DAYS 18 to 20 (2nd - 4th November) KAMPOT - CYCLE TOUR + BOKOR MOUNTAIN
Again, I will spilt this report into three separate posts, as it’s just too long to digest in one go!
KAMPOT MAPS - canbypublications.com/maps/kampot-cambodia-m…
INTERESTING READING - http://kampotsurvivalguide.blogspot.com/
DAY 18 (2nd November)
We last left you and we had just boarded the minivan from Sihanoukville on our way to Kampot. One hour later and our journey had turned into a mystery tour; we were still trundling around Sihanoukville picking up random passengers from different hotels. It was getting more and more crowded on this small minibus. Where were they going to put everyone, never mind the luggage? When they stopped at yet another collection point, there were grumblings from everyone, that there simply wasn’t enough room for anyone else. However, not passing up a fare, they unloaded the entire luggage from the back and pulled up an extra row of seats. OK, this sorted out where the passengers would sit (it was getting very cramped, but at least we had a shared seat). The luggage was then stacked up behind the new seats and a series of planks and ropes came out and the driver simply lashed everything on the back - leaving the rear door wide open!!
After 2.5 hours of travel we finally arrived into Kampot at 2.00pm with stomachs rumbling. We had plans to stay at Les Manguires (http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g608455-d1177358-Reviews-Les_Manguiers-Kampot.html ) for 3 nights (and had emailed them), but the 3 German lads from Lazy Beach had told us about another place called Natural Bungalows, which they said was brand new and great. Strangely enough the minivan pulled into the car park of Natural Bungalows – I think they have some sort of link with them. Everybody was a bit puzzled, but I thought I’d get out and have a look. We knew the lads had been given a room for $15, but I got jumped by an over keen representative, who steered me to a room. It was very nice but overlooked the woodshed below where there was a lot of work ongoing. Also, I had it in my head that we would be staying in somewhere right on the river banks, and this was set back a bit. We wouldn’t be staying in this room because of the noise and when he said it was $25, it was time to get back on the van. He said he would show us some other rooms, but by now my mind was made up and we would go to our original choice.
The van dropped us off in the middle of town and as we were getting our bags, the guy from the Natural Bungalows suddenly appeared and asked us why we didn't want to stay at his place. We told him we wanted to stay right on the riverside, but he said there wasn’t anywhere in Kampot right on the river. But we knew differently and told him we would go to Les Manguires. We'd read it was a lovely place on the banks of the river and was peaceful. It got rave reviews on the internet. He said he would take us for $2 (a good price) and if we didn’t like it we could go back to his place. So we set off in his car, stopping briefly to grab a couple of dumplings to try and satiate, what was now, a growing hunger. We past Natural Bungalows again, and drove down a really bad road. It looked like it had been used for bombing practice and in some places was completely flooded. Finally we pulled into the resort, and they confirmed they had a room for us, for three nights. Our driver also confirmed, when questioned, that the Natural Bungalows wasn’t really his – he just worked there. We paid him and said goodbye.
We were shown to our detached stilt bungalow, at 2:45 pm, and to be honest I was slightly disappointed. The driver had been correct and it wasn’t right on the river bank, but set slightly back. I don’t know where I had got the idea of it overhanging the river. It didn't have hot water, but they said they could sort that out for us. Also it looked rather dated and somewhat rustic, and whilst it had a nice verandah with table and chairs it would have had a really good view of the river and mountains, if they hadn't planted a huge palm in front of it. At $25 per night, I thought it was possibly quite expensive, for what we were getting. They did have free pushbikes though, which we thought was quite good.
We looked at the menu for a snack. But the prices were too expensive for us. So we grabbed 2 bikes, plus a map, and with some instructions on where to ride, we set off at 3:10, via some little tracks, to the town. The route was basically back down the terrible road and then take the first track on the left. We missed it at first and ended up in the middle of the rice fields. But it was well worth it just for the views. Finally we did find the right track and it was lovely cycling through the local countryside. All the children, as usual, came running out shouting hello and wanting their photo taken. The track eventually hit the main Phnom Penh road and we turned right, over the disused railway line. We had been riding slowly for about an hour of exploration, before we made it into town, where we looked for some local food. This started off as a bit of a struggle, as none of the local stallholders spoke English, and what they were cooking didn't always look like it belonged in your mouth - maybe a hospital operating room - yes.
We persevered and found a lady down by the river cooking what looked like noodles and eggs. We pointed and sat down at the side of the road. She brought us over 2 bowls of fried noodles, fresh bean sprouts and a fried egg on top, with grated toasted peanuts. She poured some chilli sauce on mine and we dug in. It was absolutely superb, so simple yet so tasty - as is most of the food in Cambodia. We asked how much, and it came to $1.5 for the 2 of us. We were going to like Kampot.
With full tums, we carried on along the riverside road as far as the end of the promenade. Here we watched as some men loaded up one of the fishing boats with large slabs of ice. As they were doing this, a large number of fishing boats were arriving from both directions and heading down the river, towards the sea. From here we headed into the town and peddled around the streets. Stopping only to take a seat on the roadside in the paved park area, opposite the Epic Arts Cafe, and munch on some delicious coconut cakes from a street seller. It was then time to head back before it got dark, so we retraced our steps and back down the dirt tracks. Just before we entered the resort we stopped at the riverside and watched the sun slipping down behind the Elephant Mountain range. It was stunning.
Back at Les Manguires, we were ready for a good wash in the somewhat dull bathroom. They had provided a huge flask of boiling water which you poured into a tub and added cold water. You then ladled this over you. Just about feasible. But for the prices we were paying here, a little basic. That night it rained and we had no choice but eat at the resort (also it was way too far back into town). As the resort was basically French and was full of French people, we thought the food would be great. But they had no menu, you just have to eat what they'd cooked that day and you choose between 3 dishes or 5 depending on what you want to pay. The 3 dish option was way dearer than we'd been used to paying at $5 each, but we went for it. It was Ok, but nothing special. The first course was 5 prawns, which my vegetarian wife couldn’t eat (so I had all 5), her main was a plate of spaghetti covered in cheese and the 3rd course was fruit.
After dinner we tried to check our emails on the free wifi, but had no joy. This meant we had to wait to use their computer. It wasn’t really turning out to be our sort of hotel. We had a chat and decided this place wasn't for us after all.
DAY 19 (3rd November)
The next morning, before breakfast, we grabbed the bikes and cycled back into town the quick way, to try and look for alternative lodgings. This meant negotiating the floods which was slightly tricky and muddy. As we stopped to try and figure out the best way through the largest flood, the chap from Natural Bungalows (http://www.naturalbungalows.com/About%20Natural%20Bungalows.php ) spotted us, as he was having coffee at the roadside. He enquired how we were getting on and we told him we would look at his place again. This time we had more time to look around and he showed us a range of rooms, further back, but quieter and to be honest it was really nice. The complex was only 2 months old and the rooms had hot showers plus a fan and or A/C. It was a lovely place, nearer to town and as we didn’t want the A/C, we managed to negotiate $15 and free bicycle hire for 3 nights. No contest. We settled on an end room called Phka Thkol. It was at the rear of the complex and up some stairs. We said come and pick us up at 09.00 am (complimentary). We cycled back, packed our bags and checked out. We fibbed and said our flight from Phnom Penh had been brought forward, so we had to leave. Sometimes, you just have to be creative. We don’t like to let hoteliers down, but it was our holiday and there wasn’t any point in us staying somewhere where we weren’t happy.
