Dazed and tired we stumbled out of the mini van onto the side of a road. Noticeably quiet and empty of traffic we take a minute to adjust our heads. We were dropped off in front of a guesthouse so it made sense to inquire about a room whilst we were there. Too expensive for us ($12), but we managed to get a good map from the reception with other hostels marked on it. As we chose a direction and began to slowly walk with our bags we were stopped by a kid on a motorbike. I say kid, he looked about 16years old but this means nothing as everyone looks so much younger than they actually are! He spoke some English and offered us a room for $4 a night with a free tuk tuk there. Sounded fine with us, but first we needed a coffee. The kid drove off and within seconds a tuk tuk sat on the side of the road and waited patiently for us to drink an iced coffee. We found the coffee only meters away from where we were originally dropped off. A lady who ran a small shop also sold coffee and coconuts. She had a concrete table and chairs molded appear like wooden logs on the street. Her prices were good as was her coffee, so this became our local coffee joint for the next few days.
The tuk tuk sped north up the road along the river an just after we passed a large bridge he turned down a very muddy dirt road pulling up at Last Guesthouse. The room was very basic and actually didn’t really feel like a room as the walls were plastic boards with a fake wood lining. There were gaps where the walls were meant to meet the ceilings, so it was obvious the owner had just sectioned out one last room. At $4 we didn’t care though. Unfortunately the room was teaming with mosquitoes and with all the gaps in the walls we quickly assembled our mosquito net. On the opposite side of our room there was a long communal balcony that had a great view of the river. Below was an outdoor restaurant and we could see the family who ran the guesthouse prepare Khmer food. It was so hot and humid in Kampot we felt lethargic so rested through the heat of the day, only venturing into town once the hottest part of the day had passed.
Kampot is a small quiet town. It felt sleepy and we certainly felt that having an afternoon nap was nothing to be a shamed of in this part of the world! The buildings in general were small and definitely fit the ‘crumbling colonial architecture’ description that I had read about.
Although they were colonial I wouldn’t go as far as saying they were particularly beautiful though. The main area where a few cafes and restaurants dominated the street was a wide road with a bit of greenery which was called the ‘park’. Also in the middle of this wide road was the old market which is now in ruins; apparently at one point it had been used as a club, now it wasn’t used as anything although I think there were plans to renovate it and bring it back to life as a market. There seemed to be a large western influence as the cafes almost all seemed to be owned by foreigners, however there was a relaxed and bohemian edge to the place which made it a nice town to hang out in for a few days. Personally it was not exciting enough to stay for more than a few days. Other people who had been to Kampot in the past had recommended us a hostel on the outskirts of town where they have bungalows and hammock and they just relaxed on the river and drank beer for a week. This would have been nice perhaps, if we had not just been doing that for a week in Sihanoukville! We were eager to experience Cambodian culture, get off the beaten track and loose the tourists.
For what remained of our day we tried the only locally owned restaurant on the road, ‘Chim’s’. The prices were good, Chim was lovely and the food was tasty with a good selection of local food and western too. It was easy to while away an hour or two there becoming immersed in the ‘Kampot Survival Guide’, a free booklet that humorously talks about what there is to see and do in and around Kampot.
From the tone of the text I guess the author is British, he had Al and I chuckling with his dry sense of humour. Aside for comedy value it is a handy little book with good tips with maps and directions to nearby sites of interest.
The following morning; on our way out of the guesthouse we checked out what was cooking in the kitchen and expressed our interest in food. Everyone was keen for us to learn some Khmer cooking during our stay. We suggested that if we buy the ingredients and they show us how to cook we can all enjoy the food together that evening. They all nodded enthusiastically. The boy who originally found us on the side of the road said we would take us around the market to buy the food when we wanted to do it. We agreed to do it later that afternoon, happy to have a local with us at the market to help us not get totally ripped off! For the time being, we opted to go for iced coat our local coffee joint and then try and rent a bicycle out for the day. After trying to find the tourist information on an out of date map, we gave up and instead we just rented two bikes out for $1 each. They were rusty old things but were good enough for mooching around Kampot and along the river.
We decided to cross over the old bridge and head north along the river. It was very hot and sticky and hard to cycle on the shadeless dirt roads. We soon came to Olly’s Guesthouse and then Bodhi Villa’s (the latter was recommended to us by Danny from Hooha in Sihanoukville). Out of pure curiosity we checked out Bodhi Villa. It was just as I suspected. Beautiful setting on the river, very relaxed vibe and a variety of sleeping options (dorm, bungalow, or tree top bungalow). The major problem for us is that it was out of town and it would be difficult without a motorbike to not be reliant on their overpriced restaurant. Also it felt like a hide away retreat for backpackers, not somewhere to go if you want to see real Cambodia. In the riverside restaurant we saw 3 back packers all sitting with their backs to the river view using their fancy looking laptops watching videos and listening to music. Hmmm…this was not going to be our cup of tea…
Back on our rusty bikes we continued up the dirt road before realising that it was too intensely hot to go any further away from Kampot. Instead we took a right down a little dirt track leading to farms and nothing much. The track got very bumpy and it was easy to imagine how it would be transformed into a muddy slide once the impending hard rain hit the clay like surface. Our idea was that perhaps the track would wind around and we would pop out further down the main road however this did not materialise. Instead we found ourselves at a dead end in the middle of grazing land for cows which now completely surrounded us. We back up and debated whether to take the track around to the right (which appeared to be going up to a hilly area) but decided against it with the threatening rumbles of thunder getting nearer and nearer. We headed back the way we came from and got back to our hostel before the rain began. The communal balcony was a great place to watch the black clouds roll in and look out for lightening.
After a little rest and rehydrate we headed off to the market which was only down the road from last guesthouse. We parked up our bikes and headed in. It was one of the more vibrant markets I have been to since Bolivia. The market was massive with many winding pathways filled with black sludge that stank. Each little stall and window was spilling out onto the path with all sorts of weird and wonderful food items. The meat stalls caught my attention. There would be slabs of red raw meat hanging from the window and behind the display a hammock with butcher (always a lady) would be casually hanging out. To me it was a surreal sight. As we wound through, picking up vegetables and spices our last stop was to buy chicken.
This section of the market was most surreal of all. The chickens and ducks were all alive (apart from a couple of their friends who had been recently slaughtered). The sat there in silence with their feet bound together looking rather miserable. Now and then a lady would grab one of them and kill it in front of the rest. She would kill it swiftly and there would be no more than a single squawk. Opposite the chicken stand we went to I noticed a girl having a pedicure on the side of the sludgy path watching the vendors. A bizarre place.
With all our shopping, we headed back to the hostel kitchen where the cook was waiting for us. He instructed us immediately getting us to chop and grind spices . We were going to make a Khmer curry with chicken. A mild but delicious sauce with ginger, lemongrass and coconut flavours. We cooked on a coal burner in a large pan with all the pungent smells filling our open air kitchen. Our teacher was enthusiastic and keen to make sure we did everything correctly. He though it was really funny that I was struggling to chop the lemongrass in the correct way. When it came to eating it, the family were no where to be found. The hostel ower had decided not to eat with us. So it was just us and our teacher. We were a little disappointed as half of the point was to sit down with them and share food and culture. Even though they had acted so enthusiastic about this idea earlier that day, we had been preparing ourselves for something like that to happen. Throughout our travels this is not the fist time we have had hoe and promise of sitting down and eating with our hosts and then at the last minute getting left all alone. It was one of those cultural differences that we have not ever entirely understood. Either way the food was delicious (but our chicken needed about a day in the pan as it must have been a happy free range chicken and was quite tough) and we were happy to have learnt this dish. The sauce is one that is a basic for many different Khmer curry dishes so it was new knowledge that would allow us to adapt the recipe to create an Amok or Sarawan curry.
With a slow start to the day we returned our bikes and sat on the river side in town for several hours. Eventually we decided that the best way to see some of the surrounding area would be to rent a motorbike. In Kampot it is possible to rent a motorbike out for 24hrs at $5. This meant we had more flexibility with where we chose to go as we would have the luxury of a motorbike until midday the following day. Referring to the Kampot Survival Guide maps and directions we opted to find the Secret Lake, north east of Kampot. The map indicated several road turnings with archways all going into a district of farms, dirt roads and villages.
Once we were out of Kampot we found one of these arches and turned onto a dirt road. The problem with the map is that it only indicated the larger dirt roads, not the smaller ones. It was difficult to identify the ‘big’ dirt roads and they really are never that ‘big’. Often my perception of a dirt path, turns out to be a major track…so you can understand the scope for confusion. Either way, we zoomed down what appeared to be a big dirt road past paddy fields and beautiful stilted houses and friendly children all waving and shouting ‘Sousaday!’ or ‘Hello!’ after us. After about 15 minutes we came to a railway track stretching as far as the eye could see adjacent to the road we were on. This was not on our map at all and we began to have doubts that we were going the right way. We managed to ask a local man on a bike for a cave near the lake and he wiggled his hand, indicating the road behind us and then to the right. This just confused us more. We decided to head back where we cam from and try following another dirt road after locating another archway and a school indicated on the map. By this time it felt like we could get stuck in rain with very black clouds building on the horizon. Our bike was not built for these dirt roads!
Back to the main tarmac road we didn’t find a school or another archway but we did find a Cham fishing village indicated on the map. This suggested that actually we had been going in the right direction. So back again we went down the same dirt road, this time I am sure the children were wondering what on earth we were up to! This time we crossed over the railway track and continued for some time. Passing picturesque paddy fields with the majority of people cycling and not on motorbikes. They probably realised how much harder it was to move a motorbike in thick mud when the rains came.
The whole area was beautiful and cutting through on our bike was such a pleasure to get a glimpse of village and country life, it seemed a world away from Kampot. On the horizon some mountains jutted up from the otherwise flat landscape. We figured that this was good news as we could see the Secret Lake was effectively in a valley between two mountains containing caves. So we continued on the same road until we were on a wide corner raising us up to get a better view of the landscape we had just been passing through. All of a sudden around the next bend the Secret Lake exposed itself. It was a large calm expanse of water only interrupted by small mounds of land that created mini islets on the surface of the water. One man bathed near the edge and another man appeared as a dot in his hollowed out canoe with a fishing net. It was truly tranquil and felt like a spiritual place. Along the edge of the road leading to the lake there were a few wooden shacks where some ladies hung out. The shacks looked like the sort that should be filled with tourist tat, but they were empty and it was clearly not the season to expect many tourists. We stopped for a Nuoc Mia (sugar cane juice) and took in the view.
After taking in this tranquil spot we continued up the road on the other side of a bridge crossing a narrow part of the lake. The road took us higher up and provided us with a fantastic view of the area. Seeing as the maps detail of the dirt roads didn’t feel very complete we decided to take a left up a smaller track that led to the top of one of the mountains. Our hope was that we could either find a cave or at least continue on the other side and work our way back to Kampot making a loop rather than retracing our track all the way back. No caves were found and the track on the mountain came to a rubble end so we opted for a track leading down the other side. This was a much smaller track, but a track none the less.
As we descended it felt like we were off road all together winding through rubble land scattered with spiky bushes. We continued on what we could make out to be a path hoping that it would turn into a larger track once we reached the flat plains of paddy fields. It did for a little while so we were encouraged to take this path. Plus our fuel was looking low and taking our bike back over the mountain past the lake seemed like a bad option. The track widened slightly but as we reached the padi fields, dotted with stilted houses the track got very muddy with parts impassable with large puddles. We asked a few curious locals for Kampot who did a kind of wiggle with their arms pointing vaguely across the expanse of padi fields. The paddy fields were impassable, full of water. The only way was to navigate around them on the narrow ridges bordering the fields. So we began our pursuit. Locals working in the fields stopping to stare, sometimes waving and shouting ‘Sousaday!’ We kept getting to dead ends on the ridges, unable to turn around, we were forced to go forward sometimes into the water momentarily to reach the next ridge. I was not strong enough to help Al with this and I could only help by holding the front wheel as he lifted the bike over the best he could. We were really scared of flooding the engine. The best I could really do was run ahead and scope out the best route along the ridges and shout directions back to Al. It was a fun adventure but at those moments it was a little unnerving with drizzle beginning to come down. It was not an ideal place to get stuck. Eventually we navigated ourselves and bike to a house with land around it. Now where?? A group of local ladies had started to follow us and they directed us through someones garden until finally we found a road leading in the general direction to Kampot.
Now it was a race against time to find fuel. We were running dry but luckily we found a girl sitting under an umbrella with a pepsi bottle full of petrol She charged us the tourist price, but it didn’t seem so bad to give these people a little more money than the usual price (5000 instead of 4600 reis). Now we were on track we began to recognise where we were and stopped on a main dirt junction for some fried plantain and a nuoc mia. A truck filled to the brim with huge green coconuts was parked on the side of the road with workers sitting high ontop, all waving and smiling at us. People here were really friendly. This aside we still managed to get overcharged for our pitstop. Back on the main road to Kampot the threatening rain never came and the thunder seemed to just rumble in the distance. As this had not been enough excitment for one day we decided to try and find one cave. Using our map we travelled further down the main tarmac road away from Kampot. It was easy to find with a temple ontop of the hill. It was beautiful as so many of these places are. We were followed around by a kid wanting to give us a guide around the cave. It would have been neseccary without a good torch but we were happy just enjoying the part that was naturally lit. Glad we had made the effort to find this cave but we chose not to spend too much time there as we wanted to reach Kampot before dark and dusk was setting in.
It had been a great ride and a perfect way to see how Cambodia out of towns is. It really seemed true more than ever that Cambodia really doesn’t have that many roads and I was beginning to understand how hard it is to get of the beaten track without our own mode of transport. That evening we gave into temptation and tried the ‘best ribs in Cambodia’ at The Rusty Keyhole. They were good, but more like a massive lump of meat than actual ribs as we know them. We sunk a few beers and unwound from our adrenalin pumped day. It was the perfect place on the riverside to do this.
Final morning in Kampot with a bus to Phnom Pehn booked for the afternoon. We got up early and headed out on a main tarmac road for 20km. It was an easy ride made very pleasant due to the cooler temperature in the morning. Using the directions of the Kampot Survival Guide and advice from Chim (who we had rented the bike from) we took a right turning onto a concrete road. We were looking for an old concrete factory that was apparently in ruins and an interesting alternative to driving to Kep.
The area was quite barron with only concrete rubble remaining but with the back drop of a mountainous rock jutting out of the flat land. The only sign of a factory was two old oil drums.
There seemed to be industrial activity as we did spot some trucks moving rock and rubble around but other than this is was quiet without stilted houses or padi fields this time. We had been told it was a good playground for dirtbikers and this was evident with many skid marks covering the dusty land.
With not much time to play with before heading back to Kampot to catch our bus, we decided to go little further around the base of the mountainous rock. To get there we passed over a rickity bridge and before long we happened upon a cave and pool of water.No one else was there, not even local kids trying to be guides. It was a beautiful spot. The main entrance to the cave was a shrine with a wooden ladder leading up from the pool. We enjoyed this spiritual place all by ourselves before heading back for breakfast at Chims’s and catching our bus back to Phnom Penh.
Kampot had been a good break away from the busy city of Phnom Penh and the party beach of Sihanoukville. It had been an unexpected place to experience Cambodian culture and get a taste of what this rural country has to offer when you scratch beneath the surface. We felt a few days had been enough for us, but quite possibly a place I could see the long time relaxed traveler getting happily stuck for some time.