After celebrating our engagement with a bottle of Sailor Jerries, we woke early to catch our bus to Kampot. It wasn’t my favourite journey, I have to say. We hadn’t had time for breakfast, save a couple of tiny bananas, and the heat and hangover conspired to send my body into some God-awful blood-sugar crash.
Thankfully the bus driver was happy to stop while I breathed deeply on the roadside and tried to de-clamp my hands. Swarana shoved bananas in me and one of the passengers swapped his seat with mine so I could sit in the front. Lovely chap – as Cambodians generally are.
Travelling in this heat, consistently around the scorching mid-30s, is proving a bit difficult for me. Especially when the A/C isn’t working or they’ve crammed a dozen too many people in to the vehicle. But we arrived safely, checked into a guesthouse and went out for a stroll.
Sit back, relax
Kampot is a sleepy town on the Tuk Chhou river, built just upstream before the water flows into the Gulf of Thailand. Like much of Indochina, the town retains a strong French influence, with an abundance of lovely, if discoloured and often crumbling, colonial architecture.
Every guesthouse and tourist info booth will be offering the same tours. We first booked a sunset cruise up the river in the hope of seeing fireflies and flying fish on the return trip in the dark.
Chugging slowly upstream, under bridges with local kids jumping off for a swim, you pass several bungalows teetering out over the water. If we’d had more time, we might well have booked a night or two – they made relaxation look like it was going out of fashion.
When the sun sets over Bokor Mountain, and the light shifts to mauves and pinks over the river, you might catch a fleeting glimpse of a fish leaping from the surface of the water. “Ooh,” we sardonically muttered, “there’s the flying fish we were promised.” Just be patient, friend. Be patient.
It’s full of stars!
Once night has fallen, and the return trip is underway, that’s when the beasts come out. The boatman will bring you to a halt next to trees decorated with fairy lights, all twinkling in unison. Only they’re not fairy lights. They’re insects trying to cop off with each other. On a clear night you’ll have stars twinkling in the sky and in the silhouetted trees. It’s fascinating and beautiful in equal measure.
Then, further downstream, the boatman will shine his spotlight over the river’s surface and you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands, of fish leaping out of the water to eat mosquitos, with bats swooping above them; a nightly chaotic dance of fish, insect and flying rodent.
However, we were blessed with a more celestial show on our cruise: a moonrise like nothing I’ve ever seen. Peaking out over the trees, the full moon was the colour of blood, leaving a shimmering trail of red rippling reflections on the river.
I wish our camera was more up to the job. It can capture many things, the closer the better, but it was woeful in its attempts to capture this astonishing lunar event.
The following day we took a tour to Bokor Hill National Park – that is to say, what used to be Bokor Hill National Park. The Cambodian government in all its wisdom has sold the entire plot to a Vietnamese corporation, for it to ruin it with ugly resorts and hotels.
This is an unfortunate but all too common trend in Cambodia. According to a sweet old American couple on our tour, the same Vietnamese corporation owns a 70% stake in Angkor Wat – easily the country’s biggest draw. It seems such short-sightedness, or, more likely, a clear example of brazen corruption at the top. So, the park as it is now, is unlikely to remain so.
Bokor Hill’s history, like much of the country’s, is indelibly scarred by the Pol Pot regime of the 1970s. Once a French colonial getaway – with hill-top hotel, church and villas – now only ruins remain.
That is, aside from the brand new Vietnamese casino! Hooray for progress!
Starting in the morning, the tour takes you up the paved roads to the pinnacle, where mould-covered villas have turned an orange like rust, and the rooms have been filled with graffiti.
Next is a look at the colourful sitting Buddha statue, which is fine. There’s some standing rocks that people take pictures of too. It’s ok, I suppose.
But after that they take you to the casino, as if it might be of interest to anyone. (Truth be told, there was a lone Cambodian on the tour, who asked to be left at the casino and be picked up later. His glum face upon our return spoke volumes.)
Thankfully, the old church, in the same rusty orange as the villas, is more interesting. Again, the building is filled with graffiti, including a neo-hippy declaration that “You all have a beautiful battery inside”. Ahh, sweet.
At the top we were greeted with majestic views across the country, with even the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc visible. Glorious green forest spreads out in every direction below you, though due to the huge amounts of construction on the hill-top, I doubt there are as many mammals knocking about as there once were.
The hotel was next. Built in the 1920s, it is now a relic, but a fascinating glimpse into the past. I’d love to see photos of the place when it was fully in use. Still, exploring its echoing corridors and crumbling rooms is an experience in itself.
As with most organised tours in Asia, there’s no improvisation should conditions not be right to visit something, like a waterfall in the dry season. “Waterfall” in this case is a misnomer – really it should just be called a “fall”.
A mixed bag, then. But certainly worth it for the view, the hotel, the church and the weird graffiti.
Pitching the kitchens
Kampot itself is a lovely little town, with tonnes of restaurants and bars, though the nightlife ends fairly abruptly. As we have found common, the guesthouse attendants sleep on the floor of reception, responding to a knock on the door should you come home past 12.
One particular favourite place in town, despite its repulsive name, was Rusty Keyhole 2. The owner, a chap from Leicester, has invested in bottles of HP Sauce for every table, makes a proper Sunday Roast and has TVs playing several different sports at the same time.
We went there to watch a Spurs game – back when we still had a chance of Champions League qualification – but we stayed past bedtime chatting to the owner and two lovely Canadian kids. It didn’t hurt that they were serving (cold!) white wine at $1.75 a glass. If there’s one way to get Swarana through a football game, it’s lots of wine and some people who aren’t watching football.
Cream of the crop
The streets in Kampot are wide and fairly quiet, leading from a number of roundabouts with peculiar statues. The best is undoubtedly the giant durian statue, apparently an important crop in the province. There’s also a big “2000” piece, with a plump, flaking seabird sat on it.
By the way, while I say “fairly quiet”, that excludes music from weddings – of which there seemed to be one a day – or from the Cambodian karaoke club across the river, the wailing voices from which can be heard all across town in the evenings.
We really enjoyed our time in Kampot: the people are lovely and everyone in town is chilled; there’s great food, some of it spiced with local Kampot pepper; and there’s wildlife galore, from the lizards we found on Bokor, to the snakes we saw slithering over streets in the town centre.
But we had one more place to visit on the south coast; we’d come down this way to find bioluminescent algae – and we had one last chance to see it, on an island off the coast of Kep called Koh Tonsay.
We were tired, yes, but as Nietzsche never said:
A bug’s life
<= Previous post – We snook a look at Sihanoukville