Blog // Tales from the trail
Stuffing another delicious, light and crispy piece into our months, we mused for a second if there were many other places in the world that could boast producing salt and pepper squid with all of the key ingredients being caught, grown or otherwise produced within 10km of the table they were being served on? The salt, collected and refined from the numerous fields on either side of town; the pepper, grown a touch further inland at the town's famous plantations and the squid itself, freshly caught and sold at the market we were currently looking at from our splendid seafront table.
If you hadn't already guessed it from the cryptic title, we were in a small holiday town on the south coast of Cambodia called Kep. Kep is also famous for its crab, something not lost on the town planners when commissioning the aquatic-sign on the beach road in.
Whilst this sign and the shiny new tarmac road hints towards the revival the town is currently experiencing, it still some way off the peak it once reached during the period of French colonial rule; once upon a time Kep was the playground for the well disposed French and Cambodian elite of Phnom Penh. However its ideals (or lack thereof) were also despised by the Khmer Rouge and despite rumours that it was they who destroyed the town, rather the colonial era mansions and seafront villas were in fact gutted in this era by local residents desperate for cash and food. The result can be seen today with surreal neighbourhoods comprising entirely of the empty shells of once luxurious houses.
Today the town is split into two main parts as our host for the next few days kindly explained; the first is for tourists consisting mainly of resorts but also served by the crab market (and accompanying string of similarly named seafood restaurants), we noted resorts take a bit of a breather around the coast road before finishing in a flurry at Kep beach. The second, in his words, is for locals and there was nothing much of interest for us to see there.
The blocky and brightly coloured map we were then handed resembled something of a theme park guide, lured in not only by its appearance but also with attractions such as "jungle trek", "the old king's residence," "sunset rock" and "giant crab statue", we were keen to start exploring.
Our first venture however was to the crab market, as after a bumpy old morning on buses and tuk-tuks we were keen to fill our bellies with some of the local seafood. Opting for a much less fussy (and far easier to eat) fish, it was duly grilled over coals and served up to us with a spicy-sweet chilli sauce; we were soon refueled and on our way.
As we continued our walk, there seemed something strangely wasteful about the row after row of abandoned villas that lined the beautiful beach road, many of these being well on their way to being completely reclaimed by the jungle. However having seen over-developed coastlines in Europe and West-Africa, in many instances rich residents having taken it upon themselves to block footpaths and coastal access, I'm not completely convinced this is the case. Either way, worthy of contemplation over a beer on Kep beach before our walk back.
The next day, our attention turned towards the "jungle trek", or as it is more officially known, Kep National Park. In addition to the maintained circular route around the park, a couple of French expats took it upon themselves to open a number of internal footpaths leading up to the summit of Phnom Kep. Previously this had last been accessible at the end of the Indochina war, when it was supposedly used as a look-out (you can't see much from the top) or (more likely) a radio point. Not only have they opened the footpaths, unaware at the time about the potential risk of landmines (fortunately zero found to date), but they have also installed a number of excellent Wainwright-style maps at key points to help you navigate your way around. Despite all this help however, we somehow managed to find ourselves on the steepest and most treacherous route up to the summit, straight up a gully and at times dragging ourselves up near vertical sections through the hot and sticky jungle path on ropes kindly installed to make the route possible.
The two Frenchmen own Led Zep cafe, which lies on the main route around the park and also makes delicious take away lunches. We opted for a straightforward cheese and tomato sandwich to reward ourselves for the efforts, and very much enjoyed it whilst peering down at the view from sunset rock on our way down from the summit.
One of the other reasons we spent a few days in Kep was we felt that it would be a good retreat to catch up on a bit of reading and writing, and as such we learnt a very curious tale about one of the many flags Cambodia has had in recent history. The flag in question is that of the Khmer Republic, and whilst the calamitous actions of this government are well documented, the story of the flag is less well known.
In the early hours of one October morning in 1970, a girls' high school received a bizarre phone call from Parliament, who had just decided on the flag for the Khmer Republic. Hasty descriptions were given down the phone, along with instructions about the apparently ancient Khmer tradition that the new flag was required to be consecrated by vestal virgins (rumoured to have been declared so by no less than General Lon Nol). As the story goes, a group of 'suitable' art students were assembled as the principal rushed off to the Central Market at dawn to procure the necessary fabrics from the first shop that would open. Thus with the principal manically surveying the work, the girls stitched a red satin field over the top left hand corner of the giant blue flag and using a cardboard template, cut and stitched a white satin outline of Angkor Wat into the middle of the field. Finally three stars, of which no consistent significance has ever been attached were stuck to the flag adjacent to the field; with one side of the flag complete their time was up as the consecration ceremony was due to start at a makeshift Buddhist altar at the opposite end of the school hall to where the girls had been working. The following morning the flag was run up a wobbly flagpole by Lon Nol himself to a fanfare of the republican national anthem.
On our final day in Kep we headed out on the bikes for an explore of the local side of town and into the salt fields beyond. Our route through took us past the beach, which was definitely a popular spot at weekends; throngs of people filled the small beach and stern ladies directed anything that moved (especially anything motorised) towards a parking spot and a ready made beach mat and chairs on the promenade. It was interesting just sitting and people watching for a while; European figures lazing a safe distance from the water in bikinis, the more conservative Cambodians just out and about enjoying the water in whatever they happened to be wearing that day, or even kids going crazy in their birthday suits, seeing who could make the biggest splash by running full speed at the approaching waves.
Things calmed down a little moving past the beach, passing a few more quieter places to enjoy the coast and a smattering of more down-to-earth houses on dirt streets between the coast and the main road. We followed one along briefly and before we knew it we were out on a much wider dirt track, salt fields on one side and mangroves on the other. With a strong tailwind we cruised along as far as I dared (accompanied by my unconvincing attempts to convince Corallie that the return journey wouldn't be that bad) before turning back and upwind for the inevitable long slog back. Things did come back to bite me a little however, the lack of suncream on my legs resulting in a blazing red tan line up to where my shorts reached, or looking like I was wearing a pair of suspenders as Corallie hysterically remarked!
Back in local town, we headed towards the grid street plan area on our map as we were interested to see what was occurring in the old town, however after a few laps of Independence Monument placed firmly at its heart it was clear no one was home and perhaps time also for us to call it a day.
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