Cambodia 2: Kampot

The bus from Phnom Penh to Kampot departed on schedule, at 2:45, and arrived at 7:15 (40 minutes late – of course). This did, however, offer much cooler climates for the 5 minute walk to my hostel, Magic Sponge. A relatively new hostel, my dorm room was at the top of the building and almost open-plan (slightly ambitiously named “The Penthouse”) with each bed having an individual power socket, lamp and mosquito net, plus provided with shampoo, soap and a towel – every backpackers dream. Oh and it has an en suite bedroom. For $6 per night (fiver) I was pretty happy. I dumped my bags, headed downstairs and bought a Kampot Cider for $2 for the road (dry but refreshing and with flavour) and ventured out to the river. I didn’t get far, though, stopping at the place opposite after spotting signs about tours round Kampot (I hate organised tours, but wanted an idea of what there is to do) and was quickly approached by Jack ; the owner of the restaurant-slash-tour company.

After briefly discussing the tour he soon asked me “Why are you travelling on your own?” Oh, Jack, are you really sure you want to ask that question?? Do you have 5 hours to spare and emotional support in place for afterwards? In all seriousness, though, I find this question bizarre. Why not? Why don’t we do more things on our own and why isn’t this seem as normal, and healthy, rather than unusual, strange and a thing we question so quickly. I was never once asked “Why are you travelling with someone else?”, perhaps because this is the social norm (as with being in a relationship, or living with someone, or getting married) but maybe it’s those questions we should be asking more. If I’d been asked THOSE questions instead, maybe I would have established an individual sense of self-worth by now (OK, OK, I said maybe).

I digress massively, of course. I muttered something about liking my own company and being able to do whatever I wanted (with more conviction than it sounds… I think) and wandered towards the river, passing the Salt Workers roundabout and 2,000 Monument on my way, to stop at Twenty Three (previously Indo Bar, as recommended in Trip Advisor) for another Kampot Cider to wash down my Pumpkin, Nut and Feta salad. It was really really tasty but I didn’t take a photo – I’m sorry, but I was famished by this point that I tucked in without a second thought (you know what it’s like). To walk off dinner, I took a stroll towards the Durian Roundabout (literally, a shrine to the durian fruit, which apparently Kampot does best – I will let you know) and then back towards my hostel.

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I felt I had been go go go for the last few days so I decided to take my time in Kampot and not feel the need to fill each day with “doing” and just exploring, although saying that I did spend a lot of time looking at tours and information for Kep. But first I took a long walk along the beautiful, surprisingly still, river, passing the old bridge, the new bridge and railway bridge on my way – all so different in style yet each with character. I then went for a coffee at Cafe Espresso as they roast their own coffee beans – the flat white I had there was one of the best I have had (although on the small side for me; I have struggled to find big coffees in SEA, especially Vietnam and Cambodia). It was still quite early so I didn’t eat there but their brunch wraps and warm banana bread with melted butter sounded delicious (even typing those words makes me want to go back).

After perusing tour information I grabbed a takeaway banana and honey smoothie from Epic Arts and then I booked a sunset firefly tour for 5pm with Chum Chim. For ease I ate there just beforehand – I had an incredibly tasty Khmer curry with chicken, carrots, some other veg I couldn’t identify, and rice. I haven’t had one bad Cambodian meal yet, local cuisine or otherwise. At 5pm I was handed my included drink (you could have beer, water, Coke or a fruit smoothie), thrown into a Tuk Tuk and taken to the river, right next to the old bridge, and jumped on board a boat. There were only about 10 passengers so loads of space, and I took a pew on the deck to appreciate the last hour of sun.

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Then we set off down the river for about an hour, taking in the stunning mountains and beautiful sky – it’s hard to know if we just don’t get sunsets and skylines like that back home or if I don’t take enough time off to just sit and watch, but the sky tonight was literally incredible. So many colours and so many photos for me to take. We passed by a group of local kids jumping into the river and shrieking with delight (life gets too serious as you get older) and then it was our turn to go for a swim – I was the only one to bring bathing stuff so in I went, lapping through the river as the sun set around me.

