Thursday 17th – Saturday 19th March
Miles over two days: 45
Just fifteen miles west of Kep was our next two-day stop, Kampot.
After an uneventful journey we checked in to Captain Chim’s Guesthouse. We liked this place, it offered free drinking water, free laundry and good, cheap meals. Captain Chim himself is a rather serious man (or a “surly old captain” as Eric put it) but him and his family will do what they can to help you arrange any excursions.
Also highly recommended from fellow cycle tourers is Kampot River Bungalows, accommodation set in a beautiful spot by the river.
A giant durian in the middle of a roundabout.
Though there are a lot of good places to eat.
We enjoyed the well known Epic Arts Cafe, run by people with disabilities or learning difficulties. I’ve read that in Cambodia there is still a lot of stigma against people with mental or physical disability, so this is quite a special place. The menu includes some basic Khmer sign language.
On day one we pedalled back the way we’d come to see some caves and a lake between Kampot and Kep.
Outside a couple of guys were admiring our bike. One of them asked us how much it had cost. As soon as I told them that we paid $1000 I wished that I hadn’t. How long would it take them to make $1000, and would they ever be able to use an amount like that as disposable income? Around here, the difference in our wealth – an accident of birthplace – felt like a dirty secret.
It’s a lake. You can swim if you want to.
Why is it called the Secret Lake? The reason is a grim one. The Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot’s lot) commanded the villagers in the area to build a dam in order to create this lake. During this time they were fighting the Vietnamese, and so they killed the villagers in order to stop them revealing the lake’s location. One villager apparently escaped, and so the secret got out. A sad story.
Finally, we made our way to the White Elephant Cave. We did some educated guessing about its location, but finally found the official sign!
As we climbed the stone stairs up to the caves, a local teenage boy began following us silently. “I guess that’s the guide,” we said to each other. In other circumstances I may have been a bit worried if a silent seventeen-year-old started following me into a cave, but with Eric “I likes punchin’ I dos” Barton around I had no fear.
Our tour guide was very shy, and for the first fifteen minutes literally just followed us around. But then he came into his own. We said: “Can we go this way?” He said “Yes.” We then followed him. This happened maybe four times, the route we took getting ever more rustic until we were scrambling over rocks and being led through the bushes. He had doubled his tip by the end of our tour. (It was quite impressive that he did it all in little plastic sandals.)
That evening we hopped on board Captain Chim’s boat and took a ride along the river Preaek Tuek Chhou.
Day two, and opposed to yesterday’s DIY tourism, today we had opted for a tour group and an air conditioned bus. This was because we wanted to visit Bokor National Park, but didn’t fancy cycling up a 26 mile hill (gotten soft).
The bus was cramped and the hotel pickups in the morning seemed eternal, but finally we got there. This national park is an odd place. A tonne of investment is currently being poured into it, but a lot of its charm lies in the fact that it’s weird and derelict.
The highlight was the old abandoned Catholic church and the old abandoned casino. In the 1980s there was a standoff between the Khmer Rouge, who occupied the church, and the Vietnamese army, who occupied the casino.
Things just don’t feel as special any more when we haven’t cycled to them. On the plus side, we met some nice people, and had the conversation that is yet to grow old: “Isn’t the driving in Vietnam nuts?!!!”
That was Kampot. Now we turn inland. A two day journey will take us to Cambodia’s capitol, Phnom Penh. The hot, dusty roads beckon…