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Kep and Kampot

by Amelia Curran

Hidden away in the south eastern corner of Cambodia are these two coastal getaways.’ Unique and definitely a little rough around the edges – though it is’in this that lies their charm.’ Originally built by the French in the 1920s as plush colonial getaways and then used by rich Cambodians in the 1960s and 1970s, they both fell into disrepair and were pretty’ much abandoned with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge.’ Although going through a revival (especially Kep) the earlier desertion’is still evident in the derelict and run down buildings.

We arrived in Kep from Phnom Penh and were surprised at just how quiet it was.’ We are here in low season, but it was nevertheless extremely quiet and we felt that we had the run of the place to ourselves.’ The guesthouses and restaurants are spread out, but it was nice to walk between various places, feeling totally safe even at night and there are some nice places to explore.’ The beach is pretty, but it is not the sort of place where you go to laze by the sea, it is more that this adds to the atmosphere. Feeling in need of some exercise and fearing driving motorbikes, we hired a couple of bicycles for the day.’ There is a very nice circular route of about 20km that takes in the surrounding countryside with its exquisite views.’ You cannot go more than 2 minutes without someone shouting a very enthusiastic ‘hello’ to you, accompanied by an equally enthusiastic wave that you need to return!’ The countryside is a maze of paddy fields with houses on stilts dotted sporadically around and many hills softly shaping the horizon.’ There are oxes working the field and often seen pulling carts wearily down the roads.’ Like in Vietnam, it seems that although people are up and about from very early on, there is also a lot of sitting around in hammocks, watching the world go by!’ The morning we did the bike ride should have been the day that we went to the crab market to have an infamous Kep crab and pepper lunch. However, with sore bums and completely empty stomachs we were in need of something a little more substantial and so went to √¢ÀÜ≈°√ɬ¢l Dorado and had an extremely delicious Hungarian’oven’pizza, not very Cambodia, but the pizzas really were worth it and the Hungarian chap who runs it was happy to have some custom and kept us talking for about 3 hours!’ Its always worth trying to speak to the locals as you get a great insight into the true nature of living in foreign places.’ We heard about corruption, and some amazing stories that really open your eyes to what really goes on.

We did, however, make it down to the crab market later that day to watch the sunset, which was very tranquil and pretty despite the fact that it had clouded over slightly.’ Despite regretting that we did not manage to have some crab, I did have a tasty fish curry at ‘Veranda’ on our second evening so did partake in the great Kep seafood.’ We moved onto Kampot after only a couple of nights but we could have stayed longer.’ We did not make it to nearby ‘rabbit island’ nor to any of the surrounding caves and we did not even spend long in any of the ‘hammocks lining the shore -‘so there were a few more days worth of things to do.

Kampot is a town in a way that Kep is not and its charm is centred along the river, with its great views.’ It is again a very laid back place and a good place from which to explore the surrounding countryside, whilst enjoying excellent food in the many restaurants that line the riverfront.’ We were to continue the exercise theme and signed up for a 2 day trek into Bokor National Park.’ The park is officially closed at the moment as a huge hotel’ and casino are being built – to the serious detriment of the jungle and its inhabitants.’ However, it is possible to arrange a trek in Kampot and while it should come with a health warning, it is well worth it!’ We had done some ‘treks’ in Vietnam that had really been more like gentle walks and foolishly we went into this expecting a similar experience – how wrong we were!

We joined another 6 people in the morning and complete with our guide Tre and the Ranger (complete with gun!) we began at around 08:30am.’ We had to walk through dense jungle and literally climb our way up.’ We began in 30+ degree heat and as a result our clothes were wet through with sweat within half an hour.’ The pace was set at quite a speed by the ranger leading the way, who did not seem to understand why we westerners were finding it so challenging!’ The climb was relentless and just as you got to the top of one slope, another would appear.’ Using hands to grab at trees, vines and the rocks was the only way up!’ The pace was such that there really was no time to look around at the dense jungle surrounding us.’ ‘We stopped after an hour or so at a pretty waterfall in a small clearing.’At this point our guide immediately stripped down to his “Y” fronts and got straight in!’ We were all a little less enthusiastic and went for a paddle!’ It was a great place to cool down a little.

As we got higher, the clouds began to come in and then the heavens opened.’ It was the type of rain that soaks you through within about 30 seconds.’ We hastily got our rain jackets on, trying to cover our backpacks to protect our dry clothes inside and continued up.’ This was a cardiovascular workout like we have not had in a long time!’ Ben remained calm and cheery, but I was beginning to loose it as my energy levels were waning and the cold was beginning to set in.’ The lips went blue and to say I was a little grumpy would be putting it mildly – poor Ben!’ However, we all made it to the top of the jungle section by about 1pm and managed to restore some strength with a tasty lunch.’ The rest of the way, our guide told us was on the ‘road’ and would be easy.’ It was.’ We had only walked a few metres when a massive truck passed.’ We flagged it down, climbed in the back and were taken along a very bumpy track to the ranger hut where we were to stay.’ Never before has an incredibly uncomfortable ride in a truck been so welcomed!’ This left us time that afternoon to explore the deserted town once we had put on some dry clothes and warmed up.’ Our guide brewed up some warm tea and cooked up some warm food and all was well with the world once more.

