Written by Annie Sheen – @AnnieMusicEd
We make our way through the maze of empty rooms and long hallways, poking our heads behind solid teak doors and ascending grand colonial style staircases, clouds of dust created with every step. This place is wonderfully eerie and we feel we could be in some sort of adventure video game.
At first you might ask why Paddy and I are visiting a collection of rubble filled rooms connected by dark corridors and step ladders instead of strolling around Phnom Penh’s Russian Market or relaxing in the shade of The Royal Palace. But this isn’t any old building on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, it is in fact the chosen space for Cambodia’s first major arts centre. And its no building, it’s an abandonned boat.
With its total of six floors and earthy facade which, from afar looks like rust but is in fact red paint, the structure certainly commands your attention.
Originally built to be a luxury floating hotel, but left half complete, the boat now sits on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River, north of the city. There is no doubt it’s an amazing space, brewing with unlocked potential – even the harshest cynic couldn’t help getting a little excited.
Naturally, the project sparked both our interests, me having worked in the arts for 8 years and Paddy being a chartered Marine Engineer. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever find another project which marries our two interests quite like this one – indeed, if the project takes off, as far as I know, it will be the first floating arts centre in the world (at least on this scale).
Three international ex-pats, who together bring representation and expertise from the hospitality, business and artistic sectors, are the brains behind the project. I came across their plans while doing some research about Cambodia in Vietnam and instantly made contact with Dana who has lived and worked in the Cambodian arts scene for 17 years and leading on the creative side. We were lucky that her schedule allowed us time to visit the space.
While Paddy donned his headtorch and climbed down inside the hull to examine the engines, watertanks and quality of the welding, Dana and I headed skywards (via a rickety ladder) her explaining the overall vision for each floor as we go.
As we move up she takes me through where the education and library/archive spaces would be housed, where she’d ideally like to knock down walls to create group workshop spaces and where there would be office space for a number of in-resident arts organisations. A whole floor would be dedicated to offering a range of artists affordable studios and the deep bow has the potential to be turned into a tiered garden.
As we continue to move up, the spaces become more and more ‘finished’ and you begin to really see the potential for where impromptu performances and installations could take place. The upper floors would be dedicated to what we call in the arts ‘commercial activity’ – an essential lifeline for any arts space, and an important ingredient when mixing leisure with cultural activity. Most people are unlikely to visit any building unless there are some great places to socialise and be merry with friends, and I’ve visited some arts centres where the designers have forgotten that food and drink can also be counted as important cultural capital.
The top floor which houses some of the three largest spaces, would be used as an open performance space/cinema, dance studio and huge gallery. There is also an open top pool already installed which would offer a paradise like retreat for sun worshippers, offering spectacular views across the city.
The project has a huge number of hurdles to jump before it can really start to take shape however. Currently, these mainly consist of construction questions – Paddy is trying to help with this. Surveys to determine any issues require a certain amount of seed funding, and as one might expect, sponsorship and/or central funding are hard to drum up for an arts project which is still in it’s infancy… ‘harbour trials’ is hardly a sexy phrase when talking to philanthopists…
After the little I’ve learnt about Cambodia’s arts sector during my short stay in Phnom Penh, I’m genuinely excited about this project. The artistic community has been desperately recovering from the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s when 90% of all Cambodian artist and arts academics were rounded up and executed. Entire art forms were very nearly wiped out (many of them ancient traditions) and the past 40 years have naturally focussed on rediscovery and consolidation, with an emphasis on passing these art forms on to the next generation. From the looks of things, organisations such as Cambodian Living Arts have played their part well in ensuring the survival of this cultural heritage.
However, Cambodia (particularly Phnom Penh) now feels it’s on the crest of a new phase of cultural development; one which focusses on innovation, creativity and artistic exploration. Led by a new generation of artists who can drive Cambodia’s cultural sector forwards and who will mirror the Cambodia of today. But these young artists need a dedicated space, somewhere which will act as an incubator for ideas, skill development and artistic dialogue. A space which will support a diverse melting pot of current creative thinkers, audiences and businesses and which will help to support both the old and the new. A space which will support the social and environmental sustainability of Cambodia’s capital and which can attract swathes of foreign visitors as well as bring the local community together.
Apologies, perhaps getting a bit too ‘arty’ and utopian in that last paragraph, but I can’t help myself!! 🙂
I’m so pleased I was able to see this space and if you are interested to know more or wish, (perhaps?) to contribute to the crowd funding campaign to help get this project off the ground please click the link below. Please help to share with anyone who might also be interested.
That’s it for Phnom Penh for now, time to get back on our tandem and head north towards Angkor Wat, Thailand and beyond!
Phnom Penh really is a fantastic city buts lot of travellers will stop here for a few nights, only having time to hit the main tourist attractions such as The Silver Pegoda, The Palace and S-21 Museum before moving on.
As well as needing a stop to re-charge our batteries and stock up on a few essentials, I was particularly interested in exploring Phnom Penh as it is known to have an industrious and developing arts and cultural scene (my line of work). Cambodian arts have a particularly sad history as they were virtually eradicated by the Khmer Rouge. The city has a vey high percentage of people under 30.
I had already read about this project (The Boat) before arriving, which has big plans to turn a 6 storey floating boat into Cambodia’s first multi-disciplinary arts centre. We were lucky enough to meet one of the founders and have a tour of the space. Separate blog soon to follow!
We ended up having nearly a week in the city (waiting for Paddy’s Thai Visa) and we are so glad we did as those few extra days enabled us to escape the main tourist areas and explore the local ex-pat arts scene.
Phnom Penh has a large and very active ex-pat community (especially French). Many of them are here running or working for various NGO’s. Others have come to set up their own hotels and bars while others are artists, writers etc.
The best way to tap into this more local scene is to locate the monthly listings. You can pick up a copy of Asia Life or a Pocket Guide:
Alternatively here are a few places we visited during our time in the city:
Java Arts Cafe, near Independance monument
A great cafe/exhibition space – often filled with expats who go to catch up on email. Make sure you explore upstairs too. They have events running in the evenings.
META House, Sothearos Blvd.
Exhibition space downstairs with a covered but open cinema space, restaurant and bar upstairs. Food is good. They have DJs playing regularly (although it was pretty quiet when we were there) and screen some great independent films and documentaries earlier in the evening.
We went to a live music night on a Friday night at cloud which is a converted house South of the city. Large bar downstairs with a small performance and balcony space on the second floor. We saw 3 local bands who were all at a pretty good amateur level. Got very busy with a mixed international ex-pat crowd from around 10.30pm
Directly on the river front and has a special mention in the Rough Guide so naturally attracts a strong tourist crowd but it has spectacular views from both balconies over the river. Exhibition spaces and an info desk. They often host live music, a good singer songwriter was playing when we went.
Traditional Dance Show at the Museum
Again, naturally a complete tourist trap, but this dance show is fully supported by Cambodian Living Arts and it’s a good thing to go and support. The show is an hour in length and showcases a mix of traditional court and folk Cambodian dances. It’s tastefully done and didn’t feel too chliched or pander too much to the tourist crowd.
During the ride into Phnom Penh we ran over a particularly large bump and the cross bar of the right side of our front rack broke cleanly off.
We were able to do a good temporary fixing job with 2 large cable ties (well worth taping a stash of these to your frame along with your spare spokes) and some gaffa tape.
We had had concerns about the front frame for a while; the make is Avenir and its made of aluminium meaning its a lot harder to weld back together. Our back frame is solid steel.
To add insult to injury, just before heading off to seek out a bike shop we managed to shear the bolt inside the frame – now we had two things to fix…
Phnom Penh has a few bike shops near where we are staying (close to the Royal Palace).
The Giant Bike store near the Olympic stadium is the best store we found. The multi-storey store has an excellent range of new bikes, spare parts, helmets, tools, electronics, tyres, Degreaser etc. The clothes are very expensive though and they don’t stock much for women and we couldn’t find a front rack.