By 10:00, we had unpacked and went to look at their menu, for breakfast. Sadly they were charging way too much for us, at $5 each. So we decided to go into town and put our laundry in (we had a good stack by now, which if left any longer would start to crack). We sorted out our bicycles and managed to sidestep the driver/ hotel representative called Coka, who was quite pushy on tours. He did speak quite good English unlike the other staff. But they did try hard and were very keen to learn. Town was only a 5 minute cycle ride (or 10 minutes walk) from the Natural Bungalows (which is situated on the far side of the Kampong Bay/ New Bridge – next door to Kampot Riverview Guesthouse) and we cycled around all the streets to get our bearings. We found two shops that did laundry for $2/kilo (dearer than Siem Reap) and left our dirty clothes. To find these shops, turn up the road from the river at Little Garden Bar and then turn right down the street at Borey Bokor I Hotel. It was then time to eat. Now the only trouble with eating local food from stalls is that you have to eat to their times. As Cambodians generally rise at 05.00 ish, by the time we are ready to eat, they've finished!! We eventually did find a local stall, selling, what we assume was early lunch and had a poke around in all the pots they had steaming. I think most of you may faint at the sort of places we sit down to eat. But the food is truly authentic and throughout our trip we never had any stomach problems.
After brunch, at 12:30, we cycled across the old bridge and turned left along a gravel track, which bent around to the right and abruptly ended. But this wasn’t going to stop us and we manhandled the bikes over some obstacles and onto a small track which led through the middle of a fishing community. We got some strange looks, but everyone was really friendly, if not a little shocked at seeing two tourists struggling with their bikes through the soft sand! Crossing a plank over a ditch we were back on an asphalt road again and we turned left, crossing the bridge onto Fish Island. We were now off the map and exploring. Following the straight dirt road, it was most enjoyable riding through the countryside and rice fields and everyone waved as we went past. The fields gave way to salt pans which spread out either side of the road and we carried on around a couple of bends. However there is only so much enjoyment you can get from looking at salt pans and we didn’t have a clue where we were heading. The intention was to try and reach the coast, but for all we knew it could have been another 30kms. Sometimes I just have to listen to my wife and we turned around. Having looked on Google Earth, I reckon we weren’t that far from the sea, but I don’t think we really missed much.
We pushed back against the ever increasing wind and spotting an interesting track off to the right, on a bend, we took it. This led us down past a few houses and we ended up at 1:45, on a wide sandy flood plain on the banks of the Kampong Bay River. This was as far as we could cycle and we sat down to rest our legs and to try and get some feeling back into our numb bums. Opposite was a Muslim fishing village, complete with a mosque and a sandy beach. The houses were all built on stilts and some looked quite up market.
The clouds were turning ever more menacing so we headed back up the track and stopped to take a photo of some Muslim women who were congregated at the junction. They really liked their brightly coloured clothing and were very happy to be photographed, even holding their babies to be in the shot. Further along, on the way back to town we had to shelter underneath a large bush, as it started to drizzle. Luckily it didn’t last long and soon we were on our way again. Looking at my watch, we decided it was coconut time. Luckily, there are always shops selling them. We found one on the roadside in the village near to the bridge by Wat Dtray Koh. It was full of locals watching TV, but we just joined them, waiting until another light shower passed. For 1,500 riel, it was our cheapest coconut so far.
Once the rain had stopped it was over the bridges, back into town and a stop at our favourite cake stall. We had really enjoyed the cycling and were a little tired, but we still had more exploring to do. So, we decided to see what lay along the town side of the river.
Down past the end of the promenade and onwards we peddled. The road ended at a narrow rickety wooden bridge, but there was a dirt track on the other side, so we continued. The track ran alongside the river and passed through a number of houses, out of which oozed some dubious liquids. Trying, unsuccessfully, not to cover our feet in the fertilizer, we carried on, as far as we could go. The track ended at a house, but just before it was a sandy area, so we simply plonked our bikes down (thankful to be out of the saddle) and had a cake picnic in the sand, whilst two boys herding cows watched us in amusement.
It was now 4:20 and time was getting on, so we headed back into town. Twenty five minutes later we stopped at the promenade, along with all the locals, who come out to watch the steady stream of boats heading down the river, for the nights fishing.
Then it was decision time for the following day. We had kind of decided to take a trip to Bokor Mountain and had made some enquiries during our town tour earlier on. One place sounded slighter better than the others (and was slightly cheaper), so we rode to the shop to book on. We asked the owner what time we should be at his shop and he said he would collect us from our hotel after breakfast. But we explained, we don't eat at our hotel. OK, he says, I understand, you like to eat proper Cambodian food. He pointed out a small stall near his shop and said he ate there everyday. So that was us sorted.
