The tiny south Cambodia town of Kampot straddles a wide estuarine river about five kilometres inland from Gulf of Thailand. Two bridges join the sides: a relatively new bridge and an old French relic that only motos and cycles are allowed to travel over. The French have made their mark here in Kampot. A legacy of dilapidated old buildings close to the riverfront on the East Side adds some distant colonial character but hardly enough for a World Heritage listing. Our equally dilapidated bus dropped us by the old market, boarded up some time ago, having been replaced by the new market near the main road. A single tuk tuk driver tried his luck but we knew we didn’t have far to walk so as he muttered something about 50 cents, we were already striding down the riverfront boulevard our packs over our shoulders.
Our first choice guesthouse seemed expensive and too far from the main drag for what it was, so we headed back to the end of the promenade to Mea Culpa. It was a block from the river but had some magic rooms with two huge beds, AC, cable TV and an ensuite bathroom. At the front was a grove of mango trees that hid the thatched roofs of the restaurant and bar. For only $20 a night, we had hit pay dirt once more.
Most of the people are poor, scratching out a living from their house fronts where they sell all the usual stuff. The buildings are old and have fallen into various states of disrepair. Litter and rubbish line the steep gutters and mangy dogs wander aimlessly about as if lost. In truth, the town's not that much to look at.
There are however, a number of very well run hotel/guesthouses concentrated around the riverfront promenade that would attract a fair clientele regardless of where they were. It didn’t take us long to do a lap around town and find all the 'happy hours'. Our first choice served ice cold draught beer in a handle glass that had been deep frozen in their freezer. What a treat! And just 50 cents all day! But what quickly became our favourite was the Rikitikitavi, for two reasons. First was the view it enabled you of the nightly procession of locals on the riverfront promenade and secondly for a little sweetie called Romdoul, or "Rambo" to her friends, which quickly seemed to include us. At 27, she seemed to be permanently embedded in the body of a 14 year old. Her enthusiasm, willingness to learn and cheeky smile swept all before her. She didn’t need to rely on her looks either (as so many Khmer girls can). She is pretty at best, but she has so much character you can’t take your eyes off her! If she wasn’t showing us her new dance moves (when everyone else had left) she was greeting us with “fine and dandy”. As soon as our beers were close to finished she would bob up beside us and enquire if we would like “another refreshing beverage”. She was the headline entertainment as far as we were concerned, although what would unfold on the promenade below us every evening was almost a cultural event of note.
Every scooter in town must do laps every evening, at least while it’s not raining, carrying anywhere from three young girls to families of four. It was a social occasion as much as the chance to get out and enjoy the cool night air rushing over their bodies. Helmets are rare, the most obvious accessory is a mobile phone which remains religiously glued to the ear except when texting. Several times we saw toddlers aged no more than two steering the moto while their young mums texted or chatted on their phones. Most people, young and old, wear their pyjamas, which they all seem to don about 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon. They must come from miles around as the town on this side of the river couldn’t possibly hold as many people.
Sunsets are also an attraction on the river and plenty of young couples come down to canoodle. At their backs older women power walk and do stretching exercises as tuk tuk drivers lay prostrate across the back seat of their gigs hoping they don’t get bothered by annoying tourists wanting to go home. What a change of pace from Phnom Penh!
On the third day there, we arranged a tour of Bokor Mountain. It was the scene of fierce fighting in the Khmer Rouge days and boasts a French built mountain top citadel/retreat atop a cloud shrouded summit. Our day began crammed in the back of a one-tonne truck with 18 other bewildered tourists. Our guide, Mr. Tree, assured us this was the only way to do it: the company doing a major upgrade on the mountain road insisted, and took a good sized bribe for 'allowing' us to do so. No one else had clearance to proceed up the mountain.
Hundreds of local people lugged dirt up and down steep inclines cut into the side of the mountain, and we were just about to learn just how steep!
A two-hour climb through the rainforest was a necessary part of the journey. I’ve NEVER sweat so much in all my life. My muscles were burning and my head was spinning in the hazy heat, and still it went up and up! As usual, Shazz threw herself in head first but it wasn’t long before reality hit and 18 months of a red wine diet and very little activity except for gardening and housework suddenly came crashing down. Still we both made it to the top, eventually.
At the top of the mountain lay an abandoned French hill station. A testament to the grand old days of French colonialism, it lay partially obscured by low-lying cloud. It was so eerie it looked like the perfect setting for a slasher movie!! As our guide told us, it was the scene of heavy fighting during the civil war as Vietnamese troops clashed with the Khmer Rouge resistance. He was the sole survivor of a bloody day of butchery in his village and had escaped to live in the jungle until he had joined up and fought alongside the Vietnamese army. The Khmer Rouge had come to his village, tied everybody together in a line and bludgeoned them to death one by one while the rest waited their turn. He was the last on the line and, to kill his sister who was in front of him, the Khmer soldiers had cut the binds between them. That was his chance to escape and he ran into the nearby jungle and kept going.
There are many stories like this in Cambodia as the Pol Pot era is still very much in the memories of those who were around at the time.
All the buildings on Bokor are now just shells. There’s a Post Office, a church and even a palace/casino perched on the edge of a 500 m bluff from which the Khmer Rouge used to throw people! The sunless sky, cool climate and clouds that just white-out entire buildings all cast a sinister veil over the place.
Our day wasn’t over yet though! Back in the truck for a numbing ride back down to the jungle walk in reverse. I’m not that fit, but I can go up all day; going down is a different kettle of fish! By the time we’d climbed down to the truck, my knees hated me. It was going to take a lot of drugs to numb this pain!
Back in Kampot we hopped out of our mini-van straight into a small longboat for our two-hour sunset cruise. Not, however, before I got a young bloke to chase up a six-pack of ice-cold Angkor beers for us. The boat trip took us straight up the river mouth and back and won’t get a mention in our top ten boat trips. The most exciting bit was me getting out first to tie off the boat and slipping on the slimy landing. Miraculously, I didn’t do any damage at all; it must have been the ice-cold Angkors!
About the Authors
Sharyn and Tim Nilsen share a passion for travel that has taken them and their backpacks through 75 countries. They are currently undertaking Transasia from Southeast China through to Istanbul via the 'Stans. Their latest blog can be found at http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog/timshazz/2/tpod.html.