Escape to the country.
11.08.2012 27 °C
Kampot was a popular place for us to escape to on our days off, being only a couple of hours drive away in the now standard speeding, cramped van without any seatbelts without any regard for human life.
Like many places in Cambodia, Kampot resembles a large, dirty Lego set where an excitable child has been distracted by a new toy before finishing. The Cambodian Peoples’ Party are quite lively down here and kindly put on free shows to showcase how well they have ruled the country since the coup of ’97 (that almost always seem to coincide with election day or a public holiday). That’s not to say it isn’t without a few charms. Lying between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville in the shadow of Bokor Mountain, Kampot is a busy hub for the production and selling of the infamous durian. Fans of the odorous and musky fruit will be delighted to see that the government have (in their eternal wisdom) build a 15ft giant fruit salad monument on Kampot’s main roundabout, with what can only be described as the Godzilla of durian as the brick centrepiece. Marvellous!
To its credit, Kampot does possess a nice river and a thriving (albeit small) expat community. With the exception of a few villainous français (to be seen arm-in-arm with teenage Khmer girls) the Westerners, or ”barang” as we are called, are known for a good party spirit and extensive local knowledge.
On the riverfront there are a string of chill-out bungalow resorts engaged in (extremely laissez-faire) competition with each other. By far the best of these is Bodhi Villa: a renovated house and bungalows owned by a pair of Aussie hippies who settled there and turned it into quite possibly the coolest place to stay in the entire country.
Kampot was also home to the Tek Choeu Rapids: famous for their beauty and a cheap, popular day out for many Khmer families. That is, until a Chinese company came in and, with the support of one of the local generals, dammed the river for a new hydroelectric power station and cut the suspension bridge to the islet picnic area. The Kampot area experiences at least two power cuts a day so it is a wonder where all that power is going. I am sure that the townsfolk here would ask the general, but his shiny Lexus never slows down enough for anyone to talk to him…
Despite the dreary town and wanton environmental butchery (more on this later), I found myself drawn to Bodhi Villa on several weekends. After a week of lessons and the inevitable cabin-fever of the volunteer environment, it provided the perfect opportunity to do some lesson planning/marking in peace; or as a handy base for exploring the beautiful, wild countryside of the country.
I also had the chance to try some of the famous Kampot Pepper at the source. Famed as a speciality ingredient in pre-independence times by lofty Parisian gastronauts, the Khmer Rouge nearly wiped out production during their lunatic reign. It is making something of a resurgence in modern cooking due to the rich flavour and incredible kick behind each peppercorn. I spent some time milling around the pepper plantations, sampling the chewy greens, the rich reds and the almost lethal black corns and would recommend them to any budding chef or bon-vivante.
One such weekend, we decided to rent scooters and semi-auto mopeds to tackle the mountain road to Bokor summit and Hill Station. Much to the others’ delight, the rental company gave me a tiny, pink Bugs Bunny helmet to protect me. The scenery on this mountain road was spectacular: waterfalls tumbled down small cliffs and almost absolute walls of jungle reared over us as we took the corners on our little Hondas. At several points, a clear view could be seen all the way down to the construction work on the new harbour at Kep and we drove past the giant, painted statue of a local boddhitsava on our ascent. As we neared the top, the temperature plummeted and we were shrouded in a wet mist which made leisurely driving more challenging. At a new roundabout, we encountered a boxy showroom for “Bokor Masterplan Showcase Development Center”. Regrouping in the car park, we decided to check it out.
Inside was a scale model of the development plans laid out in a forty-foot square. Brochure stacks were positioned at the corners. Before us was the representation of what Bokor Mountain would look like in a few years. Despite the protected status of this National Park land, little model homes were pasted across the top in devastating plasticard grids, replete with a cable-car scarring one side of the mountain down from the giant casino to the anticipated golf course.
Sickened by the audacity and pride the authorities had in destroying their own countryside, we surged onwards on our little vehicles. The mist revealed a huge, beige box with a large lobby: the casino and hotel, AKA Stage One. In our muddy boots, we strolled past confused little attendants in waistcoats or pencil skirts on to the fresh carpets. Immediately, I felt as though I had been shrunk and tossed into the model. Everything around me was too clean; too new; too empty. Even the well-dressed little hosts and hostesses seemed unsure of their exact roles, as though they were in a dress rehearsal for a performance.
After an average meal, we went in search of the remains of King Sihanouk’s royal villa. Today however, it is crumbling (much like its former owner). The shell of the Colonial-Era Grand Hotel has been gutted by developers, who are keen to turn it into a “character” resort for all the happy Chinese and Korean Gamblers, who were the only non-government characters we saw up there and the supposed target customer for the development masterplan.
A newly-paved b-road ended abruptly in a crumbling archway: we were here. Where the dirt trail ended, we dismounted from our trusty steeds and stepped the slimed stones across the mud at the entrance to the old buildings. The mist poured in the old doorways and where the windows might have been and the fashionable, patterned tiles of the 1960s gave clues to a large shower and bath block. Taps and sockets marked the place as being at the cutting edge of technology for the era, though now faded or bitten by elemental rust. The nearby church still had the scars and pitted holes of the KR-NVA firefight and there was a great, haunted feel to the place. The mist had scared the package tourists away, so we were able to absorb our surroundings uninterrupted and take some really great photos of this monument to a once glorious name and time.
After an incredible sunset descent on the sharp corners of the mountain road, it felt very satisfying to have seen a piece of Cambodian history before mass-development (literally) eradicates it forever.
That night at Bodhi, we asked Joss, the owner, if she knew any special places to go the next day. They all sounded good, but one place, “White Mountain”, sounded a little different:
‘There’s supposed to be a witch up at the top, but no one’s been there for absolutely ages. If you’re up for it?’
I didn’t need encouraging.