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Travel & Holiday

Biking off the beaten track

Soak in the small- town charms of Kep and Kampot, which have yet to be discovered by the masses
The Straits Times - January 10, 2012
By: adeline chia
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Biking off the beaten track Crabs are the reason tourists return to Kep. -- ST PHOTO: ADELINE CHIA

Mention Cambodia and travellers might think of temple-hopping in Siem Reap, visiting The Killing Fields of Khmer Rouge genocide, or taking in the buzz of Phnom Penh, the capital and financial centre.

So far, so obvious. Yet, why not take the road less trampled to death?

Independent travellers with an eye on adventure should head south to Kep and Kampot, two small, charming Cambodian towns that remain less touched by international tourism. They retain the shabby charm of the old French colonial era while preserving a lush natural landscape.

 

My friend and I begin our trip in Kampot, which is about four hours by bus from Phnom Penh and costs about US$6 (S$7.80), one way.

Getting into Kampot is like entering a different time zone after the traffic and dust of Phnom Penh. The entire place is asleep, but not really. Some locals are watching television while lying down on the floor in their ground-floor apartments. The number of tourists can be counted on one hand.

Kampot architecture consists mostly of two- storey shophouses in quiet lanes. A central tree- lined promenade runs parallel to Tuk Chou River, which is backgrounded by the silhouette of Bokor Mountain.

A leisurely evening stroll down the riverside walk is a great way to people watch since the breezy bank is a popular hangout. Some teenagers, dressed to kill, hang out near their motorbikes to talk and flirt with one another.

A man is catching fish with a small net in the dark. When he finally catches one, we are as excited as his young son, who shines a torch onto the flapping, dying creature.

Much can be said about Kampot's laidback charm but its unique selling point is that it is the gateway to Bokor Mountain, where an abandoned, French resort town sits.

The town, called Bokor Hill Station, was developed in the 1920s by French settlers to escape the heat of Phnom Penh and it comprises an abandoned church, a casino and hotel, and a post office that has been demolished.

The French fled the place in the 1940s during the First Indochine War, but most of the buildings are still standing - to a certain degree.

Our guide is Tri (pronounced 'Tree'), a sundried wiry man who could be aged anywhere from 35 to 55, who says he fought against the Khmer Rouge with the Vietnamese Army and knows these hills well.

Like all good guides, he is full of stories. He speaks of how Napoleon used to relax by the Tuk Chou River (I find no evidence of this in my research afterwards) and there are plans to develop the area with a six-star resort and golf course.

Then there was the king cobra he saw in the forest that stood up to his waist. 'His face was so big,' he says, making a circle as big as a saucer.

We finally reach the ghost town. The red brick church is furry with moss and the inside shows signs of habitation: charred walls from a fire, a canvas partition, a make-shift wooden bed. Tri says Bokor Hill area was a Khmer Rouge stronghold in the 1970s and the buildings were used as their military base.

He then takes us to Bokor Palace Hotel & Casino, formerly the hedonistic playground of expatriates, politicians and pleasure-seekers. The imposing building is now sadly covered with a layer of scaffolding for restoration work. Unless you give the guards a small bribe, it is impossible to get inside.

It takes a few minutes to circle the rust-coloured, peeling building that sits proudly and eerily in a green field. At the back is a steep drop down a lush cliff-face. Tri says desperate gamblers used to jump off there, and the Khmer Rouge executed people and threw the bodies down. We peer down carefully and see rolling, misty hills.

Eventually we come down the mountain in a van and take a boat ride along the Tuk Chou. It is a calm, meditative trip that is accompanied by only the sound of birdsong and the boat's motor. We watch children jump off the bridge into the water, screaming in delight.

Then there is the final pay-off: the sight of an egg-yolk sun making a slow retreat behind the mountain ridges.

The next day, we take a tuk-tuk to nearby Kep, a seaside town popular with domestic tourists over the weekend. Kep gives off a raffish charm: It was the beach getaway of French expatriates and the Cambodian elite in the 1960s and retains the faded grandeur of a bygone era. There are still scores of dilapidated beach villas lying around.

The beaches are unremarkable, but that does not stop large groups of domestic tourists from heading there on the weekends to swim and to picnic.

But the No. 1 reason they come to Kep is - crabs.

Fishermen haul their baskets of catch back to a small pier and sell the crabs to bargaining buyers. Some are steamed on the spot in huge vats.

Some hawkers walk around peddling plastic bags full of steamed crabs to picnickers. There is even a (crab-shaped, what else?) monument built for crabs.

In the sand and on the pavements, you see the crushed pink shells of cooked crab.

We settle for lunch at one of the beachside restaurants and markets, which are clustered along the main drag of town. The menu, of course, is crab- centric and dishes start from about US$4.

We order the crab with fresh Kampot pepper - a speciality of the province and among the finest in the world. The light curry-ish taste is eye-wateringly good.

