I left from Phnom Penh with a feeling of relief. The city was too big and too noisy for me. I really needed to get out of the town. Besides, after all these months in Chiang Mai I wanted to see the blue ocean.
My friends and I hired a taxi from Phonm Penh (Kampot Express for $50 gets you to Kampot in 2 hours) to Kampot on Friday night. Our taxi driver speeded through the uneven, dirty roads, taking over big trucks full of factory workers, that were coming back from a day shift, ancient motorbikes driven by whole families of 4 or 5, old Toyotas, cow carts and people walking at the side of the roads. At one point we passed an accident. A man with blood dripping out of his head was lying on the pavement unconscious. A crowd of people were gathering around him. ‘A dead man’ said our taxi driver. Before I left for Cambodia I was planning to hire a motorbike in Phonm Penh and visit the villages around the city. However, after I saw how horrible the traffic was there, I decided to rely on my two feet and tuk tuk drivers. The roads in Cambodia can kill you. Sometimes you can’t even call them ‘roads’. They are dirt paths with clouds of red soil lifting every time someone passes through them and blinding the drivers. Very rarely one can see new cars and motorbikes here. Mostly people drive old machines that have been fixed hundreds of times before, which probably can go pretty fast, but are slow when stopping. Wearing a helmet is your own personal choice. People wear them, but they are usually cheap versions of the real deal and don’t protect you from injuries. I can only imagine how many people die every year due to road accidents.
We got to Kampot late at night. The taxi driver tried to make us stay at his brother’s hostel. ‘Very nice and cheap’ he said. We agreed to have a look at it, but decided to go away from the town. Taxi and tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia can be really persistent in trying to convince you to stay at their ‘brother’s’ or ‘friend’s’ place. Usually they just earn commission on every tourist they bring to the place. This time we were in majority and made the driver to take us to the place we wanted to go.
The expats from Phonm Penh love to stay at the Greenhouse Bungalows, around 5km from Kampot, so we went there and didn’t regret it at all. The place was quiet, surrounded by mango trees and beautiful flowers. The bar and restaurant overlooked the river. There was a deck, kayaks for rent, hammocks, and even a small, artificial beach. What else do you need? Oh, yeah! A nice, cold Angkor Beer!
(The bungalows are all new, with big bathrooms and mosquito nets. You can rent the biggest one for 8 people for only $35 a night.)
We spent 2 days doing nothing. We mostly sat in the rattan chairs, at the river front and talked about everything and nothing. After spending so much time in the cities it was a true bliss.
After 2 days I left my friends and headed for Kep. I bought a bus ticket from the Greenhouse reception for only $3. A tuk tuk took me to the tourist office, where I waited for an hour for my transport. To kill time I headed towards the centre of the town. I had thought that Kampot wouldn’t be very interesting as it is a very small town, but as soon as I went into the town I knew I had been wrong. I was surrounded by old-style, colonial French villas, most of them dirty and neglected, and overgrown by green bushes and trees, some renovated and turn into galleries and cafes with rattan chairs and small tables outside. On street corners men were playing chess. Kids in their blue uniforms were going to school. Monks were trotting around with their bright orange umbrellas. I decided to come back after visiting Kep.
The mini van to Kep took me only half an hour. I was completely unprepared. I didn’t know where I would stay and when to tell the driver to stop and drop me off. Asian towns hardly ever have sings informing you where you are. I usually look for a school, or for a government institution. They normally have a sign in English with the name of the place, along with the name of the town.
But Kep didn’t have any of it. We were following a wide road, which appeared to be the motorway. Nothing indicated that we reached a town, except sings for various guesthouses and bungalows. I could see the ocean on my right. ‘Are we in Kep?’ I asked the driver. He nodded. ‘Ok. Drop me off here’ I said on a whim. I got off and looked around. There was a big roundabout in the middle, but except that nothing much around. I took the ‘Lonely Planet’ guide, picked a place to stay and started walking in a random direction, hoping that I would meet a local who can point me into the right place. Little did I wait. A man on a motorbike stopped. ‘Lady, you need a motorbike. Very cheap. $3’ the man said. I bargained with him and he lowered the price to $2. I still felt ripped off. I showed him the place I wanted to go and I boarded his little motorbike with my 60 litre backpack.
