A Landscape Painter Visits Southeast Asia: Part 2-Cambodia

Fisherman Shack on Otres Beach, Cambodia, 5 x 9” or 13 x 23 cm., Oil

In 2010, I embarked on a fantastic four-month painting tour of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia as well as Malaysia and (very briefly) Myanmar.

The narrative of this trip is broken up into 4 articles seen at the links below:

If your time is limited, I think that the Laos and Cambodia articles are the most interesting.

You can see just all the artwork here:

So after about five weeks in Thailand, in early February, I went to Cambodia. I took a bus from Bangkok. It is a bit nerve-racking to cross the border, mainly because of bad reports about the constant hassle by hustlers that work the border crossing (and it is Cambodia!) Here it was fairly minor. It cost about $15 to bribe the border guard to give us the visa. This is basically the set fee. Some people refuse to pay it, and they make you hang around for about a half hour before they let you in. I did  not know this at the time.

Fake Quarantine desk at Cambodian border crossing

The other con was a quarantine table where someone took your temperature to see if you have Avian Flu. This may have been legit, but the $.60 (yes sixty cents, but it’s the principle, grrr!)fee probably wasn’t. Everybody that I spoke with had hassles.

Sihanoukville

Despite my trepidation I arrived in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, which is a popular beach resort on the southwest coast of Cambodia. At least half the people in this town are “falang” (foreign) tourists. It is very nice and very cheap. Rooms are $5 to 10 and meals $3. Sunshine and beach are free. The water is like bath water, warmer than the air at night. Much less humidity here as well.

Sihanoukville beach, Cambodia

So far I am finding Cambodia more pleasant than Thailand, probably because there is less traffic and humidity. It feels like this is what Thailand was in the 1950s. Of course the lack of development was contributed to by the instability, some of which is attributable to the Vietnam War. Or as they say in Vietnam, the French and American wars.

I spent the week of (about; I am never sure of the day or date here) 10 -17 February there. It was really a nice time, and I was able to paint quite a bit. The first few days I was mostly near Serendipity beach, a busy and touristy party beach.

Nightime party at serendipity beach, Cambodia. Every night!

I rented a scooter to tool around in ($4 a day) and started exploring and painting. After a few days I found myself  at Otres beach, where I discovered this French run kind of south sea mini- resort (“Shanti-Shanti” with three huts) run by a very nice couple, Matt and Sophie. They made me feel at home and suggested some nice places to paint.

Shanti Shanti Bungalows, Otres Beach, Cambodia. 7 x 7” or 18 x 18 cm.,oil.
Shanti Shanti Bungalows, Otres Beach, Cambodia. 7 x 7” or 18 x 18 cm.,oil.

Above is one of the huts I stayed in at Shanti-Shant on Otres beach, and that’s the Indian Ocean! This wonderful establishment, had a small restaurant and a few beach hut’s. They had tent like walls that you would roll down at night and comfortable mattresses. It was basically glamping, a word I don’t think even existed then.

Sophie cooking sat Shanti-Shanti.

Sophie made terrific quiches and coffee, and for the week I spent here I would wake up, and wander into the bathwater temperature ocean, and take a morning swim and contemplate the subfreezing weather in Chicago, where I lived at that time. Then I would wander over to the restaurant and Sophie would serve me up a delicious French breakfast, and I would think about where I was going to go paint that day. It was actually probably the most pleasant week of the whole trip.

Shanti-Shanti, Otres beach, Cambodia

Sadly, this establishment no longer exists because Otres Beach was developed in the last 10 years. The couple who ran this place, I think, went down to somewhere in Malaysia to open up a new establishment. I donated a few dollars to them when they were fundraising for it a couple of years ago. I’m really glad I got to enjoy it pre-development. From what I understand, and judging from the contemporary satellite view maps, it looks like this beach has been pretty much destroyed as a place of natural beauty. Apparently there aren’t enough beaches with hotels and casinos on them in the world?

Sleeping arrangements at Shanti-Shanti.

But during that week, I felt like I was at some exclusive Caribbean resort. Of course the shower was a barrel and a pot, and sand got in everything, but it didn’t bother me a bit. After my morning routine, I went out and painted most days. Once me and another guest took a short canoe ride, but otherwise the only thing I did was sometimes go to another bar down the beach that had more English speakers.

