Kampot wasn’t in our original plans. But I made a mistake. A big planning mistake that had little or no influence on our goal. We were in Phnom Penh ready to buy tickets for a bus to Vietnam when I realized that we couldn’t get our visas on the border and that we needed to go to an embassy to do it. This meant we had to stay at least two more days in Cambodia while waiting for them to be ready. As we were in Phnom Penh already for 4 days and eagerly wanted to leave (you can read why here), we took a bus to Kampot in the south of Cambodia to wait these two days there. We were so surprised with this place that we ended up staying 6 days. We fell in love with Kampot. I think this always happens when you least expect it.
We got to Kampot at dawn. The bus station is very close to the city center, so we left the bus and walked in search of a cheap room. After asking in 5 or 6 hotels where we could not stay because they were either full or too expensive, we finally found our room. It wasn’t a hotel or a guest house, but a private house with rooms to rent.
It was a family of 4, a couple and two daughters between 15 and 18 years old. On the ground floor, open to the street, was a room where the family spends most of their time. They have a small cabinet with some medicines which they call pharmacy. This was their primary business. But what amazed me the most and made me want to write about them was their lifestyle.
We were there for 6 days, so it’s fair to say we were able to observe them quite well. They spend their days sitting on the naked floor looking at the TV. After eating they go to sleep on the floor for a bit, the four of them almost on top of each other. One of the daughters did not take the pajama for the whole week. If they were asleep and we passed by them or anyone needed anything from the pharmacy, they would just open one eye to see if they had to stand up. They would quickly fix the problem and go back to sleep. It was even kind of relaxing to see them all together all the time like it was the most natural thing in the world. Yet, I must say they were always ready to help with whatever we might needed. Magda felt a bit sick with fever and headaches while we were there and the “doctor” of the house quickly put together a bunch of pills that worked out very well. We were a bit worried it might be something more serious, like malaria or something, but the “doctor” put his hand on Magda’s forehead, looked briefly and said “No malaria. For sure”. It was great to meet them and we feel sad we don’t have any picture of them to share.
Kep, the National Park and rural Cambodia
We rented a bike and went to Kep, a town by the sea, 20km from Kampot. The way there was amazing. First, through paved roads between dozens of small improvised shops selling everything and later through a dirt road so wide, it looks like it’s ready to receive the biggest of the highways. We visited a temple in the neighbouring mountains and that’s when the bike started complaining, but still kept on going.
The beach in Kep, with its dark sands, is not necessarily pretty, but since it’s not very crowded, it can be a great place to relax. Along the coast there are wide sidewalks with some big statues every now and then.
Kep is known for seafood, so the market right at the beach was our first stop. Dozens of women selling all kinds of fish and seafood right out of the sea and in some cases, right from a barbecue. Delicious.
Nearby, one can visit the National park with a 8 km path for trekking, which is also accessible by motorbike. Our Suzuki was still moving well so we made through the path without any problems. There were some interesting viewpoints along the way.
On the way back to Kampot we made a detour to one of the many dirt roads that kept appearing on our left side. It couldn’t have gone any better. We found ourselves in the middle of huge rice fields, where the green from the palm trees and rice fields contrasted with the intense brown of the road. These were the colors we saw endless times in many pictures before leaving to Cambodia. There it was, finally.
Bokor and the problem with the bike
About 40 km west of Kampot, you can find Bokor, an old french colonial resort from the beginning of the 20th century. It’s located on the very top of a hill with an elevation above 1000m. On the way up our motorbike started its real problems. It was failing every time I accelerated at the maximum power, so we had to do the 20 km up with an average speed of 15 to 20 km/h. Yes, it took a lot of time to get there. As we were going up, it was getting colder and colder and we were not really ready for it. We had only our rain jackets that helped little against the cold wind.
The road was brand new and paved from the very beginning. Among the things one can see at the top is the Popokvil waterfall that this time of the year was running full and strong.
