Kampot: a charming riverfront town in southern Cambodia, friendly and surrounded by lush countryside. I’m here exploring on my own as Elaine attends a yoga and meditation retreat up near Angkor. I’m by no means off the tourist trail but it feels a lot more balanced and genuine than where we previously were in Siem Reap. It’s also cleaner and less hectic. Many of the top activities here (a day at Kep beach on the coastline, summiting Bokor Hill, a refreshing swim upriver at the rapids) are undertaken almost entirely by locals with only a smattering of foreigners mixed in. Of course some things are catered to tourists – riverfront dining for example – but the gap between worlds is a lot smaller. I expect this has more than a little to do with the type of traveler or expat that ends up here (laid back, friendly, respectful).
Before I arrived here I passed through Phnom Penh for a night on my way down from Siem Reap. This brought me through my multi-step Asian city acclimatization process (see below) with a wander along the Mekong riverfront, busy streets, and a food market unlike any I’ve seen before.
Asian cities are weird. European cities are immediately engaging for me – all the in your face history (that I know), clean, sophisticated, beautiful. Walking around and visiting sights is hugely satisfying. It’s quite expensive to enjoy these places though, and as most big cities go it’s harder to find genuine experiences and open people. Here though, nothing is hidden – not the garbage, the smells, the sounds, the everyday lives and livelihoods of the inhabitants. In some ways it’s similar to areas in central and south America, but (at least in my experience) these cities in Asia are larger and denser. So instead of initial European enamorment I get a sense of disappointment and frustration: the former from the griminess and lack of outward beauty (at least as I’m accustomed to) and the latter due to my inability to sense and see how things work, something else that has come easily in Europe. It takes some time and patience to work through this and arrive at contentment. This usually involves wandering around, a few really cheap beers, and finding an amazing street meal (generally a noodle soup) that has awesome depth and flavor yet is served out of a street cart for next to nothing, for chattering locals and occasionally people like me too tall to stand up under the shades they’ve erected, a packed street on one side and an equally packed food market on the other. That’s pretty fun and awesome and (in my limited experience) really unique.
So back to Kampot, where I have spent my four days with a mix of leisure and activity: climbing, crawling around in caves, touring around and sightseeing. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have any Cambodian blood in me. What tipped me off, you ask? The fact that I can’t simply exist here without turning into a swampy sweatbucket. I walk around seeing local after local staying bone dry in the heat, humidity, and piercing sun and meanwhile I’m melting like the wicked witch in a wet t-shirt contest. I was on a caving/climbing trip the other day with a couple local guides, and much to their amusement it wasn’t long until I could wring my shirt out and create a small deluge – and this was before I started climbing! There are only two effective approaches in dealing with this issue, and the first is to stay as motionless as possible. In the shade for sure, icy drink in hand. One of the best cool beverages (aside from the requisite beer) is sugar cane juice. Just by itself it’s ok, but throw in a bit of mandarin orange as they do here and it’s fantastic. I’ve had quite a lot of sugarcane these past few days.
The other method of staying cool is moving quickly in the open air. Not through your own efforts of course but dinosaur powered via a moto. This has the seemingly contradictory effect of cooling you off immensely while at the same time burning you raw wherever there is a chink in your sunscreen armor. In between moments where you do not have the necessary combination of shade and refreshing beverage, motoring around is a necessity. Just don’t look too closely at the odds of survival involved because here you are threading your scooter steed through the rightly notorious traffic of wild Cambodia.
So don’t tell Mom but I rented a scooter for a few days down here to do some exploring. I wasn’t sure about it to say the least, partly because of my inexperience with anything two wheeled and motorized but mainly because of the unsafe roads. But the countryside around Kampot is far less chaotic than the streets of Siem Reap and interesting experiences don’t come from playing safe so I went for it.
Any concerns about moto inexperience were unfounded as I ended up with the most user friendly scooter possible, automatic with electric start. It’s also the only yellow scooter in the entire kingdom of Cambodia – all others range from black to muddy brown depending on how dirty they are. Elsewhere I would have been interested in learning a manual bike but here I was happy to save all attention for the road.
I’ve found two types of road here: busy “highway” (paved, 2 lane) and quiet back roads (dirt, 0.1 to 1.5 lane). Highway driving is not that fun and involves dodging potholes and stopped traffic while constantly keeping an eye for and aft, as passing occurs indiscriminately and often. It’s not terrifying, especially at the speeds I stayed at, simply not a worthwhile exercise in and of itself. The back roads however are a different story – these are lightly trafficked (a cow or bicycle is as likely to see as a moto) and surrounded by beautiful countryside, rice ponds interspersed with palm trees and limestone hills. People you pass will smile and wave, and weaving through the potholes is now an entertainment. And if it rained the correct interval ago it’s neither too dusty nor too flooded. I spent more or less a whole day exploring around on these and had a great time.
Driving around in town is perhaps the most dangerous (though I don’t know the statistics). Intersections are unsigned and are approached from all directions without slowing, say at 30kph, regardless of how much or little you can see of the crossing road and traffic. All potential interference is resolved quite seamlessly as these folks are all very used to this, having started driving when they were 8 or so (not kidding). This is where the overlap between defensive and predictable driving disappears for me – I slow down because I want to see what I’m throwing my body into, but of course this is unexpected by surrounding traffic and therefore dangerous as well. Ah well, I do my best and aim for quieter streets and right hand turns, or the rotaries which are spacious and quite civilized.
My last day in Kampot I rode up Bokor Hill (~1100m high) a popular destination for locals and tour groups because of good views, history, and a large shrine of a local patron saint of sorts. The road up has been recently rebuilt to be wide and pothole-free, making for quite a fun ride around switchbacks and curves especially once I got high enough to be zooming through low clouds passing by. The top is adorned with a tacky new casino and (far more interestingly) the skeletons of some French colonial buildings. This site has had a lot of ups and downs through the years including a gun battle between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces.
Cambodian food continues to be so-so for me. Here in Kampot the street food scene is distilled down to its simplest forms: noodles (always instant, soup or fried), grilled protein stick, or mystery-meat-in-a-baguette. My favorite remains the sandwiches which seem to nail the mix of flavors and textures pretty consistently. Instant noodles are OK, but don’t really inspire cravings for more. Of course all of these items come very cheaply ($1-2) so who’s complaining. I’ve tried a couple Khmer dishes at sit-down places and haven’t found this a great deal more impressive. There is a solid international food scene here though and I’ve had some great falafel, a very satisfying calzone from an Italian chef, and the best tacos al pastor since I was in Mexico, all served by friendly and welcoming hosts (Aroma House, Max Bar & Kitchen, and Cafe Espresso respectively).
Tomorrow it’s back up to Phnom Penh to reunite with Elaine, hopefully succeed in getting our visas for Vietnam, and then onward!
Specifics: I stayed at Ta Eng guesthouse. The family is very friendly and the accommodation was cheap ($7/night) and accordingly sparse. For 4 nights including breakfast each day, a load of laundry, and 3 days of motorbike rental I spent a whopping $50. Cambodian food in Kampot is so-so. Be sure to find a copy of the Kampot Survival Guide (expat-authored) which was really helpful. Best meals I had were at Cafe Espresso – absolutely go there, I wish I had found it earlier – Max Bar + Kitchen, and Aroma House for Mediterranean. Climbodia was great to climb with. I got mid-grade food poisoning here from some street food (it was either fruit or a sandwich, don’t know).