Highway Three : Kampot & Kep

Ray Zepp, a teacher who has travelled to the far corners of the globe, published the first edition of his Cambodia Less Traveled guidebook in October 1996. The book gives the reader an insight into the 'other' Cambodia, not usually found in the glossy guidebooks and is a treasure trove of anecdotes and experiences in many off the beaten track places throughout Cambodia. Zepp, now living in Micronesia but due to return to Cambodia in January, also published his fascinating A Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas in June 1997 but the story below is taken from his unpublished southern supplement to his Less Traveled edition. My thanks to Ray for permission to re-print this insight into his experiences in southern Cambodia:

[note: This was written in 1997. The situation changes rapidly in Kampot and Kep, so much of the information on hotels and restaurants may need updating.]

In 1995 there was hardly any accommodation in Kampot. Now there is plenty. The three hotels at the roundabout have been renovated. The best is probably Phnom Kamchay, where an air-conditioned room goes for $15. The Tek Chhouu is part of a night club complex with the usual all-night noise and taxi-girl scene. The Phnom Khieu is the most recently renovated, and is a bit less gaudy than the other two. I recommend the guesthouse on the north side of the market, which offers rooms for $8 with fan, or $15 for the same room but with the air-con switched on.

There are plenty of good, local restaurants. We spent some pleasant breakfasts at the International Restaurant near the market. It has an old train-station look about it, and is a popular place in the morning. From the three hotels on the roundabout, you might wander over to the Prochum Mit (= 'meeting of friends') for a similar atmosphere, or take a ride around town on a peculiarly shaped cart unique to Kampot. In the evening there are lots of little places along the street behind the Funcinpec headquarters and the Phnom Kamchay. We managed to find ice cold coconuts. If you worry about the hygiene of street food as I do, consider that even at food stalls, a coconut is about the safest thing you can drink.

More and more tourists have been going to Kampot and Kep on the weekends. It is easy to find moto drivers to take you out to Kep for the day. But if you want to stay overnight in Kep, you should pay your moto driver for his trip back to Kampot without you, as there is little traffic on the return route. Kampot is also a good base to visit the abandoned hill station of Bokor and nearby Popokvil Falls (40 kms from Kampot) and the rapids of Tek Chhouu Falls, some 8 kms out of town.

The Caves at Phnom Slap Ta'aun

These caves are very accessible, lying only about 8 kms from Kampot town. Go out the Kep road for 7 kms past some thatched gazebo restaurants, and when the road becomes a dual carriageway (really!) for about fifty metres on a curve to the right, continue straight on the dirt road and into the village of Kbal Meas (='golden head'). At the Garuda statue in the crossroads, turn left and proceed out to the small hill. It is the only hill in the area, so you can hardly go wrong. The outside of the caves are not very photogenic because the locals have turned the place into a small limestone quarry. But a much larger mining operation is rumoured to be opening soon, which may destroy the caves once and for all. So go there as soon as possible, because this is one fantastic place.

Once inside the caves, we realized this was not just a small hole in the mountain. Rather, it is a huge complex of passageways, amphitheatres, stalactites and strange formations. You need a flashlight in most places, even though there is usually a small amount of light filtering through some fissure or other. In fact, it is the low, mysterious lighting that gives the caves their charm. We asked about the danger of landmines in the cave, but our guide said that the cave had never been mined. In fact, during the Pol Pot era, local people hid from the Khmer Rouge in this cave, because they knew all the secret passageways where the KR could never follow them.

Just inside the first large room of the cave, my friend pointed off to the right and asked, "Do you see what I see?" Indeed I did - it was a large rock formation with an unmistakable grotesque face. The bulbous nose, along with the stalactites for teeth, gave an appearance of a truly evil creature. At one point we came to a pole which we were to use to climb up to the next level of the cave. I chickened out at this point and let the others continue onto the vast cathedral and the other small shrine up there. But while they left me alone, it was peaceful to stand in the quiet of the beautiful half-light, watch the occasional bat weave in and out of the honeycombed rock, and listen to the drip of the water from above.

Our guide led us through a long pitch black passage hardly wide enough for a person to pass, to a small open area, again partially lighted from above, with a small cement altar. The guide said that the Chams had constructed the altar, and then climbed up on top of the rock to meditate. A perfect place for meditation! Or even more appropriately, with that evil head back in the amphitheatre, a site for some satanic cult.

On to Kep

We moto'd back to the Garuda village and carried on straight past the Garuda only for a few hundred metres to the main road to Kep. The good, tar road makes travel to Kep quite easy; the total of some 25 kms can be covered in only about 40 minutes. Kep has changed a lot from the almost desolate beach I visited in 1995. There is now at least one hotel and a guesthouse for those who wish to stay overnight. We went on past the main beach area to what used to be the government headquarters and stopped for a delicious seafood lunch at the Krong Kep restaurant. Just past the diner, but on the left, is the Krong Kep hotel, a very weird place with no reception desk and few signs of activity. The rooms are very spartan for the $10 pricetag, and the electricity only comes on in the evenings.

Another kilometre past the hotel is the Heng Boun guesthouse at only $5 per night. This seems a much better option, but they only have six rooms. We walked from the guesthouse over to a fishing village on the beach. This might be a good point to hire a boat out to the nearby islands. Koh Toensay (='Rabbit Island') is becoming a favourite haunt for tourists who want to get away from the crowds at Kep beach. A group of tourists that I knew camped out overnight on the island, and would have had a wonderful time if they had not been drenched by torrential rain all night. In early 1996 it cost $10 to hire a boat out to this tropical paradise, but the price appears to have risen to $15, or even $20 by mid-1997. The name 'rabbit' is given to the small hump to the right of the main island. Presumably the tree sticking up on the right side of the island is the rabbit's ear but to me it looks more like a rat than a rabbit.

On the way back from Kep to Kampot, we stopped off at yet another set of caves, called Phnom Sia. It is only a kilometre or two along the main Kampot road from the White Horse statue. Again, it is the only hill in the area, a kilometre or so off the main road. While the caves at Phnom Slap Ta'aun are untouched in their natural state, the Phnom Sia caves have been modernized with concrete steps, Buddha altars, signs with maps, and planted trees and flowers. In late May, when the flame trees are blooming, the entire hill is ablaze with colour. Photo opportunities abound. It would be a beautiful place to visit even if there were no caves. But the caves make it exceptional.

The main cave is called Rung Damrey Saa or 'White Elephant Cave' because the main stalactite formation has the appearance (to some, not to me) of a white elephant head. The path leads down past the white elephant shrine, but there is a small sign pointing off to the right to the '100 fields cave'. This seemed like an odd name for a cave, so we followed the path along the ledge to the right of a yawning abyss to a small hole in the cave wall. The peep show looked down on what appeared to be a miniature landscape of terraced rice paddies, each surrounded by a circular wall. These were the 100 fields.

Next we visited a cave filled with hundreds of bats. Our guide seemed not to know a generic Khmer word for 'bat'. Rather, each species has its own name, so that our guide pointed out different creatures with different names, even to my untrained eye they all looked the same. Finally we walked up to the small shrine under the flame trees with magnificent views of Kep and of the Bokor mountains beyond. There were no other visitors to spoil the silence of this sacred hillside. It should be considered a 'must' for visitors to the Kep beach to stop off at these highly accessible caves. We heard tales of other caves further down the road past the Kep turnoff, caves with meditating monks or 'troglodytes' as the French call these hermits.

Above article courtesy of Ray Zepp. If you have a story from the 'other' Cambodia, e-mail me with the details.

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