Kampot sits astride the Teuk Chhou River in Southeastern Cambodia. The town primarily clusters along the East bank, stretches 12 ‘blocks’ long and 4 ‘blocks’ deep. This is Southeast Asia, things like blocks and grid patterns and urban planning are theories, and not realities. Two bridges span the sluggishly shifting waters, the new Korean-Cambodian Friendship Bridge and the Old Bridge – which appears to have been designed from leftover Lego parts by my 2 year old nephew. Kampot boasts perhaps 40 000 inhabitants.
This still makes it the big town in this area of Cambodia. The province is named after it.
It plans on becoming bigger. Much, much bigger.
The Lonely Planet states, “good places to bad, bad places go out of business”. An addendum to that – guide books grow dated. Some books and cities are established, their roots and histories sunk deep into the soil of time. London with its Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum and Trafalgar Square. Paris offers up the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Champs D’Elysees and the Left Bank of the Seine. Even Phnom Penh and Siem Reap suggest emerging patterns.
The rest of Cambodia finds itself in the throes of change, as it charges to embrace the newly perceived offerings of the Western developed world and tourism. This catalyst displays itself not in the two established towns – the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh, the Foreign Correspondents Club and the National Museum , nor in the many angkors around sime Reap but in the other cities, eager to lay claim to modern tourist dollars.
Kampot epitomizes this resolve.
To the West, Russian oligarchs and Western expats busily divvy up Sihanoukville, turning the once sleepy fishing port into a Khmer version of a Thai resport owned by Western money with distinct zones catering to differing appetites.
Kampot intends to take things a giant step further.
The guide books I used states that atop Bokor Hill “it is a ghost twon and that access can be tricky at best, treacherous at worst”. The date of the publishing was 2007. A lot changes in Cambodia in five years.
Now a paved, maintained thoroughfare invites hordes of locals and foreigners alike to “touch the sky”, as Cambodians say about going atop Bokor Hill. On a clear day the views must be spectacular as the plateau juts up from the plain, offering scenic, unobstructed vistas stretching down to the ocean to the south.
Alas, not on this overcast day.
And that ghost town teems with living entities. Cambodians enjoying a Lunar New Year picnics and barbeques. Foreigners checking out the delapidated-but-being-restored buildings that once housed an exclusive French resort nearly a century ago. Then there are the workers. They scurry about the hillsides like energetic ants. And in similar numbers. This is not what my guide book promised, although now I know why the local tour groups cancelled the overnight stays on abandoned Bokor Hill.
It is important to try not to view developing countries with a Western bias.. but it proved difficult when confronted with the Master Plan.
The Master Plan for the plateau atop Bokor Mountain over the next 30 years is an ambitious, frightening proposal. The intent is to fabricate an international community. The completed city should easily offer accommodation to 100 000 people; that’s two-and-a-half times the current populace of Kampot. The Khmer hope to attract wealthy Cambodians (naturally) but also the elite of China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Vietnam.
A monstrous 5-Star destination casino is well into construction. The diorama shows a full golf course, high rises, condominiums, shopping centres, recreation facilities, a chair lift and what I suspect is at least one artificial lake.
At first it appears abhorrent, an environmental massacre of a table-top jungle scape in the name of progress. Some sort of dystopian future nightmare better suited to the writings of Huxley or Gibson, an intentional set construction for Blade Runner or Children of Men.
Then I talked to the tour guide and asked his opinion of the project. In many ways I value his view more than my own because he lives in Kampot, but deals with both locals and foreigners on a daily basis.
He supports the plan. Thirty years of jobs for thousands of Cambodian people – in the construction, but also in transport, accommodation and feeding of those workers. The Sokimex Group conglomerate invests the money and is planting trees to replace those harvested during the terraforming of the plateau. The guide sees it as a potential positive for Kampot and Cambodia. At the very least he is willing to give the company the chance to succeed before condemning the methods.
And I have to agree with his assessment. Frequently foreigners want the developing world to remain underdeveloped and ‘natural’, so they can have their exotic, rustic experience before returning to their modern creature comforts of home.
That’s not fair.
Better, I feel, is the tour guide’s view. He hopes the development will keep Kampot’s Khmer traditions while progressing and inviting the world to join them in their corner of Cambodia.
Southeast Asia continues to reinvent itself. People are welcome to join them. Invited even. Only the guide books is out of date. Regardless of the publishing date.