Blog // Tales from the trail
Aaahhhh Kampot! What wonderful memories we have of this sleepy riverside town. While the few days in Kep had not been too arduous, (minus the marathon bike ride that Keith had managed to con me onto!), our almost-week in Kampot was exceedingly relaxing.
Thanks to Sister D for the recommendation, we were staying in a lodge on the river called The Greenhouse. The Greenhouse, a traditional Khmer-style building, was originally a popular bar and restaurant in Phnom Penh, but due to plans for land re-development was being forced to close or move. Not wanting to see the demise of what had become a bit of an institution, the story goes that a friend of the owner based in Kampot mooted the idea of dismantling the structure and moving it down to the river. And the rest, as they say, is history, with a few burdened trucks in-between.
The spot on the river is just idyllic, sat within the green green valley and right on the bank.
It is about 5km outside of Kampot town and while we could cycle in, we were quite content to stay put some days, kayaking on the river or enjoying a gin and tonic on the pontoon whilst watching the sun set. The restaurant, an entity in its own right turned out plate after plate of delicious food, most dishes including the local Kampot peppercorns in some form, even in the home-made chocolate chip cookies. This equated to two very content sprouts. (For any bakers out there, try adding red peppercorns to your chocolate chip cookies - you won't be disappointed!)
Kampot town itself didn't inspire us all that much although was pleasant enough. It had a sense of being a little dated and lethargic, even though new guesthouses, cafes and small businesses seemed to be popping up over the grid, lined with tired colonial-styled Asian shop-houses.
What we did love hands down about Kampot though was the surrounding areas, and armed with a hand-drawn treasure map we spent our days (when not reposing) exploring the sights out of town. What we didn't account for though was the start of the rainy season...
We decided to hire a moped and drive to the top of the imposing-sounding Bokor Mountain, the only mountain, in an otherwise fairly flat area. It was previously a bit of a playground for the French social elites, who in the 1920s built a royal palace hotel and casino on the top of it to escape the heat of the lower plains. It became a small resort town with a school, church and post office, however it was deserted by the French in the first Indochine war in the 1940s. The French used to hold lavish parties atop the mountain whilst the Chinese gambled the night away, as rumour has it, some having lost their life-savings in the casino would climb the walls of the garden terrace and jump out off the cliff into oblivion. Although it is now a national park, a new resort is currently being built on the mountain. However, the old buildings mostly stay standing and the area is described as an eerie attraction especially with the addition of the low-lying mist. Keith, having an affection for abandoned buildings that I just don't understand, wanted to see the abandoned casino. After a few wrong turns down rutted paths, we finally found ourselves at the entrance at the bottom of the 1,000 metre mountain. Warned by the locals that it could get cold up top, up to 15 degrees cooler than town, and that it was most probably rainy, the clouds skimming the top of it, we donned our waterproofs, even though we were already cooking in the heat. "As if we'll need these..." we scoffed.
Due to the new development work, the road up to the top was the best we had been on in Cambodia. It coils tightly around the mountain and offers glimpses of some very impressive views to come. Half-way up, it started to rain. And then it began to pour. Within minutes we were soaked to the bone, 10 minutes later we were soaked to the bone and shivering with cold and 20 minutes later when we got to the second ticket check-point at the top, handing over our ticket to the guard, now a small pile of mulch, we were feeling more than a bit sorry for ourselves. Determined to at least see something, we carried on for a few more kilometres, but the horizontal rain was relentless and we were numb with cold. Visibility was less then 5 metres at best. I ordered 'to be taken off the bloody mountain' and Keith, sensing that I wasn't joking, turned around. Unfortunately, we didn't get a view (which on a good day looks out to Sihanoukville in the West and the islands of Phu Quoc of Vietnam in the East) nor a single photo and it was 4 days before my trainers were squelch-free. Epic fail.
Our other adventures included a mountain bike ride, cave discovery and more generally driving around the area exploring.
The countryside surrounding Kampot and the rural scenes will epitomise my lasting memory of Cambodia; it is heart-breakingly beautiful evoking feelings of gladness and poignancy all at the same time.
Vivid green rice fields being overlooked by silhouetted tall, skinny palms; rusty red tracks weaving through villages on stilts; hammocks swaying; animals pottering; and always children, particularly the girls, determinedly riding on over-sized bicycles going to or from school in neatly pressed uniforms - a powerful image I felt, of the past being left behind.
After spending almost a week in Kampot we said our sorry goodbyes and loaded back onto the bus to Phnom Penh. This wasn't just a goodbye to Kampot but an almost goodbye to Cambodia as our stop in the capital was to pick up our visas for Vietnam and bus out. Our stay in Cambodia has been a genuinely interesting and emotional history lesson for us both. We picked up a book all the way back in Battambong, 'Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land' by Henry Kamm, the SE Asia Correspondent for the New York Times, which added so much to our visit. We would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Cambodia's history. (As an aside, he has also written a book about Vietnam during the same era, however we have been unable to find any information about this book in Vietnam, the press and publications still censored in the country.)
There does seem to be a positive feeling in the air in Cambodia; generally people are very smiley, kids always waving a hello (and unlike other places we have been to, they don't expect handouts or anything in return) and we didn't encounter much in the way of bitterness or people feeling sorry for themselves, or at least this wasn't expressed to us; people seemed to be getting on with things, trying to forge their own paths. This is in contrast from what we could see, to anything related to government or the elite, where corruption is still blunt and visible. We saw banners for the two main parties scattered all over the country, giving the impression of peoples' right to choose, however come election-time, I'm not sure that the ruling party wouldn't just assert control, regardless of the election results. Hopefully with perseverance of the people, this will change.
On the cuisine front, although street food is varied, the dishes appear more for sustenance, packs or ready-noodles used to make stir-fried dishes and ketchup or sugar a major ingredient in the sauces used in the more popular dishes; we read that much of the cuisine was still playing catch up post Khmer-Rouge times. The vast number of NGOs in the country seem to have brought with them influences from their own countries and are in a positive way helping Cambodians to see where they want to go, opening their eyes up to the possibilities. English is widely-spoken, impressively so. Poverty is still rife but improvement is in the air. I hope that this is the case, Cambodians certainly deserve a break and should be proud of their resilience and their beautiful land, the borders still under dispute with Thailand and Vietnam.
Fare thee well for now Kampuchea, and onto Vietnam; no love lost between the two countries so it will be interesting to see how, and if indeed they do, really differ.
Comments on this posting: