CAMBODIA TALES 2000
Kampot and Kep
Cambodia's south coast is becoming increasingly popular these days, although the beaches of Sihanoukville are the magnet for the majority of tourists and travellers. Another 120 kms along the coast is the seaside resort of Kep and nearby, sleepy Kampot, and they were my preferred choice of destination for a first foray into the southern region of Cambodia.
It was 6.30am when Phalla and I climbed aboard Sarein's moto outside the Dara Reang Sey hotel and headed into the southwest of the city and the share-taxi stand at Dumkor market, the starting point for travel along Route 3 to the south coast. On arriving, a scrum of taxi-drivers descended on us, so I left Phalla to negotiate (10,000 riel per seat) and thanked Sarein for the lift. Phalla, who hadn't intended to come along, changed his mind at the last moment and booked two front seats for me and a spot in the back for himself, squeezed between three other passengers and some crates of Angkor Beer. Our driver, Socheat, was keen to get away and we left before 7am, for a journey that was to take just under three hours. He drove out of the city via the Takhmau district where long queues of young women were filtering through the gates of the many garment factories, at the start of their working day. Suprisingly, he'd taken Route 2 rather than Route 3 as I'd expected, but the road was in a pretty good condition, compared to most of Cambodia's highways. Racing along at break-neck speed, we reached the Tonle Bati turn-off after forty minutes and Phnom Chisor on the hour. At a t-junction a few kilometres north of Takeo, we took a right fork to the dusty town of Ang Tasaom and joined Route 3, a highway in serious need of a make-over, for the last half of the 150 kilometre journey to the south coast.
Arriving at Kampot market just before 10am, we dropped off a couple of passengers and Socheat drove me around the corner to the hotel of my choice, the Borey Bokor, where I booked in (as the hotel's only guest) and jumped in the shower. Phalla waited downstairs and we walked a few blocks of Kampot's quiet streets to the house of our mutual friend's uncle (Kong) and aunt (Naisim), where Phalla would stay for the next couple of days. Sok Thea was the friend who'd died suddenly just a few weeks before and I was keen to meet more members of his family, as I had done in Phnom Penh. Their house doubles up as Kong's workshop, where he makes aluminium and wooden window-frames, and I was welcomed into their home with open arms and treated like an honoured guest. After a refreshing drink of coconut milk and a discussion about Thea, Phalla and I walked to the central square nearby with Naisim's cute seven-year-old daughter, Soya, for some lunch at the Heng Leaph, where the seafood was cheap and tasty and the restaurant was brand spanking new. I was back in my comfortable hotel room by mid-day for a quick nap before Phalla re-appeared at 1.30pm with a 250cc trail-bike, all set for an afternoon's exploration of the seaside resort of Kep, some 25 kms away.
After a quick stop for fuel, we were on our way out of Kampot and racing past the salt-flats just outside the city limits. A few kilometres further on, we passed through a Cham Malay area, identifiable by the colourful headscarves worn by the women and a small inlet with about a dozen fishing boats tied up. Phalla pointed out the track to a small limestone outcrop on our left called Phnom Sia, which we'd visit on our return and we kept to the right at a large statue of a white horse, about 7 kms from Kep itself. The road is a good one and we reached Kep after about thirty minutes, the sea visible through the trees on our right, past the first of many ruined villas we'd encounter on our visit. Kep has a one-way system in place and the road took us down to the sea, where Phalla and I parked the motorbike and went for a paddle on the rocky shore. Nearby are a group of stalls selling freshly-caught crab and directly opposite, lie two large ruined villas. The town, known as Kep-sur-Mer in colonial times, was a favourite holiday destination of the French and rich Cambodians including the royal family, who lined the palm-fringed waterfront with extensive villas. Unfortunately, the Khmer Rouge wreaked havoc during their years in power and most of the buildings are now just a ruined shell of what they used to be. One or two have been restored but many more lie wrecked and empty, although we did come across a family or two squatting in the skeletons of the once-proud villas.
