The nearest place following the border crossing into Cambodia from Vietnam is the often over looked seaside town of Kep. It is a favourite with Khmer (Cambodian) tourists who flock to its lovely beach and frolic, fully clothed in the sea all weekend. The town consists of Kep beach and the Crab Market, which serves freshly caught seafood and the famous Kep Crab. It was a lovely welcome into the Khmer culture, we were greeted with hellos by local kids everywhere we walked, who enjoy practising their English at every opportunity. It was an ideal place to get to grips with a new currency, in Cambodia they use US Dollar and Riel. There are 4000r to $1, most things are priced in dollar but change is given in Riel. So a banana shake that is priced $1.50 is 6000r, if you give $2 you get 2000r change. Having both grown up benefiting from a metric monetary system, we found it a little tricky at first, particularly as we were still thinking in Vietnamese Dong and GB£.
Kep’s real heyday was during the 1960’s, as a luxury resort for the high flyers of Phnom Penh. During the Khmer Rouge era the opulent villas which lined the coast line were viewed as a sign of capitalism and all that was wrong with Khmer society. They were looted and left to rot. Whilst Kep is seeing some what of a renaissance, it is still haunted by its past. The old ruined villas dominate the landscape, reminding visitors of the not so distant past, when excess gave way to extremism, capitalism to communism, democracy to death.
The Kep national park which surrounds the town, is small in comparison to other such areas in Cambodia therefore often skipped by visitors, but not us! After a hearty buffet breakfast at a top notch resort we set off on a short trek into the national park. There was an easy 8km trail which surrounded the park, we thought we would circumnavigate it during the coolness of the morning and appreciate the wildlife. We saw lizards, colourful birds, strange red bugs and hundreds of beautiful butterflies. The path was clearly sign posted and Sian was in her element when we noticed a quiz, leading us through each kilometre. There are also monkeys in the national park, but we saw plenty of these feasting on the discarded crab and fruit along the road side the previous evening.
At some point we got cocky. We decided to follow a path into the centre of the national park. To the second highest peak. The path was clearly sign posted as dangerous. For experienced walkers only. Having been walking since around the age of one, we figured we had 56 years of walking experience between us. We would be fine. So we began our ascent into the jungle.
The path was steep, with large tree roots and rocks all around, easy at first, but gradually it became much more difficult. Our walk became a cat crawl, which in turn became a climb. We held on to trees, boulders and roots as we heaved ourselves up rock faces. Luckily at the most difficult points there were ropes to hold onto and the trees were painted so we could find our way through the dense jungle. As we looked down at each other from each ten foot sheer cliff face we had scaled, with just a tattered rope for support, our confidence in our walking ability dwindled. Had this been in the western world, we would have most likely had a guide and most definitely had a harness, helmet and climbing set up. However this was Cambodia, we had none of that and it would be harder to turn back than to carry on, so we persevered. After blood, sweat and almost tears we eventually arrived at the summit, which consisted of a bench and a small sign. We followed a few more signs through the jungle, ran out of water and got well and truly lost. Just when we were beginning to panic, we emerged, seeing a road in the distance. We followed it for what seemed like forever until we found a house selling water and downed a bottle each speedily. Continuing along the road we came to a junction with a main road, it was midday, the sun was beating down on our dehydrated bodies and we glimpsed the mirage of a swimming pool. Happy to let our minds lead us, we were pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be real! We spent a few leisurely hours swimming and cooling off from our trek before finding the road back to Kep.
Later that afternoon we took a bus on to Kampot, a riverside town around half an hour away from Kep. Kampot has a relaxed vibe to it with little to do other than relax by the river or visit the near by Bokor Hill Station. By night fall the fatigue from our trek was beginning to set in, we ached in muscles we never knew we had. We decided to spend two days recovering in the sleepy town. During that time we strolled around, taking in sights such as the old cinema building.
We also spent an entire day eating at a local NGO cafe. Cambodia has an abundance of charitable NGOs working with disabled people, street kids, trafficked women and other in need groups. The aim of most is to create training opportunities and sustainable employment for the people it assists. Kampot is host to the Epic Arts Cafe, which employs deaf and disabled young people and trains them in hospitality and catering. Above the cafe is a gallery where arts and craft workshops take place, with the items being displayed and sold in the cafe. Aside from the excellent cause, modern environment and friendly staff, the Epic Arts Cafe served some of the best food we have eaten whilst travelling at a very reasonable price. Including the largest bowl of fruit yoghurt and muesli know to man. This widely sought after and often disappointing dish is a popular breakfast for travellers. It will usually be the most expensive dish on the menu and often be served as a child size portion. Epic Arts Cafe did it right by serving it in a gigantic rice bowl for just $3. Obviously we decided to return for lunch and we were very happy with that decision!