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Once back on board we headed back in the direction we had came, with the sun finally setting above us, and after about 15 minutes of darkness we came to a stop by bank to watch the fireflies that light up at night – sadly I couldn’t capture any of it with a photograph, but it literally looked like a Christmas tree where the lights are twinkling a golden glow. It was really peaceful to just sit and watch. For the last 30 minutes back I layer down and gazed at the stars in the sky – literally filled with them, there were more stars than I think I have ever seen before.

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I met a girl from Melbourne on the boat and we were both planning to check out the night market – it is not even close to being as big as others I have seen, but this one was blaring local music and had a mini fairground. It didn’t take us long to jump on board the children’s carousel, much to the delight of the kids (other than the girl in the cart beside me, who did NOT look impressed). Meh, 29, shmenty-nine.

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The following day I booked myself into a tour; I’d rather not do an organised tour but the places I wanted to get to were hard to find and far apart, plus it would have cost me way more to cover where I wanted to go on my own. I was picked up at 8:30am in a Tuk Tuk with a couple and we were first driven to the Salt Fields. Unfortunately, due to being low season, there wasn’t anything for us to see on the fields, but our driver was very informative in telling us about the process of sea water entering the fields and the steps to extracting the salt, plus he let us glimpse inside the giant shed packed full with salt and scooped some out for us to see.

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Next we drove to Phnom Chhnork cave, famous for the temple that was built inside it in 7th century. First we had to cross the river via a precarious bamboo bridge and pay $1 to enter the cave. None of us brought flashlights so our guide led the way using the light from his phone, and two local boys stayed at the end of the line to help us climb if needed and make sure we were safe. It wasn’t a huge cave to climb, but it was pitch-black, steep and tricky to clamber up in places. I made it out sweatier and stronger than when I went in.

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The temple itself wasn’t particularly striking, however the views over Kampot from the top of the cave were spectacular.

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We were then driven to La Plantation – a pepper plantation, stopping at Secret Lake on the way. The pepper plantation was free to enter and so cool to learn about the different ways of producing black, white and red pepper (and the length of time the whole process takes!), all of which we got to sample for free afterwards. I also treated myself to a fresh lime juice to cool down with, which was ridiculously delicious, whilst taking in the views of the plantation and surrounding mountains.

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We were then driven to Kep, where we would then go across to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) but as I spent a full day and night there, and it is separate to Kampot, I will save this for my next blog. But I will say that this day was one of my favourites, as I absolutely loved driving along the roads and through the villages of Kampot, passing locals on bicycles and motorbikes or locals hard at work, with the most stunning mountains and nature surrounding us and a wonderful breeze in my face. I fell completely in love with Cambodia on this day (and my love has only continued to grow).

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When I returned to Kampot at 6pm the following day I changed hostels; I find I get a bit restless being in the same one for more than 2 nights, plus, whilst Magic Sponge was lovely it is run by a Westerner and I quite like to immerse myself in the culture more by staying in local-run accommodation. So, being impressed with Chum Chim’s tour and food I decided to head to their guesthouse, which, to my delight, offered dorm beds for $3 per night in a spacious dorm room with fans and mosquito nets, and only 2 other girls in there. Plus they offered free laundry if you stayed for two nights, so I booked myself in and headed out for some grub.

I walked down to the river and quickly made the decision to head into Rusty Keyhole – a place known, and recommended, for having the best ribs in Kampot. There seems to be a bit of an Australian influence on the food in Kampot, with various places selling ribs or Mexican inspired food, so even though I felt like I was cheating slightly with more Western fare it is very common in Kampot. I settled myself at the bar (where I feel I can really experience a place) and ordered yet another bottle of Kampot Cider (cider is so hard to get your hands on in SEA and, dear god, do I love the stuff) and Half Rack Ribs with Baked Potato. Now, these ribs were nothing like we get at home – the meat was lean and there was a massive chunk of it sliced up, and it was so tasty and juicy without feeling messy or gluttonous. Plus the side of coleslaw and baked potato (cooked to perfection) was the ideal accompaniment.

