Phnom Penh – Sihanouk Ville – Kep – Phnom Penh
Kingdom of Cambodia
We entered the Kingdom of Cambodia on 19 November, crossing the border from Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.
The immigration set-up resembled Old MacDonald’s forgotten farm buildings. The Khmer bureaucrats showed their love for rubber stamps and stickers with lots of meticulous stamping, stapling and scrutinising. Eventually our passports got even more decorations and our entry to Cambodia was secured.
We headed straight to Phnom Penh and the backpacker area called Boeng Kak – this is basically a few alleys full of wooden shack bars and guesthouses overlooking a polluted lake with tons of rubbish plus a few sheep milling around.
It is a prime development area as the sunsets from the lake are sublime – we doubt that budget travellers will still be here in a few years time as it is pretty obvious from all the construction work that package holiday makers/tour groups are the market they want – people who come for 2 weeks and spend tons, fair enough.
Similar to Vietnam except Cambodia is in the process of selling out to the Japanese (who run key tourist sites like Angkor Wat) and Americans – the US $ is the main currency here, much more widely used than the Riel, and what the ATM’s dispense.
We booked into an ancient multi-tiered wooden shack on stilts overlooking the lake called Floating Island Guesthouse. It was minging (ripped up lino floor, leaky sink, holes in the walls, rats etc), but cheap and very chilled out. We managed one night, sleeping in our silk liner for fear of bed bugs. The next day, we got ourselves a $2 upgrade to a place around the corner with proper walls!
At the Floating Island, we bumped into one of the chaps we had drunk the snake and dead bird wine with in Hoi-An, called Mark. He had just arrived too.
Mark is now travelling alone and we joined forces for a few days. A forty-something Manc, he has travelled extensively, is trying to get a job teaching English somewhere in SE Asia, and reminded us of Atmos on numerous occasions. That’s how cool he is.
A couple of nights were spent in the capital. The only event of any passing note was when the three of us entered a pub quiz in a place called ‘The Lazy Gecko’.
We traded under the name ‘Big Nose Pinkies’ and we were terrible. Came second last out of at least a dozen teams. Problem was, the quiz was geared towards younger travellers, you needed degree in NuMetal to get anything in the music round in which we had played our joker. The next day, Mel and I caught a bus and headed to the south coast, to a town called Sihanoukville. Mark caught up with us there the following day.
There’s loads of shacks - eateries come bars come nightclubs all next to each other.
Most of them appear not to ever close, with the Khmers working some kind of shift system or just not sleeping at all. The shacks are made out of bamboo, old palettes, leaves and the odd bit of tarp.
We met some interesting characters in this lively enclave and we gave some of them special names.
Captain Chaos we spotted a mile off. We were in a bar booking a boat to ‘Bamboo Island’ and accommodation there for one night. It was about 10am and he was shambling around frothing at the mouth, eyeballs rolling and spilling his beer all down his Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix shirts. Both at the same time.
We knew we were in the presence of a master, he was slurring in American and was easily of pensionable age. We avoided any contact with him at this juncture, after all, it was 10am and he was clearly not to be trifled with by anyone half sober.
It turned out that ‘Steve’ (Captain Chaos) was our next door but one neighbour in our guesthouse. He came in at teatime that night, pontificated loudly to anyone within earshot about poetry and generally brought attention unto himself. He had a nosebleed by then which added to it, I thought.
Mel insisted (for a laugh) he sit down and join us in a game of Pass The Pigs.
Steve loved the Pigs game and gave us a brief low-down on his life story. He ran away from home at 14 to go on the road with The (Grateful) Dead. Claims to have seen them over 300 times.
He recited some spectacular self-composed poetry, but wouldn’t let me film him. Miserable old waster.
He’d been on the piss there solidly for 4 months, every waking moment. Victim of a recent inheritance.
We headed to Bamboo Island for a bit of peace and quiet. Located 45 minutes by boat from the beach.
