Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kep and Kampot - A new year break!

The Khmer new year this year fell mid April. At NY Khmers try and go back to the province which they came from. The result of which is that PP is practically deserted for the 3 days of the festival. Needless to say, I didn’t need much of an excuse to escape the heat and pollution of the city and so a trip to a tropical paradise sounded like it might do the trick....

Kep is a small seaside resort that was at its best in the 1960s. Then the Khmer Rouge attacked– The art deco villas that line the beach are amazing but they are deserted and are now just shells of buildings. However, it has real character and is having somewhat of a comeback with mainly Khmer people but also the odd western tourist visit.

On Saturday, a taxi provided luxury travel to Kep in less than 3 hours from PP. Much more expensive than the bus but worth the cost as the road was extremely busy with all the people heading out of the capital. After the long bus journey to see the dolphins earlier in the month a taxi was luxury! Travelling by taxi also meant that I could take numerous photos of the Cambodian countryside which would otherwise be obscured by the grimy bus window!

Staying at Kep Lodge provided a great base as the rooms were individual bungalows, thatched with one main area for eating/drinking etc... The guest house is run by a Swiss guy and his wife and so a welcome surprise was a mixture of Swiss and Khmer dishes on the delicious menu – ummmm a fried potato rosti (like a big hash brown!) with cheese – all my dreams had come true in Kep already! Anyway, I digress!

Kep has several main areas – a crab market which has 20 or so shacks serving crab and other seafood delights in basic conditions... then following the road along there is a great costal road. You then arrive at the beach. The beach is a kilometre stretch of sand with a statute of a “white woman” at the far end. She seemed to be quite a draw for the Khmer people visiting Kep! Khmer people do not like to get a tan so the beach does not have the usual sunbeds/umbrellas. Instead on the raised up pavement just behind the beach hawkers set up reed mats with tarpaulin strung overhead using the trees as support.

Moving on down the road from the beach, taking the left turn, you come to the King’s former holiday home. Rather odd in that it is completely deserted but seems to have squatters who have broken in. This also means that you can also go inside... just open the door! The place is described as a palace but a better description would be a 1960s bungalow with a tepee style roof.

Continuing down the main road from the beach more costal road and then a picnic area – raised platforms which you sit on with thatched roofs. Hawkers come to you as you sit there and sell all manner of items – seafood, ice cream, sugar cane juice....
Next sight is the pier. From the pier trips can be taken to nearby Rabbit Island (more on this later...)

Then one reaches Kep City. City is another major over statement – It is about 15 shacks selling... not a lot.

So.... with all this area to cover it only seemed right to hire a moped. The Lonely Planet’s advice to hiring a moped in Cambodia is “don’t even think about it if you don’t have insurance”. I did have insurance but I was pretty certain that it would not cover me (as someone who did not have a driving licence let alone the fact it was probably an excluded activity) but given that I did not read this until browsing the book back in PP yesterday and given the fact that I had my credit card for emergency medical cover(!) I went ahead and got the “bike”. The driving (riding?) was very successful and only resulted in one near accident when I came off the road and nearly ended up in a pond – instead I almost ran over 2 very scared looking Khmer women! – I would add here that this was not my fault there were two problems – The first being the van overtaking the 4WD hurtling towards me on my side of the road leaving less than a foot of space to me to pass, and then secondly, the fact that the foot of road was then reduced to about 5 inches because at the exact point of crossing with the van the road simply had a chunk of concrete missing.

The sunsets from the bungalow were spectacular as evidenced by the sunset shots. By day 4 I felt I had enough pictures of a huge red sun. The photo only does it some justice.
Midday, day 2 in Kep, what better to do that climb a staggeringly steep amount of steps to reach a temple that is locked! Actually, a monk also followed up the stairs to unlock the door which was good of him and the views were great overlooking the whole of the area – including large salt fields. Here is a picture of me on the steps...

Day 3, involved a trip to Rabbit Island – This is a practically deserted island off the coast of Kep – It takes about 30 minutes to get there by boat. The beaches on the island were white sand, palm tree fringed, sea as hot as a luke warm bath (!) ... I did some snorkelling but given that the water was quite cloudy, there was no marine life apart from rocks (which I was convinced were crabs biting my toes) and my irrational fear of “creatures” lurking in the sea it was not all together successful! Later on some Khmer guys who had struck up a conversation earlier started bringing sea urchins out of the sea and waving them in my face excitedly Him: “what is this??” Me: “its an urchin, it will sting you” Him: [prodding urchin] Me: “no really it will sting you.. like mosquito [going stinging actions] ow ow”. Him: Laughing [prodding] I want to show it to my friend”. His “friend” obviously didn’t see the sea urchin because 10 minutes later I had exactly the same conversation with him as he too ran out of the sea in absolutely delight with his pockets literally filled with prickly urchins.... oh well, I did my best.
Anyway, the island is not big and a jungle like path goes right around the outskirts so a 2 hour trek right the way round the island was done... it was hard work hacking through vines, wading through mud flats when the path disappeared and trying to outsmart the dogs who patrolled the beaches but gave a real sense of the Island and the very few people who lived on it in houses that were no more than large sheds.

I was pleased that on Rabbit Island people were generally less interested in western tourists than observers had been on Kep’s main beach the day before. The Khmer people in their shady areas enjoyed staring at the (only) foreigner in the sun on Kep’s beach and then when it was time for a swim there was no way that I was going to strip down to my swimwear given that the Khmer people think this is exactly the same as parading around the street in your underwear – they swim fully clothed. So, into the water I went, top, shorts the lot... I think they still thought that I was crazy even though they were doing it! – You sometimes just can’t win!! It seemed very practical, none of the hassle but drying off without sand becoming an irritation is a fine art.
Day 3 – another great sunset with a nice glass of wine (or was it beer?!) and then a trip to the crab market at night with a mix of people who were staying at the Lodge who also lived in PP and were doing voluntary work.

Day 4 was a rest day because the lying on the beach, eating fresh seafood and drinking various alcoholic beverages had really taken it out of me!! Another trip to the crab market and a zoom about town as well as a short drive into the countryside together with a stroll around the picnic area was all that could be managed (- I needed to devote some serious time to scratching the 10,000 ant bites which I had acquired and catching the jumping spider that had taken up residence in the bungalow in a glass!).

The following morning I took a walk down the country lane that joined the lodge to the main road – a dirt track of about 700m to take some photos. On my return, not really looking where I was going SNAKE!! Right in the middle of the road and I was about to stand on it. I jumped a million miles and then took some photos and started to hurry away just as the gardener from the Lodge zoomed past me on his moped, waved, beeped his horn where the snake was and drove forward like a maniac. I’d like to hope the snake didn’t get squished!

....The spider was released from his glass prison alive and well and a tuk tuk made the drive to Kampot, Kep’s nearest town and the provincial capital, nice and easy. The 40 minute or so journey was good with the landscape changing a lot. Upon arrival in Kampot a quick exploration showed that there was not much going on at all and so I spent the afternoon lounging about before sunset drinks! I am particularly pleased with this sunset shot –possibly the best sunset yet or perhaps just different to the “big red sun” sunsets. The mountains made the sun splay all over the landscape in Kampot rather than the sun and the light disappearing as soon as the sun hits the water as it did in Kep...

Thursday – up early for the bus. The idea in staying in Kampot was to extend the break and also to help with the early start and remove the need to travel from Kep to Kampot to get the bus at the crack of dawn to Phnom Penh. Needless to say I was very disappointed when it transpired that the bus’s route was Kampot – Kep – Phnom Penh.... oh well!!

Today has involved more TEFL, more strepsils than should be eaten (due to a very bad persistent cough) and copious amounts of stationery in preparation for my 10 English lessons that I will start to give to the classes on Monday. The weekend will include more preparation.

Bye for now!

(photos will be posted when I have a fast enough internet speed...!)

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