Abandoned on the Cambodian coast

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
Trip End Apr 12, 2005

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, August 16, 2004

With 20 new and very close Cambodian friends (and one driver) I made the 2.5 hour trip by 11-seater mini van to Kampot, a nice, relaxed little town near the southwest Cambodian coast. Shockingly, it was on a river and full of old French colonial buildings. Go figure.

In the afternoon I went by moto through some beautiful rice paddy scenery (another shocker) to Kep, an old resort beach town full of sprawling villas for the rich and beautiful French and then rich and beautiful Cambodians. And then the war came. The elite fled the country or were killed (or worse), and everything was abandoned, looted, gutted and used for government army hideouts and sometimes Khmer Rouge hideouts--the bulletholes everywhere testify to the huge number of gun battles that were fought in the area.

Now, it's well known for good seafood stands along the road opposite the beach, and I sampled some pretty good grilled prawns (shrimps for all you N Americans out there). The beach area itself is a bit sparse--it's a pretty thin strip of sand--but it's a nice bay with a beautiful view towards some islands off the coast, and loads of Cambodians were splashing around in the surf (fully clothed, of course). As I didn't really relish the thought of sloshing around in wet clothes the rest of the day, I hung out on teh steps below a statue of a quite large naked woman--as in Botticelli rotund--and spent the next hour chatting with people and families as they came around to have their pictures taken with the statue. I'm still amazed at how friendly the people are all through SE Asia, especially in the countries like Lao, Myanmar/Burma and here, where by all rights they should be pissed off and bitter at the very least.

We stopped by the king's old villa to see the damage and got to meet the current caretaker. He's in charge of cleaning the palce up for a possible return by the king. Good luck, mate, you're gonna need it, plus about a decade to spruce that place back up.

We drove back to Kampot via a dirt road with lots more crumbling, old villas, some invisible due to completely overgrown walls and gardens. And we nearly ran over two snakes--moy first soightings in the woild (you have to say that with an Aussie Steve Irwin accent). I don't think either was my favourite from Bangkok, Bungarus flaviceps flaviceps, but it was nonetheless very exciting and more than a bit frightening, especially because the moto driver was freaking himself!

The Abandoned Hill Station of Bokor
The next morning was spent trying to iron out my dirtbike transport up to the abandoned French Bokor hill station. The moto driver I'd arranged everything with the night before showed up to the GH with a sheepish grin and...a moto. He stared at the ground and twisted his foot and jammed his hands in his pockets, trying to explain that 'My dad took the dirtbike this morning.' Sure. But a moto is NOT a good idea, as the road was rumoured to be very bad. So he said he'd go off and rent one and come back. And then he returned on...a mountain bike. Jayzusmerrynjoosef, it was turning into a Monty Python skit. But he couldn't arrange a dirtbike, so off I went in search of the rental place on my own.

I ended up at the same place as two really nice British guys on holiday from uni, Jimmy and Ed (sounds like a cartoon), and after the obligatory waiting around for an hour, we set off to the Elephant Mountains. We had a few little gut rumblings due to their bikes having bald tires, Ed's bike having no handles for him to hold onto behind the seat, and my and Ed's drivers not knowing how to even start the bikes, let alone how to shift gears. Well, it was going to be an interesting day, especially as the whole dirtbike thing was new to all three of us--well, to five of us, excluding Jimmy's driver, the owner/manager of the rental store.

My driver figured out how to put it in overdrive and we shot off like a bat outta hell (I understand now what that song means). I think we passed some paddies on the way. And we arrived at the park entrance a good deal faster than the other two bikes. I meekly suggested we go a bit slower and enjoy the view. He laughed. Oh shit. We paid the $5 park fee, took a group photo and nervously joked about how the pic could be the last memory of our arm and leg skin before it was trashed in an accident, and started up on the 2+-hour journey...

The drive up the very rough dirt road (some parts reminded me a little of teh National Road #7 adventure from Ban Lung to Kratie) was spectacular, though dense forest and with views to die for. We stopped at one viewing point and Cheang Try, the dirtbike shop owner/manager, gave us a little of his personal history. After the KR had killed his family, he hid from them for a year by living in a cave and then in the Elephant Mountains. Like Aki Ra in Siem Reap, when the Vietnamese came he was drafted into their army, and then worked with the UN when they entered the scene. His extensive knowledge of the area as a guide was invaluable to them, I'm sure.

