name?" and "How are you?" Each time we respond to one of them they instantly light up with pride and joy, and then panic and run away.

One particularly brave little boy even gallops up to Jessica with his hand out. When she shakes hands with him, he beams with accomplishment. Then he runs away, whooping.

"Skip"

As we make our way back to the river, another boy rides past us on his bicycle. He doesn't yell "hello" to us, but smiles broadly as he passes.

A few minutes later, he rides past us again, slowing down to smile and wave. We respond in kind.

By the third or fourth time he rides past, we've become inordinately fond of him. When we finally reach the river, we see the silhouette of his ridiculously oversized bike propped up beside the low concrete riverside wall, just beside where he sits looking out at the water. Once more, he turns to wave at us as we cross the street to join him.

The four of us sit together on the wall, watching the sun dip low behind the Elephant Mountains on the other side of the river. Jessica, who is sitting closest to our new friend, asks him his name.

He responds by vigorously shaking his head and pointing to his ears and mouth, while making a small screeching noise. It takes a few moments to understand. He cannot hear or speak.

But he lights up when he smiles. And he smiles most of the time.

We sit together for quite some time. At one point, Jessica idly tosses some pebbles into the water. The boy jumps up, struck by some brilliant idea, and searches the ground around the wall for a moment before popping up with a broad, flat, round stone. With a practiced poise, he flicks it into the river, where it effortlessly skips several times before sinking. He once again flashes that magnificent smile as we cheer and applaud him. And then it's on.

We spend the next half-hour or so skipping stones together. Skip, as he is inevitably named, teaches Jessica how to do it, and soon she's skipping like a pro. With Skip's patient tutorage, even Klaus and I manage to skip a stone or two. On two separate occasions, unsatisfied with the quality of stones around, Skip leaps onto his bike and heads off in search of better armament. By now our rapport is such that, although I can't explain exactly how we know what he's doing, we somehow understand his intentions. Both times, he returns several minutes later, the butterfly-adorned plastic basket on his bike just brimming with perfect skipping-stones.

Eventually, probably late for dinner, Skip indicates he needs to go. Goodbyes of a sort are had all around, and then he climbs back aboard his enormous bicycle. With one final wave, he pedals his way out into the empty street and heads for home.

Greg
April 15, 2007 at 1:28pm
I was going to say I wanted to know more about fruit.

Skip made the need for foodlore unnecessary. I hope he's doing fine, skipping stones and riding his bike.

Shana
April 15, 2007 at 2:53pm
Mmm. Fruit.

I don't know why, but I find myself in tears at the end of this post. Again, thanks for sharing so much with us!

Janet
April 15, 2007 at 3:55pm
Somehow I feel more at peace than I did when I sat down.
I miss you guys and I miss your stories.
Sigh.
KerryGirl
April 15, 2007 at 4:50pm
What a charming story! I hope that there are many more charming stories to come. Catherine says hello and maybe one day we'll all be able to hang out together. Peace!
Jessica the hedgehog
May 10, 2007 at 10:43am
This is one of my most favorite memories from the trip (and this is one of my most favorite posts by Tim too). I wish we had a picture that truly captured the number of little kids surrounding us, smiling and laughing and what not. But we were so busy saying hello and shaking hands, we couldn't take a proper picture! :)

I miss Cambodia…

missy(&derick&ellie)
May 29, 2007 at 5:28pm
Skip made me tear up a little. What an awesome story.
June 15, 2011 at 6:50am
What a great post!. I have been in Kampot for the last week and have loved it every bit as you clearly did. I will be putting a short movie of Kampot onto my blog in the next day or two – time to move on now – unfortunately!
June 15, 2011 at 2:42pm
Hey Paul! Thanks for dropping us a line. It's so great to hear Kampot is just as lovely as when we were last there. And we'll definitely be sure to keep an eye out for the video on your blog! :)

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