A Bit of TLC Part 14 – A Touch of Salt and Pepper

Kep and Kampot, Cambodia   January 2024

I’ve never been tempted to ride on one of those mechanical bucking bronco machines (apart from perhaps at my last work Christmas party when I was 8 months pregnant and feeling very impatient!) – but the speedboat ride back from Koh Rong to the mainland can’t have been much worse!  Hoping to avert my seasickness, I foolishly sat outside on the deck only to be thrown a foot up in the air at every wave we hit.  I managed (with assistance) to abscond back into the cabin where I valiantly held down my breakfast for the rest of the crossing.

Arriving back in Sihanoukville we transferred to the much more civilised transport option of the train, which rumbled along at the speed of a replacement bus service to the seaside town of Kep, our next destination.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside…

Once frequented by the French at the turn of the century, and then the Cambodian high rollers in the 60’s, the now sleepy seaside town still attracts mainly local tourists with its famous crab market and long stretch of beach. They obviously have high hopes for it, and had recently re-laid the promenade with palm trees and lined the beach with gazebos, sunchairs and hammocks.  From our hotel balcony we watched families setting up their picnics, and the young monks having fun in the ocean while the sun set.

The haunted house

Our balcony also overlooked a large park containing what looked like a haunted house.  Apparently it was built for the first governor of Kep in 1908, was then turned into a restaurant but now lays empty and derelict.  Vines and trees have now taken over and it looks quite creepy!

Giant crabs…not scary at all!

As we walked along the front the next morning we noticed quite a few old abandoned French mansions, which sadly had been left to the jungle.  We made it to the crab market, which sprawled along the sea wall and had breakfast at a little art café. 

The giant bird wing butterfly – nearly took my head off!

Other than the beach, Kep’s attractions were limited to a cute little butterfly farm, which we found by tuk tuk, along a very bumpy lane, Rabbit Island (a short “hop” away on a boat from the local pier) and the Kep National Park, which offered nice views of the coastline along a pleasant 8km paved trail.

Beasts??? What sort of beasts?!!

There are large tracts of land which have obviously been set aside for development, and several huge hotels being constructed, so again, we were glad to have visited when we did.

Villa Vedici…our wonderful riverside retreat

We were advised to take a car (and not a tuk tuk) to our next stop – the riverside town of Kampot.  Only 30 minutes along the coast, but the road was in the process of being repaired, and clouds of red dust covered everything as we drove along.  We’d found a peaceful  little spot to stay upriver from the main town, run by a lovely Dutch guy called Hans.  Managing to score what must have been the best room in the resort, we settled down on our huge wooden balcony overlooking the pool and the gardens which fronted the river.

Durian Durian…

We pulled ourselves away from our little haven of peace that evening to explore the town.  We’d been persuaded by a friendly Brit who we’d met in Koh Rong to visit Kampot, where he ran a small cider and pie making business.  Apart from several rather impressive roundabouts, including one featuring a huge durian fruit which lit up at night, the town itself was pretty unremarkable.  Many ex-pats had fled there from the environmental disaster of Sihanoukville and there was an eclectic mix of western restaurants, crumbling Chinese shophouses housing art galleries and second-hand shops plus modern supermarkets and a small night market.

The king…has left the building…

After a relaxing couple of days we booked a tour to the Bokor National Park, and the Bokor Hill Station – a now abandoned retreat for the French colonialists.  As we snaked up through the forested hilIside, we could feel the temperature dropping slightly (although I didn’t need the fleece I’d brought with me…just in case!).  Bokor is home to bears, leopards, gibbons, slow lorises and pangolins, but sadly the only wildlife we spotted were some crested hornbills in the far distance and a few macaques scrounging at the roadside.  Our first stop was the Black Palace, a modest summer villa built for King Sihanouk in the 1930s.  Derelict now – but one of the few buildings that we were permitted to explore – it was a little disappointing, but did boast an interesting graffitied graphic on the outside.

The waterless waterfall

We drove along the newly laid roads, past massive half-built, and now mainly derelict Chinese hotel, apartment and Casino complexes.  These monstrosities were a huge blot on the landscape and I can’t imagine that they will ever be fully occupied by the “Chinese” if and when they ever do come in their droves (the Cambodians’ optimistic expectation!).  We were almost prevented from reaching our next stop (a dried-up waterfall!) by a series of roadworks and a multitude of dead ends (roads built, but leading to nowhere!).  

1 star on Tripadvisor!

I was looking forward to exploring the hill station itself, the centre-piece of which was the majestic looking art deco Bokor Palace Hotel, which I had read had recently re-opened. I was intrigued by its history – built in 1925 as a luxurious retreat for the French occupiers and local dignitaries, used during the second world war as a military hospital, briefly re-opened in the 1960s as a swish casino, and then becoming one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge until the 1990s.   I’d seen photos of the building surrounded in fog – in fact it was featured in the 2002 thriller City of Ghosts.  But in the sunlight, it looked seriously in need of a lick of paint on the outside and we were pretty underwhelmed as we walked around the building.  The terrace had incredible views over the surrounding forest and distant coast, but the rooms and interior must be pretty sumptuous to warrant the current exorbitant rate of $350 a night!

The triumph of hope over experience!

The remaining buildings included a post office, an old Catholic church and what looked like some old factories.  We had lunch at a nearby temple which was shrouded in mist by the time we arrived, making it quite eerie, before heading back into town where we caught up with Darren, our English pie man for a quick cider and pasty – the highlight of the day!

We were aggressively pursued by numerous tuk tuk drivers to take a tour to one of the areas famous pepper farms – Kampot pepper was revered as “the champagne of peppers” but as “seasoned” travellers already, we decided to give it a miss.  Oddly, the coast was also flanked with salt fields where water is let in from the ocean, the fields are then blocked off and the water is allowed to evaporate, leaving salt crystals, which are sold all over the world. Now…if they’d had a vinegar lake, I would have been impressed!

Next Stop:  Good Afternoon, Vietnam!

More photos!…

Where Darth Vader comes for his holidays??
The white lady...awaiting the return of her fisherman husband
Holy crab!
Led Zep Cafe ...leading to the Stairway to Heaven!
Never heard of the "Squirrels" but they were nuts about them in these parts
Someone has illusions of grandeur!
Who ordered a croissant and a doughnut?
The young Buddhist monks have fun in the sea
Loving the women only parking spaces... plenty of room!
And... plenty of fish!
The Bokor Palace in its heyday
Before the restoration
Young monk...old temple
These workers were definitely worth their salt
The lovely old Kampot cinema

4 thoughts on “A Bit of T L C – Part 14 – A Touch of Salt and Pepper”

  1. There’s not much worse than a bumpy ride like that, amusing to read about though!! All very descriptive and captivating. Watch out Vietnam, here they come! xxx

  2. “Seasoned” travellers you are, indeed 😂 Another entertaining chapter to read. Looking forward to the next one already 😄😘

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