Kampot yet again

November 16, 2015

A couple of months ago, a friend and I, over the course of a beer or two, decided that we should start a literary festival in Cambodia. If second-tier places like Galle, Ubud and Bath could have literary festivals, then why not Cambodia? And why not a nice little town like Kampot? We decided we must do something about it.

So, I’ve just come back from the inaugural Kampot Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, which, happily for all concerned, was not organised by me in the slightest.

The four-day festival was among the best times I’ve ever had in Cambodia. Kampot is the perfect place for it: sleepy and laid-back, but full of artists and musicians wafting around town as the Kampot River drifts lazily by, while crumbling old French-colonial buildings doze in the heat and time passes almost imperceptibly.

The festival was occasionally quite hard work, as I had to sit on various panels and pretend to talk knowledgeably for hours on end about things I know very little about, like journalism and publishing. But in between me doing my dog and pony show, there was lots of proper fun to be had: cooking demonstrations, poetry readings, photography exhibitions, graphic arts workshops, film previews, puppet shows and lots and lots of bands. Then there was the food: lots of foreigners have set up restaurants in Kampot, some of which are completely brilliant, including an Italian restaurant under a tarpaulin against a wall at the side of a road, run by a mad Italian, which had the best pasta I’ve eaten in years.

Best Italian restaurant in South East Asia.

Best Italian restaurant in South East Asia.

One of the highlights for me was watching a group called The Messenger Band, who are made up of former garment industry workers. They would earnestly describe what each number was about: forced labour, domestic sexual violence, being orphaned because of AIDS, land grabbing and so forth, then, when the audience was thoroughly depressed, launch into these astonishingly beautiful songs, the voices rising ethereally up into the night skies. It was sublime beyond belief.

The weekend also saw the launch of my genius friend Minh’s new magazine, The Mekong Review, which he put together in just three weeks, but which is quite brilliant, and well worth buying if you see a copy.

It rained quite a lot, but it didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. If there was a criticism to be made, it was that the festival was organised by white men, and many of the participants were white men. But what can you do? You’ve got to start somewhere, and strenuous efforts were made to get as many locals as possible involved. Seeing as the festival was put together in just seven weeks, the organisers did a fantastic job, and next year will be even better. I can’t wait. I’d book a plane ticket now, if I were you.

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One Response to “Kampot yet again”

  1. David Hayhurst said

    Greetings from a shell-shocked Paris, Rupert. Haven’t been out much since the attacks It had half-crossed my mind to go to the concert at the Bataclan where about 100 people (and counting) lost their lives, but decided I’m too old for Death Metal…

    But we go to that part of the city all the time…

    Are there Cambodian writers, fiction or non-fiction, who you’d recommend? How about notable foreigners writing on the area?

    I’ll be sure to check out your friend’s magazine.

    Hope to make it to Vietnam and/or Laos early in the new year, if the Fates and the Furies permit us. Might see you both soon.

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