I took a fairly new passenger train service from Phnom Penh to Kampot. I had been recommended Kampot strongly earlier in my travels and I had decided to put it on my list. I had planned to stay in this small riverside town only a couple of days before heading further towards the islands but I ended up taking my time to enjoy what the sleepy town and it’s surroundings had to offer.
Lazing in a Sleepy Town
The train halted at Takeo within 2 hours of departing from Phnom Penh. It was a small station with a few vendors selling food. I got off and walked about taking some photos. I was getting a little hungry as well so I bought some chicken and rice which I ate on the train once it resumed it’s journey.
Halt at Takeo
The sunset was barely visible since the train was heading due west. The beautifully lit up sky over the paddy fields was a sight to behold. I did not know that the windows could be opened up so I contented myself by clicking the sunset through the dirty windows.
Sunset from the train
The train reached Kampot before the expected time. I got off and caught sight of the only other foreigner there. We approached each other with the intention of sharing a tuk-tuk. But there was no tuk-tuk around so we decided to walk till the main road. This guy lived in Bangkok now but had lived in Kampot for a while sometime back. He suggested I go to Kep which I pocketed in the back of my mind. We found two motodops while walking and decided to take those. I got a drop next to Magic Sponge and the other guy went to the riverside.
Koko had recommended this guest house to me. It was a tad bit over my budget but I decided to give it a shot for a night at least. The owner told me that they were full when I walked in. I told him that I had made a reservation to which he quickly handed me a key and told me where the bed was. He was in a hurry because of some quiz event that was to take place in the restaurant that night. I went up the stairs as he had directed and came upon the “dorm room”. It was a shaded terrace with beds laid out in rows. Proper beds and not bunk ones. I really liked the setup.
The nicest dorm
There were a few French people around but we did not talk much. There was a loud periodic sound though which we could not figure out. Another girl came in later, Bed 6, and I asked her if she knew what was making that sound. She off-handedly told me that it was Jeremy, the residential tokay gecko making mating calls. We tried looking for it but he was hiding somewhere in the dark. It would have been cool to spot it though. These geckos can be almost a foot long!
I headed out to withdraw money from an ATM. The ATMs here dispensed up to 500 USD in a transaction which is a huge amount but I took all of it to avoid paying ATM transaction fees repeatedly. One can always use the USDs. I then proceeded to find some dinner but the food options were limited since it was after 9 PM. This town slept earlier than Phnom Penh. I sat in a street side stall to eat some noodle soup. They were also selling something that they called “sweet” which was a mixture of sprouts, jellies, son-papdi and condensed milk. I would have tried it had I had a sweet tooth. 🍬
After dinner I sat next to the river a bit. This town was nice to spend a couple of lazy days in. But I had not decided what I was going to do after this. I wanted to go to Koh Rong Samloem but I might not have enough days to do that and Otres. My head was all messed up. I went back to the hostel in a while and slumped into the bed. Eitan and Daniel were in Kampot as well. This being their last night here, they messaged me to ask if I wanted to hang out but I was too tired to go out and was generally feeling lazy. I gave it a pass.
I woke up late the next day and worked a bit on a blog post. I had some well made Eggs Benedict for breakfast in the guest house’s restaurant. This place was really nice and well within reasonable budget. Unfortunately I was travelling on a shoestring. I went to the riverside and sat on a bench there. This was to be my bench by the riverside for the rest of my stay in Kampot. By some stroke of luck, I always found it free whenever I went for a stroll by the river.
View from "my" bench
A spell of rains sent me seeking for refuge in a cafe nearby. I sat sipping on a mango smoothie and read some brochures about the area to kill time. I had thought of a vague itinerary for going to Koh Rong Samloem and returning to do Bokor mountain before heading back to Phnom Penh. But the brochure changed most of it. Kep seemed to be a really nice place. There was a national park there which caught my fancy. I went back to the hostel to think at leisure as to what my plan further would be. Two of my dorm mates, the English girl in Bed 6 and the French girl in Bed 3, came in later that afternoon and helped me finalize the itinerary. Bed 3 had recently been to the islands and told me that the weather was a tricky factor at the moment. I helped Bed 6 plan her upcoming Vietnam trip as well. Dorm room symbiosis at work. 🙏
Later that afternoon, the English girl that I had met in Phnom Penh checked into the same dorm and we exchanged hellos. Neither of us remembered the other’s name but we did not bring it up. She was in Bed 2 and that is as good a name as any. 😝 She had done Bokor that day and told me it was quite an adventure with all the rain and fog. I suddenly realised that once again I was in a dorm where I was the only guy! I could get used to this. 😎 It was much better this time since none of the girls were a messy teenager.