The first real stop was another of the king's villas on a ridge with a blacony overlooking the sea far below. Doesn't suck to be royalty sometimes. It was gutted and full of grafitti and the most brilliant orange-colored moss I've ever seen. We all agreed this house should be refubished ASAP with an open-air bar where you can sip your martini whilst enjoying the view. A quick walk down a path led us to the 'Black Palace', which was a bastardization (that word is a lot longer than I thought it would be when I first started typing it) of the Black Tiger Palace, so named because there used to be--you can figure it out. Its floors are a greyish looking marble-type rock that is said to have come from New Zealand.

We hopped painfully back on the bikes (these weren't really designed with comfort in mind for any passengers that are foolish enough to get on!) and whipped up the road to the church. It's situated on a hill with a very high cliff behind and the rest of the lonely hill station buildings spread out over the hills in front and below.

The church itself is now a ghostly shell that's absolutely covered on the outside with the same bright orange moss, looking disturbingly like blood in the afternoon sun... It was the stronghold of the KR up here, and many (200?) of them were killed in or around the bulding. It's quite eerie up there, despite the intermittant sun and due greatly to the intermittant mist and the constant moaning of the wind, which was whipping over the cliff edge, through a high metal antenna tower and then down over the church and the hillside beyond.

A huge artillary..um..holder (?) is still up there at the edge of the cliff, where a massive gun used to sit. It's still facing the old casino/hotel at the top of the next hill, which was the government army's stronghold. We were trying to imagine how it must've been like to be in a raging battle in the middle of an incredibly lovely 360 degree view over the sea and the land below...

We jetted over to the abandoned casino/hotel next, and every comparison to The Shining I'd read before was spot-on. It's a pretty big building, chunky and solid, also right on the cliff edge and also covered in orange as well as green moss. Inside, it's spooky as hell. The ballroom still had a few drapes flapping through broken windows, the floor was covered in broken tiles and just enough water to reflect the weirdness, and there was an overall feeling of weird atmosphere--I'm good at psyching myself out! Wandering around the building was the spookiest of all, with drips and strange cracks and noises everywhere through the maze of rooms and hallways and dark, broken stairways. I got lost often and tried not to freak a lot. My sister Shawna would love this place, she's good with scary stuff. :)

With the afternoon getting on, we decided to visit a waterfall about 5km away, and so we shot off down the hill the way we came. Talk about scary! The speed, the dirt/rocks and the incline making me constantly fight not to slip forward made for a very thrilling ride, maybe a little too thrilling on the corners, and I again asked my driver to slow down a bit (we had shot ahead of the other two again). We slowed down and I looked around just in time to see Ed's bike wipe out on the corner we'd just gone around. Oh, shit. We stopped and I ran back uphill just in time to see Jimmy's bike wipe out right next to Ed, who was trying to get out from under the bike. Oh shit.

Jimmy and Cheang Try were ok, but Ed had major road scrapeage all along his leg, ankle and on one hip, and his driver has a seriously twisted knee and couldn't get up. We learned some traditional Cambodian first aid that day; Cheang Try stopped us from cleaning Ed's bleeding wounds with water--"No, no, that's bad!"--and soon returned with a little paper cup he'd folded up and filled with...petrol?!? "You're not bloody putting that on me!" was the general idea from Ed's lips, tho I think it might've been quite a bit more colourfully said. And the correct way to deal with a twisted knee with possible ligament or tendon damage is to have the poor bastard sit down in the middle of the road, place one hand above the knee and one hand below, and give it a good few yanks to try and work the kinks out. Oh shit.

To end the story quickly, Ed and Jimmy got a lift back to Kampot with a passing 4WD full of French tourists, Ed's driver was told to suck it up and be a man and drive back to Kampot, and I rode down on the back of Cheang Try's bike. He was a much slower and safer driver, but had a tendancy to turn off the gas and just coast on the downhill parts of the mountain, which was, well...about 98% of the 1.5-hour trip back to the park entrance! At first I was a bit annoyed, seeing as we then lost out on having the gears as a back-up brake, but after awhile I really enjoyed it because we could hear the birds and animals and the wind in the trees, something that was certainly lacking in the uphill leg with motors blaring away.

So all-in-all, some more lessons learned (trust your gut about tires and drivers) and another installment of 'When was the last time you did something for the first time?' successfully completed (though I'm not sure how enthusiastic my ass would be about sitting on the back of another dirtbike in the near future).

Now back to PP for a day (yes, again!) to pick up my passport with a Vietnam visa in it (I hope) and then on to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon via a 3-day tour of the Mekong Delta...
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