Chilling Out in Kep and Kampot
If you’ve read our last few posts about Cambodia I’m sure what is evident is that with all the history, sadness, poverty, motorbikes and heat, overall the best word to describe this country is exhausting. Exhausting isn't an overall bad thing as we found it extremely important and enlightening to see the beautiful temples of Angkor Wat and learn more about this country’s tortured history no matter the temperatures and the amount of honking horns. The point of our travels wasn't ever about going on one big vacation, and while we have certainly found happiness in nearly every stop, we knew at some point we’d likely get overwhelmed. We had heard and read about this feeling of traveler’s exhaustion from our fellow travel friends and bloggers, but since we were traveling just six months compared to a year, maybe that feeling wouldn't hit us hard. Perhaps it was the fact that we often have a new bed every 48 hours, the cramped mini buses to get from city to city, or a bit of FOMO for Summertime CHI, but we needed a mental break. Luckily Cambodia has the neighboring towns of Kep and Kampot that provided the laid back atmosphere we were in need of.
We arrived in Kep with the beach out our bus window and local Cambodian families enjoying their afternoon with time in the water and picnics under different covered gazebos filled with hammocks. It’s so common for my generation to live in a different city from where they grew up and have family and siblings all over the country, maybe the world. My siblings and cousins span the entire United States and for these six months, the world. While I can safely say none of us would want to give up the luxury of having the choice to live wherever that fits us best, I am sure it’s nice for these families to get together in groups of 15-20 for a nice Saturday get together.
We took a very quick Tuk Tuk to our hotel and it was a great little place run by an Australian expat, who had around eight bungalows. We made sure to reserve an air conditioned one and really enjoyed our time there. Our first night we ended up having beers with the owner and his buddy who was also a native Australian who was in the hotel business in Phnom Penh, and visiting for a short time. It’s always nice to sit and chat with those who come from a different background but understand our language! We made our way down to Kep’s famous crab market and had some delicious local crab straight from the sea and called it a day.
The following morning we rented a moped and explored the Kep National Park. This was a great change of pace as we had the whole path to ourselves and didn't come across another soul our entire time. We were able to see some fantastic views of Kep and the surrounding area from high above the town.
Kep and Kampot are only about a half an hour drive from one another and there a few different touristy attractions kind of in between that visitors try and hit up. The first is a small island a quick boat ride away called Rabbit Island. While we had heard it was a nice day trip, there was more of Kep we wanted to explore. So we set out to find pepper farms and caves, two other activities to do on our moped day.
With Steph on the back and navigating away we drove and drove finally finding our stop, Sothys Pepper farm. Kampot is world renowned for the quality of their pepper and as much as we would have loved to buy some for home, there was no way we would have made it another three months and not have peppercorns explode everywhere in our stuff. We made our way into a tour that had just begun and learned about the different peppers they grow along with a few other fruits and vegetables.
From there we attempted to find the caves but after driving and driving with no luck, we decided it was time to head back. We had drinks at this great resort near our hotel, that had a perfect view of watching the sunset, before heading to the crab market for our last meal on a quick trip to Kep.
The next morning we took a van for the quick thirty minute ride to Kampot. We were getting so used to longer journeys that it was pretty strange to be there before I even finished one podcast. Kep was nice but quaint and I was happy to see that Kampot had more of a lively scene. This was by no means Ko Phi Phi, but there was a good choice of restaurants and bars, many expats, and everything was very walkable. Steph found a great hotel with a pool and nice size room. We’ve gotten pretty good at deciphering restaurants and hotel reviews on Trip Advisor and whether the places actually are good or bad, or reviewers were just happy because they were drunk, or mad because they are picky. We took the “risk” on this place even after someone complained the pool wasn’t right in the sun, knowing full well that we don't need any extra sun with the way the heat had been day in and day out. Needless to say we went to the pool daily.
As I mentioned Kampot has a bunch of expats in addition to being a stop off for backpackers. One day at lunch we got into a conversation with a guy from France who had lived there for many years, and then another day at breakfast we ran into a fellow traveler we recognized from the pepper farm tour. While she was from Holland, her friends were from none other than Chi-Town USA. That quickly turned into a where did you live, how long are you traveling style game and somehow we even found out that one of the girls is friends with our friend Jon, and the other girl dates a guy who went to my high school. It’s a small world boys and girls.
