Ice with your Pepsi
Dickon Verey catches that Pepsi spirit in Battambang
Excerpted from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
I spent almost three years of my life in the town of Battambang, which has a quiet provincial charm and laid-back ease. It also has its fair share of rumors and legends. I used to spend days driving around on my motorbike, following hearsay, happy in idle discovery. One time, I was in the Balcony Bar describing an adventure to Kompong Puoy Lake. My drinking partner looked at me, smiled, and said, "Bet you've never been to the Pepsi factory. That place gives me the creeps."
"Eh?" I said, cocking my ear. I had always assumed that Western corporations stayed away from Cambodia due to corruption. Furthermore, why would fizzy drinks frighten this character? "Yeah, it's an old Pepsi factory from Lon Nol times. Now it lies empty. Scary place. Apparently the Thais had an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola, so Pepsi built a factory in Battambang and shipped the stuff across the border. You can find it just outside of town on the road to Ek Phnom."
Fact or fiction? To find out, the next morning I hit the road. Three kilometers later and there it was; a large 1960s-style complex of warehouses and buildings. On the largest sat the old Pepsi logo. I drove up to the entrance and parked my bike. It appeared that the factory was in use. A group of ladies was cleaning plastic bottles. They looked at me in surprise. In broken Khmer I asked if I might look around.
"Ot panyahar!" (No problem!). I walked into the second room and stepped back in time. All the bottling machines were there, along with what must've been ten thousand old bottles. There were classic Pepsi, green Miranda, Singha Soda Water, and Teem. Could I take a couple? I was given the go-ahead. I then explored some more. The factory was suffering from age, but other than a few bullet holes and shell damage to one of the warehouses, it seemed largely untouched.
When I got home I noticed that the bottles had "72" etched on the bottom. I assumed that was the year they were made and that consequently they had never left the warehouse, as the surrounding countryside at that time was full of Khmer Rouge. The sense of history was palpable.
I decided to do some more research and talked to a friend of mine who spoke fluent Khmer. A few weeks later we headed back to the factory. As we wandered around outside, a band of giggling kids approached us. My friend asked one of them if he knew anything about the place.
"Speak to my dad," the kid said. A man of about sixty approached. My friend started chatting to him in Khmer. He seemed delighted that anyone was interested in the factory. He told us he delivered water that was processed by the people who were working there now.
"Where do you live?" He waved at some shacks a few meters away.
"Have you lived here long?" He laughed and explained that he had always lived there.
"Do you remember the time when the factory made Pepsi?" He laughed again and told us that he had delivered the stuff around Battambang. He didn't remember if the product was shipped to Thailand but thought it likely. The factory had closed when Pol Pot's people came, he said. However, every Khmer New Year the Khmer Rouge opened the factory for five days and made ice. In a rare act of generosity, they gave the ice to the villagers, and then they shut the factory again. When the Vietnamese occupied the country, they reopened the ice factory. When they left, the factory lay dormant until the water company came a few years ago.
On my last visit the factory was still there, so go and have a look yourself. Sure, Cambodia may be a country of myth and fable, but this is one story that's definitely true.
Fact File: Getting to the Pepsi factory
Battambang is located in the northwest of Cambodia about three hundred kilometers from Phnom Penh along National Highway 5. From the center of Battambang, take the road to Ek Phnom. Keep your eyes peeled for the Pepsi bottling factory, which is located about one mile from town.
Talking of To Cambodia With Love, we are aiming to hold a launch getogether at Monument Books in Phnom Penh around the middle of January. More when it's firmed up. Basically just standing around talking about the book or anything else you want to talk about. Probably a few difficult questions like, "why did it take so long from the beginning of the project to publication" at which point I blush, shuffle uncomfortably and look at my feet, hoping the floor will swallow me whole. Monument should have a pile of the lovingly crafted books by then. Lovingly crafted by the 60+ contributors I might add. Amazon had the book for sale before I'd even seen a copy and their author section tells me that 9 books have been sold in Seattle over the past couple of weeks. Go Seattle! With a fair wind we might even get some reviews in the local press here in Cambodia in the next couple of weeks. I'm buying a hard hat and building a bunker just in case the reviews are less than complimentary - I have to live in this town afterall.