Saturday, 15 February 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 20. KAMPOT



13/02/03: Breakfast at Sunset Restaurant; minibus to Kampot; book into Mealy Chenda Guesthouse; O is there!

14/02/03: O leaves; Bokor National Park with the rest; dinner back at guesthouse; Little Garden for drinks – many drinks.

Accommodation is reasonably priced in Cambodia and generally of a very high standard, but transport works out at about four times the amount one expects to pay in Thailand or Laos. Considering Cambodia’s infrastructure is not nearly as advanced as the former, it's a bit of a rum deal. Despite this it is still well worth the $13 it takes to see Bokor National Park. Resting on the edge of a plateau some 1000 metres above sea level there nestles a ruined town that was once the playground for French colonists, before it was evacuated around the time of the Khmer uprising. The view of the surrounding Cambodian coastline is impressive, to say the least. The feeder town for such a jaunt is Kampot. Once renowned for its high quality pepper, there is little now that singles it out. Despite its commercial isolation, the residents are by no means hostile, and walking the dimly lit streets at night is akin to finding yourself on the set of the 80's horror flick Vamp.


I’d started my day with breakfast at Sunset Restaurant. So far, the food in Cambodia was proving to be most agreeable: of a satisfactory standing, reasonably priced, from menus that offered much choice.
One couldn’t really complain about the standard of accommodation either. The two places at which we’d taken up residence thus far had televisions (not that we used them), their own bathrooms and wall-to-wall tiled floors. In this respect, these commodious lodgings were more akin to what had been available in Laos, but blessed with a patina that insinuated they’d been built more recently. This, coupled with our hosts’ somewhat stand-offish manner, indicated to me that tourism of our sort was a relatively new phenomenon here.

And so on to Kampot. It might stretch the imagination a bit, comparing south-western Cambodia to Somerset, but it is the flat plains of the North Somerset Levels that come to mind when driving from one Cambodian range to the next. Taking National Highway Number 3, arching around Veal Rinh Bay, Bokor National Park looms larger as we approach it, and Somerset’s Mendips are found wanting in comparison.
Welsh L is making an effort not to get caught up in the transport/accommodation loop again and quite insists that we’re to be taken directly to Mealy Chenda Guesthouse, an old colonial French villa recommended in his guidebook. It’s a good choice: the garden is set at the back of the building, as opposed to directly overlooking the street, and the rooms are furnished to a very high standard – they’ve even gone to the trouble of providing doilies. What’s more, O, who had left Kho Chang the day before we did, is present and in high spirits.
We have given ourselves one day and two nights to exploit this modest town. Here, if you didn’t know any better, you could be forgiven for thinking that the country was still at war. The place is dusty and dirty, and there are derelict buildings and there are ruins, making me suddenly very aware of the troubles visited upon this state during the course of the last 30 years. I walk a nervous block or so in search of bottled water – a daily task – and I attract surprisingly little attention. I should explore further and so take opportunity to peruse the indoor market across the street with F, who’s on the look-out for some sort of peace offering to placate K whom he inadvertently offended whilst playing cards the night before (after losing his hand, he called her a ‘bitch’ in mock indignation, and she was not appreciative – I guess some things are lost in translation). I’m still wary of my surroundings, although I like the faded colonial tenements I notice about town, reminiscent of those older buildings in Vientiane – expect with added neglect and a hint of misery.
Our motivation for stopping off in Kampot is to explore Bokor National Park. Insurmountable by the foot, one has to take a 4x4 to its heights so as to appreciate the full majesty of the view it affords. O has been there already and can confirm it’s worth the bother. Located 8 km west of Kampot, it’s then a farther 32 km up Bokor’s steep slopes to reach the summit. It’s an organised tour setting you back about 20 dollars, and for that you’re also taken for a trek through the surrounding jungle. I say jungle – and they say jungle – but the foliage isn’t typically tropical. There aren’t half the palms there are in Thailand and, like in Laos, there’s a lot less humidity. Apparently, the walk follows in the footsteps of the Khmer Rouge, who hid out here during the infighting. Stray from the path and there’s the mild risk of stepping on unexploded ordnance. Tigers also inhabit this plateau but they only really show themselves at night, or so we’re told.
We didn’t come to traipse through the local woodland, though. We came to see the remains of the Bokor Hill Station and accompanying utilities, all now abandoned. The French put all this stuff here so they had somewhere to take refuge from the heat, and to enjoy themselves whilst they did so. They built a casino, a hotel, a chapel, and even a post office.  Inside the ruins of Bokor’s hotel there’s little evidence of what we are assured was once an opulent interior – just graffiti and crumbling plaster. These buildings are mere shells now but one is free to explore the many floors of this sad curiosity, and from the balconies you can survey this strange place at your leisure. The sense of death and melancholy is almost palpable – and there’s a retired gun emplacement, for the Vietnamese had it out here against the Khmer Rouge. Bullet holes, liberally spread over the weather beaten concrete, also testify to this.
It is the view out over the lower lying land and the Gulf of Thailand I like best, and the tree-covered hillside that leads the eye down towards it. Looking out to sea, I swear I can define the curvature of the Earth.

Our drinking has settled down of late: steady but not overly inebriating, the last blast worthy of mention was five days ago now. Tonight we will rectify this. It is a Friday.
After eating at our guesthouse, out of convenience as much as anything else, we head to the Little Garden overlooking the river, an establishment owned by the only living westerner in Kampot (or at least the only bar run by a westerner, pandering to backpackers and open long enough to satisfy our needs). An Italian by birth, he’s a nice guy, and we drink there until late.
About half way through the evening the smokers among us run out of things to smoke. Our Italian friend doesn’t sell tobacco, which seems odd for a place like his. In a fairly excitable state of mind, I offer to accompany Welsh L in search of nicotine-based solutions.
You’d think that Kampot was subject to a curfew of sorts: the streets are virtually deserted and the 80s light-horror flick Vamp encroaches on my mind. If I wasn’t half-cut, and if Welsh L wasn’t so unflappable, I wouldn’t feel entirely safe wandering around town at such a late hour. It’s more than just the virtual dereliction that bothers me; aside from the scary dog, I felt pretty safe when faced with a similar predicament in Nong Kai. It’s something about Cambodia itself: an eeriness and a suspicious silence about the place very different to that I found in some of Thailand’s cultural backwaters.
After wandering Kampot’s grid system for five minutes or so, Welsh L and I think we see a shop of sorts ahead of us. It’s more of a kiosk, actually, selling the regular consumables that people in these parts must regularly consume: soft drinks, toilet roll, petrol, tinned fish, and tobacco. We gesture that we’re looking for cigarettes and are pointed in the direction of a blind man. This cataracts-afflicted gentleman effortlessly sifts through our change and hands us over the appropriate number of packs, whilst his friend tries to communicate something to us in his native tongue – we haven’t a clue what. I hear a queer giggle emanating from over my right shoulder and turn around to observe a young, naked man rocking back and forth on the edge of the pavement (possibly starving and hysterical, and certainly destroyed by madness).
On the opposing side of the street women sit and talk; children play in the road in-between. In an open building behind the kiosk older men sit and play cards, an old television hazing from a shelf attached high up on the wall. It’s like we’ve walked onto a film set for David Lynch’s latest picture, and with all the weirdness that one might associate with that.


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