I wanted a break from all the confusion and effort of itinerary planning so I decided to walk around. I headed to a spot marked on the map as Lily Pond. The pond was not the greatest one; the water was a bit stale and the lilies were not the most beautiful.
There were a few boys playing football on one side and I asked if I could join them. They said yes and so I put my bag down and joined in. None of them spoke much English but we got by. Some were good while some were adorably bad. It drizzled for a while but we played on till it was almost dark. I talked to two of them who sat next to me while I was putting on my shoes. They were school kids ranging in age from early to late teens. They studied on weekdays and played on weekends. Seemed just about right!
I ate in one of the street side places near the river. The food was cheap and good. I tried something called the Kachay Cake which is similar to a tikki in India. It is even served with a sweet and tangy sauce much like sonth.
Kevin liked Kachay cakes!
Then I went to the cafe that Bed 6 had raved about. They had good donuts, so I got one of that and a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee as dessert. I walked back to the hostel skipping through puddles that had accumulated after the intermittent rains. There was just Bed 2 in the dorm room and we got talking. She was going to Vietnam as well so I gave her some tips. She then told me about Bokor mountain and an abandoned water-park near Hue. She has a thing for abandoned places and her travels usually revolved around them. She even told me about some Ghost Tower in Bangkok and when I looked it up, I had been staying not hundred meters away from it! Then I told her about the train I had taken to Kampot. She loved train but still had not known about this service. ✌
A Midnight Adventure
I started working as more of the girls trickled in. I had been working on getting through a huge backlog that had piled up and at long last I was through with it. I decided to celebrate by going for a late night stroll along the riverside. It must have been 10:30 PM and I decided to leave my bag so that I could just enjoy some time without carrying any baggage (literally). The town had slept and the streets were dark. I did not find it unsafe though. The only ruckus was from some of the drunk old expats which abound in Cambodia.
I spent almost an hour sitting on my bench and enjoying the cool breeze. The recent rains had made the weather very pleasant. I started back for the guest house around 11:30 PM. I came back to find the main gate locked! I hoped someone would be around but no one was. I spent a good amount of time shouting hello’s and knocking on the gate. Nothing stirred inside. I was thinking of ways to get in and for the first time I noticed that the walls of this place were really high and topped with barbed wires!
I was in a state of disbelief that they would lock the door like this without anyone being around. The riverside bars stayed open till late night and people must come in at all times. I was struck with another brilliant idea. I looked up the number of the guest house online and called the number. I could hear the phone ringing inside and was hoping someone would pick it up. There was no way people had fallen asleep so quick. But no, nothing happened. I gave up after two tries.
I was left with few options. I was hoping someone would come by after a late night out and would know how to get in. But that could take forever and of course there was a chance that there was no one having a late night out. I could also find another guest house to sleep in for the night if nothing gave but finding a guest house this late would not be easy. I was contemplating climbing the wall on the neighbouring complex and then crossing the boundary wall which was not all that high. I was about to give it a shot when I saw a few motorbikes approaching. I hoped that they would know how to get in. They seemed to be at an equal loss. One of the guys had left his bag in there and had come to fetch it. Since they did not have any bright ideas, I told them to look out while I attempted crossing from the neighbouring complex.
It is a good thing that I have been scaling walls and doing stupid things since I was a kid. I needed all that training to get in. The rains and moss had made the surface a little slippery. The last jump was a little precarious as I had to jump a little ahead of some pots immediately under me. I managed to pull it off without twisting my ankle. Phew! I checked the reception door and it was locked so I told the guy and he said he would pick up his bag in the morning. There was a sign that said that I was to use another gate for late nights and so I went up, panting, itching and a bit flustered at the entire event. This had not been my idea of celebration. Everyone was already asleep and I washed up and went to bed. I slept to the sound of rain pattering against the window. Fortunately I had not been locked out for the night.