To better taste the natural sweetness of the crustaceans, we also choose a simple steamed version with garlic and a dash of coconut milk. That is the coup de grace. We suck the flesh out in reverential silence, closing our eyes and shaking our heads in regret that we have come to eat this so late in our lives.

The next day, we rent a motorbike from the hotel for US$10 for the entire day. Nobody asks for a licence but you can practise driving around in the carpark if you need to warm up.

The hotel reception gives us a hand-drawn map showing interesting spots to check out. Our eyes scan the flimsy piece of paper: a few temples, some beaches, the pepper plantations and salt mines. And then our eyes land on a spot marked 'Secret Beach'.

Lost on the way to 'secret beach'

It becomes the day's quest to find the beach. We putt-putt our way to a pepper plantation, explore the surrounds, get chased by the resident geese and buy some pepper.

The business is run by a Chinese family and on a whim, we lie that we are from Malaysia. In response, the owners proceed to speak to us in Cantonese. We nod politely, mumble something in what we think is Malaysian-accented Mandarin and hurriedly leave.

In the afternoon heat, we give up on our helmets because no one else is wearing them. To get to the 'secret beach', the map indicates that we should make a left turn at 'a temple with new sign'.

We do not see any temple but after some inquiries at a gas station, we realise this 'secret beach' is called Angkul beach. But the instructions in broken English on how to get there are too hard to follow.

Deciding to wing it, we ride on and make a random left turn.

Suddenly the landscape opens up to endless paddy fields of fresh, almost neon, green. We wind through the fields on a red dirt road, while curious villagers stare from their houses and children wave. One little boy is paddling in a pond, naked, on a big banana leaf that serves as a raft. There are buffaloes, chickens and pigs. An old man smoking some kind of potent-smelling unfiltered cigarette gives our motorbike the thumbs-up.

It does not take long to realise that we are hopelessly lost. We stop to ask several people and see the flicker of recognition when they hear 'Angkul', but their directions lead us nowhere.

When we see a sign indicating that the Vietnamese border is nearby, we decide to turn back to the main road for another fuel stop. This time, a woman, who is Chinese, gives us clearer instructions. 'You have to drive really quickly,' she says. The sun is setting and there are no street lamps.

We speed along and finally the tarred road opens out to a red dirt road, and we whoop: 'Yes!' On the map, 'red dirt road' is depicted with wavy lines.

Then it gets very quiet. On the right, we see some open plains we recognise as 'salt fields'. That means we are close to the sea, since the water is let in from the ocean into these fields to be evaporated.

The scene has a desolate beauty and perhaps it could be the setting to the loneliest story ever told by an arthouse film-maker. Fields of salt are dyed orange by the setting sun and the place rings with silence. It is totally indifferent to human presence.

Should we go on? We are so near the sea.

We decide to call it a day because the sky is darkening. We turn back and drive into a sunset so beautiful, complete with National Geographic-level layers of colour gradations and mountainous silhouettes, that we almost forget our disappointment.

I ask: 'Is there gravel flying up to hit my chest? It really hurts.'

My companion replies: 'Er, I think they are insects.' We promptly put on our helmets and pull down the visors.

We clock about 35 freezing kilometres back to the hotel. Our 'rustic' hotel suffers a circuit trip about five times through our hot showers. I am still shivering when I reach our crab dinner.

Inevitably, our conversation turns to the secret beach. What does it look like? Is it as awe-inspiring as the salt fields? Maybe it is despicably average.

In any case, we don't beat ourselves up too much. After all, what is the good of a secret beach that can be found?

5 things to do

1 Have US dollars in small denominations because most things are cheap in Cambodia. Most transactions are done in US dollars and the small change is given in Cambodian currency, the riel. The exchange rate is about US$1 (S$1.29) to 4,000 riel.

2 In Kep, pretend that you are a 1960s French expatriate living it up in Indochina by booking a night's stay at Knai Bang Chatt, a boutique hotel with Le Corbusier-style modernist seafront villas. Rooms from US$115 a night. (www.knaibangchatt.com)

3 In Kampot, take a guided tour up Bokor Mountain for about US$20 to visit the ruined French colonial town. An informative English-speaking guide adds a lot of colour to the visit. The package, which you can book easily from your hotel or guesthouse, usually includes an evening boat trip.

4 Buy Kampot pepper from the plantations, reputed to be among the best in the world. Because of the soil conditions and the farmers' use of cow dung, bat dung and rice field crabs, the pepper is supposed to be aromatic and complex.

5 Rent a motorbike or a bicycle to get around Kampot and Kep, and make sure you wear a mask as the roads are very dusty.

2 don'ts

1 Accept any US dollar notes which are slightly torn or mucky. You will never get to spend that money because no one will accept it.

2 Visit Kep and Kampot from June to October. It tends to be hot and very wet. November to February is the cool and dry season and the best time to visit.

 

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