From Sihanoukville, we took a crammed and uncomfortable but cheap 2-hour minivan ride to Kampot, a charming small riverside town where we spent 4 days. We really appreciated Kampot’s friendly and low key vibe. With the town being so quaint, we kept running into the same people including a group of friendly French people (Olivier who works in Phnom Penh, and his sister and her husband) we had met on the island of Koh Rong Salaam. We hung out with them one evening at Rikitikitavi, a good guesthouse/restaurant, and we picked Olivier’s brain on life in Cambodia and where to go in Phnom Penh.
As with all SE Asian towns, there are many ready and willing tuk-tuk drivers to take you anywhere you want to go and who may also try to be your guide. We wanted a guide for many of the touristy sights around town, but ended up renting our own motor bike, and set out to explore. We first tried to find a popular temple cave just outside of town, but quickly found ourselves a bit lost on one of the many dirt roads that have no signage. As we pathetically sat at a “Y” in the road looking at a map, a motorbike driver (later to be known as Mr. Heng) with his Russian tourist in the back (Inga) pulled up and asked us where we were headed. We told him Phnom Chhnork Cave, and he waved us to follow him. Apparently, he was bringing his moped Russian customer there also. We marveled at the rural scenery along the way.Above: Mr. Heng and IngaAs we neared the cave on our motorbikes trying to navigate gingerly the many mud potholes (we had just been through a short rain storm), we heard a young voice beside us say “hello, How are you, where are you going?” and “do you speak any Cambodian?”. We turned to see a young teenager boy on his bicycle next to us, and we answered “hello” and “no” respectively to which he said “why not (as in why don’t you speak Khmer?)” …good question! He proposed to us to be our guide to the cave to which we agreed. His English was very good (he spoke good French too) and he was humorous and friendly. We followed Mr. Heng and Inga to a woman’s front yard and our teenage guide informed us we could pay her whatever we felt comfortable with to park our motorbike . So began our auspicious tour. We hiked around the cave and looked at the many “animal faces” formed by the stalactmites. The cave itself was so-so but our guide was much fun to be around. After the cave visit, Sylvie and Inga had to go to the restroom so our young guide directed them to a nearby pagoda. Monks were sitting outside and another young kid asked sheepishly if he could practice his English with Sylvie and Inga as he was trying to better his skills and didn’t get a chance to see many tourists in this rural area. His English was actually quite good and they conversed (the 3 of them non native speakers!) for a few minutes.We really enjoyed Inga’s company as we got to know her and continued to tag along with her and her driver Mr. Heng, on their tour.
April 13th, 14th, and 15th are celebrated as the Khmer New Year, so all the locals were in a festive mood with many of them calling out to us as we passed by on our scooter, even trying to get us to join them for food and drink. As we approached one bridge, we were playfully accosted by some young Kkmers who doused us with flour – a New Year tradition (sans the water part of it thank god).
Above: hard to tell from the picture, but we had flour all over our faces and clothes
We next stopped at Secret Lake (really a man-made reservoir) where we all grabbed some local food and watched the kids play in the lake on inner tubes. We also had wanted to visit a pepper farm (one of Kampot’s specialty crops), and it just so happened Inga and her driver were also headed to one, so we continued along the road with them.Above: Kampot pepper: the best pepper in the world? That’s what the French thought. We tasted and can’t tell the difference with any other pepper…. After the pepper farm, Inga was headed back to Kampot, but we wanted to continue onto the small town of Kep and check out the beach. We followed Inga till we reached an intersection where Mr. Heng pulled over and sketched a map for us to head to Kep, and we parted ways.
Kep is a seaside town and was founded as a colonial retreat for the French elite in 1908. It is well known for its crab harvests, and it was in full swing at the wharf front, along with a big market of food and handicrafts. We hung out for a few hours, tried Durian and some other fruits we had never seen before. Above: young teenager fishing for crabs Above: durian fruit, good flavor but the consistency was mushy
The next day, we rode our scooter to Bokor mountain and Bokor National Park, a 1581-sq-km “protected area” famous for its abandoned French hill station (set-up in the 1920’s), refreshingly cool climate and lush primary rainforest. The ride was long and windy and we felt like we went through the 4 seasons. Being the Khmer New Year, it was very busy with locals paying their respects to the Buddha on the way to the mountain and picnicking up at the top next to the old abandoned casino. Above: old abandoned casino, kind of eerie with the fog. Below: old abandoned French churchOn the way back, we stopped at a parking lot to take a break from sitting on the motorbike. There was a local family (3 or 4 generations) next to us having a small celebration in the parking lot with food and drink in the back of their pick-up truck. The older man approached us with 2 beers and demanded we downed them! They were all very friendly and eager to speak to us in English and even offered us some food. They wanted to make sure we had a good New Year too, how friendly! Cambodia became our favorite SE asian country at that moment. The next day we were sad to leave Kampot but we had to make it to Phnom Penh, the capital city. Many locals were also heading back to the capital or other cities to return to work after the New Year holiday was over, so all buses were crammed (with sometimes even scooters, animals of all sorts) and people on the roof or the trunk area.That morning, we took a short visit to the local market and then headed back to our hotel to start packing.
Below: on the way to the local market Below: the usual silk and fabric for sale Below: jewel-maker, making gold-plated bracelet before our eyesWe had bought bus tickets from this little agency in town and they had said they would come pick us up with our luggage from the hotel to bring us to the bus. At the agreed time, we were surprised to see the man we had bought tickets from and his son show up on their scooters and not a tuk-tuk (which has room for luggage). There was no way we could ride on a scooter with our big rolling suitcases, day packs, etc. They grabbed our huge bloated suitcases and took off with them to the bus station (the kid could barely reach around the suitcase, much less see over it). We were a little nervous watching our luggage leave and wondering if they and their drivers would survive the precarious ride. But 5 minutes later they were back and we each hopped on the back and rode to the station. We arrived to find our luggage sitting on the sidewalk next to the bus. Off we were to Phnom Penh.