The bad part first: we rented motorbikes. I had never driven one before, but was quickly taught by a guy who didn’t even have his license. Then we drove them all day, and after dark. Without lights. I dropped mine. And then drove it into a barbed wire fence. Sorry, mom.
But then there is the good part: against all odds, we came out unscathed! And next time I will be more careful, I promise. So with that out of the way, here is what $5 and 24-hours on a motorbike will get you in southern Cambodia!
Kampot on the coast
The town of Kampot in the south of Cambodia is one of those classic places that travellers get ‘stuck’ – showing up with plans for two nights and staying two weeks. After five days here I can see why. I am considering doing the same myself. It is cosy and calm, but with the background din that is quintessentially Cambodian.
There are sights, but no one is in a huge rush to see them – quite the opposite of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. The expat community brings with it decent coffee shops and a ‘no hurry’ attitude, unlike the ‘see it, party and get out!’ feeling of Koh Rong, my previous stop.
But on day one I was with a couple of other travellers who I met on the mini-bus the day before, and they only had one full day in Kampot, so we made the most of it.
Let’s go! With motos in hand, the first stop is to fill up (naturally they come with an empty tank). For every litre of petrol we bought we got a free packet of cookies. Here is my pink moto (yeah.. and I even got a matching pink helmet..) and my fluffy rice cookies.
Phnom Chhngok: temple in a cave
Our first stop was the Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple to the north of town. After about 45 minutes on dirt roads, a couple wrong turns and a small debate about crossing a thin bamboo bridge on the motos (even we realised how stupid this would be..) we made it.
We paid our $1 entry fee, and after mounting a couple of hundred stairs we entered the cave and spotted the bat-ridden temple.
Earlier visitors had left offerings to the spirits. I guess the sprits are smokers?
The cave was only the tip of the iceberg though, it seems the limestone caves were riddled with caverns and vacant spaces. Being good travellers, two of the three of us just happened to have our headlamps in our pockets (a never-travel-without-it item). The Dutch guy, Jasper, decided to disappear into one of the gaps in the cave wall, in hopes that it might lead somewhere. It was a deep, winding space – perhaps the former living space of a monk? – but his common sense soon got the best of him and he crawled back out.
And as quickly as it arrived our collective common sense flew away with the bats darting overhead. We saw some local guides leading another group of tourists into the next cavern and we followed after. It was a total death trap. One loose stone could have easily resulted in a tumble into the abyss. I don’t think it will be freely open for much longer. Again: sorry, mom,
We shimmied and slid our way through the space, alternately tight tunnels and open grottos. The guides pointed out the high water marks, where the space filled up in the rainy season. Eventually we popped out right next to the entrance, having dropped the equivalent of the 200 or so stairs we had climbed earlier.
At one point it opened up, with a little bit of light from above:
Back on the motorbikes it seemed like perhaps the most dangerous portion of the day had concluded. Perhaps.
We sped off in a cloud of red dust, passing duck-filled canals and water buffalo grazing in the fields. After a wrong turn I stopped into a little hut-shop and bought a litre of petrol in a reused Coke bottle. I also learned my second Khmer word: breng (petrol).
After a quick stop for refreshments and a laze in a hammock next to the Secret Lake (Tomnop Tek Krolar), which is apparently a man-made feature from the Khmer Rouge era, we continued onwards towards Kampot’s famed pepper fields.
Unlike the pepper fields in India, where the vines crawl up and around rubber trees and coffee bushes that are interspersed with cardamom plants, the Cambodian version is a serious monoculture. The creepers twist their ways around what looks like a field of brick smokestacks.
We of course had to have a little sample, and as expect the green pepper-corns were fresh and spicy. Just a little chew was enough before we spit them back out.
Along the side of the field I did a bit more botanizing and found some papaya trees, as well as these flowers covered in ants! I had also seen them in fields as we were driving earlier: but what are they?
We headed up the hill, where a fancy but vacant restaurant was perched overlooking the fields. The man at the counter chatted with us about pepper types, and eventually I pulled out my camera to get an ID on these blossoms. Turns out they are the famed durian – the smelliest fruit of them all! The full grown fruit, which are larger than a basketball, will be ready for harvest in May.
A little crabby in Kep
Midday had come and gone, and it was time to fill our bellies with the other regional speciality: crab! We turned our noses back in the direction of the sea and jetted down to Kep, where we found the seafood market. We wandered the stalls and peeked into the crab traps as they were pulled from the water.
The other two (Dutch and Swiss) had never had crab in their lives, so they gave it a shot. Having grown up in crab-country I had the sense to take one look at the little crabs and deduce that the minuscule amount of meat from the crab probably wouldn’t be worth the effort it took to retrieve it.
Tina was a good sport about it, but Jasper was less impressed and spent most of the time dissecting his crab instead (typical scientist…).
As they ate their crab I watched the sun sink into the sea – a little nervously since we still had a 30 km ride home. Back at the bikes I discovered my front light was non-functional. Not surprising, since my speedometer didn’t operate either, but still a little scary on Cambodian roads.
The trip home was nerve-racking, but we survived. I drove a short distance behind Jasper for the entire trip, and between our mini-convoy and the relatively traffic-free roads of the south all turned out well. But next time I’ll be heading home long before sunset.
Back at the guesthouse we had a few Cambodia beers while Tina booked her flight down to Singapore.
Salt of the Earth
The motorbikes didn’t need to be returned till 10 the next morning, so we were up and off at 7.30 for a just-after-sunrise spin around the vast flats where salt is harvested nearby. Even at that early hour the fields were bustling. Dozens of people were raking the sodium-chloride diamonds into piles, while others scooped them into pairs of baskets, carried over the shoulders, and transported the mounds into storehouses.
The flooded ponds of seawater are allowed to dehydrate in the scorching sun, leaving behind only these white crystals. The salt collection looked like gruelling and thankless work: hours spent wading in salty water and carrying heavy tools. I wondered if these piles would eventually end up on the shelves of QFC in Kirkland, or ICA in Sweden – where they will be sold for pennies and dimes.
Finally we made our way back to town, dropped off the bikes and headed to the market for our morning noodles. After that I returned to the guesthouse for yet another shower – I think it will take a week to finally get all of the red dirt off of myself. But until then at least it looks a bit like a tan.
Total cost for the day:
- Motorbike rental: $5
- Petrol: $4
- Entry to temple: $1
- Afternoon fruit drink: $1
- One crab plus rice at Kep market: $1.25