Kampot to Kep
03.01.2012 - 07.01.2012 30 °C
Where Shianouksville has embraced every facet of commercialism and draws in hordes of tourists, the relaxed and relatively little visited Kampot province is only two hours away in time but a world away in development.
Reading of Kampot that it was an elegant French colonial settlement we were sold on stopping at Kampot for a few days before heading further to the beach in Kep. Hearing of Kampot that they had a particular tasty form of pepper that is enjoyed around the world, Andy was keen to get there in hope that there might be steak to go with the peppercorn sauce. Teaming up with Lucy and Will we quickly also adopted Swedish Andre on arrival and settled in the hostel garden next to the Beer Laos fridge with ipods and speakers and playing cards. In all honesty it is here that we could be found for quite a bit of our time in Kampot. When in Rome do as the Romans… when in a French colonial settlement… drink wine, play music, eat brie and chat rubbish in fake French accents.
After mainstream Shianouksville, Kampot brought a welcome return to the bizarre tourist attractions that Cambodia has to offer. This time, it was in the form of the Bokor Mountain and its deserted French hill station. A whole town, left to fall into disrepair, Bokor was abandoned twice, once when the French left Cambodia in the early 20th century and then again under the Khmer Rouge terror. What has been left is a smattering of what appear as derelict buildings up on the misty cloud covered mountains. Local families who live in the area have taken residence in some of the properties and it was quite strange to see a whole Buddhist family living in the crumbling walls of a 19th century French church on the top of a Cambodian mountain. They made it quite clear you could come in and have a look round though should you feel the need.
Up the mountain we go!
We have quickly come to learn that in Cambodia, everything is powered by motorbike or scooter. Whole school classes of children are transported on a trailer with wooden slats for seats pulled by a single motorbike. Whole shops and street stalls can be attached to a scooter to transport them around the town (or away from the police when they show up to check trading licenses). In fact I have found that a whole family of Cambodians (average 6 people) can fit on one scooter, and a whole Buddhist monastery or Wat (average 8 monks) can be comfortably split between two motorbikes. As such, with Tuk Tuk drivers refusing to take on Bokor, Taxis non-existent and bus drivers laughing at us, we found we had to either trust someone else to drive us up the deserted roads without safety precautions or don our own bikes and protective headgear. Will and Andre were both accomplished bikers, had bikes at home and rode every day. They rented “The Beast” and “Bubbles”… proper motorbikes with gears and big wheels and you could rev them and things (apologies at this point for my lack of motorbike and technological knowledge. This is the only way I can describe them). Andy, being safety conscious, stayed away from the monsters that could cause damage to us or others and instead chose us “Norma”, the bright pink scooter who chugged up the mountain like a loyal old lady, drinking all our petrol but maintaining a healthy 40 km an hour as her top speed. She got us to the destination without fear or threat. Winner!
A new road that has just been blitzed into the hillside has brought two things. Firstly the ability to take the amazing scenery in on the drive that would otherwise have been near impossible on the old road on anything but a tractor. Secondly, it has opened up the mountain to future development and you can see the start of an enormous casino resort complex on the site of the old hill station taking form. As you drive up you feel the temperature drop all the way from boiling to a little bit chilly (this is Cambodia after all) and it is this temperature that makes the mountain so appealing.
Zooming back down the mountain and back into the heat of the late afternoon we took in the sunset over the river in a riverside bar and marvelled at our day. Smugness emanated from the whole group as we headed back to our hostel with bottles of red wine, a selection of cheeses to set up again at our table.
Sunset over the Kampot River
Drawn to Kampot by the Kampot pepper, we were a little disappointed to find out that Kampot itself is not so much a growing zone and instead you want to head to Kep for the full experience. Now a fully fledged team, the five of us departed to be back on the seafront inspired by the whispers we had heard of special pepper crab to eat on the seaside and a tropical island off the coast. We were not disappointed.
Kep is another undeveloped gem that we suspect from its potential may be subject to the Cambodian diggers and developers in the future. Andy did end up with a slight cut on his foot from swimming in the sea which he insists is not from the rocks under the water, but from a giant six foot tall ‘King Crab’ who saw him as an adversary and worthy opponent and therefore waged war. Apart from Andy we initially had no evidence to support this story until we saw the giant sculpture of King Crab himself standing six foot tall on the promenade. Perhaps Andrew does talk some truth…. Nah!
For now, Kep is a charming little seaside town with a busy Crab Market and a host of tiny seaside restaurants with terraces which overlook the fantastic sunset. Ordering the seafood platter we were chuffed to see the staff wading into the water to catch the fish fresh to cook up right in front of the restaurant; no fear of reheated food in Kep! Served with the infamous (and what we were starting to believe may be a fallacy) Kampot Pepper we oohed and ahhed at the flavours as we toasted to a brilliant choice of destination with a glass of cold Beer Laos. At this point, I am ashamed to say, the communal smugness descended again on the group as we laid plans for our next location, the tiny tropical Rabbit Island just off the coast…