Hanging out and drinking beer with some temporary friends on Otres beach
Fisherman Shack on Otres Beach, Cambodia, 5 x 9” or 13 x 23 cm., Oil
A Fisherman’s Shack on Otres Beach, Cambodia, 5 x 9” or 13 x 23 cm., Oil

Above is a view of a little fishing village, and I painted several views here. This day, I had packed a lunch, which I left in the bag on the ground, and a bunch of little kids came by and quickly started rifling through all my things and grabbed my food. They also grabbed some paints and brushes, which were basically irreplaceable, in that place, (I would’ve had to go back to Bangkok or Saigon). I managed to get the art supplies back, but the food was a loss. I yelled at them, and insisted that they share it equally. Certainly they were hungrier than this rich westerner.

Here are the Cambodian culprits who stole my lunch. Apparently used to and unembarrassed about stealing small things from tourists.

My financial position is quite modest where I live, but in Southeast Asia I was wealthy. I probably spent $1000 in the month I was in Cambodia, which was literally 15 or 20 times the average monthly wage of most Cambodians.

Fisherman near Otres beach, Cambodia. 4 x 12“ or 10 x 30 cm., Oil.
A Cow on Otres Beach, Cambodia. 5 x 7” or 13 x 18 cm., Oil.

I know this because while I was there, there was a strike at the Old Navy manufacturing plant. As I recall, they were agitating for a raise from about $45 a month to $55 a month. Mind you, it’s possible as a native to survive on that amount of money, but it’s not very much, still. Westerners always pay much more in a place like that. The usual price of my hotels was between five and $10 a night.

In the painting above, I was standing on the other side of a little river, and several times during that day a small herd of cows went back-and-forth looking for their grazing, bells jingling. I had never seen a cow on a beach before.

Fisherman near Otres beach, Cambodia. 4 x 12“ or 10 x 30 cm., Oil.
Fisherman near Otres beach, Cambodia. 4 x 12“ or 10 x 30 cm., oil.
Otres Village, Cambodia. 5 x 9” or 13 x 23 cm., Oil.
Otres Village, Cambodia. 5 x 9” or 13 x 23 cm., oil.

In the painting above, a really nice thing happened while I was painting this. This was just a dusty little road that I happen to wander down and decided to paint. Certainly the people in that little town had never seen anyone painting plein air. And some nice man came up to me and gave me a soda, that he had purchased for me. Ice-cold on a very hot day, and in beginners English, thanked me for painting their town. I wish I could just give it to them, maybe they would put it in their town office.

Kampot, Cambodia

After I left Sihanoukville, I went to Kampot, a small, almost sleepy town with much crumbling French architecture.

River walk park in Kampot, Cambodia

Still in the south of Cambodia, Its relative quiet made it a nice place to paint.

Monks were ubiquitous throughout Cambodia and Laos.

Gastronomically a highlight were these wonderful fruit smoothies that are made on little tables set up on the side of a road with a kitchen blender. The Blissful Guest house had a great bar and atmosphere.

French Colonial Prison, Kampot, Cambodia,5 x 9" or 13 x 23 cm.,oil
French Colonial Prison, Kampot, Cambodia,5 x 9″ or 13 x 23 cm., oil

The painting above is an old French colonial prison, and while it looked quite rundown, apparently it is still being used in the present day. I could not find much information about this prison, but I was told that it was a place of horror when the Khmer Rouge were in power.

Crowd of art critics around my openmbox easel in Kampot, Cambodia

I was set up on the side of a dirt road (it was almost all dirt roads in Cambodia and Laos) and I was definitely the highlight of the day for the local children. There were probably 20 or 30 watching me, playing, asking me questions that I didn’t understand in Khmer. I remember the owner of the Blissful Guest House, where I was staying, saw me and was so happy because he said that no one in the town had ever imagined someone doing plein air painting. Just completely out of their experience!

Colonial Building, Kampot, Cambodia,5 x 9" or 13 x 23 cm.,oil
Colonial Building, Kampot, Cambodia, 7x7incm., oil

While I was painting the painting above, a young woman, an American who was living in Switzerland and on vacation in Cambodia, came up to me, and later that night we went out on a date! Lots of single travelers looking for love on the banana pancake trail, as they call the Southeast Asia backpacking route. I think she truly liked my painting, but I realized later her purpose was probably to get a nice free meal. Last I ever saw of her, but she was interesting, and didn’t like her job as a French to English translator in Geneva, and I always wondered what became of her.

Phnom Chhnork, a Hindu cave temple thought to have been constructed in the 7th century.

Kampot really had a pleasant expat vibe. While there I also visited some old Hindu temples in caves. The road getting there is a bit rough, and I used my rented moped to get there. It was quite nice, but ruined a little by the local children who harassed me until I hired one (and even then, I was badgered for money constantly)

My “guide”inside the Hindu temples.

I also took a day trip on the Moped and had the most extraordinary prawns with raw pepper at Kep beach.

