We left a scorching Phnom Penh and travelled south to Kampot by bus, which was refreshingly cool when we arrived. Kampot is a riverside town surrounded by countryside and the mountains of Bokor National Park.
Arriving in Kampot felt very similar to driving through the Vietnamese countryside in Ba Vi National Park, way back in October. The roads were lined with local street sellers (mainly flogging the notoriously smelly durian fruit) and plagued with mongrel dogs. The overcast weather was much more pleasant and the frequent showers had cooled the temperature for us. But the rain had also saturated the surrounding dirt roads making it tricky for our tuk tuk driver to reach our accommodation. There’s not much going on in Kampot’s town centre so we were quite happy with our hotel ‘Bohemiaz’, located on the outskirts down a particularly slippery red dirt track. We ended up spending a lot of our time just chilling out in Bohemiaz as they had a freshwater pool, dogs, cheap and tasty food on site and relaxed vibe in general, which made it a nice place to spend time.
Our main reason for staying in Kampot was to visit Bokor National Park and it’s landmarks on the way up the dense forest mountainside. We hired a moped for two days and it felt good to get back into the saddle. As we drove higher up the mountainside the air cooled even more (jackets on) and a thick mist blanketed the road in front of us. It’s pretty spooky in Bokor National Park, particularly as the main attractions are a variety of derelict buildings that had their heyday in the 1920s and 30s. In the early 1920s, the French were eager to escape the lowland heat and established Bokor Hill Station, boasting dramatic views of the coastal plains below.
The haunting Bokor Palace Hotel, a rusty Catholic Church and lichen-covered Wat Sampov Pram were our pit stops. There is also a very ugly, modern casino that dominates the hilltop these days but added to the creepy atmosphere of Bokor National Park. We weren’t blown away by the drive up or the sights. However some of the views were very impressive and we did like the eerie charm of the place. We feel our lack of enthusiasm may have been due to our unbeatable 4 day motorbike tour around Ha Giang, which anything similar is now compared against.
Our last stop in the national park was Popokvil Falls where we ate our lunch and took some snaps of the rocky waterfall viewpoint while sipping on sugar cane juice.
As we travelled back down the park we kept spotting an unusual amount of Cambodian riel currency. Someone had obviously been flying up the hill with money stuffed in open pockets, oblivious they were littering our path with the notes. Naomi hopped off the bike to collect a total of 14 notes over a period of about half an hour. We didn’t feel too guilty as the wad of cash totaled to a meager 50p. We were pretty chuffed that we’d created a game to liven up the journey, even if it did double our descent time.
We had some spare time in the afternoon to take a trip to FarmLink on the way back through Kampot town. There are a variety of pepper plantations in Kampot, as the town is well known for its pepper harvest. Before Cambodia’s civil war, ‘no Paris restaurant worth it’s salt would be without pepper from Kampot province’. Today, pepper is grown mainly on family farms in nearby villages where the unique climate allows a particularly pungent peppercorn to be produced.
We were given a tour of their on site pepper farm and had a browse in the gift shop. We saw the peppercorns being dried outside in the garden and were also taken into the pepper sorting room. There were around 10 seated women wearing white lab coats and face masks, hunched over their own shallow pan. The pans were filled with peppercorns of varying colours and it was the women’s job to literally tweezer the white from black from red pepper corns. It was meticulous work and an industry completely unknown to us. We didn’t even know what a pepper plant looked like.
Black pepper is plucked from the trees when the corn begins to turn yellow and eventually turns black after being dried out in the sun. Red pepper is picked when the fruit is completely mature. The mild white pepper is soaked in water to remove the husks and is mainly used for seasoning fish. Green pepper sprigs are eaten almost immediately after harvesting and can be found in abundance in Kep’s crab market.
Kep is a seaside retreat situated 15km from Kampot so we drove our moped here for a day trip to visit the national park and try some of its infamous crabmeat. Kep’s national park was actually more enjoyable than Kampot’s as we parked our bike and walked part of the 8km circuit on foot. We saw some wild monkeys on our way and a ‘remarkable fig tree’. After lunch up in the hills of the park we headed to Kep beach and then on to a coastal restaurant to sample the crabmeat we’d been dying to try. Our dish was served with the green pepper stalks local to the area and a delicious sauce.
On our last full day in Kampot we lazed around Bohemiaz and enjoyed the pool. We also did some Malaysia travel planning and caught up with some people back home. The next morning we were packed up and ready for our next destination: Sihanoukville.