The top of the Bokor hill I felt like we were in the middle of some abandoned soviet village used for nuclear tests. We had to drive several kilometers from one point of interest to another and it was like being on Mars. The grey, foggy weather strengthened that feeling. Soon, it started raining. We took refuge in the first building I saw. We entered a garage where the maintenance guys of the nearby electrical station were waiting for something to do. They quickly invited us for a cup of tea and we just sat there for one hour until the weather got a bit better. Before starting our descent, we went to the casino that used to be abandoned and that they are trying to bring back one more time. I really looked like a ghost town.
The motorbike was threatening so much that eventually died. But I am still grateful to her that she waited until we started going down. Not more than a kilometer after we started going down, I felt something break inside the bike and the accelerator was not connected to the wheel anymore. I had broken the timing belt. The engine was working fine, but it was useless. It was one of the best trips in my life. Around 15 km going down with the bike turned off and the wind in my hair. The intense cold we felt at the top was slowly disappearing and turning into a pleasant heat. I knew that as soon as the hill was over I would have problems again with the heat as I was going to have to push the bike to the nearest mechanic. But I didn’t let that in the way of my fun. A completely new road, a sharp descent of many kilometers and all we did was sliding down.
As soon as we got to a flat road, almost at the entrance where we bought the tickets, the security guy told me the nearest mechanic was 1 km away in the direction of Kampot. Not bad considering the road was flat all the time.
When I finally got to the “garage”, I showed the mechanic the problem. He took a belt of his stock and started working. I noticed that the model in the bag wasn’t a match to the motorbike’s model, even though it was from the same brand. I explained it through gestures, but he told me it would work just fine. Ok. He is the professional. After almost three hours waiting, because he was having some problems with the bike, he told me it was finally ready. I payed him the 10 dollars we agreed and climbed on the bike. It didn’t move. The belt was to big and too loose and wouldn’t move the wheel with my weight on it. I tried to explain the mechanic the problem and he told me that once it starts running, it would be able to take me to Kampot, just five kilometers from there. While we were there discussing through gestures and words thrown in the air, some girl came by and was able to translate for us.
The mechanic didn’t want to admit that he put a wrong belt and said that he wouldn’t mind if I payed him only 5 dollars and take that belt. That upset me. I felt cheated. I told him not to think about it. I would prefer to push the bike and give it back to the owner without the belt. While he was getting ready to take the belt out one more time from the bike, Magda told me she understood things a bit differently. That the guy told me that though he didn’t have the original belt, he wouldn’t mind me taking that one for half the price and at least I could go back to Kampot driving.
I thought a bit and stepped back. I apologized and agreed on what he had proposed. Still, I left that place angry with him because if he had told me he hadn’t had the original belt, I would have never accepted the other one. If we had rented a Honda scooter instead, it wouldn’t have been a problem because there are spare parts everywhere. But I had a Suzuki. Me and Magda climbed on the bike and he pushed us a couple of metres and we were moving. The trip was OK, but at every crossroad, turn, or bump on the road, I knew we could stop and not move forward again. After we got to our “hotel”, we explained the situation to owner of the bike who started laughing and said he didn’t know how it hadn’t happened before. He did not charge us for anything.
Kampot is a tiny town by the river with 40 thousand inhabitants. It’s very peaceful place and time seems not to pass by. Nearby the Durian roundabout, the city center, there is a small, but lively night market that looks like a fun fair. It has a couple of carousels for the youngsters and some stalls with fake clothes and toys.
There are bars and hotels on some of the most animated streets by the river, but life ends pretty early. The old bridge, by the central market, is closed to any transportation, but it’s still used by local people.
Kampot is simple and as a town has little to offer, but still it became almost magical for us. Something kept us there and didn’t let us go. Maybe it was the beautiful french colonial architecture small french bakeries, fantastic people, peaceful atmosphere or the proximity to the rural Cambodia. Kampot wasn’t in our plans, but became our best memory of the country.
More photos from Cambodia here.