These two towns had both been recommended to me by work friends, and I had heard from many that Kep was the go-to closest destination for expats to get a little taste of the beach. A brief Google maps search confirmed that it was the closest town of the two, and so tickets were booked for the following day. The universe had other plans as my travel partner in crime Mitch arrived at the airport, while his luggage did not.
A quick phone call to my dodgy van company and tickets were cancelled, luggage was found the next day, tickets were booked again, and we were off. Turns out our van actually stopped at Kampot first where we were unceremoniously reloaded into another van; a Cambodian custom that occurs 1 – 4 times on every journey whether it be by van, boat or water buffalo. We only travelled another 30 minutes to Kep, passing lush green rice paddies with the Elephant Mountains in the distance.
Our van dropped us off at a cluster of hostels and van companies right in front of the picturesque stretch of sandy Kep Beach. We headed via tuk tuk up a sloping dirt road passing many hidden away hillside resorts before stopping at ours. I don’t know if it was the off season or the daily drizzle of rain that August brings but we were the only people at our resort and for the most part everywhere else we went too. This became a blessing as we rented a moto and practiced our Cambodian driving. Right side of the road, trying to find the indicators, pulling over for a coke bottle of fuel = check.
First stop was the famous crab market to see what all the fuss was about. A wave of seaside smells washed over us as we walked through a hive of activity. Men and women tossed bamboo crab pots into the shallow rocky water, all kinds of fish were being gutted and scaled on the boardwalk, and locals gathered around steaming bowls of unidentifiable sea food in the beautiful communal way that Khmer people gather to eat. A short walk down the boardwalk and we picked a restaurant out of a large line up hanging over the water’s edge. Still reeling from my food poisoning adventure, we compromised on a place that looked both Khmer and Westerner friendly, with fresh tanks and bowls of live seafood out the front. Mitch ordered the famous Kep crab while I ordered the only vego meal on Cambodian menus: rice. I can vicariously report that the crab was delicious.
The drizzle of rain had whipped into a fury of wind by now so we hurried off to continue riding down the coast, checking out lookouts, beaches and the famous Kep crab statue. That night we rode up into the mountainside in search of Verandah; an eco resort with stunning views. After convincing our little moto to climb to the top we were greeted by an amazing sunset, once again being the only guests in the restaurant besides two cross-eyed cats and a random dog. The idea was just to grab a few 2-4-1 cocktails and watch the sunset but the view was so nice we ended up staying for some overpriced dinner too. Overpriced meaning $8 for a meal. I love this country.
The next morning we were treated to some sun, and after eating breakfast with an audience of dogs, cows, cats, and a brooding hen we headed to Kep National Park. The walking path was beautiful, and really well looked after by Led Zep Café who have dotted the path with fun facts, maps and a few too many pictures of all the ginormous bugs that inhabit the park. We were lucky enough to encounter most of the bugs, some lizards and wild monkeys. The views the whole way up were stunning, with the Elephant Mountains and Gulf of Thailand laid out below us. At the summit the drizzle of rain began again and we had an interesting descent through rain and spider webs but all in all, a 10/10 National Park by any country’s standards. And all for $1 entry!
We washed off the sweat with a dip in the water at Kep Beach but emerged from the murky water feeling dirtier than upon entry and despite being the only people braving the sun I couldn’t relax under the wide eyes and ‘HELLO!!!’ English practice from dozens of excited Khmer holiday-ers on the boardwalk. I guess you can take the Aussie out of Australia… Lunch was at the Sailing Club which was b-e-a-utiful however the wind had returned and was putting on a fierce show of waves crashing against the jetty. I would love to return on a calmer day.
The next morning we caught a $3 van back into Kampot. Kampot is a beautiful little town, laid out just the way a map-illiterate gal likes it: in straight lines and grids with a river for reference. A French and Chinese influence lingers in some of the older architecture and a warm mustard yellow coats most buildings. Excited to be near yet another body of water that wasn’t the open sewerage river that runs through Phnom Penh, we headed straight to a resort with bungalows dangling over the river’s edge. The afternoon was spent wandering through Kampot’s many cafes, shops, markets and bars, a highlight being Riki Tiki Tavi’s 2-4-1 happy hour where we sampled their Kampot pepper bloody Mary! Ohmagosh! The daily drizzle had followed us there, so the next morning when the sun peeked out we hurried off via moto to sample one of the organic pepper farms the region is famous for.
Exactly half way into our ride what felt like a monsoon roared through, rendering us blind but for the 1 metre we could see ahead and tearing Mitch’s 50c poncho to shreds (I brought a raincoat…just sayin). Thus we found ourselves balanced on a choice of riding home in a monsoon or riding the same distance in a monsoon but ending up at the pepper farm. After seeking shelter with some chickens and a very bemused petrol station owner, we chose the latter. I’m glad we did because the skies parted just long enough for us to visit the fascinating and informative Sothy’s Pepper Farm, which runs entirely off the grid and grows only organically. They explained the certifications required to receive the organic stamp of approval, including using palm leaf roofing for the green house as plastic doesn’t qualify. The short tour was free and run by volunteers who were living on the farm to learn about organic farming and permaculture. Ours was a lovely German girl named Hannah who politely accepted my terrible ‘danke schön!!’ We sampled some pepper tea which was made from the less potent pepper stalks and it was so good I bought a few jars of it. Please let me pass Aussie customs.
Some moto riding and food sampling later we had re-fuelled ready to tackle Bokor Mountain. This place was crazy beautiful, with really well maintained roads and a very official entrance toll gate with a working boom and everything! We’d been warned of the winding road, made slippery by all the low lying clouds that brushed over the mountainside. A couple hundred metres up we were reminded of this, when a Khmer couple on a moto ahead of us did a spectacular skid into an embankment. Luckily they were wearing helmets and when we stopped to see if they were alright the dude just seemed to have hurt his pride more than anything, having to continue his hot mountain date with a steaming girlfriend and a scratched up ride. We pressed on. I found myself digging my fingernails into Mitch’s shoulders with every turn and gasping in that annoying way that only a backseat driver can.
The ride up was so incredible; clouds seemed to catch and linger in ancient palm trees and jutting rock formations made natural waterfalls with the morning’s rainfall. We were treated to spectacular views until we actually made it to the top. The summit was so cloudy, miserable and wet that you could have told us we were anywhere in the world. After checking out an old ruin and a Buddha statue we rolled back down the hill, this time getting soaked by clouds of the rain variety.
That night and next morning were made up of street food, cocktails, rides up and down the river, night markets, more food and a few lazy hammock naps. I had researched a SUP company that had a morning SUP yoga class and when I hadn’t heard back from them we set out to try and find them ourselves. We rode through a small village and entertained the locals with some very near misses through mud puddles but alas could not find the hidden SUP company. A few days later when we had already left Kampot they replied, informing me that they were closed for the month. Ah well the villagers got a laugh and we got to take our moto off road for the full muddy Kampot experience.
I’ll see you on the road.