Sihanoukville, Kampot & Kep - Tuesday 23 Sept - Wed 1 Oct 2008
Sihanoukville is down on the South Coast of Cambodia in the middle of the only coastal area in the country. It is bound to change hugely in the next few years with lots of development to come -hopefully it will be in a good way! It is already very popular with expats and weekending Khmers and maybe for this reason the roads down are very good -an easy 4 hour drive -though we used almost a tank of fuel as we were driving slap bang into the oncoming winds. We have used up our long range tank which we filled in Thailand and are now buying Cambodian fuel which is around $1.20 USD a litre as cf $1.10 in Thailand.
The idea had been to have a few quiet days down here for some R & R which we planned to spend lying on the beach reading our books. Unfortunately this didn't really pan out as once we hit the coast the wind came up, the rain came down and it was a blustery few days! Never mind we had a good look around, met some really nice local ex-pats and holed up in cafes on and off for a few days! We actually came a bit unstuck there ..everywhere else we'd been in a restaurant a Wi-Fi connection came as part of the deal if you were buying food/drink. We settled down for a while in a local café asked if they had WiFi, were told they had, only to be told 6 hours on (obviously the majority of which were not spent on the net) that we were being charged a fairly heavy rate for the full 6 hours! Next time we'll definitely ask the question first.
Sihanoukville certainly had some nice beaches, though it was a shame to see so much rubbish around. As mentioned above it will certainly change ..much of the land around the beach front had been sold off …indeed we were told that over 50% of the land in Cambodia is now owned by foreigners. Sadly we saw a big downside of this at Occheuteal one of the beaches there was a huge shanty town type of settlement. Apparently these people had been unceremoniously kicked off the land they had lived on for many years to make way for the incoming foreigners. The Government is allegedly very corrupt and whilst some people seem to be very wealthy ..lots of new cars -including high numbers of lexus and Hummers - those at the bottom are still very poor. As if these people haven't suffered enough after the years of civil war to once more be moved on !
Anyway we did enjoy it and had a relaxing few days finding a good ..if blowy beachfront camp spot. We had plenty of privacy due to the poor weather ..Andrew was able to have an al fresco shower or 2!
On leaving Sihanoukville the plan had been to head on to Bokor an old French hill station which is now deserted. The views from the top of mount Bokor are apparently to die for but due to the wet conditions the roads was deemed very risky so we gave it a miss. Instead we headed to Kampot..
It was a very pretty drive through the rolling hills to this small fishing village. It is renowned for its pepper which is apparently used in any French restaurant worth its salt (or pepper I guess !) We pulled over for a short stop at a lovely seafood place on the banks of the river. This turned into a long stop 1) due to the driving rain which started almost immediately and 2) as we met Laura and Bingham a very nice couple from the UK who were doing a similar world trip having come via Africa so we had a very pleasant afternoon swapping travel stories and drinking red wine. We camped that night at what we thought was a quiet spot down by the river and woke up in the middle of a fish market as people came down to the river banks at 6am to barter with the fishing boats!
Kampot was very quiet being off season - there are more people here in the dry which lends itself more to trekking - it has apparently suffered since Sihanoukville has become such a popular tourist destination - but it was really nice. It is hard to imagine that only a few years back in the 1990s it was still a dangerous province to visit due to the KR presence in surrounding hills. This came to a head in 1994 when 3 Westerners were kidnapped and executed. Thankfully everyone we met was very friendly!
After a look around we drove on to the seaside town of Kep. This little seaside resort was founded by the French in the early 20th century and grew until the 1960s to become a real playground for the rich. Perhaps for this reason it came under severe attack by the KR and was completely devastated. The remains of what were once colonial mansions can be seen everywhere, many of them riddled with bullet holes. Whilst the beach isn't as good as that at Sihanoukville Kep has retained some charm and is extremely popular particularly with Khmers. This was particularly evident when we arrived it was absolutely packed. We later found out there was a 3 day holiday - P'chum Ben a Buddhist festival at which you pay respects to your dead ancestors -and so the town was alive with holiday traffic.
Seaood is the big thing in Kep (they even had a "Big Crab" like the Aussie "Big things" - Pineapples Bananas etc )-and the beach front is alive with little huts selling freshly caught fish crabs and squid. It was truly fresh - the crabs and fish were delivered by the fishermen cooked on the beach (or the restaurant shacks) and sold to the waiting picnickers. Vendors walking up and down the beach brought cold beer and little stores sold chillis/sauces etc so you wanted for nothing! It was a really lively little scene. We tried the local specialty - Crab with Peppercorns ….absolutely delicious!
We camped at the local sailing club - owned by a Belgian couple (who we didn't meet) and run by a very nice French man (who we did) this was a very swanky location - a refurbished retro fishing shack with a very nice restaurant. They were kind enough to let us camp and use their outdoor bathroom and we spent a couple of very relaxing nights there.
The next day we went for a rural drive around a loop road of about 40km. The road was ok ..though a bit rough meaning you couldn't go over 40km per hour. It was a really interesting drive and we saw a real slice of rural Cambodia -buffaloes wallowing, chickens and pigs everywhere and lots of friendly people. We went past one village - Angkul - where the Australian and New Zealand Red Cross had implemented a program to introduce water sanitation tanks to all the villages- maybe that's why we received such a warm welcome as they all saw the kangaroo on our truck and knew we were Aussies! Though the people here are certainly poor they all seem very cheerful and looked well fed which was good to see after some of the distressing poverty in the big cities.
Next morning we headed back PP, the journey felt like a long one, and was one of the most demanding drives we'd ever tackled. It took us over 6 hours to travel the 130km, the vast majority of which was in the driving rain. The P'chum Ben holiday traffic was all returning to work. They pack people into trucks - it is cheaper to ride inside than out where you only have a flimsy sheet of plastic between you and the driving rain. The roads are very slippery in the rain and sometimes it is impossible not to skid which is pretty alarming as there are these crazily overloaded trucks which drive at break neck speed with the added hazard of motos weaving in and out. Once we hit PP we got very lost as well as there was a diversion which went all over the place so we got completely disorientated. All in all we were very relieved to finally reach our little guest house at about 8pm, and we were in bed and asleep by 9pm!