Kampot Kristmas - Kep, Krabs and Kreps

Trip Start Sep 25, 2003
Trip End Apr 23, 2005

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Thursday, January 1, 2004


Abstract: Leave Siem Reap via motor boat across Tonle Sap lake and down river to Battambang, Get Vietnamese visa in 10 minutes! (had to grovel for 30 days tho), go on day moto trip to Monastery on Hill, Sampeau Killing Cave and another Angkorian temple. On way back put bikes on 'bamboo train'(a bamboo platform on railway track powered by tractor engine), Return to Phnom Penh by 15 hour train (270km- slowest, but most interesting in Asia). Visit Tuol Sleng camp (Khmer Rouge torture/genocide site - VERY moving), Royal Palace, etc. Share taxi to Kampot, Moto to Kep, fall in Love with run down charm, decide to take a holiday from our travels for 7 days and spend new year there with our french host and great cooking. Return to Kampot to discover posh hotel treat has messed up, BUT manager invites us to stay at his fabulous riverside house! Off to Bokor NP. on Xmas day, old hill station.

Nitty Gritty: Our final morning in Siem Reap started at an antisocial 5am in order to be picked up at 6am for the boat to Battambang in NW Cambodia. As we waited for our lift, we saw a man we'd seen the day before begging in the market with a 'false' leg, hurry past us with his 'false' leg slung over his shoulder - Siem Reap we have you sussed!

The area of Tonle Sap lake where we caught the boat was really squalid with putrid water and little stilt houses over the waters edge, and lots and lots of people. Interestingly although the conditions were poor, most 'shacks' had a TV aerial poking out the top.

There was some confusion over our boat as we and about 10 others were ushered away from the lake worthy vessel that everyone else was swarming around, to a very unlakeworthy vessel with 2 outboard motors. We were somewhat concerned about this mode of transport, but soon changed our minds as we hit the lake proper and the engines opened and the nose of the boat lifted out of the water and we shot across the lake at record speed. This was indeed the fast boat which would take 3 hours rather than 5+.

Battambang is on a river off the lake and the only problem with the speedboat was the wake it caused and the upset it caused to the locals who live along the narrow riverbank in boats. They were pretty disgruntled with the boat driver but waved at us! They fish using huge nets supported by bamboo that they lift and lower on a pully system.

Battambang was thankfully totally opposite to Siem Reap and was delightful and we liked it very much. Having arrived at 10.30am, we managed to find a hotel, get our clothes washed (pure luxury), get a Vietnamese visa in 10 minutes for $30 (usually takes 4 days and costs $20 more), although the Consol only wanted to give us 15 days rather than 30 days, so G did a bit of grovelling and once he'd seen our passports were full of his communist neighbours he agreed to 30 days!, G had a haircut, we walked around town, fended off some street kids with prying hands, bought fruit in the market, used the internet and changed money, all by dinner time.

The following day we hired 2 motorbike taxis to take us out for the day which was great. They were very knowledgable, especially G's who was an educated man, the son of 2 teachers who were killed by the Khmer Rouge and he had had to pretend he was illiterate etc to survive. All 7 siblings were separated and to this day he is still searching for them...

The tour started at a Monastery & temple on a hill, built at the site of one of the Khmer Rouge's 'killing caves'. We then had noodles at a village stall and boughts some dustmasks in the market (to protect our airways from the dirt roads!) and visited a pre Ankorian temple which having been to Angkor was a bit naff to be honest, but what was lovely was a group of earnest young english speakers who asked us to help them go through a chapter of their text book, a great experience esp as they were so quick to learn.

We then threaded through gorgeous countryside, through small villages where children rushed to give you small flowers they picked as they saw us coming, saw peanuts growing - now I (R) thought they grew on trees, but they grow on bushes in sandy soil, under the ground - picked fresh Tamarind from trees and picked seed pods that exploded when you spat on them!

The greatest part of the day was the bamboo train we took back to Battambang. There is only 1 train and 1 track in Northern Cambodia and it travels to Battambang from Phnom Penh on one day and in the opposite direction the next. The locals take full advantage of the tracks by using bamboo platforms on train wheels and powered by a tractor engine with a fan belt to transport themselves and produce to market etc along the train tracks.

Our train took us, our drivers and 2 motorbikes, and 2 others so we were OK when we met a bamboo train coming in the opposite direction - the lightest 'train' is lifted off the tracks to allow the other to pass. They travel really quite fast and it was a real buzz.

The next day we caught the train from Battambang to Phnom Penh, a real experience...Got to station in the dark, got on train and by the time it was light, decided to check out why all the locals were sat in another carriage - simple..ours had holes in the floor, some big enough to fall through and was generally more rickety than the others - we moved! Train set off at 7am and arrived in Phnom Penh at 9pm, taking some 14 hours to travel the 270km!!

It was great, we got to meet loads of locals, especially by leaning out of the train (there are no windows) and waving to various people in other carriages and buying food when we stopped. When we stopped, there was a frenzy of chucking planks of wood onto the top of the train in record time, much of it fallng off and missing the train. Our carriage was shared with a load of illegal timber that looked like teak and at one point loads of police got on to extort bribes from the smugglers for turning a blind eye. There was a great sunset which G watched from the top of the train with one of the policemen. Just outside PP we stopped for the timber to be hurried away under cover of darkness. Once it was dark, you had to watch where you trod as there were no lights on the train.It was by far the best travelling experience so far.

Whilst in PP went to Tuol Sleng, a school in PP that the Khmer Rouge used as a genocide camp. It was an extremely moving place and neither of us left dry eyed. We also saw the ex US embassy where the mass evacuation of 1975 took place when the KR took PP. For lunch we went to a restaurant that supports street kids which is a charity we are keen to support and nipped into the oppulent Royal Palace where King Sianouk still lives. Had a feast in our room that night - rice, chilli sauce and a whole roasted duck from the market - yummy!

Leaving PP, we took a shared taxi to Kampot in southern Cambodia, near the sea. On reaching Kampot, we took 2 motocycle taxis to the little seaside town of Kep where we booked into a guesthouse run by a french chap and his Khmer wife. We had been intending to spend christmas/G's birthday & new year on the Vietnamse island of Phu Quoc, but as the place we wanted to stay was full, we decided to take some time out in Kep instead. As the Vietnamese had 'stolen' Phu Quoc from the Cambodians during the war, we could see the island from Kep anyway!

By now it was christmas eve and we headed back to Kampot to spend 2 nights at a colonial hotel there - a bit of a splurge, only to find that they had no knowledge of our booking and the hotel was full - great. The english manager had a great house and invited us to stay, which we did, spending a boozy evening with him and his girlfriend and waking up on christmas day feeling terrible!

We took a jeep trip to Bokor National Park which is a hill overlooking Kampot which has an abandoned French town on the top. Travelling up the twisty turny 4WD road in an old jeep, with a hangover is not to be recommended, but it was a nice way to spend G's birthday. Had an early night that night...

On Boxing day after a seafood lunch on a bamboo platform over the sea in a little fishing village, we headed back to Kep and spent 6 nights 'holidaying' which for the first 3 days meant not leaving the terrace of our woodern bungalow except for meals at the restaurant - bliss. Towards the end of our stay, we did venture out taking a day trip with our french host and his parents to a pepper plantation and some caves and to rabbit island just off Kep where we went for the day, but it was too hot to stay in the sea for long without getting frazzled.

All in all, we stuffed ourselves on crepes, prawns, fish and great cooking, but no crabs for which Kep is famous for as it was full moon and not good at that time.
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