Prawns with rice and fresh peeper still on the vines Kep beach

It was delicious to eat pepper on the vine. The climate of Kampot Province offers perfect conditions for growing pepper and the quartz content of the soil in the foothills of the Elephant Mountains apparently helps to give Kampot pepper its unique terroir.

Fountain and Directional landmark

One other thing that was interesting about Cambodia was how they gave directions. Maps were not common, and I was told the average person in SE Asia had no map reading experience. If you think about it, it’s quite an abstract concept. And many people can not read. What they do is use landmarks, specifically monuments, which are common at major intersections. So directions might be, “go to the bird statue, take a left until you get to the rat statue…”

Phnom Penh

After Kampot, it was up to Phnom Penh, a busy city, although much quieter than Bangkok. The main goal was to get some art supplies and clothes. Clothes I found, but no art supply store in Phnom Penh that I could locate. I don’t think I did any drawing or painting there. Highlights were the wonderful people I met at my guesthouse (“The Top Banana”), and a Buddhist monk I had a long conversation with on the river-walk.

Stone carvers in Phnom Penh.

One thing that was fascinating to see was a group of stone carvers working outside near the Fine Arts Academy carving statuary for a Wat across the street. Whether these were students or workers I could not ascertain.

Documentation photos made by the Khmer Rouge of people they murdered.

I also made a sobering visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. The rows of photographs of the inmates/victims taken by the jailers were heartbreaking.

Torture room from the Khmer Rouge at the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. The stains on the floor were from blood

The site is a former secondary school which was used as Security Prison by the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 until its fall in 1979. From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, who were mostly eventually murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

Angkor

In the Angkor archeological park

After a few days in Phnom Penh I took a bus ride up to Siem Reap town, which is about 12 KM from Angkor Wat. Angkor is one of the largest sets of ruins in Asia. Angkor Wat is the name for one of the central sites. I visited 5 different sites (there are dozens) and did some paintings and drawings. From a cultural point of view, it was the highlight of this trip.

Angkor Treasure Storage Houses # 2, 7 x 7” or 13 x 18 cm., Oil.
Angkor Treasure Storage Houses # 2, 6 x 7” or 13 x 18 cm., Oil.

Here is one of the twelve towers of Prasat Suor Prat. According to a Cambodian legend, the towers served as anchoring places for ropes which stretched from one to another for acrobats performing at festivals. I was fascinated by these towers, and painted two other views.

Stephan Giannini looking hot and messy while painting at the Prasat Suor Prat site at Angkor, Cambodia.

I got a one-week pass to the Angkor archaeological Park, a very serious thing that included my photograph. I think it was $40, which at that time was probably a couple of weeks of wages for most Cambodians. Worth it, the archaeological park is huge!

Some visitors went the luxury route and hired elephants for their Angkor tour.

And usually in Southeast Asia you’re able to easily rent mopeds, but for some reason at that time, they didn’t allow foreigners to rent vehicles Siem Reap. So I rented a bicycle, which was quite the adventure in the near 100° F heat. Luckily, there were always locals with a little food and beverage stands set up everywhere. Often delicious fruit that I had never tasted before! Most visitors hire guides who have either scooters or a car.

Angkor Treasure Storage Houses # 3, 7 x 7” or 13 x 18 cm., Oil.
Angkor Treasure Storage Houses # 3, 7 x 7” or 13 x 18 cm., Oil.

My favorite site was Preah Khan and also some sandstone monuments just east of Angkor Thom. The relief work (carvings) was a special highlight of all these monuments.

Dancing Apsaras at Angkor Thom(I believe), 11 x 14 in., colored pencil and chalk

The reliefs and sculpture were mind blowing at Angkor. I felt a kinship with these long gone craftsman.

I ended up painting three views of the Treasure houses at Prea Khan.

Angkor Treasure Storage Houses, 5 x 7” or 12.5 x 17.5 cm., Oil.
Angkor Treasure Storage Houses, 5 x 7” or 12.5 x 17.5 cm., Oil.

In Siem Reap town (the ‘base camp” for Angkor visitors) I visited “Artisans d’Angkor“, an organization that teaches and supports the traditional arts of the region. Their showroom and workshops were tremendously interesting.

Artisans d’Angkor workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Artisans d’Angkor workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Overall, Cambodia surprised me. I spend a lot of time at first nervous because of all the bad reports you get, but the truth was that it was absolutely wonderful, and my interactions with Khmer’s had always been pleasant, or even enthusiastic. A big plus here, in a twisted sort of way, is the poverty, because there is a lot less traffic here than in Thailand.

After about a month in Cambodia, I headed for Laos. Read about that in Part 3.

Map of my Indochina trip.

Published by Stephan Giannini

An oil painter from Maine, USA.

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