The last two weekends in Cambodia have taken me away from the heat, dust, and intense pace of Phnom Penh and I’ve headed for some southern coastal areas. Much as I love the city, I do find myself craving countryside, fresh air, and a more relaxed atmosphere.
My first weekend was spent in Kep (pronounced Kipe) with a family friend, Maria, from England. I visited this sleepy fishing village in 2009 and haven’t been back since. It’s become increasingly touristy but seems to be drawing chilled backpackers and older holiday makers rather than the flocks of eighteen year olds who head to Sihanoukville with the sole purpose of getting as drunk as possible. Kep is best known for its delectable seafood, specifically crab, which explains the massive statue of a blue crab randomly plonked just off the shore. The entire structure must be well over 4 metres wide and is quite a fun addition to the horizon. It’s a shame they didn’t proof-read the banner currently adorning it, advertising their litter campaign though…
The hotel we stayed in was incredibly luxurious compared to the usual hovels I find myself in (thank you to Maria for that treat)! Stunning views over the lush treetop canopy from our balcony and copious sampling of the cocktail menu by the pool, along with ice cream and chocolate mousse lunches made for a short but sweet weekend getaway.
The following weekend I once again found myself trundling down National Road #2 in the usual Friday evening congestion, with five other teachers inching closer to freedom and leaving our classrooms behind. I first met Hallie, Rachel and Anne in September at dodgeball and we have since become very good friends. In fact I’ll be living with Hallie and Rachel by the end of the month as I’m taking over Anne’s lease after she goes back to Denmark. This coming Thursday is Hallie’s birthday so we decided to go for a weekend in Kampot to celebrate and spend some time together (“Happy Birthday Hallie!”). We were accompanied by Johannah, the new volunteer at Sovann Komar who lives with the girls, and Ellen, a fellow teacher at Hallie and Rachel’s school.
The six of us hired a minibus and I for one couldn’t wait to begin our child-free vacation. Children we teach that is, not our own offspring! We stayed in this really cool, chilled backpacker place called Arcadia, about seven kilometres away from Kampot town itself. It’s situated right on the Kampot river and they have loads of fun activities set up on the water which you can use as soon as you’ve signed the waiver for injuries sustained using the “adult toys”. And yes my mind went somewhere else as soon as the woman said that – perhaps it’s all the hype surrounding Fifty Shade of Grey at the moment! These toys were actually rope swings, kayaks, a pontoon complete with a ladder reaching over five metres high, and “The Blob”. To see “The Blob” in action, click here! Jumping from the restaurant edge into the river several metres below was one way to push aside the hangover on Saturday morning after an unexpected night out (“Happy Birthday Hallie!”). I hit the bar pretty hard as soon as we arrived on the Friday night, enjoying the relief this days brings all teachers. Our night out included my first tuk tuk race since 2006. I’ve only ever been in one tuk tuk crash … in 2006 … during a race. Happily the Caprioskas consumed prior to our mad dash up the dusty, twisted, steep track which led from Arcadia to The Bodhi Tree (the place to be on a Friday night), prohibited any feelings of fear or apprehension as four tuk tuks sped down the darkened road, constantly overtaking each other following catcalls from passengers and drivers alike (“Happy Birthday Hallie!”).
Saturday saw a leisurely morning spent predominantly in the beautiful, calm, warm waters of the Kampot river. It’s so deep in the middle (about eight metres apparently) that diving in posed no risk and we all enjoyed the various “adult toys”, in between sunbathing spells on the pontoon (“Happy Birthday Hallie!”). In the afternoon we hired a minibus to take us up Bokor Mountain. This is an area contained within a National Park, which begs the question how on earth anyone got permission to build the monstrosity of a resort that now perches on the top – the answer, no doubt, is money. Previously referred to as a ghost town, the old buildings which are now dwarfed by obnoxious architecture, glaring neon lights, and rapidly expanding building work, were built by colonial settlers before being abandoned in the 1940s and later becoming a Khmer Rouge stronghold. In fact,
Bokor Mountain was one of the last pockets of Khmer Rouge resistance and was occupied until the early 1990s (“Happy Birthday Hallie!”). On the way up to the ghost town, we paused to admire a massive Buddha, and may have accidentally trespassed into someone’s house – still not entirely sure whether the “Black Palace” pointed out to us by our driver, which we soon discovered was being lived in by the man skulking near the doorway, was open to the public…
Bokor Mountain’s main tourist sight within the ghost town is an old, abandoned, and stripped out casino. It stands alone on the brow of a hill, away from the other buildings and remains an imposing structure.
It’s a creepy building now that only the bare, dark grey cement remains, with narrow corridors and staircases, windows empty of glass, and a chilly breeze whispering throughout the ominous structure. But the view from the top is stunning! And when you get tired of looking out over the sweeping valley and coast below, you can play with Toby the puppy, very kindly lent to us by some young Khmer couples, evidently enjoying their romantic Valentines Day! We remained up there until the sun sank into the clouds off the coast, as we huddled against a sheltered wall, leaning against the concrete to make the most of the heat which had soaked into the surface throughout the day. After turning down our driver’s invitation to take us to a waterfall without water (it’s the dry season here), we returned to Kampot to enjoy a Valentines Day meal for six (“Happy Birthday Hallie!”).
Sunday saw more swimming, more jumping, more sunbathing, and this footage of “The Blob” to which there is a link above … and here, again. We then found ourselves in yet another minibus, a theme of the holiday, and heading down a very bumpy, dusty, narrow track towards a cave temple. We astonished the young Khmer lads who’s job it was to show tourists around with our ability to speak their language and then trekked the 203 steps to the cave. The limestone at the entrance had formed two
shapes which resembled elephants and the tourist board had obviously latched onto this concept and our guides were trying to convince us that every stalagmite and stalactite was part of their “cave zoo”. The “turtle” was literally a rock, and the “pig” was indiscernible. As for the temple? Well it supposedly predates Angkor which sounds cool but it was basically a little gap in the rock face with a very definitely modern shrine in it, complete with a water bottle holding some incense. I was so unimpressed that I accidentally deleted all the pictures before realising I may want some for the blog … Sorry! But the most exciting part of our cave adventure was yet to begin. The guides pointed to a small opening in the rock and explained that we could get out that way … Really? We’ve climbed 203 steps up to the “temple”, and you want us to climb back down through the cave? Using our iPhones as torches? Well ok then! That happened. I was wearing flip flops – bad idea! The pictures are poor quality but you get the idea – it was a spontaneous caving trip. Sliding down rock faces on our bums, weaving in and out of stalagmites and stalactites, jumping off ledges, clambering from boulder to boulder, and finally a rather wobbly wooden bridge back to daylight (“Happy Birthday Hallie!”).
Now do you see why I don’t plan? You literally have no idea what is going to happen in Cambodia!
On the way back to get into our final minibus to take us home, we stopped at some salt fields which were really cool to see. I literally have no idea how they work, where the salt comes from, whether we were allowed to put out hands in the water (we did), nor how the people there make any money – do they even want to make money? Our driver emerged from the salt shed with several kilos of it in a bag, and Anne went in to try and buy some and was given the same amount – for free!! She took much less since having half your luggage filled with salt would look rather odd at airport customs.
All in all, my two weekends in Cambodia since I returned from England have been fantastic: filled with great new experiences, amazing friends, and yet more wonderful memories in this spectacular, surprising, slightly stir-crazy country.