After a few days of Cambodian metropolis, I headed down to the south of the country to the riverside town of Kampot- famed for its pepper, crumbling colonial architecture, and laid back you-might-never-leave vibe. I spent days exploring the town and its surrounds, lazing by the river, and experiencing the Cambodian quiet life at its finest. Naga hostel, the place I’d been recommended by returnees, turned out to be one of the best stays of my trip so far- all wooden shack dorms and outdoor riverside lounge decked with hammocks, with a brilliant restaurant/bar to boot- the ideal place for productive downtime.
The town itself was a wonder to wander- truly atmospheric, like something you’d see in a nostalgic movie. No surprise, then, that lights, camera and action were interacting while I was there- France’s CanalPlus had taken over the streets for the shooting of WW2 feature Le Soldat Blanc, transforming shopfronts in mere hours, and clogging the streets with production vans and fine vintage cars. The cafes were full of well-heeled production types and vintage-clad extras, taking a break from the shooting chaos and/or epic rain that poured down over those few days, which made ideal people-watching fodder… I spent a fair bit of time nursing coffees myself- café culture here is blossoming, mostly fuelled by the quiet but burgeoning expat scene. The ethical highlight had to be the Epic Arts Café, an NGO outfit providing employment opportunities to deaf/dumb and otherwise disabled locals, which provided delicious fare (ordered via a universally useable ticksheet) and a gallery space upstairs for community projects and charitable craft sales. The caffeine cards were safely held by Espresso, however, an edgily styled Australian-run outfit bringing downunder-style brews and brunches to Cambodia with aplomb. These joints, along with the myriad of atmospheric restaurants illuminating the riverside at night, make the town a fantastic place for living slowly and fuelling well. It didn’t hurt that I was travelling with a French pastry chef, the kind of friend I’ve always wanted to make, who sure knew about the art of eating…
Beyond Kampot itself, the countryside surrounds provide ample exploration opportunities, one of the most famous being the Bokor Mountain national park. This is home to some fantastic views, crisp fresh weather, and an old French hillstation, now eerily deserted and disarmingly atmospheric- especially under the blanket of one of its famous sudden pea soup fogs. The resort was twice deserted- during the First Indochina War and finally during the civil war of the 70s, and bears the scars of Khmer insurrection still today. Here lies the deserted remains of the Black Palace, a former retirement home built by King Sihanouk in the 60s but abandoned to nature shortly after- today it stands overrun by bright orange growth, artful graffiti, and conspicuous squatters. The centrepiece of the French ghost village, the formerly thriving Grand Palace Hotel casino, has been somewhat tidied up, but boldly sports ‘DANGER’ signs all around- wandering though the re-concreted empty shell is akin to landing in a 90s video game, and makes for some unworldly photo opportunities as the clouds descend around it. Another haunted highlight was the bullet-pocked Catholic church, adorned with yet more artful scribblings, which on the day of our visit was enlivened by the arrival of a group of African gospel singers projecting out their rhythms from a nearby hill to the valley below. A little magical, really… Not to be outdone, Buddhist religion was classily represented by the stunning 1920s monastery complex, sporting surreal views across the coastal plains to the sea- and today almost atones for the tragic Chinese casino monstrosity recently built nearby, in an attempt to revive the resort’s former glory. A very strange and wonderful place indeed.
Further countryside adventures can be had by roaming around on rented motorbikes, or for the navigationally lazy like me, via dusty tuk tuk day tours. We visited fishing villages, tasted the produce at the famous Kampot pepper plantations, were led by dishevelled local kids through the Elephant Cave complex, and arrived at the picturesque seaside town of Kep for a fresh lunch at its famous crab market- I never knew I’d find quite so much enjoyment from playing with my food. An afternoon was also spent out at nearby Rabbit Island, alongside a boatload of daytripping teenage monks, where we swam in the sea, lazed on the sand, and sheltered in hammocked huts from the epic rainpour which suddenly descended. After weeks of Thai islands, it takes a lot to impress me with shoreline picturesqueness, but the landing here certainly had its charm- evidenced by the number of lingerers playing castaway at the beach’s bargain bungalows. Post-storm, the evening trip back was slightly shaky, especially with a broken rudder, while gratefully back on dry land, the ride back to Kampot was a pastiche of the rural idyll against the setting sun. The scenes were utterly memorable: families gathered outside homes picking and washing fruit, old ladies preparing dinner, men cradling babies by their shops, children leading buffalo across fields, lads gathered to wash bikes after the day’s driving, toddlers splashing around in muddy pools, and all manner of communal conversing. It seems that 90% of Cambodia is village life led like this, out in the open, by the roads as well as deep in the countryside- there is no real ‘tourist place’ buffer’ here, and it makes the travelling so much richer.