Flying Bikes (mainly a workshop) and its counterpart store down the road, Flying Bikes 2, have a range of mountain bikes as well as a fairly good collection of accessories – if you’re in need of a new helmet, clips, gloves etc. Again, they don’t stock women’s clothes so if your female don’t get your hopes up. They didn’t have any front racks either.
There is also Vicious Cycles on street 144 who run cycle tours – the guys there have a small workshop, speak good English and could probably help cyclists with minor problems such as broken cables and spokes but they were unable to help us with the bolt and told us that it was unlikely that we would find a new front rack in Phnom Penh, apparently you can’t get them here.
It became clear that what we needed was a good garage and mechanic followed by a welder who could work with aluminium.
SUCCESS! After enlisting the help of a very helpful tuk tuk driver to translate, one of the guys at the main garage extracted the bolt (by simply tapping a groove into the bolt end to screwdriver it out) from the frame in about two minutes and Paddy was pulled onto the back of a motorbike and taken up the road to a guy who could weld the aluminium. The whole thing cost
If this happens to you, wherever you are, be sure to have your rack on the other side reinforced at the same time (even if it doesn’t seem to need it). If one side has broken, the other side is sure to follow – this is what happened to us on the road to Seam Reap and we had to go through the same process all over again in a different town!
We reached Takeo at around 5pm. The 75km ride was pretty unaventful, good road from Kiri Sela with a couple of steady inclines but all in all pretty flat.
We headed to the north of the town which sits on the Rohkna Khnong Lake and after cycling around for a while we eventually found a guesthouse (Nita Gueshouse) on the canal which is pretty basic but was $6 a night, friendly and had a safe place for the bike.
Takeo is quite an important town, it acts as the major trade link with the border of Vietnam and it has a university, language school and plenty of government buildings, banks and a big market. The major draw however is the nearby 7th Century Funanese sites, (the only such sites in Cambodia) Phnom Da and Angkor Borei, which are both reached by boat via the extensive canal network which stretches across the entire province.
We met a nice German couple who were also staying in the gueshouse – Dirk and Karin – who were also aiming to head down river the next day so we agreed to charter a boat between 4, helping to bring the cost down significantly ($35 total).
Dirk and Karin were a pretty amazing couple. Both into their 60s, they have travelled all over Asia and this was there 4th trip to Cambodia alone. They were incredibly knowledable about Angok Wat and to top it off, over dinner, Dirk told us all about his love for speed road rollerskating – when he was in his 50s he completed a marathon in just under an hour and 10 minutes (that is an average speed of around 36km ph!!!!)
Anyway, we headed down river at 8am the next morning first stop being the two temple ruins at Phnom Da ($2 each). Theres not too much see of the main site but there wasa good view from the top.
All in all, considering how much the boat ride cost we’re still unsure whether the trip is actually worthwhile. I guess the boat ride is quite fun (take a jacket) but during the dry season the canal is pretty low which means you don’t get a great view of the surrounding countryside. I would encourage other travellers to head to the site at Tonle Bati instead, where there is a lot more to see with the added bonus of no entry fee.
We spent the afternoon blogging, picking up our washing and trying to sort a warm showers host forPhnom Penh (no such luck, we left it too late). To save on cash we set up the stove on a picnic table outside the guesthouse and cooked up our own noodles for dinner.
Our lovely hosts soon came out to see what we were up to and after a appreciative nod brought out a light and sticks of insense to keep the mozzies at bay. We ended up having a great evening with them all drinking beer and they even let us finish off their freshly caught lobster and shrimp. Dirk and Karin arrived in time for the viewing of the wedding album!
The next morning we had a long shopping list to get so we headed the main market in the south of town to stock up on kerosene, foodand toilet paper. We’ve got a great couple of days ahead as we head north towards Phnom Penh.
Having conquered the almighty Bokor Mountain yesterday we took the morning off to rest our legs and sort and re-pack our gear at the hostel.
It has been great camping there by the river and after a huge breakfast with fresh rolls (and real butter!) we said our goodbyes and headed to the old market in Kampot to stock up on provisions for the next few days.
