Cambodia has twenty-four provinces: quite a lot for a small nation of 14 million inhabitants. With twenty-four provincial capitals in a largely rural country, it is no surprise that most of these cities are just sleepy country towns at the end of a potholed road. Yet even for those accustomed to the diminutive size of most Cambodian ‘cities’, Takéo will seem quiet and unhurried. You will very see cars on the road, and in the heat of the day, when most of the locals are smart enough to stay in the shade, it can resemble a ghost town. But for anyone on the trail of the earliest Khmer kingdoms, a visit to this town is a near necessity, as Takéo province was the place where Khmer civilization first blossomed.
For three and a half months from April to June, 2012 I lived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, with my partner, Cameron, and Donal, an Indonesian who we considered as a younger brother- certainly part of the family. For my birthday present on May 29, I asked that we go out to Takéo for a couple of days and rent a speedboat out to the archaeological sites out in the vicinity. Donal was not too keen on the idea as he was worried it would be hot out there in the Takéo countryside and his skin would get ‘black’, something which many Southeast Asians view as deeply unattractive. But when we reminded him it was my birthday, he agreed good-naturedly enough.
We hired a tuk-tuk to take us all the way from Phnom Penh to Takéo for $25. There are public buses on the route but we wanted to stop off at the Angkorian temples in the area along the way (more on these in a later post) and having our own transport would make everything that much easier. It is only around 80 kms from Phnom Phenh but the roads are in poor condition, and getting almost anywhere in Cambodia takes longer than you expect.
A strange thing about Takéo: there is a great abundance of guesthouses even though it does not attract either tourists or business people. Perhaps these dated from a period when more trade from Vietnam was coming through this neck of the woods, bringing an influx of small traders. The guesthouse we chose was out on the edge of town, which still only placed us a couple of kilometres from the centre of town. We soon found that there is really no transport available about town- not even a tuk-tuk most of the time- but it is small enough that you can walk just about anywhere in half an hour. After we checked into our rooms, we went out to have a look around town.
Takéo is situated towards the very edge of the Mekong Delta, so there is a lot of water in the vicinity. The town centre is set along a small lake which is all but choked with lily pads and other water life. On the far side of the lake, joined by a dirt causeway, is a small island which houses a large, white mansion. This was formerly the home of Ta Mok, a senior member of the Khmer Rouge, who was known as Brother Number Five by the leadership of the regime. Brother Number One was, of course, Pol Pot himself. (In their numbering system, it is as if the Khmer Rouge deliberately set out to implement the ludicrous system in George Orwell’s Animal Farm in which, “All animals were created equal; but some were created more equal than others.”)
Referencing Ta Mok’s reputation for savagery and bloodshed in the parts of the country he controlled, the Cambodian people came up with their own name for Ta Mok, naming him The Butcher. Ta Mok’s mansion is a white two-storey mansion which, while not especially impressive by the standards of the current Cambodian elite, makes a mockery of the claims of the Khmer Rogue to have been opposed to bourgeois culture. While Cambodian children were being taken from their parents and forced to live in communal housing- all in the name of radical Communism- The Butcher was living here in his lakeside mansion, exulting in his hideous power complex.
It is hard to say whether we were more discouraged by the midday heat or Ta Mok’s bloody reputation, but we decided not to cross the causeway and continued straight into town. What we found was a town which had never fully recovered from the ravages of the Pol Pot era. Like many of the older urban centres in Cambodia, Takéo dated from the French colonial period and there are still several rows of shophouses from the period. They are a rather plain and unornamented affair, suggesting that Takéo was a much less important town than either Battambang or Kampong Cham even a century before. But in 2012, they have been almost completely abandoned and Takéo’s old town has the look of a ghost town. Whole rows of shops are boarded-up with cracks in their plaster and a general look of decay. The ‘capitalist’ shop-owners would have been a target for the Khmer Rogue killers and it seems as if the Communist takeover of Cambodia dealt a blow to the fortunes of Takéo from which it had never recovered.
As in most Cambodian urban centres, there is a market, but unlike Kampot, Phnom Penh and the other large towns, there is nothing eye-catching or memorable about Takéo’s market. Sections of walls have been knocked out and the whole thing looks like a ruin. However, unlike the shop-houses, it is still in use, with a few small stall-keepers selling noodle dishes and soups to a small band of customers. The interior has no lighting, giving the whole market the feel of a cave. This is one of the places in Cambodia where you sense the grinding poverty and deprivation of the nation and are reminded that its development has been delayed by decades by warfare and political chaos.
Hot and bothered, we stopped in at the best restaurant in town, a Chinese-Cambodian place on stilts, situated along what passed as ‘the waterfront’. A couple of local bigwigs pursued those activities beloved of many local men in the region- eating seafood, drinking beer and flirting with the young waitresses, who plied them with a steady supply of ice and swished away their advances like flies. Not having eaten all day, we ordered prodigious amounts of food. Soon after we arrived, the bigwigs departed, and while I tried to organize a boat out to the ruins for the following day, Donal gloried in the attention lavished upon him by the Cambodian waitresses, whose English was only slightly better than his.