All we had left to do was make our minds up on where to eat that evening. We weren’t that hungry, so decided we would eat later at the fried noodle stall we had found the previous day. Cycling there, we tried as best we could to find out what time she finished and by pointing at my watch and mimicking sleeping we kind of got the idea she finished at 7.00pm. Either that or she thought I was asking her what time I could sleep with her!
We showered and had our compulsory rum and coke on the verandah. Then peddled back into town in the dark and luckily our lady in the red apron was still just about serving. We just sat down amidst hundreds of discarded paper napkins (we noticed it's what they do at street places all over Cambodia - they use a napkin and just throw it on the floor, to be swept up at the days end. We tried putting them on our plates, but the owners would pick them off and throw them on the floor as well). Our fried noodles and egg were swiftly delivered and we filled our bellies. This was to become our favourite dining spot in Kampot. We told other travellers about it, and they asked what was the name of the restaurant - name - you're kidding - it's the lady in the red apron - 2nd left against the wall by the old bridge!
After our feast, we found a small proper restaurant called Captain Chim’s, in the town centre, down the side of the Old Market. We had some lovely fruit shakes and a fruit plate for pudding. The whole days food had come to no more than $6 for the 2 of us! Did I mention we were really beginning to like Kampot
DAY 20 (4th November) – BOKOR MOUNTAIN
We had booked our tour with Cheang Try Services for $17 each including all transport, fees, water, lunch and an evenings sunset cruise (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org – Tel: 012 97 46 98). Apart from doing tours, he also hires motorbikes. It was actually Cheang who was to guide the tour this day and if you get the chance of going with him, it is well recommended, as he is a war veteran and very informative.
The next day dawned and we had an early start. We had arranged to be at his shop for 08:00 am. So we cycled into town and had breakfast at the stall he had pointed out to us. It was not far from the main traffic circle in which they were completing a monument of a huge Durian fruit (apparently there used to be a white obelisk here). As normal everyone looked bemused when we sat down, but when they said noodle soup, we were happy. I had the meat option, with really tender pieces of beef and a spicy pepper sauce, all washed down with lashings of tea, $1.5 for the two of us. It was funny when we asked for 2 clean glasses for the tea, as the ones on the table had cold leftovers in them. The lady simply walked over and threw the contents of the glasses away and gave us them back! (we cleaned them with water and a serviette, before using them)
The minivan collected us at about 08:30 and then the usual round of hotels started, collecting other people for the tour. There were about 18 of us going, but it wasn't a squeeze. Cheang put on his safety belt as he explained he would otherwise be stopped by the police and fined. However, it didn't work and he was still stopped 2 minutes out of town. He took his documents over to the hut and after 5 minutes he was back. He had been charged 10,000 riel ($2.5), for no reason, (it's known as beer money). Simply because he had a van full of tourists and therefore the police think he is rich. He explained if he didn't pay, then the next time they would detain him for over an hour and cause more problems than it's worth. Welcome to Cambodian corruption.
The minivan took us out of town for about 15 minutes and we stopped at the National Park ranger station, where we all had to disembark and wait for our transport up the mountain.
The mountain is now owned by a very rich Vietnamese/ Chinese/Cambodian who owns Sokimex (the petrol company of Cambodia). He tried to buy Angkor Wat, but he wasn't allowed, so he just owns the payment concession for entry, which is still a nice little money earner. (Interesting reading here about the Angkor Wat fees - www.talesofasia.com/cambodia-sokimex.htm ). Anyway he is in the process of building a new 12 storey hotel and casino on the top of the mountain. But to do this he has to rebuild the road. Back in the 1920’s, the original road took 10 years to construct using ox carts and elephants, under the French rule. But this time he's using Chinese labour. However, as the road is still under construction, in large parts, you can't get all the way to the top by vehicle. So at 09:30, a flat bed beaten up pick up truck appeared and we all climbed on board, perching on the side rails, for a 30 minute smooth ride uphill on the new road. We then stopped and picked up a guide totting an AK47 machine gun, who led us uphill through the steep jungle for 1.5 hours. It wasn’t toooo bad a hike for us and even a 70 year old Italian lady managed it. Hot and sweaty, we emerged back onto the road at 11:30, where we waited and again were met by the truck to complete our journey to the summit, over a really bumpy unmade road. This took about 40 minutes and the tip here is not to sit on the back of the truck. As when it bounces over the potholes etc, you bounce with it, clinging on for dear life and smashing down, badly bruising you delicate bits!
