I am a professional artist and have been lucky enough to take several long painting-focused trips. Starting In early January 2010 I embarked on a four-month painting and travel tour of the Indochina region including Cambodia as well as Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar.
As I traveled to Cambodia, I passed through the southern border crossing that is near Trat, Thailand and Koh Kong, Cambodia. 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. Here it was fairly minor. A good rule is not to give your passport to anyone except the officials behind the glass. It cost about $15 to bribe the border guard to give me a visa. This is basically the set fee. Some people refuse to pay and they make you hang around for about an hour before they were let in. I did not know this at the time. The other hassle was a medical quarantine table where someone took your temperature (for a fee) to see if you have avian flu.
Despite my trepidation, I arrived safely in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, which is a popular beach resort. At least half the people in this town are “falang” (foreign) tourists. It is pleasant and very cheap. Rooms are $5 to $10 and meals $3. Sunshine and beach are free. The water is like bathwater, warmer than the air at night. There was much less humidity here as well. I rented a scooter to tool around in for $4 a day.
Sihanoukville was very nice and I was able to paint quite a bit. The scenery isn’t that great here but it is paint-able. Lots of little kids gather around when I paint and until I packed everything away, they rifled through all my stuff. They stole my lunch one day, and while I could not get it back I insisted that the thieves at least share it with the whole gang. They probably needed it more than this well-fed American.
At first, I was near Serendipity beach, which is a busy tourist center. 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, $10 night) run by a very nice couple, Matt and Sophie. They made me feel at home and suggested some nice places to paint. Matt and Sophie have a simple restaurant where the main dish was a daily Quiche. This was a nice western food break from the local fair.
During my stay at Otres Beach, each morning I would wake before sunrise in my little grass and wood bungalow, crawl out from under the mosquito netting, walk the 20 ft. to the ocean and wade out in the loveliest blue water, at just the right temperature. After my swim, I wandered up to the small restaurant where I enjoyed a big cup of espresso, a brioche, and jam. I felt like I was in 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.
After I left Sihanoukville, I went to Kampot, a small almost sleepy town with much crumbling French architecture. Its relative quiet made it a nice place to paint. Gastronomically a highlight was these wonderful fruit shakes that are made on little tables set up on the side of a road with a kitchen blender. The Sisters cafe deserves a special mention for wonderful coffee and apple pie. The Blissful Guesthouse had a great bar and atmosphere. This town really had a pleasant expat vibe. While there, I also visited some old Hindu temples in caves, and later I had the most extraordinary prawns with raw pepper at Kep beach.
After Kampot, it was up to Phnom Penh, which is an OK but 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. Highlights there were the wonderful people I met at my guesthouse “The Top Banana” and a sobering visit to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. The rows of photographs of the inmates/victims taken by the jailers were heartbreaking. One thing that was really interesting 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.
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 a half dozen paintings and drawings. You are not able to rent scooters here so I ended up with a bicycle, which is relaxing although it was extremely hot. Most visitors hire guides with either scooters or a car.
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. 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.
Overall, Cambodia surprised me. Sometimes I was nervous in Cambodia because of all the bad reports you hear, but the truth is it was absolutely wonderful, and my interactions with Khmers were always 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. One day while I was out painting on a dusty red road near a town, someone came by to give me a can of soda, “in thanks for painting our village”. It made my day.
The paintings I created are all small single session sketches around 6 x 9 in. in size. The drawings are a little larger. To see most of the work I did on this trip take a look at Painting On Location In Southeast Asia. If you’re interested in the logistics of my painting gear you can take a look at My Asian Painting Equipment.
Learn more about Cambodia by listening to one of our Amateur Traveler podcast episodes about Cambodia.