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Transliterating Names and Places

The seaside town of Kep has a name that looks like it should rhyme with Rep, but Khmers (which is pronounced Kam-mais) call it Kipe, which rhymes with Ripe. Nearby Kampot is pronounced the way it looks: Kam-Pot. Takeo is not what you'd think at first glance. If it was written Tak-aye-oh you’d have a better chance getting there than if you asked your driver to take you to Take-o. So it goes.

In Kep (Kipe) by the sea, in a gulf that Thailand got to name, time has hit the snooze button. The seaside residences of former Phnom Penh high society lie in ruin, decorated with bright graffiti and black mold some 40 years after the Khmer Rouge razed the place. New or renovated resorts and boutique guesthouses wait in the torpid heat for guests to arrive. Some tourists, like myself, do dribble in for a few centigrade’s difference in temperature from the mainland. Warm afternoon breezes and inexpensive seafood draw in Cambodian tourists on weekends and holidays.

Except this weekend for Khmer New Year, Kep is not so crowded. Maybe it was the algae bloom in the water and the Ministry of Health’s warning not to eat the crab the previous week that has kept folks out of Kep. Or perhaps Cambodians decided to visit their inland families instead this year. The coast here is remarkably unpopulated for a national holiday.

What I like about Kep is how random it appears. There is no town center, but there is a lusty Crab Market and stretches of beach with many monuments along the coast. There are statues to honor to salt workers, and Shiva, and monkeys, and a large white naked lady known as the Fisherman's Wife who sits placidly on the pier. I guess the local Moral Standards Society took up a collection for her new wardrobe—naked no more, she is draped in bits of gauzy cloth that barely cover her expansive thighs. My favorite monument is the giant blue crab that salutes just offshore and appears to dance in the waves. (The crabs must consider it a monument to their fallen, breaded, and fried comrades.) Things-to-do are mostly out of town: a boat trip to Rabbit Island is half an hour away, as is a tuk-tuk ride to Sothy’s Organic Pepper Farm or the Buddhist Caves. Nearby Kampot looked more industrious but over the Khmer New Year most of the town was not open for business. Something about sleepy Kep makes me want to forget about any itinerary. Those day trips that seemed so interesting three-days ago now are something I might do tomorrow. Or the next day. It's a holiday, after all.

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