The bike was looking and feeling great after the good clean we gave it last night and despite it turning into a very hot day we felt confident about our 40km cycle to Kiri Sela in Kampong Trach.
We got what we needed (we’re generally living off green tea, nuts (peanuts not cashews as they are ridiculously expensive here!) noodles, rice, veg and eggs when we camp) and at around noon headed south along the same road we had come from the Vietnamese border 4 days ago.
Right from the off the first stretch was a real slog. Yesterday’s ‘victory climb’ was soon forgotten as a combination of the midday sun and a strong head wind resulted in us both feeling pretty grumpy. We didnt even have the distraction of cycling a new stretch of road to help pass the time. We agreed to stop for lunch early, taking solace in a little grove of trees down a side track.
Fuled with food we got going again and we managed to arrive in Kampong Trach at around 4.15pm. Having cycled through the town we took a left turn down towards the temple and came across this beauty of a camping spot. After some deliberation we decided it was safe to camp.
We made friends with a passing farmer who was collecting his grazing cattle from the spot and made him tea. He and his little boy seemed pretty chilled when we showed him our tent, he was more interested in our stove and blow up mattresses so we assumed we were ok.
We covered up from the midges and got cooking. We ate as the moon was coming up over the hill followed by an episode of The West Wing before we went to bed. Feeling pretty satisfied we turned over and it was then that I noticed Paddy’s back… Covered in bites… Yikes!
Not wanting to worry too much we took an antihistamine each and turned the light off.
We woke at first light, wanting to get going towards Takeo after a quick tour of the nearby caves. While I was packing down the tent I hear a loud exclamation from Paddy. Ants everywhere, in our shoes, in our food bag…. Everywhere! It transpires we had managed to camp directly on an ant highway.
It took a long time to shake the bags and tent free of the little buggers, but we celebrated with fried tatties and scrambled egg and finally cycled around the corner to Kiri Sela where we were immediately met by a chorus of kids wanting to be our guide. These two got the job:
and immediately treated us to what we later called a ‘guide off’ – interupting eachother with the same pre-learned tour script which mainly involved showing us rocks which vaguely resmbled different animals. They also showed Paddy how to make a red beak out of a plant. Needless to say we tipped them each a dollar for entertainment value.
Bokor Maintain looms over Kampot and is the must see day trip on a moped out of the town. It rises up from sea level to 1048m, taller than anything in Ireland or England, but slightly less than Snowden, we’d heard from Ukrainian Kate that she cycled up there so we had to take on the challenge…
The main climb is for 20km with an average 5% gradient, we were interested to see how the tandem was on such a climb. We did unload and pack light for the round trip… In the future we might have to take on something like this loaded up… but not yet!
We climbed steadily through the jungle road which the French built in their hey day. It was spectacular. On stops we were surrounded by jungle sounds including Gibbons and saw a huge toucan like bird which Annie identified later as a great hornbill. We didnt get the right camera lens on in time to take a close up but think we saw the same bird later on the climb.
The French built this road through remote and pristine jungle so they could have a casino at the top and a little church beside it: you lose all your money, walk out and choose between the altar and the sheer cliff face. It cost 1000 lives to build the road at the time but then, they did put a church up there…
Near the top there is also a huge painted buddah. We soon wished we packed more clothes for the summit! It was pretty misty and cool!
Now the Chinese have moved in (the summit was sold to them for $10m) and built a new bigger casino and hotel which is going to be coupled with a cruise berth in Kampot that will ferry idiots up there to gamble. The Japanese also had a base there during the war and it was on the frontline when the Vietnamese invaded in the 70s… Basically the top of the mountain is a huge and unnessary clusterf##k.
We did enjoy the view and 3 plates of local noodles however. It took us about 3.5hours with stops to get to the summit. Annie had a little sleep before we took off back down the road…
40 mins back to the start of the climb another 20mins back to our tent, a swim, beer and relax by the river by 4pm.
We decided the bike needed some tlc in the evening so we got the rags and toothbrushes out and gave her a good scrub down (the stove kerosene cane in handy for soaking the chains), then a few more beers and bed after a satisfying day.