In order to avoid the chaos of a land crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia (including corrupt border officials who insist on any number of bribes), we bought a decently priced flight ticket and flew directly from Saigon to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This sleepy town is the top beach destination in Cambodia and is home to many expats from all over the world. It was heavily damaged during the Khmer Rouge regime and still has quite a lot of improvements to be made to make it a sought after resort destination. We stayed at a lovely hotel run by a Swedish man and Cambodian woman, and spent five days relaxing and sleeping after our whirlwind trip through Vietnam.
On the days we ventured out of the hotel, we visited two of the beaches (Ochetal and Independence Beach) which were mostly filled with locals enjoying long days out hiding from the sun and stuffing their faces with seafood. At Independence beach, we lay under a tree away from the burning sun and clung onto our bag every time a group of small, muddy kids came past looking to grab it from our hands. It was hard to believe that such a gorgeous place was home to such astounding violence only a few decades ago.
The Lexus SUVs speeding through the beach town sharply contrasted the little kids selling cigarettes on the roadside at 10pm, and I began to understand the local understanding that Cambodia is home to twelve million people living in complete poverty and a handful of corrupt, wealthy men. We witnessed the prevalent sex tourism industry while drinking a cheap beer at a hostel, and on the last night wandered home through a citywide blackout (apparently a very common occurance).
Saying goodbye to the beach, we took a minivan two hours away to Kampot, a small inland town famous for its French Colonial architecture, the best and most expensive pepper in the world, and home to many NGOs (non-profit, non-government organizations).
Traveling in the wet season in Southeast Asia had not been an issue until we arrived in Cambodia; the heavy rain began in the morning and did not let up until the evening (you have not seen rain until you’ve seen and felt the monsoons in Cambodia!). Much of our time in Kampot was spent sitting in cafes and restaurants with soggy shoes and clothes, drinking 25 cent beer or thick iced coffees.
We did not see much of the famous architecture other than the durian statue in the center of town (durian is a pungent fruit with a taste and texture similar to rotten garlic, very popular in Asia but strictly forbidden in hotel rooms and on public transport).
I was excited to visit Kampot, but the children being taken advantage of by older white men (the ‘NGO workers’) was heartbreaking and the town itself seemed to have been forgotten by the government. The calm river flowing through brought a few tourists who seemed to remain in their guesthouses and Western restaurants. The night market, usually a spot to bring the community together, was a sad series of clothing shops, unhygienic food stalls and decrepit carnival rides.
The dreariness of the town aside (and the fact that it poured rain and our hotel resembled a prison, bars and all), we enjoyed the quiet of our time in Kampot and learned one important thing: Cambodia is, thirty seven years after the worst of the Khmer Rouge regime, still a major work in progress.
Our final Southern stop was a beachside town called Kep, a 25km drive from Kampot. We didn’t know what to expect from Kep (a town used as a retreat for the French during Colonial times, it was the first place in Asia to find women sporting a bikini), but the man-made beach was small and clean, and our accomodation was a beautiful traditional Khmer bungalow with a grass roof and open walls.
Crumbling Colonial villas dot the streets, and the new road into the tiny town is wide enough for six Cambodian lanes despite the complete lack of vehicle traffic in the area. Indeed, Kep is still a playground for the wealthy; while we were there the police had the entire massive roadway blocked off as the Prime Minister was in town for a fancy lunch at a five star resort.
Kep Beach is a source of pride for the Cambodian government. White sand from Kampot is brought in every two weeks and the beach is cleaned each morning to maintain its appeal. It will be interesting to see how this little place changes in the coming years.
For the time being, Kep is a quiet place and is still home to hundreds of monkeys that crowd the streets along the ocean searching for food and trouble. I could have spent hours watching the dozens of monkeys near the beach as they rummaged through trash cans and swung from tree branches and signs.
Kep is known these days as the home of Cambodian seafood, particularly crab (I know many of you are cringing at the thought of eating seafood from the South China Sea or the Gulf of Thailand, since we avoid these at all costs in Canada. But don’t fret- they export the farmed garbage to us and save the clean, beautiful seafood for themselves!). We visited the famed Crab Market on two occasions: a fancy dinner of Kampot pepper crab (four crab for $10), pepper squid and cold beer with the tide lapping under our feet and a picnic of grilled fish and one kilo of fresh pepper prawns bought from the sea and cooked by a man with a gas burner and wok.
We rented a motorbike to explore the coastline and nearby local town, and spent 45 minutes driving through local villages (with plenty of smiles, waves and excited greetings from Khmer kids) to reach La Plantation, a twenty hectare farm growing some of the best peppercorns in the world.
During the Civil War and Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s, the doctors, lawyers, religious figures, students, intellectuals and political figures were slaughtered first under Pol Pot’s horrific rule. All hospitals, schools and agricultural areas were destroyed. The once famous pepper farms were abandoned for rice farming during the famine, and were only reestablished in the last twenty years with much foreign help. Kampot pepper was once the only pepper used in the top restaurants in France and is once again surging in popularity. We visited two farms (La Plantation, a massive but new farm and Sothys, a small farm employing volunteers) and learned about the completely organic cultivation of this amazing spice that is so different from the pepper we think of back home.
The countryside and people of Kep were, quite simply, amazing. Nature, ocean and farmland remains fairly untouched and the people were the kindest and friendliest we have met in eight months of traveling. On our final night we went on a bumpy drive on the motorbike through the national park, high up into the jungle overlooking the coast.
Kep was incredibly special, but it was time to leave the quiet South and head all the way Northwest across the country to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat.
-Chelsea and Ben