When we arrived, we reckon the other tourists must have thought the workers had arrived, as we all disembarked from the truck.
At the top are the ruins of the huge old French Casino, for which the top of the mountain is renowned. The whole area used to be like a French hill station, and there was a small community living up there.
We were given a packed lunch and tried to sit on the steps to eat, however it was very windy and somewhat cool, so we had to take shelter wherever we could find it.
After lunch, Cheang took us through the ruins of the Casino, explaining about its history, and then through to the far side where there are superb views down to the coastal plains below. Here he gave those who wished a potted history lesson, which we found interesting. He told us stories about how he and his family were accused by the Khmer Rouge of theft and they were all tied together and led to the edge of the cliff. One by one their ropes were cut and his whole family was executed in front of him and the bodies pushed over the edge. As he was the youngest and last, he had no rope, and after his sister was killed, he managed to escape. He lived in the jungle for 2 months before crossing into Vietnam, where he joined the Vietnamese army. Once Cambodia was finally liberated he was promoted, but he eventually left the army to join the United Nations, to assist in mine clearance.
Then we were free to explore the ruins as we wished for an hour or so (not long enough). We had a good look around the Casino/hotel, over to the water tower and then walked down to the old post office which is slowly collapsing. From here we went to the old nightclub, the hospital and then back up hill to the Old Catholic church. Again, the Khmer Rouge had been holed up there, using the casino as a prison. But the prisoners weren't held in confinement as the whole area was heavily mined.
Inside the church there isn’t a great deal to see, unless you are heavily into graffiti. However you can climb the hill just to the side of it, to where the Khmer Rouge had installed an anti aircraft gun to shell the casino. Again, from here there are excellent views down to the coast.
It was now 2:00pm and the truck was waiting for us by the church and we made our return journey. This was simply a reverse of what we had done on the way up, however it was much easier as it was all down hill and we were back down by the river front by 4:00pm. Cheang pointed out the boat we were to board for the sunset cruise, and after a $1 per person voluntary whip round for him, he said his goodbyes.
Boarding the boat at 4:30, we slowly chugged up river and under the bridges. It was quite a good way to end the day and watch local life. The fishing boats were all on their daily journey towards town to head out to sea as the sun slowly set behind the mountain range, we had just been on top of. We did have a little shock when the boat stopped off at Les Manguires to drop off one of the group, but we just hid just in case they spotted us.
Arriving back into town at 6:00, it was quite nice seeing all the restaurants and shops along the front lit up.
We thought it had been a good value for money trip and the group had all gelled quite well. The Italian lady suggested we all meet up at 8:00pm for dinner and drinks, which was well received.
We walked back to Cheang’s office and collected our bikes then cycled back down to visit our favourite lady (whom we nicknamed - Pinny Rouge after the red apron she always wore), down by the riverfront and had our usual. We were regulars now and she knew exactly what to cook. All we had to do was sit down and she brought it over to us! We were amazed at how organised the set up was, they even had some lights running off a car battery. During the day, everything was cleared away and you wouldn’t even know there were stalls here.
That evening we met up at Captain Chim’s, with all the people who had been on the trip, and swapped travel stories until 11.00pm. That’s a late night for us.
The next day we were going to hire a motorbike and hit the roads - hopefully not literally!
PREVIOUS LONG TRIP REPORTS
Siem Reap - Small Circuit
Siem Reap – Grand Circuit
Siem Reap - Sunrise, Roluos and Kompong Khleang
Siem Reap – Banteay Srei, Khbal Spean and Beng Mealea
Siem Reap – Countryside + Chong Kneas + Phnom Krom
Sihanoukville & Lazy Beach