The coast road took us around a small headland where the King's royal residence watches over the main bay from the top of the hill. The sandy beach arcs round to a statue of a mermaid and this is the main bathing and swimming area for the many Khmers who now frequent Kep at weekends. However, on the day of our visit, just one family had claimed the beach area for themselves. Behind the sea wall and along the promenade, there were a few stalls and some bored seafood sellers, the usual low wooden picnic platforms with hammocks and a car park, in front of the ruins of the old Hotel de Kep, now losing a battle with surrounding trees and vegetation. With our shoes off, it was time for another paddle in the clear blue water, as we looked out into the bay, squinting in the sun's glare, to the nearby island of Koh Tonsay ('Rabbit Island'). A little further along the coast road were some thatched picnic huts, the post office, a guesthouse, many more ruined villas and a tiny market area. There was also a damaged wooden jetty, where a Khmer family were getting ready to board a small boat to take them to Tonsay island, complete with their picnic hamper and excited children. We rode back to the main beach area, shouting hello's to the local kids, before heading up the hill and out of town, leaving behind Kep, with its ghost-like quality, to mid-week anonymity. We'd only stayed for 1½ hours but I've always loved the seaside and Kep is definitely on my list to make a return visit sometime in the future.
The trip back along Route 33 towards Kampot was quick and easy on our motorbike, sharing the road with hordes of teenage schoolchildren, cycling home at the end of their schoolday. Around the midpoint, we turned right under an archway, with a couple of temple roofs visible through the trees on Phnom Sia, half a kilometre along a muddy track. At the foot of some steep steps, a class of young children was in session as I started my climb, eliciting some surreptitious waves and smiles from the kids. Halfway up, a handful of orange-robed monks were hammering away at a half-built structure and pointed me to the mouth of a large cave at the top of even more steps. The view across the green paddy fields was bright and colourful but the cave, apart from a few shafts of sunlight, was very dark, dingy and airless. Another cave on the other side of the hill was practically identical, with concrete steps leading down into a large cavern with unusual rock formations and small altars, while both caves had bats squeaking and swooping close to my head. Back at the bottom of the stairway, I was joined by Phalla and we stopped to chat to the schoolteacher, Siveth, who hailed from Kampot. He explained that the usual schoolhouse was being repaired after storm damage a few months earlier and the open-sided hall we were sat in was just on temporary loan from the nearby pagoda. Half of his class of eight to ten year olds posed for a picture while the other half ran screaming for cover whenever I pointed my camera in their direction. Siveth also told us that the first cave was called the White Elephant cave after some of the rock formations resembled an elephant's head and is also renowned for its 100 fields peep hole, which I didn't see, although without a torch or flashlight, it was pretty difficult to see much at all.
We reached Kampot by 5pm and Phalla toured around the town, which branches out from a central circle, where the older hotels and shops are to be found. Nearby is a shabby market area and a couple of restaurants and commonplace around town are Chinese terraced houses and a few large, ochre-coloured colonial buildings. We parked ourselves along the riverfront where a few families and couples had already claimed their spot on the grassy promenade, waiting for the sun to set across the Prek Thom river and behind the dark and brooding Elephant mountain range in the distance. Crossing the river a little north are two decrepit bridges, carrying road and rail links to Sihanoukville and behind the promenade are the Governor's palatial mansion, post office, national bank (which has its own guesthouse!) and the Marco Polo restaurant and hotel, which can organise trips around the area. The sunset was very pleasant, with night-time fishing boats chugging past, heading out towards the sea some five kilometres away. What I did miss though were the tikalok sellers, who were not to be seen anywhere along the river. I later found out that they congregate in the streets leading to the riverfront and while their drinks are as good as I tasted anywhere in Cambodia, I think they are missing a great opportunity as Kampot begins to see increasing numbers of visitors.
After a shower back at my hotel, I walked to the home of Kong, Naisim and Soya for a 7pm dinner date. Naisim had laid out an incredible feast of crab, shrimp, seafish and chicken, which the five of us soon devoured, washed down by iced tea and various kinds of Cambodian fruit including my first taste of durian and mangosteen. We rounded off the evening with a long chat, aided by Phalla's translation skills and looked at lots of family photographs. The Khmers are no different to families across the globe, they love having their pictures taken and showing them to anyone who is interested in viewing them. I was back at the Borey Bokor by 10pm, ready for a deep sleep and looking forward to a trip to Bokor mountain, early the next morning.
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