I brought up the closing time with the owner the next day. He told me it varied and I asked him what one was to do if he came late. He simply told me that one of the keys given to me were for the main gate. Awesome! So the only time I decide to leave my bag behind, I happen to need it all the more. Anyway, I checked out and then went to the Captain Chim’s Guesthouse where Eitan had told me of the 3 USD dorms. It was a little run down but it served the purpose. The first thing I did after checking in was to ask for the closing time of the main gate.
I found a one dollar place to eat. The food here was good and ample so it was actually a good find. I shared the table with a girl and we got talking. I told her about my room switching and she told me about the hostel she was staying in - Monkey Republic. They seemed to have 4 USD dorms that were much better value for money than the ones I was staying in. Plus it was right next to Magic Mushroom. Meh! I told her about the train service from Kampot to Phnom Penh but she had already booked a bus. Sweet revenge. 😇 We left our ways after food. It is interesting how I have lost the urge to ask for names. It does not really matter and I tend to forget them anyway.
I had initially planned to rent out a motorbike and go to Kep or Bokor but the better part of the day was gone. It was close to 2 in the afternoon so I spent some time dawdling by the riverside instead.
Strolling by the riverside
I happened to remember a place that Bed 6 had told me about and decided to go check it out. It was around 8 kilometers out of town so I thought I would use this as an excuse to get some exercise as well. I rented out a bicycle from the hostel and set out for Greenhouse upstream on the other side of the river. The bike was in a rather dismal state. It was supposed to be an MTB but the gears did not work and the tyres lacked the required pressure. And this was the best one I could find from the lot they had. I was expecting to ride through the countryside but it turned out to be a highway. There were quite a few trucks and more 4 wheeled vehicles. People looked at me curiously as I passed them by sweating and panting on my bicycle. Some smiled at me when I caught their gaze. I smiled at everyone I saw.
I had underestimated how long 8.5 kms would be. The undulating roads and humid, wind-less weather had me tired on the gear-less and airless bike. The last 750m or so was a muddy track that was all slushy because of the recent rains.
Mud trail to Greenhouse
I found Greenhouse and parked my bicycle inside. Their friendly big black dog greeted me at the gate and wanted to smell me up, thus getting into my way of putting the bicycle on stand. The cafe was pretty amazing as well. It was right on the river and there was a bunch of people sitting around. I was not up to socializing so I stuck to sitting by myself, drinking a couple of beers, writing and eating some delicious Fish Amok. There was a platform right under where one could go take a dive in the river. I had my swimming trunks on but I lost all determination once I was actually there. 😞 There were a few people swimming in the river but I stuck to the cafe. I need more confidence in fresh water; I need to practice swimming some more.
I left after an hour or so. The ride back did not seem all that hectic. Maybe it was slightly downhill or maybe it was the two beers in me; who knows! I bought a padlock in the town to lock the cupboard in the dorm room. I had been carrying a lot of weight in my backpack because I did not have the means to lock the stuff in.
Pro Tip #13
Carry a padlock with you if you plan to stay in budget dorms. The lockers in budget accommodations might not always have a lock.
I came back to the room to find another guy there. He and I were the only ones sharing the dorm room. However, he slept through the evening and night, so we did not get to interact. I went out to eat some Khmer Bread and then came back and worked till it was time for the match. France looked threatening and Ronaldo came off with a knee injury 25 minutes into the game. The match still went into extra time and France missed a number of chances. It was a spectacular goal from Portugal that put them ahead in the second extra time and that was that. Portugal won; they did to France what France had done to Germany in the semi-finals. The entire Euro had been a series of freak football anyway. I was somewhat glad that the tournaments had ended. This would mean that I could finally sleep at regular hours instead of staying up till 4AM.
I talked to my dorm mate the next morning. He had done the Bokor mountain the last day and all the sleep had been a way to recover. He had been in Kampot for a while now but he gave no direct answer to what he was doing there. I did not push the matter because it did not matter to me. I rented a motorbike and went to the dollar shop to eat. Then I rode out of town towards Bokor mountain. I took the highway west towards Sihanoukville. After 7-10 kms there was a well marked diversion to the right and a gate where I had to pay 2000 KHR (0.5 USD) to take the bike in. The road was well made and I could see the mountain ahead covered with clouds.
Road to Bokor
I hit that patch of mountains a little while after starting the ascent up the hill. The rain was continuous but I had come prepared with my poncho. The roads were well paved and used by an occasional vehicle every now and then. I rode slow and steady in the cold and wet weather. I first hit upon an abandoned house right in front of a big Buddha statue and stopped to take a look. The house was in a much dilapidated state with leaking roof and torn down walls. I had expected it to be a little spooky but it seemed just weird. I waded across the accumulated water on the floor and walked around and out. There was no one around.
There was a map after a second checkpoint on the top of the hill. I had come with a very vague plan. I knew that there was a church and an old casino that I needed to see. Other than that I had thought that I would just stop at any place that looked interesting. With a 5 foot visibility that seemed like a bad plan. So I took mental notes of places that seemed interesting on the map.
Where are we headed, Joker my man?
I rode in the direction of the church. I had ridden past it without a clue and then came back after I checked on the Google Maps. I had to stare hard in the direction where the church was supposed to be to see a faint silhouette that was the building. A break in the roadside suggested a possible entry point as well and I parked the bike along the road and went in. The church appeared out of the fog! This was a little scarier than I had thought a few minutes ago.
The inside of the church had some idols and a lot of graffiti. I walked around and out.
Not the most comforting church I have ever been to
Once again, there was no one around for the entire duration I had spent there. A path led further away from the road and I climbed the rocks to a viewing point which might have been nice on a clear day. Right now it was all white and wind.
The old casino was supposed to be a little ahead. I got on my scooter and kept on a lookout for any signs this time. A blue board for a parking spot alerted me and I found the casino building to my right, another shadow in the fog. The casino was much bigger and slightly more imposing than the church. There was absolutely no one in the building when I had come in. But one I started walking around on the floors and checking out the rooms, it seemed like a not-yet-inhabited-new-construction rather than an old abandoned building. The fresh cement work and colourless walls were to be held responsible for this. A few people did come in later and I could hear their voices and sighted them a couple of times from afar, but we never crossed paths. Turning around a corner to suddenly find another person might have been more scary than relieving, I think.
I rode around a bit to a small pond indicated on the map. It was only after getting to the pond that I realised that I would be able to see none of it anyway because of the fog. There was a waterfall on the other side of the mountain as well and I decided to go take a look. This side did not have rains and the mist was less thick. The falls were nice and voluminous but the water had a dirty yellow-brown hue. I am not sure if that was because of pollution of the recent rains bringing in an exceptional about of sediments. I spent a few minutes there and then headed back down. I was cold and wet and uncomfortable. I was skipping a few things but I was not really enthusiastic about a lake and some farms anyway.
There are many more pictures of the Bokor mountain ride in the album at the end of the post. Make sure you check them out!
I rode back down and saw a few tourists making their way up. I exited the wet zone a little way from the bottom of the hill and removed my poncho. I returned to the town and sat in my hostel for a while to enjoy the warmth of the place. I stepped out again to grab a bite, came back and worked a little and then hit the bed exhausted. There was a heavy downpour outside.
The next morning I filled up my bike with some more fuel and took to the road to Kep. The distance is roughly 25 kilometers by road and the well made road means a riding time of roughly 40 minutes, give or take a few depending upon your maximum speed. My dorm mate had warned me that Kep did not have much to do. He said that it was more of a village than the city which it claimed to be. I understood what he meant as soon as I got there. Everything was spread out and there were not enough people around. I rode till the beach and then came back after seeing the famous Kep crab statue.
Welcome to Kep!
I wanted to check out the Kep National Park (KNP) but I was unable to figure out how to get on the trail. There were very vague pointers online and I tried a couple of lanes that ended in nothing but a dirt track. I asked around near the beach and another tourist told me that the entry to the park trail is near Verandah Resort. The 8 km long trail circles a hill which is the actual National Park. Verandah Resort was easy to locate on Google Maps so I went there and saw a booth right ahead of it’s gates. I parked my scooter there and gladly paid the 1 USD entry fee and walked onto the trail.