Kampot like Siem Reap had a choose your own movie theater and we couldn't wait to see if it measured up to Siem Reap. This one was a bit different as instead of a couch, you sat on what was essentially a massive raised bed, but instead of a large projection it was more or less a 50-inch TV. Either way, it was air conditioned and we enjoyed the newest Coen Brothers movie, Hail Caesar. What really got us excited though was the big sign outside the theater stating that every Monday on the big screen they re-air the previous night’s latest Game of Thrones. We were super excited and couldn't wait until Monday night!
Even though we are still hesitant about anything involving boats, we overcame our fears and did a really nice (and smooth) cruise down the river. For only $5 a person (including a free beer), we were able to chill on the top of a two story boat for a few hours, drink beers, and watch the sunset. We arrived a bit early not wanting to miss the tour and while we definitely hadn't needed to rush, we were glad we did because this was a very popular evening activity for tourists and locals alike and we're lucky to snag a prime spot on some gym mats on the roof. The boat stopped at a fun river bar for those inclined to jump off the boat into the water and swim or grab a cocktail, and went to an area that had dozens and dozens of fireflies in the bushes and trees. All in all, we really enjoyed our laid back evening and one of our first great boat experiences.
The next day we rented a moped for attempt number two at finding the caves. This worked out a little better this time around, until it didn't. With better directions we found the caves and upon approaching the final leg before the entrance, two boys around fifteen or so approached us on their bike asking if we wanted a tour. We were told ahead of time that this is what would happen, that for around a dollar, one of the teenagers would tour you around the cave. We said one could be our guide and we followed them the rest of the way there. The cave was pretty neat, with some cool looking formations, bats, and some pretty tight quarters to wiggle through to get to the end. It was no Meramec Caverns but still pretty sweet. Plus, I found an adventure activity that I could best Steph at, spelunking ended up not being her thing.
It started raining a bit on our way back but we were kind of in no man’s land so decided to push on. Most of the time the main roads whether it be Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, etc. are actually pretty good, not what you might expect from countries that don't have a lot of extra money for infrastructure. But when you have to take side roads, for example to get to the caves, they are typically just dirt roads. I was driving pretty slow and near the shoulder which had a bit more of a mud build up and before even realizing what was happening, the front tire slipped and we bit it. Luckily we walked away with just some cuts and bruises and the bike seemed okay after a quick rinse at a gas station.
This nice family who saw our fall was even gracious enough to let us wash off the mud in their yard and brought us some iodine and cotton for my cuts. We made it back to our hotel and waited out the rain before heading out again to this hostel/restaurant/bar on the river that was recommend to us by the Chicago girls. I was kind of surprised Steph got back on the bike that day but she’s a trooper! To get to and from this spot did have a few more tight turns and dusty roads, so while it was a beautiful place to have a meal, I think we were both happy to park the bike for the rest of Kampot!
The rest of our time was filled with some nice cafes, a random New Orleans themed bar a native from Louisiana ran, an amazing Game of Thrones episode on a movie theater size screen and some more good food. It was nice to finish Cambodia with Kampot, we enjoyed the vibe here and presumably end our time in Vietnam on a high note. Besides a quick and easy layover in Phnom Penh, we were off to Vietnam. Things don’t always go as planned though…
Most of the time we find it quite easy to book our transportation to the next city via our hotel or guesthouse which usually also serves as a mini travel agency. We decided to book what we thought was another big bus from Kampot back to Phnom Penh for our one-night layover before Vietnam and we were in for a bit of a surprise. After being driven around town picking up all the other passengers we arrived at the “bus station” which was a five-minute walk from our guesthouse. After driving around for 45 minutes picking everyone else up, we get off the mini bus and wait for another one to take us all the way to Phenom Penh. Our transfer was quite confusing and for some reason instead of ending up on a mini bus with all the other foreigners and tourists we were put on the mini bus with all the Cambodian locals.
Our three hour ride back to Phnom Penh took more like four and a half hours as the mini bus stopped in literally every small village along the way letting passengers on and off. Also seats in the van meant for three people often squeezed in double that amount with families of six squishing into one row. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone just strapped themselves to the roof! To make matters worse about an hour into the ride I started feeling very queasy. Originally I thought it might have been car sickness from all the starting and stopping, but it quickly became evident that for the first time during our trip I’d been struck with food poisoning. I spent the next few hours breathing heavily and trying not to be sick. Finally, we arrived in Phnom Penh and I went straight to bed, but not before puking out the side of a Tuk Tuk. Cambodia made its mark on me and I guess I left a little of myself there as well.