It can be liberating to start a trip from the coast; especially if it’s December and you’re escaping the cold winter in the northeast of The United States and going to lounge on a sunny beach on the other side of the world. It’s also a great place to get in the ‘personal freedom’ mindset before setting out on the rest of my trip.
But as I came to find in Sihanoukville, some coasts can be fun for a few days, until the seediness of backpacker beach bars and fire raves starts to wear on the travel spirit. After my friends had left from our New Years celebration and I was on my own, I stuffed my day pack and hopped on a ferry to Koh Rong Samleom to kick off the next phase of my trip.
2 JANUARY 2017 | KOH RONG SAMLEOM, CAMBODIA
The ferry pulls up to the island and I hop off to cross the pier. After getting away from the ferry crowd, the main beach in Saracen Bay opens up into a long stretch of resorts and bungalows. I settle at one of the resort bars to ask about any must do things activities on the island. The lighthouse hike (which only takes two hours) comes highly recommended. My bartender, an older Khmer woman, points down to the far end of the beach where the trail starts. The walk across the beach is stunning and sparsely populated with the exception of honeymooners lounging in front of the resorts and a few other backpackers who have the same idea as me. I’m told that the neighboring island of Koh Rong has a much bigger party scene, so if it’s quiet you’re looking for, make sure your ferry ticket goes to Koh Rong Samleom.
When I reach the other side of the beach, I stop inside a bungalow to leave my day pack behind the bar. In exchange, I promise that I’ll buy a smoothie on my way back. After lacing up my shoes, I set off on the jungle trail towards to the south end of the island. There are a few moments where a fork in the path makes me wish I had asked for directions but each time my instincts lead me the right way.
At the top of the hill, where the path ends, there is a lighthouse. An old man rolls out of his hammock to tell me that I must pay a dollar to go up. A nearby sign tells me this is the price for everyone so I don’t bother haggling for a cheaper rate. I ascend the rickety ladder to discover the 360° view of the island. From this vantage point, I am able to get my bearings of the island. I can spot the beach that I came from as well as several other patches of sand including a west facing beach. After snapping a few pictures, I start back down the rickety ladder and head back down the path. On the way, I pass on directions to the next people scratching their heads at the aforementioned forks in the path.
When I get back down to the bungalow I order my coconut chocolate smoothie, as I had promised the owner and I take a swim in the water to cool off. It’s about 4 in the afternoon and the sun is just passing over the tree tops across island. I remember that from the lighthouse I had seen another beach on the west side of the island and knowing the sun will start setting soon, I race back through the jungle to find the other side before dark. I make it to the appropriately name “Lazy Beach” just in time and settle into a hammock to catch my first (properly facing) sunset on the continent. I’m not sure how much a career in ‘Sunset Chasing’ pays, but I’m padding my resume in case I decide to return to the workforce. I make some friends on the dock and we swim in the bay as twilight turns to dark. A nearby resort serves some great dinner before I take a night hike back through the jungle to the main bay.
Despite my efforts in asking around in Lazy Beach and the main bay, I had not found accommodations yet as every resort and bungalow was either fully booked or over my budget. I make my way back to the bungalow with the smoothies and offer a few dollars to allow me sleep on one of the porch hammocks. After establishing our smoothie rapport, he refuses my money but graciously allows me to use a hammock and lockbox for the night. I settle in to listen to the waves as the tides recedes. I can see the lights in each of the resorts’ bedroom going off one by one. I close my eyes feeling satisfied with my first solo day in Cambodia… and I’ll definitely buy another smoothie in the morning.
3 JANUARY 2017 | KAMPOT, CAMBODIA
I still couldn’t get over our last dinner in Sihanoukville. It had been my first experience in Khmer cuisine and I was wanting to learn more about the delicious fresh peppercorns. I decided it was worth a side trip to Kampot before going to Siem Reap. I also felt fairly confident that Ankgor Wat would still be there next week (it has been pretty consistent for the past 800+ years).
After returning to Sihanoukville from Koh Rong Samleom to get my bag, I had arranged a minibus to Kampot. On the bus I sit next to a Khmer boy named who is eager to practice English with me. I share my mango with him as we hold up fingers and teach each other the corresponding English and Khmer numbers (“Muay, bi, bai, buon, bram…”)
When we finally arrive to Kampot, I take a short walk from the bus stop and check into my hostel. I had booked a single night in a rooftop hammock at a dirtcheap rate with not much of an idea what was around the city other than a peppercorn tour. Business is fairly slow in the hostel, with only two others staying on the roof and three open bedrooms inside. I spend my first hour there chatting with the owner Lance and bartender Charlie. Charlie had previously come to Kampot for a single night on his trip around Cambodia and ended up staying for 10 nights. Lance took a liking to him and his musical taste (Sinatra had been playing at the bar when I walked in) and offered him a job in the hostel if he decided to come back. He came back a few months later and will stay in Kampot for about 5 months. After our conversation, I decide that I’ll spend a few nights in Kampot to see what keeps people here for so long. Rather than paying in cash, I reach into my bag and pull out a bottle of tequila left over from our New Years in Sihanoukville and hand it to Lance. I had been saving it without any plans of what to do with it (drink it, perhaps?) but the bar here in Kampot seemed like the right place for the bottle. Lance says I could take any of the private rooms downstairs and stay a few nights at no cost.
That night spend most of my time at the bar because of the increasingly interesting waves of expats and locals that are coming through. It also doesn’t hurt that the beer is cheap and (for me) tequila shots are free. One of the stand out expats is a Brit, seemingly in his early 50s, missing more than half the buttons on his shirt, has a massive lump over his right eye, and keeps telling me that he’ll be arrested if he ever goes back home. I’ll leave his name out just in case he’s telling the truth. He tells a long story about his months selling lychee fruit from a cart in the rice paddies and I still can’t tell if he’s telling the truth. As the night goes, the keg gets replaced and the music bounces between motown, funk, and rock and roll. In a musical highlight of the evening, Charlie introduces all of the Western guests to 60s Khmer rock and roll.
4 JANUARY 2017 | KAMPOT, CAMBODIA
Today is tour day.
I typically like to explore a new place on my own but for the right price, a tour can save a lot of time in trying to find the right places to visit and give some more historical or cultural context too. Last night at the bar I was able to get tips on all the places to visit in Kampot and one of the expats was able to call a local to arrange the tour.
I get picked up before nine in a van with a few other travelers and we head straight out to Bokor National Park. The drive is stunning as we head up the mountains. At the top of our drive we come to Lok Yeay Mao, the seated guardian who watches over the fishermen. At 29 meters, she is the tallest in the country. Further on, we visit the old casino and Christian church. Both were built at the beginning of the 20th century and had their periods of prosperity before they were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Our guide keeps referring to the area as ‘ghost town’.
In the afternoon, I get to see the plants that led me to Kampot; our driver takes us to La Plantation for a tour of the peppercorn farm. Rows and rows of the world famous peppercorn grow on the vines and are being picked by women working on the farm. Our guide is able to teach all about the harvest and drying process.
Most pepper comes from the same plant which is always green to start. As the peppercorns ripen, they will turn red. Depending on when they are harvested and dried, you can get different flavor profiles. Red is much milder with some fruit notes and great for desserts. If the pepper is boiled before being dried and peeled, you can also affect the taste. Boiled and dried red peppercorns yield white pepper while green yields black (the most familiar flavor for westerners). We get to taste all of this pepper along with long peppercorns, caviar pepper, and so called ‘Bird Pepper’. Birds will eat the sweet red peppercorns once they ripen. Their enzymatic digestion process gives the pepper a much rounder flavor profile not dissimilar to the beans in Kopi Luwak (civet poop coffee). The sun is setting on the way back to the hostel but we have time for one last stop: the salt fields. Come to Kampot and your will never be without fresh seasoning.
5 JANUARY 2017 | KAMPOT, CAMBODIA
Another day of exploration around the city but today on my own.
I rent a motorbike to cruise around the surrounding areas since individual rides will add up too quickly. First I drive to Phnom Chhngok, a cave temple just 30 minutes outside of town. Entrance fee is $1 and a small tip to give one of boys outside who can guide you through the cave. This is pre-Angkor era, built in the 7th century, with a small temple dedicated to Shiva and some animal shaped natural features that were worshipped even longer ago in the age of Animism. I am lucky enough to have brought my headlamp and since it is dry season, we are able to descend even lower into the cave, through a few tunnels to discover the bats and some underground lakes.
I ride my bike past the rice paddies, back out to the main road and head towards the neighboring town named Kep. In Kep, I park near a beach side market and wander through. Spices and sights of freshly cooked seafood bombard the senses. At the dock I lean over to see women pulling crabs out of their cages. For a dollar, I buy a half kilo of crabs that come straight out of a cage and go into a plastic bag. Another dollar to one of the women in the market and she tosses them in a wok with onions, chili, and of course, fresh peppercorns.
After lunch by the dock I spend the rest of the afternoon cruising around Kep to see the strange abandoned streets with French colonial streets. As I finally ride back to Kampot, I finally understand what keeps everyone here for so long. It’s not the easiest reason to explain in words and doesn’t have so much to do with the list of attractions I’ve mentioned but if you have the chance to visit, I think you’ll understand too.