The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh was beautiful. Through the madness of ticket queues (one for Cambodians, one for visitors), Cindy and I somehow emerged the the very first people to enter compound, and for a precious few moments, we had the palace to ourselves.
Kampot didn’t look like much on first sight; wide, dusty roads with little traffic, old French architecture with sun-bleached paint peeling off the walls, and seemingly no pedestrians. Many of the main attractions in Kampot can be taken in in one day; a patchwork bridge bombed by the Khmer Rouge (and re-built in many mismatched styles); a colossal statue honouring the durian; a massive abandoned central market like Noah’s Ark placed upside down. However, we soon discovered the incredible allure of Kampot’s surrounding farmland and relaxed lifestyle. Somehow, a day became a week.
$6 rooms at Blissful Guesthouse. For that, we got a mosquito net and bathroom with hot water (well, what else do you need!) and a large, pub-style common room that kept us coming back with poker and trivia nights by the friendly English owner. Thatch covers outside, and staff to serve food and drinks directly to your hammock were the perfect antidote for the rainy day. Rural, simple and unpretentious, the true gems in Kampot province can be found out in the surrounding countryside. Several times, we hired a tuk-tuk to see what Kampot province had to offer.
A long, asphalt serpent slithered up the mountain. Bokor National Park, and one of the only mountains I had seen in the whole country. The mist was creeping across the hills faster than I could believe, swallowing an old Catholic Church whole, an embattled former Khmer Rouge hideout. Real life monsters lived here. If I believed in haunted places, this would surely qualify. Nearby was the black palace, an old holiday getaway for King Sihanouk, now decrepit. A small house at best, overgrown with thick orange moss, stenciled with graffiti and falling down. Yet despite the state of some of the historic sites, there have been major landgrabs here, most notably construction of a shiny new casino (which seems very out of place) just opened.
Out in the pepper farms, the pepper vines wrapped up and around tall red brick stacks, forming shaggy pillars of rich green leaves. We were visiting Starling farm; traditional and organic. One of the employees invited us to taste the pepper from the vine. Like a glass of champagne from Champagne, Kampot pepper is world-class in taste, region-specific, and the locals are very proud of their crop. It comes in white, black and red, and even a solo peppercorn tastes great.
We made a day trip out of the little seaside town of Kep. It takes about an hour or so by motorbike through some pretty interesting roads, badly degraded by rain and the wheels of trucks (welcome to muddy potholes big enough to swallow a motorbike). On a rock pathway reaching out to the sea, a white mermaid statue watched dramatic grey clouds tumble across each other, and waves gently lap up against the beachfront. The beach at Kep was small and rocky and the weather was growing cold, so we sat down and ate seafood fried rice instead. Satisfied with our time at Kep, we rode back.
Visiting the rice fields around Kampot is a fantastic, humbling experience. Stilted wooden houses and the rice planting season, pride, joy, family. Down the road came a rusty old motorcycle and trailor picking up coconuts. Emaciated white cows wandered along, whipped by old, resolute farmers, callused hands, hard work. It makes you feel happy; there was a sense of simplicity and respect here. Dirt roads of rich red soil connected farms and main roads, raised above field level and tapering down to form runoff channels.
As we rode along on a rented Honda Wave, the sunlight caught the water and the endless fields of lime green rice stalks glowed. It glinted across the surface of the vast fields of water through which all rice grows, and for a perfect few moments, the sun floated on top of the rice. We passed a group of children gathered around a pool of water in the field, and as we waved, they waved back and jumped into the pool, landing with a splash.
A shadow loomed over me. I looked up from my book. As I expected, it was a Cambodian woman with a basket full of fresh lobster for sale. After a morning of saying no, we finally agreed, and for lunch we ate fresh lobster under our umbrellas. Cindy and I had experienced salesmen, women and children all afternoon as we lazed on our long wooden beach chairs. Youngsters weaved colourful bracelets, the charitable collected money for the blind, and nimble-fingered women even offered expert and precise hair removal with a twisted length of string. All these touts made their weary way up and down the beach under the ferocious Asian sun; visitors to Sihanoukville were lined up on their beach chairs just like ours. The locals covered up as much as possible; the tourists dressed down. In front of us, the Gulf of Thailand’s bathtub-warm waters whispered in sparkling turquoise under an impossibly blue sky. Behind us, the restaurant bars fought for position, distributing burgers and cocktails into the crowds of lazy beachgoers. I took a bite of lobster. Pretty good.
They were building the train before our eyes. A bamboo tray as big as a queen size bed, four steel train wheels, and a simple motor that might have belonged on a motorbike. In less than a minute, our ride was ready. Cindy and I boarded and sat in the tray. We turned, and our tuk tuk driver gave a wry smile. “Have fun!” he encouraged.
A single ribbon of railway shimmied into view before us. The direction was dead straight, but the imperfect steel tracks zig-zagged and wobbled like a hula dancer. The wacky vehicle served as a former workhorse for the people of Battambang, Cambodia, transporting goods between villages. Once upon a time the train was powered by a stick, ‘rowed’ like a gondola. Now the Bamboo Train was motorized, a darling tourist attraction.
The train moved slowly at first, it’s wheels click clacking gently against the rails. Before long, the turtle was a cheetah, and the click clack was replaced by a deafening, metallic CLACK CLACK CLACK. The small carriage chased the rails with hair-raising speed. When the carriage hit one of the gaps between rail joins, the wheel connected with a shuddering CLANG! We sat cross-legged in the tray, swaying with every zig-zag, cringing with every rail gap. In no way was this activity safe, but fun…oh my, yes. Indiana Jones minecart chase scene, eat your heart out!
Two carriages coming in opposite directions signaled by torch and slowed to a stop. There was, after all, just one bidirectional track. The solution; ingenious. One carriage would disembark, and the drivers disconnected the motor, lifted the lightweight bamboo frame from the wheels, and placed it beside the track. The wheels were next, steel barbells, moved aside in turn. Train 1 would carry on it’s way, whilst train 2 reassembled itself again, behind train 1, ready to go. The carriage picked up speed again and we held on tight. CLACK CLACK CLACK!…
Stone sentinels stood on guard, their watch lasting nearly a thousand years. They growled with fierce monkey heads, armed with swords, helmeted and armoured in stone scales. Apsara, Angkor dancers, added their watch over the temples. The guardians watched civilizations rise and fall, but never expected an army like this one. Cameras, the weapon of choice. Telescopic lenses, tour guides, tripods, guidebooks, their field equipment. Sightseers at Angkor Wat, myself included!
Angkor Wat, the celebrity. It’s silhouette unmistakable, the shape of it’s pointed towers and surrounding walls a national icon. Angkor Wat’s grounds were huge. A sandstone bridge crossed Angkor’s square moat, almost four Olympic swimming pools in width. Across the moat, a high outer wall, protecting the temple itself and housing a myriad of smaller temples and grassy fields. From the gate to the temple, it’s still nearly half a kilometer walk, but the reward is worth it. The outer corridor of Angkor Wat is an endless, intricate carving of great battles, detailed, dusty and earthen, but polished smooth and black in places by curious human hands. Then there was a stone mountain to climb as the tiers rose and rose, culminating in the highest section where Angkor Wat’s four famous peaks stand. Hard work, this pilgrimage. Your legs will be shaking after this one.Read more