The 3 of us (us and Mark, not Captain Chaos) set off on the boat we’d been told to get on. 15 mins into the journey, this toffy, horsey English (ginger too!) lad asks to inspect our tickets, does so and informs us we have to pay him $5 each coz we’re on the wrong boat. His.
Unremarkably, an altercation ensued.
The altercation was regrettably settled through a moment of ‘Traveller’s Softshitedness’. An affliction we had as yet to suffer from.
We coughed up, just as the handy looking Khmer boat lads expressed a healthy interest in being paid a bit extra.
The toffy lad owns a resort on the other side of the tiny Bamboo Island. The sunset there was beautiful.
We christened him ‘Slippery Sid’ and went round badmouthing him in the area for a couple of days. He was a right nob, his head looks like a camel’s.
Bamboo Island was fun in the end. I snoozed in a hammock, we kipped in a shed on stilts and wee’d in the sea, just like the locals.
Back on the mainland, we headed along the coast to Kampot. Famous for growing the best peppercorns in the world, I jest thee not.
That being the most noteworthy point in Kampot, the 3 of us decided to check out Cambodia’s (once famous) seaside resort – Kep.
We got a dead good price from a smiling and happy Tuk-Tuk driver to take us the 25Km or so. I pointed out to him that his engine was literally pissing water everywhere but he happily waved this aside, assuring us that all would be fine.
It was. We had a lovely little toddle through the pepper vines, stopping frequently at every village pond and ditch to top up the coolant levels. He quickly became known to us as ‘Leaky Lenny’. We think he liked that.
Kep is far from being anything flash. The towns of Kampot and Kep were shaped by the French, the pepper being a major attraction for them.
The area, particularly Kep, was among the last areas pillaged by Pol Pot’s merry bunch. They had a ball there, wearing spectacles were amongst the crimes folk were exterminated for. Intellectuals weren’t allowed you see. There are still the shells of lots of abandoned and overgrown houses. Wandering around was quite eerie.
Loads of construction going on now though, the Cambodian aristocracy are putting cash back into the gaff but it is all luxury bungalows or 5 star resorts – which meant we ended up negotiating to stay in a building site, but at least it had a sea view (of sorts). The drilling commenced daily at 7am sharp and on the day of check out they drilled right through the ceiling of our room, plaster falling everywhere – luckily we were up and about to leave!
Only one caf in town mind, called ‘The Led Zep’. Despite my irrational hatred of Led Zeppelin, I went there more than once. Luckily they didn’t play any of their records.
They did, however have loads of pictures cut out of French Seventies rock magazines. Mark showed me who they all are / were and was disappointed that they didn’t play any Led Zeppelin.
I now know what Jerry Garcia looked like and that Carlos Santana once had shortish hair whilst being famous.
Our mate Leaky Lenny frequented the place and delighted in seeing us there. He was a star and helped us out no end. He has no favourite track by Emerson Lake and Palmer or Wishbone Ash.
The area is famous for crab and it’s traditional dish of fried pepper crab. I, for one, would not complain about eating that again.
There’s an island off Kep that’s a popular daytrip. Wary of Slippery Sids ilk, we took the plunge.
Rabbit Island, it looked nothing like a rabbit and there was no bunny on the lunch menu. But apparently the foliage makes rabbit like shadows, hence the name – not that we noticed.
We tried snorkelling but there was nothing to see.
Found a football and had a knockabout with the locals.
They thought the idea was to kick it as high into the air as possible whenever it went anywhere near them. They went off to play volleyball in a cowpat strewn wasteland/beach at the first opportunity. Their advanced cases of ringworm helped to put us off joining in.
They were a good laugh for a few minutes though, never got that off the Vietnamese youth.
After 2 nights in Kep, we headed back to Phnom Penh on the most battered bus yet encountered – the windscreen had major damage and the road was a dirt track for about an hour of the 4 hr journey, bumpity bump. That’s Cambodia for you. Next stop Siem Reap…