25 Jul 2012
A ninja delivers a high kick to a cow before punching it in the udder, and the cow, on its hind legs, squirts him with milk. The Cambodians on the bus around us roar with laughter.
We're trundling along a two-lane highway in Cambodia's south, heading for the coast. It's sweltering in here, and the American kung-fu pastiche is the only entertainment on board.
Outside, we pass statue after statue crowning highway roundabouts, all points of regional pride: a crab, a salt-panning couple, a Khmer princess standing atop a crocodile - and a rhinoceros, whose significance I can't decipher.
This wasn't quite how I expected to find Cambodian history, in a country known more for the tragedy of its past than the quirks of its present.
While the vast majority of visitors to the country flock to the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat in the West, smaller, quieter beach towns provide just as much of an insight to the Cambodian psyche.
Kampot and Kep are two coastal spots that visitors are slowly discovering - with an emphasis on the slow. Life here is not to be rushed.
One of Indochina's best-preserved colonial-era towns, Kampot sits by the Teuk Chhou River, its French shophouses casting long shadows in the deep gold light of sunset. It's best enjoyed with a - what else? - Angkor brew at one of the many relaxed waterfront bars, or from a longtail boat puttering out past fishermen returning to town for the night.
In the countryside beyond the giant durian that crowns Kampot's largest roundabout lies a patchwork of golden dry-season grasses, white cows, and unexpected red earth thrown up by the ubiquitous motorcycles.
We hire a tuktuk for the day and drive out of town and away from its dusty, frontier-like bustle.
The region is known for its durian (a tropical fruit infamous for its foul smell), seafood, peppercorn, and salt farms, and we're off to see a quieter side of the country, away from the rapid development of the big cities, with their teetering high-rises, honking traffic and tangled power lines.
In the early morning light, we squint out across the blinding salt plain, watching women methodically stamping the clay in preparation for salt collection while quietly chanting.
Kampot pepper during the colonial era was a mainstay for the best chefs of Paris, and is still widely exported. We wander amongst the pepper trees, nibbling the small red fruit around the seed, crunching down for the flare of sharp flavour that is a reminder of the tiny grain's potency.
Cambodia is racing to catch up to its neighbours after the murderous Khmer Rouge regime froze progress in the 1960s, and it's visible everywhere. Enormous satellite dishes protrude from behind traditional wooden houses, and at temples hidden deep out among farmland, monks chat on mobile phones.
And as we travel away from the coast, past tiny villages whose inhabitants stop to watch the occasional tuktuk or moto pass by, we find a group of children who can greet us in several languages.
"Hello! Bonjour! Buenos dias!" they crow, clamouring to lead us up the hill, showing off their fathers' plots of spinach and cabbage, telling us they hope to become doctors one day.
Kep-sur-mer, an hour east along the narrow coast road, was founded in the early 1900s as a beachside escape for the French and Cambodian elite, and still boasts an elegant waterfront promenade where families gather.
Children clamber on the huge crab statue, swinging from its claws. Couples stroll hand in hand in the afternoon sun, looking out across the Gulf of Thailand.
The market sells fresh crab and fried fish laid out on large leaves, local women swatting away stray dogs that venture too near.
And if Kep still feels too big, Rabbit Island is only 20 minutes away across the water.
The main beach boasts still waters, a few bungalows and seafood restaurants, and a green, hilly interior. Chickens run under hammocks strung between palm trees, and it's hard to see why tourists have so far shunned this spot in favour of the louder, sleazier Sihanoukville - although perhaps it's a blessing.
Our tuktuk putters along the sun-dappled coast road, curving out along the water, overlooked by ruined 1950s villas. Slowly being reclaimed by the land, these buildings are ravaged by bullet holes, with empty, staring windows and vines creeping along doorways. Once-elaborate brick fences now hold only long grass. Cows graze where once were living rooms, unconcerned.
We wander around the front yard of a sprawling mansion our driver tells us once belonged to a Prime Minister. Squatters have moved in, laundry flapping in the yard. A baby's cry drifts from an upstairs window. Through the open front door, we can see a charred grand staircase.
Cambodia's bright-seeming present is inextricably intertwined with its past, glimpses of which, like these war-riddled houses, are never far away, kung-fu cows notwithstanding.
IF YOU GO
There are no direct flights between Australian cities and Phnom Penh. Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com), Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com), and Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com.au) all offer flights from major Australian cities to Phnom Penh with one stop; typical travel time via Bangkok is about 12 hours.
Kampot is 148km from Phnom Penh and buses depart regularly during the morning for the four-hour trip.
Sihanoukville is 105km west of Kampot, and minibus tickets cost about AUD$3.
Kep is 25km from Kampot towards Phnom Penh, and a tuktuk day hire costs about AUD$15, depending on your negotiation skills.