Kampong Chhnang is world famous in Cambodia for its earthenware pots, sold from one end of the country to the other in every market, and used for all kinds of things by all kinds of Cambodians, rich, the few; and the poor, the many. National Route Five runs right through the town and the eponymous province, which is landlocked, fertile, and forever wet. Bordering here at the centre of Cambodia are the provinces of; Kampong Thom to the north, Kampong Cham to the east, Kampong Speu to the south and Pursat to the west.
The name means “Port of Pots” or “Clay Pots” and the provincial capital is situated just south of the end of the Great Lake, Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest body of freshwater, where the waters funnel into the river at Chhnuk Tru. Like a lot of Cambodia Kampong Chhnang can be a contradiction; neat but chaotic-chaos being an art form here, bustling but quiet; there’s new and old, pristine and ruin. And there are few foreign visitors, so rare enough to be an attraction or few enough so nobody notices.
It’s a stop between Phnom Penh and Battambang or vice versa if going the other way. The buses drop you off at the children’s garden near the football ground on Preah Sisowath, named for a former king. The ground has no pitch markings and barely any pitch. There’s no grass, just goalposts, and a grandstand which is really more of a bandstand. Here is the provincial seat of power, the National Bank branch, and rustic-coloured governor’s building in French provincial style.
Bleary-eyed tourists having bounced their way along for several hours avoiding oncoming traffic by the narrowest of margins look out the bus window briefly and wonder where they are. Are we here yet, maybe food? What is this place? Not many bother to get off and spend time in the city by the river. They go back instead to their smart phones. The river, the Tonle Sap, makes its way down to Phnom Penh 90kms away where it meets the Mekong at Changavar Peninsula, now landmarked by the Sokha Hotel, a bit of an eyesore.
Kampong Chhnang is a market town and fairly well-off by Cambodian standards, mainly for fresh produce and fish, pretty much the same thing as little wild fisheries in Cambodia remain. Houseboats and riverboats rise and fall with the river, the number of steps on the concrete embankment marking the level. The river flows one way in the wet and another in the dry, so going “upriver” can be misleading.
The Garden Guesthouse was aptly named. At the front a restaurant that serves neither food nor drink. There are bungalows semi-hidden amongst the vegetation. Hand-painted signs on the power of positive thinking with Christian undertones are displayed here and there. My passport details were recorded by a tall Frenchman, very thin. He’d been in town three months. The owners were in the process of offering palliative care to an elderly and very frail woman on the porch of their bungalow, complete with IV drip, so he ran things. “Very nice people” he said “they take you in”.
The room’s wall-mounted television was the smallest I’d ever seen, save for a guesthouse in Hua Hin, more like desk top computer, and looked lonely on the high, white wall of the bungalow. It didn’t work properly having only one channel but who wants television in Cambodia anyway?
Dinner was next door in a brand new establishment. The car park was flooded. They wouldn’t open the front door to keep your feet dry, so I went through the water to the back door trying my best not to lose my footwear. The menu was displayed in a photographic collage on the wall. The beer was Heineken.
A motorbike can be hired for the usual price, USD5-8 per 24 hours for an automatic, a Honda Fire Blade or similar, available everywhere save for the city of Kompong Thom, which seems reluctant to rent any vehicle. When riding motorbikes in Cambodia it’s best to have insurance, and do not crash, whether you have insurance or not, as there’s generally little medical care readily available. Most people make-do with what there is or self-medicate, as virtually anything can be bought over the counter.
North of town along the main route the turnoff to a country road made of concrete. “Car-thump”, the tires record every laid section, and some that’s broken away, which is common in Cambodia. About 10kms down the road there is another junction. Right takes you to the abandoned Khmer Rouge airstrip, left goes to the abandoned village, the caves, and the water tank, huge, like an echo chamber. The cave is alive with wildlife including lizards and snakes. In its Khmer Rouge life it was storage for ammunition, and living quarters for some and a prison for others. After I returned from wandering about out the thin Frenchman at the Garden front desk told me best not to go "wandering about" out there, “landmines everywhere”. Very reassuring!
The Chinese paid for the airstrip, about 2.5kms long, and adjoining buildings including the terminal and control tower. The Khmer Rouge built it using slave labour, then reputedly had the workforce of 50,000 murdered, as you do. Now the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces have moved in. there’s a guardhouse and the road crossed by a heavy chain, able to be lowered with the help of reused water bottles as weights. Two uniformed soldiers and their assault rifles. The guards wanted to know if I was from town, “no” or from Phnom Penh, “no” as clearly I’m not from either place.
They said if I wasn’t from Phnom Penh I could go in but no pictures, they’d check my phone afterwards. I was forced to wheel my motorbike through the narrow gap between their guard station and the post holding the chain. A few personnel could be seen off near some outhouses. My only company on the long tarmac were cows. The village was largely overgrown. Much of Cambodia's 20th century ruins are eerie due to the recent violent history. They have a lot of them, ruins that is; colonial French and Cambodian from the time of Sihanouk to the Khmer Rouge; ghostly, grand, exotic, terrifying.
Riding on National Route Five is not for the faint-hearted especially in a monsoonal downpour. There is no such thing as ‘driving to the conditions’ in this part of the world. The rain swept in as I sheltered under the bandstand alongside the football pitch. My motorbike started sinking and the mosquitoes kept me company. During a short break in the deluge I headed off, down the wrong street as it turned out and was marooned, almost literally, outside a bar with a crowd watching boxing. I waited under a street vendor’s empty stall, drying off. My phone and wallet I wrapped in one of the stall’s supply of plastic bags for protection, put them under the seat, and rode off to the guesthouse. The rain making me feel cold a rare event in Cambodia, and water blasting my face. Here it is fine in the morning, overcast at lunchtime and threatening in the afternoon. Then the deluge comes. Rain so hard the water hits the hard surface and bounces up again, so you get wet twice.
As the Garden Guesthouse wasn’t doing breakfast the Frenchman recommended the restaurant adjoining the Sovann Phum Hotel on the main road. The bank wasn’t open so faced with the perennial issue of small change, the local branch of the Canadia Bank wasn’t open, the waiter wandered off to get the owner to change of my USD100. Banks in Cambodia dispense as few notes as possible, so invariably you get issued with big bills no one can change.
I went looking for the river and a bakery found both and a temple good enough for a detour, Wat Yeary Tep. Easily one hundred years old and probably older, the three stages of building were preserved side-by-side; early colonial, middle colonial, and post-colonial independence. The latter borderline kitsch, the earlier circa 1940s grey block stone, and the earliest faded ochre render now greyed with the brickwork exposed. Nearby under cover were the dragon boats. Long and sleek, sometimes built for 100-plus paddlers, Cambodians being lithe and slimly-built, they can squeeze in side-by-side where Europeans can barely get in one. They enter the rivers at the Water Festival to race across the finish line at the Royal Palace.
Beyond the temple and past the market, Phsar Krom, is the riverfront, a line of boats of all descriptions, and shop houses, all past their use-by date. The local tuk-tuks, a model rarely seen in the capital and not the sort “pulled” by a motorbike, await their fares. Barangs, foreigners, attract their share of mild curiosity compared to the local passengers. The riverfront is one of the channels of the Tonle Sap, the river having deposited silt over time leaving fertile islands mid-river, some permanent fixtures and others only visible with the seasons depending on the river level.
Here the “Bullet Boats” the fast ferries from Siem Reap, stop briefly on their way to and from Phnom Penh; floating, noisy, expensive compared to the bus, and death traps – a bit like the bus especially minivans these days. Provided the ferry remains afloat they will ensure your hearing has permanently ‘shifted’ and without sunscreen, or with it, your skin has painfully burned. Best to be on top as if it does sink you can swim for it. I saw the mechanic wearing a full-face motorcycle helmet, whether for the noise or to prevent concussion I was unsure, but how such headwear could be worn in that heat escaped me.
My exit from town was as I’d arrived, the bus to Phnom Penh. The tuk-tuk driver arrived outside the guesthouse. The bus driver had phoned to say he was ahead of schedule, so to be back at the children’s playground early. It was one of those days in Cambodia where everything just clicked. They do happen, but they still take me by surprise.