Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Southern Cambodia: Beaches and Mountains

Leaving the harsh history of Cambodia behind, I took a bus to a southern city of Sihanoukville, which is the beach capital of the country and which is more popular than two other southern towns viz. Kampot and Kep. Naturally, the place is quite crowded and hotel prices are a little more than elsewhere. I chose a room with an ocean view, air conditioner, huge bathroom and a swimming pool. All for $ 10 a night, my most expensive room till then. Since the ocean could be viewed from the balcony, there wasn't any need to go out in the sun at all and so I spent couple of those days just sitting in the balcony and reading, taking a swim in the cool waters of the pool and occasionally going out for food or a drink. All in all, it was another relaxing stay.
A beach at Sihanoukville

On the third day, however, I abruptly decided to move on and went to the bus station to catch a bus to another town called Kampot. The minivan was real fast and turns and twists on the road did not slow us down. We completed a 3 hour ride in just 2 and by the time I got down in damp air of Kampot, my insides were squirming. As usual touts were waiting for the unwary travelers and they crowded the passengers as we got down. Being smaller than western folks and not so white helped me to move away quietly, without attracting any of those touts and I felt blessed for that. A short walk found me in front of a tourist information center and I entered. The fellow was good-natured and helpful and immediately pointed a few cheap hotels on a map and handed it to me. I started the walk in search of the cheapest and my first try turned out to be a $ 3 dorm. Thinking that this ought to be the cheapest of the lot, I got in, where I met a couple of Germans who warned me against the bed bugs. Keeping my bags on the bed I moved to the source of bright light in the dormitory, which was a balcony with another splendid view of the river front, which was marked by several benches and green trees along the clean blue waters of the river and a very old looking bridge connecting to the other side of the river. This particular bridge looked uneven, as if it was made out of wastes and whatever was left. It was quite interesting.
Riverfront and the old bridge
The next morning I went to the reception to ask for a bicycle and at that time I met two Germans again. "We are going to Kep" they said. "Want to join?". Five minutes later, I was on the backseat of a Vietnamese motorbike, sky was clear and surroundings were green. Kep is only about half an hour ride from Kampot and used to be the beach capital of Cambodia. Now it is not so famous and less crowded. The ride from Kampot to Kep is beautiful with many a rice fields and salt lakes on the sides. As we neared Kep, vast blue ocean emerged on our right side and impressive green mountains on the left. We found a good beach, parked our bikes near a shop and ran straight to the warm waters. It was very comfortable, except for the fact that by the time we came out of the water, our skin was stinging, the reason unknown. We sat in the Sun drying ourselves, where we met a couple of more Germans and then all of us headed to the famous crab market. But it was bad timing. At 5 in the evening, all the baskets which might have contained crabs in the morning were now empty. Only one woman was selling crabs and so many people surrounded her that by the time we even had a glimpse of the basket, it was empty again. Dejected, we headed to a restaurant, where we had not so bad fish and rice. The sun began to edge towards horizon as we started back, waiting only a couple of minutes to take pictures of the sunset.

Kep Beach

Last of crabs!

German friends
Time to go back

The next morning the dorm was entirely empty and getting ready I started my first ever organized tour in my whole trip. A $ 10 tour of Kampot, which included Bokor national park, a dry waterfall and sunset cruise on the river. Not a bad price! The tour group consisted of an Irish guy, a dutch girl , a french couple and two British girls. Bokor mountain is covered by dense forest and being elevated, has cool weather. There is an abundance of various species of animals and plants. If not too cloudy, one can enjoy beautiful view of the ocean and Phu Quoc island in the distance. Fascinated by the view perhaps, french built a huge Casino on the hilltop about a century ago. There is also a French church and king's summer palace on other parts of the hill. The summer palace was our first stop, which no more than a small house. It's hard to believe that it used to be a king's palace. Dirty walls are now covered with many artistic graffiti. Cigarette butts litter the ground. But one thing is still the same, the view from the front. The vast blue ocean lies beneath the mountain and there on the horizon, an island is visible, which now belongs to Vietnam, though Cambodians believe it to be theirs.


Empty halls of the palace

Summer palace

Stunning view!
Further on, we stopped near an old church building. Another century old structure, a little crumbling, its red walls having dark blackish patches. It has a serious haunted feel to it as you roam inside. It might be a little spooky if you venture alone. I did not try that and stuck to the group instead. The french casino is not that far from the church and it is said that it used to be Khmer Rouge's stronghold for years even after their fall from the capital city. The casino which used to have a Gothic feel just like the church has lost it due to preservation project by the government. Once red-black and scary walls are now covered with grey paint. The insides have been cleaned out and now it looks like a semi-finished new building. It is still marvelous, but has certainly lost the charm!

Wonderful view of the church

French Church


The casino

View from the top of

There are a couple of more century old buildings nearby which are now covered with plants and vines crawling along the walls and the roofs. Dense and thick grass is covering the grounds surrounding these structures and it is very easy to believe that these places maybe haunted.

Another scary structure
Our tour price included lunch and we had it at the waterfall, which had no water due to dry season. We finished our lunch and headed back to the town, where we were given a free hour to roam around before taking the sunset cruise. Our tour group had only one couple and as our boat started its slow, lazy journey on the river, sun slowly sinking to the west, all the rest of us started to feel a little out of place. "What the heck!" I thought and I got up and sat next to the boat driver, an old and frail looking fellow, with broken teeth, who gave me a warm smile as he took a deep puff of a cigarette. There I sat, observing his activities, which were far less interesting than I thought and involved more smoking than anything to do with the boat. It was a pleasant ride nonetheless. While everyone else sat on the passenger seats which were a little lower than the driver's seat and had a roof on top, I sat in the open air and had a better view.

We passed many of these on the way


Yet another beautiful sunset
With a cool breeze playing on my face and a wonderful sight of dark and dense green trees along the river-side, I found the ride much more interesting without a company than I thought. We saw a private boat from top of which some westerners were jumping in the river, coming back on board and jumping again and felt strong inclination to do the same. None of us carried spare clothes though, and we had to settle for just staring at them with a bit of envy. Our boat took a U-turn as the sky overhead turned bright scarlet and birds began retreating to their homes. Small children still played in the river with no apparent track of time and waved at us as we passed them, their smiles broad and their enthusiasm having no limit. Sooner than I thought, our boat came neare the town and the breeze subsided. The peace which held us for so long was now broken by horns of the vehicles in the distant. Small, dim lights could be seen of the cars and motorbikes crossing the bridge ahead of us. And by the time our boat stopped at a place where it had started, stars had started twinkling in the sky. We got out of the boat, shook hands with each other with satisfied smiles on our faces and parted the ways!

1 comment: