Arriving in Phnom Penh we felt that we weren’t off to the best possible start. While in Bangkok, in our eagerness to begin the next phase of our existence, and do it by the book and follow the rules, we had attempted to get the long stay visas we wanted at the Kingdom of Cambodia Embassy and failed miserably. We were issued tourist visas and were told that they could be extended so we carried on with the flimsy plan we had already made. That was to check out the possible places we would like to live over the next month and in the order we preferred them.
On the plane we filled in new visa forms, hoping against hope, we might be able to have the tourist visas cancelled but that was not to be. We did however leave immigration feeling optimistic as our long-term visa application forms were both stamped for approval before we mentioned that we already had tourist visas…….. next time. There has to be a next time anyway since as usual we have left some luggage behind in BKK.
From the moment we were in a taxi and heading for the downtown area things just seemed to be signaling that Cambodia was a good decision. Familiar Asian vistas made us both feel comfortable and at ease. The heat however, after our prolonged winter in North and South America, took a little more adjusting to then we expected.
This is a reconnaissance mission of sorts and with our moods oscillating between total optimism and worry, we spent our time alternating between checking out the availability and prices of goods and services and returning to old haunts and sights as well as discovering some new ones.
Phnom Penh continues to hold its own in terms of attractions, traditions, businesses and sustainable, eco-friendly, conscious driven enterprise. Unfortunately the perennial problems of any large city are ever-present. Garbage, traffic and retaining the traditional architecture whilst allowing development to take place and provide long-term benefits to the local community, seem to be the most pressing issues from our point of view, and “Phnompers” is not alone in that challenge. We enjoyed the afternoon breaks from the heat, reading and swimming, well enough to allow ourselves the luxury of two extra days in the capital before setting out on our most important task.
Bussing out of Phnom Penh through near stand still traffic at a snail’s pace and amid swirling dust and sprawling incomplete construction sites on the outskirts, in a worn out, beaten up tourist van with an ancient air-con incapable of its primary function was a bit of a wake-up call. The roads, the conditions and the heat conspired to spur the driver into ever more daring attempts at overtaking and speed.
However at some point I simply forgot to notice as tiny villages, roadside vendors, pools of blooming lotuses larger than paddy fields, scenes of cows and water buffaloes, swaying palm trees, rice fields and the grinding poverty of tiny rural communities sent me into a nostalgic stupor. Memories of travel, adventures and experiences in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and previous trips to Cambodia flashed before me and evoked a sense of wellbeing and joy at the adventure we are now embarking on. With great fondness I recalled Luang Prabang, Pakse, Yangon, Bagan, Hoi An, Hue, Kratie, Battambang, Koh Phangan, Sukothai and oh so many more, sometimes blurring them together and struggling to identify where each event had occurred. Thus lost in nostalgia we suddenly arrived in Kampot and were taken aback to discover that we would now have to wait another two hours to complete the last 20 minutes of our journey to Kep.
With no say in the matter, we were left to wander the streets, find water and a quick, light, late lunch and marvel at what we could recognize among the great changes that had taken place since we had last spent time in Kampot in late 2013. Those two hours were enough to convince us that this was no longer a place on the list of possibilities. Kampot seemed to boast more foreigners than locals in the old town sector near the banks of the Mekong at least. To our eyes a great number of them also seemed to be the long termers we wish to become but we do not wish to become part of an expat set!
At twilight we arrived in Kep and stared open-jawed at the ocean. Thrilled at the cool ocean breeze easing the all-consuming burden of the heat, we stepped into a tuk tuk and were whisked away to our budget ‘resort’ hotel. Our late arrival meant we dined poolside and availed of the air-con to rest, knowing the following day we would begin exploring in earnest.
Eager to make the most of time and none too sensibly we set off on foot about mid morning. Knowing Kep is small and spread along the coast we wrongly assumed this would not be too daunting a task. The market was our first stop and while it cannot compare to the huge variety available in Phnompers, it was, in Ian’s words, “Better than we expected and not as bad as we feared.” Thus encouraged we continued along the linear strip following the coast and called in at the first two houses for rent signs we stumbled upon. The second of which contained the manager of our hotel, who was as surprised to see us as we were him. By midday we were lured back to the hotel by the pool and the prospect of a swim. That was the second poor decision of the day. We emerged very refreshed and with the first dose of sunburn in about five years to add to the morning’s near heat stroke!! Time to review our Aussie upbringing and a practice a bit of sun smart behaviour.
The following morning we were clever enough to decide to take a tuk tuk to the second of the hotel manager’s properties but came away disappointed that four of the five properties we had looked at were no more than glorified hotel rooms with a bedroom, bathroom and small kitchen space but no living area at all. The remaining one with an upstairs outdoor space was indeed an apartment but located above the open pit for car maintenance at a garage. Not exactly a location we would consider ideal.
Still Kep has appeal and we were going not to be disheartened after only two days. The very next day we happened upon a sign in the Kep Coffee Café that was advertising houses for rent and was posted directly above a sign calling for English teaching volunteers. It seemed a good omen with both on our hit list and we made arrangements to see a small, new, well appointed house that would have been perfect, if it didn’t transpire that the current occupant has since decided to continue to rent it.
Therefore the search continues but we feel even if we haven't exactly found the house, we have at least decided on the place to live and something will eventually come up. There was a reason Kep was the top of the list and we have confirmed it’s our kind of small community and even made a few new friends in the past few days. I’m glad to say all but one of them, are Cambodian too. The sea breezes in the evenings providing welcome relief from the heat is something none of the inland towns we were considering can offer and the calming effect of the sound of the ocean has its own appeal and is reminiscent of the first home Ian and I ever shared in Port Noarlunga.
We took ourselves to Kampot for a one night stay and discovered that our first impressions formed during our two hour wayside stop were not too far off the mark and although there are the many more sophisticated cafes and restaurants and plenty of goods we won’t find in Kep we will be happy to access them regularly and live elsewhere. It at least confirmed for us that Kep is where we want to try to make a go of things.
After only two weeks in the country we feel we are making good progress but there is still a long way to go before the dream becomes a reality.
Next stop is Phnompers en route to Bangkok.