A long weekend of next to nothing

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  , Khétt Kâmpôt,
Monday, October 31, 2005

Not even three weeks after the week long break to celebrate the buddhist Phchum Ben festival, and yet another holiday had crept up on us. This time it was to celebrate retired King Sihanouk's 83rd birthday, and as that fell on a monday I had myself a long weekend! No point wasting that in the noise and pollution I surround myself in every day, so I threw my boardies and some t-shirts in a backpack, and headed back to the coast. After all, I hadn't seen the sea since late March, and that's just plain ridiculous!

Finishing school at 1pm on a friday afternoon gave me plenty of time to get down to Kep to maximise my time. One of the (now ex) teachers at ACE, Lisa, was heading down at the same time and offered to give me a ride in her partner's work car. That sounded much better than share taxi-ing it, even if it meant sharing the ride with their kids, an 8 year old boy obsessed with computer games and a very cute but loud 4 year old girl. With only a few wrong turns after the sun went down, we found Veranda guesthouse on a hillside in Kep at around 8pm.

Everyone had been telling me about how fantastic Veranda was, and waking at 7am the next morning I could see why. I had a small bungalow with a balcony, and stepping out just after sunrise I was blown away by the view. Before me were the palm trees and crab market lining the shore, and beyond that the vastness of the gulf of Thailand. Looming Bokor Mountain was clearly visible to the north west as well. I knew I'd enjoy spending the afternoon on my hammock doing nothing but sleeping, reading and letting the view soak in, but I was determined to do a little siteseeing in the morning. After breakfast I walked down the hill and found a moto driver who knew the way to Kompong Trach, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold about 25km away. I had heard rumour about some limestone karst scenery with deep caves in the area, which is something I hadn't yet seen in Cambodia. It was one of the few places where I knew of not a single person who'd been there.

On the way, we stopped at a small mountain just outside Kep called Phnom Sorsia. Atop this mountain was a small pagoda once used as a prison (and place of extermination) by the Khmer Rouge, and two small caves. The caves themselves weren't spectacular, although the second one I visited had hundreds of bats squawking around the roof. The best thing about this site was an incredible view over the huge rice fields below, and the town of Kampot at the foot of Bokor mountain. I didn't linger too long, instead heading out to Kompong Trach while it was still quite early.

Along the way, my moto driver pointed out a mountain range not far to the north, with a few houses below. This was the site where three backpackers, including an Australian, were held captive for two months in 1994 after the Khmer Rouge hijacked a train. They were later executed there. My driver informed me that Khmer Rouge still lived in the hills, although they were disarmed now, and led a peaceful life away from the troubles of current Cambodian politics. The leader who authorised the hijacking, Chouk Rin, was recently recaptured after he was given a pardon following his trial a few years ago. Some long overdue justice perhaps?

The drive to Kompong Trach was really beautiful. The rice fields were really green, and the shutters and doors of the houses in the town were all painted blue, giving the surroundings vivid colour. The limestone karsts weren't as big as those I saw near Vang Vieng in Laos, but they were still really beautiful, rising up out of the rice paddies. They seemed almost out of place, as in the eight months I'd spent in Cambodia I hadn't seen any landscape quite like this.

We rode around the base of one of the karsts, at times through submerged parts of the road, until we reached a small opening between two of the karsts. There was a pagoda here (Wat Kirisam), and as soon as the kids relaxing in the shade saw the barang on the back of the bike, they lept up to offer their services as a guide. Unlike the many other tourist attractions I'd visited in Cambodia, they didn't decide who would guide me amongst themselves, but they all came along! Three older ladies and five children all lit torches to show me the entrance to the cave. It felt almost Indiana Jones-esque, being led through caverns with a lot of local guides by the light of a flame! After walking about 100m, stopping to admire a formation that looked like a turtle and a strange statue of a very skinny monk fasting, we came across a huge hollow in the middle of the karst. To one side there was a large statue of a reclining buddha, but on the other three sides there were more caves. My guides led me as far as they could into them, but unfortunately the wet season had taken its toll on this site, and all of the caves were underwater. They looked spectacular, with stalactites reaching down into the underwater lakes, however I was disappointed that I couldn't explore further. The most interesting attractions were a buddha in the middle of one of these lakes, a formation resembling tiered rice paddies (similar to those I've seen in Vietnam) and a big formation looking remarkably like an elephant!

After we left the cave, the kids showed me a monkey they had tied up, although it didn't take long for them to realise I wasn't impressed by its captivity. They followed me over to the pagoda, inside which were some pretty graphic murals of people being tortured in the buddhist hell. I saw paintings similar to these on a mountain near Kratie, although the light was much better for photos here.

My moto driver took me back to Kep via a different route, and we had lunch at the crab market overlooking the gulf of Thailand. The fried noodle and veg I had here was twice as cheap and twice as good as that the guesthouse, and the girl working there found it utterly hilarious that I could speak to her in her own language! After lunch, I went back to the Veranda where I spent the entire afternoon on a hammock outside my bungalow, sleeping and reading!

The next day was to prove even more relaxing, as I left Veranda at 10am to find a boat to take me to Koh Tonsay (Rabbit island). I'd come here for a day in March, and back then I promised myself I'd return for an overnight stay in one of the bamboo thatch bungalows. I reached the island around 11am, and spent the next 4 hours either swimming or laying in the shade reading my book. Being a public holiday, there were a lot of expats from Phnom Penh with the same idea as me, and soon after lunch two of my friends, Anthea and Andrew, bumped into me. Later on in the afternoon we went for a short walk around to the other side of the island, where we found a beach that was even more secluded. They left on the last boat at 5pm, leaving just 8 foreigners and two Khmer families on the island. Perfect!

After witnessing a massive downpour from my bungalow the previous evening, I woke to the sound of waves lapping upon the beach, which I could just make out thrugh the cracks in my bamboo wall. The morning seemed even more peaceful than the night before, and I spent about four hours doing exactly what I did the previous afternoon. At one point I did enquire about a track to the hill in the centre of the island, however I was met with a stern "No!". The conclusion I drew from that, which an english backpacker concurred with, was that the head of one of the families had an Alex Garland "Beach" type marijuana plantation up there, and that was a no go zone for barangs!

I returned to Kep around midday, where I met Lisa, Phil and the kids, and got a ride with them back to Phnom Penh after lunch. Phil is an ex St.Virgil's boy, like myself, and it was pretty funny to see who we both knew from back in Hobart! On my return to Phnom Penh, I realised that the beach on Rabbit island was probably the last I'd see before returning to Tassie at christmas!
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