While in Battambang we rode the rails of the Bamboo Railway, a bamboo platform, recycled wheels and motorcycle engine careening down a bumpy railway track at up to 50 mph. The ingenious transport can be disassembled quickly and turned around. It’s a tourist attraction that’s expected to be closed by year’s end. The aim? A national rail system like Thailand’s. Our Cambodian guide looked skeptical.
In Kampot, we stayed at the Natural Bungalows a short distance from town. Low key resorts on stilts dot the river creating bucolic scenes. Except, in early February, a 25-year-old French women went missing and was found the next day floating in the river, an apparent homicide.
By the time I saw that on Twitter, I was back in Phnom Penh on my own; a vigilant tourist at the best of times. I rarely felt unsafe in Cambodia but the city’s frenzied pace and the continual, “Madame, Tuk Tuk? left me on guard, initially.
Kampot makes a great base to explore. We visited an organic pepper farm in a region known internationally for its organically grown red, black and green peppers grown in rows of tee pee tall vines. Handpicked, the seeds are shipped worldwide and Kampot Pepper Crab is to die for.
We also visited a temple and White Elephant cave near Kampot.
Along a bumpy dirt road, we headed to seaside Kep, a 1950’s resort town of former glory where mansions, derelict and abandoned behind ornate cemented walls neighbour updated resorts such as the Kep Lodge bungalows and Knai Bang Chatt, a modernist villa.
In town, a strip of cafes/shop, with a view of Vietnam in the distance, we devoured a seafood lunch stuffing ourselves on broths of fat shrimp, white fish, tail and head intact, and plump melt-in-your-mouth squid. Earlier, we’d stopped by a town where Buddhists lived on one side of the canal, Muslims (Cham people) on the other, have co-existed peacefully for centuries.
Eventually, it was south to Sihanoukville, a party town. Lots of beaches to choose from: Otres, Serendipity, Hawaii, Independence, Victory, Sokha, Ocheteaul. An hour away, Cambodian islands and we found paradise on Koh Ta Kiev. The azure blue pea-soup warm water, white sands and tropical bungalows make a great weekend escape. At $20 per night with a large open-air restaurant/bar, you’re set. Arrange the return trip with the boat before you get there for about $35.
Back in the capital, the cremation ceremonies for the late King Norodom Sihanouk were a wrap. I sat sipping a draft Angor Wat beer ($1US) watching a huge crane dismantle the splendorous site located between the Grand Palace and the National Museum. Flat-bed trucks carted off the palatial, leaving a red-steel skeleton while vendors got in their last minute hawking of place-mat sized photographs of the royal couple in their younger days.
During the last few days in Phnom Penh, I signed on with Grasshopper Adventures for a half-day cycling tour on the Mekong Islands across the river. A harrowing two kilometer cycle and 10-minute ferry crossing deposited us into rural tranquility. We rode on earthen red roads, visited a silk farm, devoured mangoes, bananas, papayas, jack fruit and could not resist yet another scarf, the signature Krama, a Khmer gingham fabric used to protect from sun, wind and dust.
One more quick ferry ride, and we arrived on another island that time seems to have forgotten. Just a few temples with brightly coloured ceilings, a few monks, a courtyard of carved wooden figures and five traditional wooden dragon boats undercover, awaiting next year’s annual water festival.
Back in the city, I debated between a nightcap at Le Moon Terrace Bar in the Amanjaya hotel, the FCC perched above the riverside, or Friends, an NGO that trains marginalized youth in hospitality.
It was the perfect end to two weeks in a small country with a sad, yet fascinating history that has attracted more than 3.58 million tourists in 2012.