It turned out that Kep had a very strange set up. Little streets were coming off the motorway, where I got off. There wasn’t much around. I drove my taxi motorbike for around 5 min ($2! what a rip off!). The Tree Top Bungalows were located at the end of a long dirt road. I decided to stay there, mostly because I was tired, sweaty and hungry. My bungalow was the smallest place ever, with a shared bathroom and a fan ($9 per night – not bad really).
I put my bikini on, and with a growing excitement I set off to say hello to the ocean. After around 10 min walk I reached the… beach… I stood there, looking at my surroundings with tears in my eyes and thoughts containing all the worst words in both languages I know. The ‘beach’ was black, around 10 meters wide, with slimy rocks and no sand. Its corners were full of plastic rubbish, which stank horribly. There wasn’t much to do than to go along it to see where it would take me. At one point I had to climb a pile of rubbish and a rocky wall, and jumped off just next to the famous crab market, which was disappointing as well. I walked around it, looking at the stalls and not finding any life crabs at all, just usual Asian delicacies – fish, meat on a stick and sweet drinks. I passed the market, the restaurants and continued along the shore. Here, the tide was low, so I found a little secluded place, where I laid down for an hour or so, thinking that Kep sucked and I needed to get out of there.
Later I walked a bit further and finally I reached the Kep Beach – a small sandy stripe with golden sand brought here from Shianoukville. It was a Sunday, so the locals were enjoying some family time, having picnics in the shade of the palm trees. Only a few tourists were baking their already brown bodies.
I went for a dip in the water, but after some plastic bags wrapped around my ankles and seeing some other unidentified rubbish floating around me, I decided that it was time to go and look for a swimming pool.
On my way back I stopped at the crab market, where I finally had an opportunity to see the live crabs. Some women had just come back with cages full of them. The pier became noisy and lively with buyers and sellers bargaining for the best catch. All of them were women, men stood further away looking dreamily at the ocean. During my whole stay I never saw any hard working men in Cambodia. Building sides, shops, cafes were usually served by women. Men drove tuk tuks and motorbikes, and besides that didn’t do much else.
The next day I spent walking around the market and enjoying fresh seafood at one of the local restaurants. Next door a man came back from the sea with fresh fish. His wife took the basket from him and spent a long time cleaning and washing them in the water. I sat in the restaurant watching her working and finally realising that Kep might have not been the paradise I had expected, but the town was actually really interesting. I just had to give it a chance.
My friend Valerie arrived from Phonm Penh in the evening and straight away we went to the Yacht Club to watch the sunset. It was a bit cloudy and as storm was coming, but the colours of the sky changed from dark blue, through light pink, to red. It was like a painting. We sat for a while, watching the water (well, Valerie did. I was constantly taking photos). The Yacht Club was almost deserted. Its’ little bar had only a few customers, including a very cute family with 2 boys. The children were playing on a little pier and created a perfect, picturesque background for my photos. So, did Valerie actually…
The next day we took a boat to the Rabbit Island, located just 15 minutes off the Kep shore. We spent a couple of hours there, soaking up the relaxing atmosphere. There was almost no one around due to the low season and the approaching rainy months in Cambodia. Finally, I could have a swim without worrying about the rubbish and dirty water. Finally, I found my paradise.
We spent another 2 days in Kep walking around, eating and enjoying the sunshine. Every night we went to the Yacht Club to watch the sunset, which was different every time.
The first impressions of Kep weren’t great. I expected a paradise beach with palm trees and I found dirty, slimy mud with stinky water. However, after one day the tide was higher and it covered the blackness with blue water. By the second day I started to enjoy the town and felt a little sad when I was leaving.
As I promised myself I went back to Kampot. Valerie and I spent one night there. We walked around during the afternoon, enjoying the little streets, looking at abandoned villas and saying hello to ever smiling locals. We took a stroll by the river and watched another sunset, and to top it all off we had a beautiful dinner at one of the bars and made some new friends.
There’s nothing much to do in Kep and Kampot, except enjoying the local atmosphere and walking a lot. Both places are full of hostels and guesthouses, which you don’t even need to leave. They all have swimming pools, restaurants and bars. The towns are great if you want to relax, if you are looking for a place for a honeymoon or a family vacation. They are definitely not for 20-somethings backpackers, who are looking for a full moon-like party. For this it’s better to go to Sieam Reap, or Phonm Penh.