The destination of the trek is Bokor Hill station, an eerie ‘town’ on the top of the mountain.’ Again the French had built the town originally as a cool getaway from the heat.’ They had constructed a huge casino, post office, hotel and catholic church, along with many large houses.’ Once again, it was abandoned with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge who used it as a military base due to its strategically important location as you can see for miles around.’ As the Vietnamese came in, they managed to get control of the church and the Khmer Rouge continued to hold the casino and there was fierce fighting between these two buildings.’ All buildings in the town now are simply shells, with vast open rooms with water dripping in.’ Being rainy season, the clouds up there really added to the eerie quality of the place as you could not see more than a few metres in front of you.’ The cloud would occasionally magically disappear and you could see around, but within a minute that visibility would be lost.

So to our guide, Tre.’ At the beginning of the day, Ben and I had not particularly warmed to him.’ He seemed a little curt and was unsympathetic to requests to go a little slower.’ However, after talking to him that evening, not only did we warm to him, but we got some sort of understanding of why he had little time for us complaining about the walk!’ He had wanted to tell us about the history of the place once we had eaten dinner and this he did in an informative and interesting way.’ He then went on to tell us about his own personal history.’ He was 17 when the Khmer Rouge had come to power and had been moved with his family to a collective.’ Here, as was totally normal, they did not have enough food and so he took to stealing anything he could and sharing it with his family.’ One evening he had taken a sweet potato to his parents, but they were caught.’ The entire family was blinded folded by 10 guards and taken into the forest.’ There he heard his parents killed and saw his sister killed before managing somehow to escape himself.’ Knowing that the Khmer Rouge would be after him he fled into the forest and hid there for a year and two months totally on his own, surviving on insects and plants,’until the Vietnamese came.’ He said that once he left the forest, he could not talk as he had not done so in so long.’ Once you realise that, you can understand why he has little time for our complaints as we did what he considers to be a little walk!’ Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he worked as a soldier for the Vietnamese, receiving very little pay, if at all.’ He then worked with the UN to find and destroy landmines in the Cambodian countryside.’ From here his English improved and he made some western friends who helped him study tourism and has worked as a guide all over Cambodia.’ His wife now has diabetes and so he does not want to be away for long periods and so now only does the treks around Kampot.’ He sees life as good as he can always work and can support his 5 children through school, but’he only earns 10 dollars’ day’for the treks and that is not enough to pay for any medication for his wife, who has to manage her diabetes through exercise and eating’fruit!’ He has an immense amount of energy and lots of’interesting views on Cambodia today.’ He notes and recognises the corruption that exists and worries about some of the new influences on his children, but welcomes the development that is taking place in terms of infrastructure and believes that some corruption is a small price to pay and an inevitable part of ‘freedom’.
The next morning we were woken up at 5am by the jungle noises and our hosts preparing for departure.’ We ate some noodle soup,’put on sodden clothes and prepared to set off.’ ‘ We finally departed the cold summit at 07:30 and set off back down the same route we had taken the previous day.’ Although the descent was less physically tiring, it really took a toll on our muscles and our limbs are still aching.’ We did not manage to see much wildlife, but we heard it and we saw evidence of it.’ The highlight of this’being a tiger paw print that’the ranger found crossing the path we had taken the previous day!’ I was really keen on trying to see as many (dangerous) animals as we could and asked our guide to find some snakes for me! ‘Harriet and the rest of the group were slightly less’enthusiastic!’ Apparently around 80% of the snakes in the jungle are poisonous and are frequently seen on the trek,’ alas we missed them.’ We’did hear many gibbons calling from the tree tops and the noise from the insects around us was at times spooky.’ I was however able to pat myself on the back when at about half way through the trek I managed to find a chameleon!’ I proudly showed the ranger however he didnt look very enthused!
As a reward we had a massage in Kampot in ‘Seeing Hands’ -‘a place run by the blind.’ We had not realised that Cambodian massages’are similar to the Thai ones and once again they made me call out in pain on a number of occasions.’ I have now been manipulated into positions I never thought I would get into.’ ‘Harriet was for some reason offered a choice of hard, medium or gentle and went for medium.’ I had no choice!’!’ We also had a very nice meal in ‘Rikitikitavi’ along the riverfront, including some lovely cocktails and an unbelievable apple pie!’ Once again, we could have spent a little longer in Kampot, to enjoy a sunset river trip or visits to pepper plantations, caves and so on.’ But for us it was back to Phnom Penh…

‘Til next time

Harriet and Ben

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