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The meal aside, I had the most wonderful conversation with the Khmer woman who owns the place, telling me about her husband from England (Manchester, to be precise), their children (two beautiful girls, one of which sat beside me and showed me her birds-nest creation from school), the trials and tribulations of setting up and running a business, and we discussed our feelings towards London, Kampot and life in general. When I left she took my hand in hers – kind of like a handshake but with much more warmth and affection. Have I mentioned that I love Cambodians??

The following day I rented a moped for $4 through my hostel and headed out, first filling up with $2 of fuel and then grabbing a coconut shake (3,000 real, or $0.75) before embarking on my journey to Bokor National Park. Google maps said it takes an hour by car but, being on a moped and stopping for the amazing views of Kampot on my way up the winding mountain, it took me about an hour and a half to reach the main entrance point (after the initial entrance before the bottom of the mountain where I paid $2 to enter via moped).

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I decided to make my way to Popkvil Waterfall first, paying another $1 to enter this section, and climbed a few rocks for great views of the water crashing down – it was so calming and breath-taking just to sit here.

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As I was sat on the outskirts of the waterfall, a man from a nearby Khmer family having a picnic came up to me to ask (via gesture) if he could have a photo with me, which caused shrieks of delight and laughter from his family members as I happily obliged and threw my arm round him for a pic. I then went and sat with his entire family, once again being struck by how lovey and kind Cambodians are (I don’t think I have said this yet??) I walked away with a huge smile on my face and warmth in my belly.

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I then continued to ride around the park, stopping at Bokor Palace ruins for some more views across the bay and to refuel at a little local shop – I think I was potentially scammed somewhere as I was told $2 of fuel would be plenty for a whole day touring Bokor Mountain and I had to refuel TWICE, with the final lot of gasoline lasting far longer than the first two. But still, I spent $9 in total for a full day on a moped.

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I headed back down the mountain and back towards Kampot at 2pm, arriving at Cafe Espresso once again at around 3pm for a bite to eat. I ordered their all day brunch of poached eggs, bacon and avocado on Kampot on granary bread with harissa sauce (Australian influence!) and greedily tucked in to yet another tasty meal.

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I then rode to the main road running past the food market around 4pm as I was determined to sample some local durian. Fortunately I managed to find a stall that were selling individual pieces in a carton rather than having to purchase a whole durian for 7 dollars, settling on 4 pieces for $3. I then rode back towards the river, sat down with my legs hanging over the edge, and took my first bite – it was strangely creamy and not as strong a flavour as the smell, but I went from enjoying the taste to finding it reminded me of something unmentionable, and there were local men working on a boat nearby so I walked over to offer them some of my durian, dropping my phone and smashing the screen in the process. I’m not saying this will stop me carrying out selfless good deeds or anything, but…

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Well, I left the durian in their hands and rode back towards the market, locating a Samsung shop and desperately pleading with them to replace my screen (even though they said they were too busy and to come back tomorrow) as I was leaving Kampot the following morning. I paid $15 and left my phone with them for 1.5 hours while I rode myself out to nearby Cham Fishing Village, riding alongside the river as fisherman were out at sea and the sun was starting to set behind the mountains. With no phone to be able to take photos, I just kept on riding and gazing out at our amazing world.

I really loved my time in Kampot and it became one of my favourite spots to eat, relax, explore and just “be”, but after 3 days and 4 nights it was time for me to leave. Back at my hostel I booked the bus and boat to Koh Rong Samloem for 8am the next morning, with the carrot cake I had purchased from Epic Arts Cafe earlier in the day tucked into my bag for breakfast – it wasn’t as moist or as full of flavour as I would have liked but it was certainly filling, and partnered with my coffee shake that I grabbed in the morning from L’epi d’or, it was a pretty decent brekkie…

LS.

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