|Our Really Big Adventure|
| We were ready to
leave Cambodia. We had seen the wonders of Angkor Wat, and the horrors of
the Killing Fields. Day-to-day life in Cambodia lacked the charm of Laos,
the ease of Thailand and the affordability of almost anywhere wed
been. But just as we made up our minds to go, our interest was piqued by
the small town of Kampot.
The sleepy riverside town sounded attractive in itself, but the real draw lay nearby. A former French hillstation, abandoned completely in the turbulence of 1970s Cambodia, decayed slowly on a clifftop overlooking the coast. Tropical rains had washed away the road that rose from the plain, and few now made the arduous climb to the ghost town.
We were intrigued, and from the moment we reached Kampot, we were glad wed changed our minds. The broad, quiet streets were a refreshing contrast to the mayhem of Phnom Penh, and even the communist-era hotels seemed welcoming. A stroll around town took us past parks, traditional two-storey shophouses and colonial villas to the river, where we sat down to admire the view.
We had hardly taken the weight off our feet when we were joined by a clutch of schoolboys. We were on our guard to begin with, having had some unpleasant experiences with people just wanting to practice their English, but we need not have worried. These kids really did just want to chat. Tourists in Kampot were thin on the ground and opportunities to converse with native English speakers were valued. Most of the boys seemed to have made it no further than page 4 or 5 in the phrasebook. Repetition was inevitable as each took his turn asking How many brothers and sisters do you have?, What is your profession? and Do you like Cambodia?. Those with a more extensive command of the language were quick to pursue questions that interested them, quizzing us as to why we were not married and had no children.
Wherever we went in Kampot we were welcomed, not for the dollars in our pockets as in Siem Reap, but for what we signified. Its only in the last couple of years that tourists in Cambodia have dared to venture beyond Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and the small but growing trickle of tourists reaching Kampot is seen by local people as proof that Cambodia has turned a corner and better things lie ahead.
Early the next morning we set off on the backs of our guides mopeds for the long and bumpy journey to Bokor Hill Station. The road wound through the jungle for mile after mile over mud, rubble, streams and the odd surviving patch of tarmac. As we ascended, the landscape began to change, with lush vegetation giving way to rockier terrain and gnarled trees bearing sparser foliage, almost reminiscent of an Irish hillside.
As the morning wore on, we were enveloped in mist and grey clouds, at times reducing our visibility to almost nothing. When we finally reached the town itself, it was shrouded in fog and felt eerie and mysterious as the black shapes of abandoned buildings loomed up at us out of the mist.
In its heyday, the Bokor Palace hotel and casino was the heart of Bokor town. The shell of the building still stands solid, and visitors can wander through its labyrinthine corridors, picnic on one of its many balconies and admire the remnants of the art deco tiling in the ballroom. All the windows and doors are long gone, allowing wind to whistle through and rain to form pools on the floors. Wiring has been ripped out of the walls, sanitary fittings pulled from the floor, and anything of any value has been long removed and sold as scrap. But despite all that is gone, it is easy to get a feeling for this building as it once was, to picture men in tuxedos playing roulette and ladies lounging on verandas with cigarette holders in their white gloved hands.
The church still stands, but all that remains intact is the acoustics. A flower grows from the deconsecrated altar, the arched window is broken and the wall covered in graffiti, but if you shut your eyes and sing, the sound reverberates like any church in any place. Beside the church, in an alarming juxtaposition, lies the remains of a huge gun, installed by the Khmer Rouge to shell the Vietnamese on the island of Phu Quoc, just offshore.
If Bokor is protected from a tourist onslaught by its terrible road, Kampots alternative tourist getaway, the seaside resort of Kep, has a less tangible but perhaps ultimately more effective protection: its beaches simply arent that good. In this lies its charm no beach bars, loungers, or bikini-clad lovelies occupy the seafront at Kep. Instead a collection of roadside shacks offer delicious fish lunches to daytripping families from Phnom Penh. The atmosphere is more Brittas Bay than Bali, and the few foreign tourists who make it there spend their time paddling, watching the fishermen and eating freshly grilled squid, seemingly willing to dispense with the usual trappings of a South East Asian beach resort.
We could have spent a lot more time in and around Kampot, but Phnom Penh and Siem Reap had drained our stock of dollars, and Kampot, where the internet café boasts a single PC and the banks dont even change travellers cheques, was no place to replenish them.