Travel Journal

Kep, Cambodia, 4/5-4/9

(Sunday 10 April 2011) by Joanne Chang
Every Cambodian I asked about Kep told me to go to Sihanoukville, and nobody I'd met traveling had been. My guidebook says Kep was Cambodia's Riviera in its heyday but was destroyed during wartime and hasn't quite made a comeback. It's a good time to go. In general my book kind of sucks, but Sihanoukville's resorts and party beach vibe aren't calling to me. I want to go somewhere quiet for my week of solitude, so I take my chances and make the 11 hour bus ride to Kep.

Awesome choice, Jo. Kep is perfect! Once we change buses in Pnom Penh I'm the only westerner on a bus full of locals, and the only person to get off in Kep is me (everyone else goes on to Kampot). A moto-taxi is waiting to whisk me and my luggage 18 km from the drop-off to "Kep City", which is not much more than a handful of guesthouses, a crab market, seaside restaurants and a small beach. I realize as I'm balancing myself on the back of this moto with my backpack on and luggage between the driver's legs, how different it is to travel alone. I try not to think about falling off and look out at the open stretches of farmland, and know that I've come to the right place. I find the perfect bungalow at the Treetop, at the foot of the hills, a few kilometers from the crab market and beach and 700 m from the road so it's super quiet. I have a private porch with straw hammock where I can watch the sunset and roll out my yoga mat whenever I want. It's a bit of a splurge at $15 since they also have rooms for $5 (tiny, no view, shared bathroom), but I do it anyway and it's sooo worth it. It's the most well-built bamboo bungalow I've ever seen, actually. Pretty awesome the things people build out of natural resources.

I spend four full days there, in super chill mode. In the mornings I catch up on email, chat with Mom, Dad, Virg and Vicky on Sykpe (oh yes, of course George too!), catch up on my journals, make plans with Mom for China, do yoga and start listening to my Vipassana talks. The people running the Treetop, Cheauy (hospitality) and Kin (food) are the nicest people ever. Cheauy is constantly bringing me fresh fruit ("free for you"), Kin makes the best Tom Yam soup ever (fresh crab, squid and shrimpmmmm!), and I learn that Kin is my age with 3 kids and Cheauy is involved with iReach, an organization focused on bringing information technology to rural villagers who would otherwise be without basic news and electronic communication. Did you know that the Khmer alphabet is the longest in the world with more than 100 characters? They have only recently gotten this onto a keyboard so that stuff could be printed. Wow!

In the afternoons I bike or walk around, check out the beach and crab market, and discover a place called Kep Gardens (, a non-profit started in 2007 by an Australian couple after a holiday in Cambodia. It takes me awhile to find the place. When I do, it's an older woman, Janine, giving an exam to a class of 20 young kids. "What color is the sky?" "How many claps is this?" "Where does a bird sleep?" She asks and the kids write down the answer. I sit in the back of the room and take it in. The place is not much, just a wooden shade structure with a little kitchen area and rows of tables and benches. Beyond the classroom is a small house, and a stretch of land with trees and plants backing up to the hillside. When the kids start their self-guided exam, Janine comes to the back of the room and we chat. A few years ago she and her husband Andrew bought ~6 acres of land to plant an orchard and provide jobs for people in the villages. The idea for a school took off from there. Soon after they started an English school providing free classes up to Cambodia grade 12 (grade 6 English in the US) to give them opportunities for employment and higher education. They also started taking kids in to live on the property who otherwise would not even be able to go to public school, giving money to families who need it in order to send their child to school, and have sent four of their graduates to the hospitality school in Siem Reap. They have plans to build their own hospitality school with a restaurant, and have recently built and started operating a boat to take tourists out on lunch & dinner cruises. The boat and restaurant, in addition to the crops they have planted and farm animals they will purchase, are designed so that the school and programs can sustain themselves financially without having to rely on donations. I love this idea. Currently the boat is their only source of income, and everything aside from the occasional donation has been self-funded. Incredible. I sit and talked to her for awhile after the kids go home, completely inspired by what they've built, and their compassion and determination in helping these people. Janine works 7 days a week, teaching all the classes and cooking for the cruise on weekends. Until they can build housing for long-term volunteers, it's what she has to do. Their priority now is to build a bigger school and library to accommodate the 130 kids they teach every year but that takes funding too. My brain is spinning while I'm talking to her... I want to give her all my money, I want to build the library, I want to help feed the kids so they can go to school. I'm starting with a monthly donation of $50 AUD via Paypal, accessed via their website (currently this goes to a bank in Australia because Cambodia doesn't use Paypal). If you've read this far and want to help, please make a donation -- I've seen it, it's completely legit, and 100% of your donation goes to keeping Kep Gardens alive.

That day I also meet Kimsey, one of the graduates who went to the hospitality school in Siem Reap. She and three others now work on the cruise ship and will be training at the hospitality school when it's up and running. Coincidentally, they also "interned" at the Treetop so they know Cheauy. The following day, I randomly run into her outside Kinley restaurant where she and the others are teaching Sun, the restaurant manager and also a graduate of Kep Gardens, how to make cocktails. I stay and chat, eat crab pulled right from the sea, and write Sun a list of cocktails. It's kind of silly how much I know about cocktails but fun to pass on the knowledge. After my experience with the Kep Garden community, I add teaching English as a second language to my list of possibilities.

When it's time to leave Kep, I'm grateful for my experience. I'm a little sad to go, but I'm also sooooo excited to go to Vietnam to see George! It's been 10 weeks since I've seen him, and meeting him in Vietnam seems like a dream. I can't believe it's actually going to happen. We have both grown since the day I left San Francisco I feel changed in so many important ways, and I want to share it all with him. Yayayayayay, can't wait to go on this adventure together and see where it takes us. We are who we are, and we have all the time in the world.

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