The Cambodian New Year falls in time with the moon, like a lot of Sanskrit-based religions and cultures, so it doesn’t fall on the same dates every year. The New Year festivities last four days, usually in the middle of April, so no longer than 3 weeks into my wonderful new teaching job, I was rewarded with a week off! Unfortunately, as a part-time member of staff, I don’t get paid holidays, but the time off was a great excuse to go visit some more of the Kingdom of Wonder with some new friends.
You can travel pretty much anywhere in SE Asia by bus or train. The Cambodian rail network has ceased operating, most likely a lasting reminder of the Khmer Rouge regime, restricting convenient travel from city to city, but there are rumours about certain lines reopening soon. [Edit… 08/2016… there is now a fairly regular service operating between PP and Sihanoukville!] In any case, it is financially economical to get around by bus. If you don’t mind an 11-12hour journey…
So the trip to Kampot, like most trips in Cambodia, goes via Phnom Penh, the capital city. We’d been promised a 20-minute wait at the “station” in PP, but it actually turned out to be significantly longer. We left Siem Reap at 11pm, arrived at PP at 5:00am, only to find out that the bus to Kampot wasn’t due to leave until 7:30am. In the hubbub of tuktuk drivers trying to make their first fare of the day, we managed to catch the eye of another tour company man. “Kampot?” he asks. We nod at him whilst still rubbing the sleep from our eyes. He asks us to follow him to his company down the street and offers us the most beaten up looking bamboo sofa couch (with no cushion, which really was literally a pain in the ass!) to sit on while we wait for our next vehicle. The irony of this was that the minibus we ended up getting on to take us to our final destination was sitting, unoccupied just out in the road in front of this little tour company. Since about 6:00am. Oh well, it was a comfortable ride, and I still wanted to sleep a little longer, so once we had established when we were to get off the bus, I curled up and fell promptly back to sleep.
On arrival in the sleepy town of Kampot around lunchtime on Saturday, we succeeded to navigate the throngs of tuktuk drivers, picking one to take us to our bungalow residence for the next four nights. The ride to the hostel seemed pretty far, so there was some talk of only staying one night and finding another guesthouse more central to town, but our first priority was to grab a shower and something to eat. Personal hygiene won out, but within 45minutes, we’d already called our driver back and set off downtown to find some grub. On reflection, we weren’t really that far out. All the tuktuk drivers that we met knew the riverside bungalow hostel, and for three people, we rarely paid more than $2-4 per fare, even after the sun went down, which is when drivers hike their prices.
On our mini-vacation, we managed to cram in a sunset and firefly boat cruise, a day at Kep Beach, a visit to a pepper plantation, a beautiful view of the secret lake, a trip to some caves, a lazy afternoon swimming in the river and snoozing in hammocks, some pretty good food, some not so great food, a massage by a blind man, plenty of 50c beer, some coconuts and many fresh fruit shakes.
Not everything went exactly according to plan… for example, we were told when halfway through the sunset/firefly boat cruise that since it was the dry season, we might not see any fireflies. I think I did see a few, dancing on the surface of the river, but it might have just been the flashlight glittering on the ripples. But all was not lost. We did get a very surprising and pleasant stop off at a riverside bar! There was the option to jump in the water, but we had not been told about this, so we did not bring towels or swimwear. This particular bar was run by a family of Americans who were taking some time out to travel, they’d planned to stay in Kampot for 5 days, and almost 5 months later, they’re still there setting up a business.
The morning we went to the secret lake, caves and pepper plantation did not start well at all. We were due to be picked up at 8:30am, so there we were, all ready and breakfasted, waiting for our private tuktuk driver for the day. It got to 9:00am and we still hadn’t heard anything from our promised tour company. There was a secondary (un-?)helpful tuktuk driver who we assumed had come to pick us up, but told us there was an entrance fee to the caves. We told him that out tour included entrance to everywhere and that’s when he said he was not our pre-booked driver. He took one look at our ticket and proceeded to tell us how terrible that particular tour company was. In fact, the adjective he used was “shit”, pronounced “shhheet”. We called the company and demanded to know where our driver was, and were promised that he’d show within five minutes. 10minutes later, still a no-show, so we made a seriously angry call to to company. I say “we”, but what I should really say is that my very good German friend who is a stickler for keeping to time (what can I say, he is German…), called the company back up again. He says with no room for error nor anything being lost in translation “Hi, it is me. Again. We have changed our plans. We will come to your shop, we will have our money back and then we make our own plans. We will be there in 10minutes. We will have our money back”. I heard some mumbling through the line, but nothing discernible. No sooner as he hung up, sheepish grins exchanged between us European folks (the other girl is Italian, and though I can easily pass for Cambodian with my tanned Indian skin, my customer service expectations are inherently British…), our driver turns up! Despite the confusion and frustration of the start of the day, the rest of the morning was spent happily touring the sights of beautiful Kampot.
The day at Kep beach was pretty perfect, and I even managed to buy one of those microfibre beach towels that dry super fast. The sand was white and the sea was calm in the morning. In the afternoon, it got a bit more choppy and brought in a fair bit of debris. Sea weeds and plants and dirt and grit. The water was a great temperature though, and the sea breeze was just incredible. A far cry from the 40degree heat we could look forward to back home in Siem Reap.