Kep Tip #1
The entry to the National Park trail is near the Verandah Resort.
Kep National Park trail
The first stop was the Led Zep Cafe which I had seen in the brochure. I did not have a choice to not go into a cafe with that name!
Some things are inevitable
It was a small cafe near the beginning of the KNP trail. It had some decently priced refreshments and a magnificent view of Kep down below.
Pancake with a view
They also gave me a free map that I used to trace a route through the national park. Led Zep Cafe and an associated Squirrel Association (possibly the same people) had marked the entire KNP with distance markers and directions. It was a truly extraordinary effort by them.
Signboards all over the place
They had also cleared several walking routes through the jungle on the hill. I took one of these. The forest was thicker than I had thought and I had to brace some insects and spider nets.
KNP is known to have varieties of lizards and snakes. I saw quite a few lizards but did not manage to spot a snake, fortunately or otherwise. The mosquitoes were relentless throughout. They buzzed in my ears and bit me every time I paused even for a few seconds to take a picture, check map or take a breather. I saw many insects and the walk was pretty nice.
Creepy crawlies in KNP
I went till the top-most point, Phnom Kep, and halted there for a while. This was the only break I had taken since starting on the trail. I was quite tired by the excursion so I decided to take the shortest route back. It was a certain Jungle Path which probably cost me more time and effort instead. A warning said that it was a path only for experienced trekkers but I took it despite my worn out shoes.
The route was precarious indeed! The ropes laid out by the Squirrel Association helped a LOT. They had put in a lot of effort into the small jungle and made it nice and easy for the hikers.
Ropes leading down the tricky path
After much effort and sweating, being bit by bugs and soiling my clothes, shoes and socks, I finally reached the bottom of the Jungle Route. I ran into a red squirrel whose only part I could see properly was the tail. I was kind of relieved at not having found scorpions or snakes. There was a Little Pond at the end of the trail where I sat to relax a while.
Ideal resting spot
Two guys on a motorbike came along. I hello’ed them and they hello’ed back. There were Justin and Jerry, both French. Jerry was tripping really hard and most of my conversation was with Justin. He had been to India and knew an awful lot about Hindu mythology. He was into martial arts and wanted to go to Kerala to learn their martial art which, he said, was the source of all martial arts! I had not known that. He had not had the best time in India, mostly because of election campaigns and ripping off. But he was open minded enough to give it another shot. He wanted to go to Pondicherry as well. He was interested in experiencing a place’s culture properly rather than fleetingly as a tourist. He was a pretty cool guy. We said goodbye in a bit because they wanted to head to some sunset spot and I had to find my bike at the entrance, almost 4 kilometers away. I started walking on the main track which no longer seemed interesting but I saw some monkeys. 😜
I went to Kep’s famous crab market and walked around. The day’s business had ended but the restaurants were setting shop and there were many stalls of grilled sea food that looked tempting.
I then rode to the other end of the town just to see what it was like. Kep seemed like an extremely spread out and sparsely populated town. The sea-side road from Crab market onwards was quite beautiful. I refuelled and then headed back to the market. I stopped to click the sunset on the Kep beach which is a small and pretty one. Here I was approached by a Cambodian who thought I looked like a European. We talked a bit and he asked me what the differences between Vietnam and Cambodia were. I did not have much favourable things to say about Cambodia just then though now I think that Cambodia has it’s nature and culture much better preserved than Vietnam.
Sunset at the Kep beach
Kep Tip #2
Ride along the seaside road during sunset. It is a very pretty sight.
At the market I sat at a place called The Democrat. They had a sea-side table that looked really nice. I had two of the 50 cent beers and ordered a crab with Kampot green pepper since crabs are the specialty of Kep.
Kevin and I enjoyed a beer at dusk
I don’t have crab eating experience or etiquette but I tried with as much sloppiness as I could. The crab was delicious! There were two crabs for 6 USD which is not at all a bad deal. I was full and exhausted by the time I was done. I might need to learn how to eat crabs now! 😜
Delicious crabs are the perfect end to a day in Kep
I rode back to Kampot in the dark. A slow and steady pace saw me back at the guest house in a little less than an hour. I immediately took a bath and went to bed. I was too tired to do anything and slept soon.
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Kampot leg of the trip.