From the land of pepper, plum wine, and wild boars

Trip Start Jan 16, 2006
Trip End May 21, 2006

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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

After six relaxing days in Sihanoukville, I made my way down to Kampot in an attempt to get to Ho Chi Minh City without backtracking to Phnom Penh. Although it's possible to go from Sihanoukville directly to Vietnam by private car, it seemed too much to try to do in one go and since I'd heard that Kampot is a quiet former French colonial town, it sounded like a nice way to break up the journey. I got a "share" taxi, which means a car with as many people can fit in it, along with Paul from Scotland and six locals. The car soon swelled to 8 people, then 10, and at one point it was up to 12, as we picked up and dropped people off on our way. As our driver was only going half way to Kampot, we got another car-this time private, which means there's a limit to the passengers-midway in a dusty little village. Once we were well away from Sihanoukville, the traffic disappeared and the road turned to red dirt, but fortunately without potholes and rocks.
Kampot is a charming, sleepy town that has a few tourists, but not the scene of Sihanoukville. A few miles from the coast, it is a former French colonial trading town at the foot of the Elephant Mountains. The town looks French, from the old shop houses on the riverfront to the circular layout of the streets, from an obelisk in the center of a traffic circle to an old Art Deco movie theater. Kampot is best known for pepper and plum wine production, and wild boars, though it seems doubtful that there are many of these around today. Women carry wooden tubes dangling from bamboo poles, filled with homemade plum wine, on their way to the market in morning and the children seem to take endless pleasure in shouting 'hello' to the foreigners. Unlike Phnom Penh, they are just having fun and not trying to sell you something. In the hills above Kampot is the abandoned French hill station of Bokor and to the south is Kep, once the seaside resort of the French elite, later taken over by the Khmer Rouge and then virtually destroyed by the Vietnamese when they invaded. I didn't make it down to Kep, but I heard that it may be poised for a renaissance, as Cambodia's coast becomes more developed for tourism. Many of the colonial villas there are abandoned, just waiting for a developer.
I decided to take a day trip up to the Bokor hill station which at one time had a population of 10,000 when the French were still here. I joined a group of foreigners from other guest houses in town, accompanied by a local guide, and we headed up the steep and extremely rough road in an SUV. The hill that Bokor sits on is now a national park and our guide claimed that there are even wild elephants and tigers still living there. It is large enough and so overgrown with plants and trees, that it seems entirely possible. The only animal we saw, apart from birds, was a large python hanging from a tree branch on our way down.
Bokor is on top of the Elephant Mountains at 1,070 meters (not sure what that is in feet but it's high) with Kampot a few miles to the south. It looks out over the sea and in the distance you can see Phu Quoc island, which is a part of Vietnam. Due to its location, it's often foggy or enshrouded with clouds. The French built it in the 1920s to escape the heat below and it must have been spectacular in its heyday. Complete with several hotels, a casino, a church, houses, and shops, it now is just a shell of what it once was. After the French cleared out in the 1960s, it was completely uninhabited until the Khmer Rouge took it over as a strategic defense post and prison. The main hotel is reputed to be haunted with the ghosts of Khmer Rouge victims who were thrown over the cliff from the hotel's terrace. It must have been spectacular in its day; now it's downright creepy.
After an extremely painful ride in the SUV, we got out and walked the rest of the way through an abandoned tea plantation to the top. Like a lot of things in Cambodia, Bokor is also about to be resurrected. Our guide told us that a South Korean company had bought Bokor (I guess it's not part of the national park) and were planning to completely re-do the road up the mountain and renovate the haunted hotel, turning it into some sort of luxury resort, later this year. Another place I saw just in time.
There are no known photos of Bokor in the old days, just some scenes from King Sihanouk's films. The King was an actor and made seven films, some of them filmed at Bokor. His films always won top prize at Cambodia's film festivals. Wonder why.
The Bokor trip ended with a brief stop at a local swimming hole and rapids before we boarded a boat down the river back to Kampot.
The next day I tried to figure out how to get to Vietnam without having to hire a taxi by myself or go back to Phnom Penh. I had overheard a couple on my Bokor trip talking about going to Vietnam next but as I was under the impression that share taxis were readily available in Kampot, I didn't think to ask them if they wanted to go together. As so few people cross into Vietnam at Chau Doc, there are no share taxis from Kampot, but the good thing about Kampot being so small, is that I ran into Dan and Amy at an internet cafe. They weren't going to Vietnam until Friday, but rather than go on my own, I decided to wait another day in Kampot. In the end, I spent more time in Cambodia than I had planned, lulled by the country's relaxed pace and sunshine.
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