Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More from Cambodia--Phnom Penh, Kep, Kampot

To get from Battambang to the capital, Phnom Penh, we chose again from the Menu of Uncomfortable Means of Transportation, this time selecting a 6-hour bus ride on the Capital bus line. It was long but not too bad--no loud music or blaring videos. The bus was full; we were the only Westerners. $7 each. We had two pit stops at roadside restaurants along the way, where everybody piled out, gobbled down some noodles or other food (we passed--we're trying to lose weight and the food was as appetizing looking as bus station fare is all over the world), then scrambled back onboard.

As we approached the city we saw yet another means of transportation--motorbikes pulling flatbed wagons on which 10 or 12 people rode. When we finally pulled up to the Phnom Penh bus station we were met by the usual crowd of tuk-tuks. One enterprising guy made eye contact with us from outside the bus while we were still on it, offering us a ride, and we silently negotiated the price through the windows. He wanted $4--we ended up paying $3, though the going rate is more like $2. He didn't really know where our hotel (Villa Paradiso) was located, but he asked a driver friend for help and we worked together to eventually find it. Kind of an Amazing Race moment! (We've had a lot of those on this trip.)

We had 2 full days in Phnom Penh, which was enough to see the tourist highlights and get a sense of the modernized section of the city. It's quite large but not nearly as frenetic as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. There are plenty of motorbikes, but they haven't yet overwhelmed the place--both tourists and locals catch rides in the many tuk-tuks that ply the streets. We saw only a tiny part of the city; it spreads out for a long way from the edge of the Mekong.

In our two days in the capital we either walked or took tuk-tuks to excellent restaurants. Favorites were Yumi, a bistro with inventive Japanese food, and Friends, a Cambodian restaurant-with-a-cause (helping less fortunate kids learn the restaurant trade). We also spent time at the beautiful national museum (chock full of high-quality Khmer statuary and carvings from the ancient temples, and far nicer than the museum we visited in Siem Reap, a 1/4 the price). We also shopped along trendy Street 240 (most streets are numbered), which has a lot of nice boutique shops with silk, fashions, and art. Our hotel was on Street 228, in a very quiet, well-off section of town. We made a quick trip to the Russian market (nothing Russian about it) but quickly concluded that we didn't need to spend much time walking up and down the hot, crowded, stifling aisles full of clothes and food. I think we've seen enough Asian markets for a while! It was kind of funny to see Christmas decorations here and there along the streets--we are so far removed from our normal holiday routine that Christmas seems like just an oddity this year.

Part of the Royal Palace

A fashion shoot with the Royal Palace mural as a backdrop
The Royal Palace grounds are spacious and beautiful, with the star attractions being a painted mural on the walls surrounding the compound that illustrates the Ramayana story, and the Silver Pagoda, with a floor made of silver and a couple of stunning Buddhas (no photos allowed). Since we visited on a Sunday the normally quiet compound was buzzing with saffron-robed monks and with Cambodian families who come into the city for a visit to the palace grounds.

Lots of monks in Phnom Penh

We rounded out our city visit with a sunset cruise on the Mekong (quite a contrast between the built-up city side of the river and the still rural country side) where we met some of the only Americans we've seen in Cambodia--a family of Cambodian Americans who fled to Houston in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over and have been returning for biannual visits for the past several years. They love coming back but are also very happy to be living in the U.S. We also hit the bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club--another place much-visited by Westerners, with nice views of the waterfront from an iconic building overlooking the Mekong.

The Mekong from the FCC bar

Then it was out of town again (by car this time) for a trip south to seaside Kep and its neighboring town upriver, Kampot. In Kep-sur-mer, as it was formerly called, dozens of French-built villas from the colonial period used to line the shore. They were destroyed in the Khmer Rouge years and are just abandoned hulks now, but all the land has been snapped up by investors and there's been some attempt recently at rebuilding a few of the big houses. For now, though, Kep is a sleepy town with not much going on except a lively crab market with rustic cafes hanging over the bay where you can get delicious fresh blue crabs, squid, and prawns cooked in green peppercorn sauce, lemon grass, chili, or whatever way you want. We ate at the Sunset Restaurant--well, you could call it a restaurant; it's more like a large shack--which sits on stilts over the water and watched one of the longest-lasting sunsets we've seen in a while. We stayed for the night at Vanna Bungalows, rustic yet modern cabins on the hillside overlooking the sea.

Damn. Another sunset.

An offering at Bokor
Our final 4 days in Cambodia have been spent in Kampot, a languid town that hugs the riverbank about 25 km from Kep. We've been staying at Rikitikitavi, a wooden inn on the river with 7 rooms, an open-air restaurant upstairs, and a bar with happy hour. All the essentials! Through the inn we arranged a couple of good day trips. One took us the 32 km up to Bokor National Park, a former French hill station peppered with ghostly ruined buildings, including a couple of casinos, that again were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period. (Broken record.) The climate is misty and cool, adding to the ghostly effect. The strangest part is that a big new road has been constructed all the way to the top of the mountain--through the park--to service the brand new, huge, ugly hotel and casino being built by a rich and powerful Cambodian investor as the first stage of a giant development project that will sprawl across the hill (think golf courses, villas, etc.). It's kind of disgusting to see the effort and money that have been spent to build the road to the top when so many of the country's other roads are in such need of repair and reconstruction. Looks like Cambodia is no different from the developed world--affluence leads to influence.

Kampot rice ready to harvest

Another trip out of Kampot was a full day touring the countryside, seeing Cambodian rural life from a tuk-tuk. What a beautiful and interesting area! One highlight was a walk through rice and vegetable fields up to Phnom Chnnork, a big cave with a small, 7th-century brick temple inside and one wall that looks--if you're a believer--like an elephant. We were joined by a charming 8-year-old girl who practiced her (already good) English on us as we wandered around. Cambodian kids are irresistible.

Kampot pepper
A little ways up the valley we visited a pepper plantation/fruit orchard. Kampot is famous for its peppercorns, which have actually been assigned a geographical indicator (like French cheese). Pepper was a thriving industry before--you guessed it--the fields were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, but replanting was done in the 1990s and the industry is making a big comeback. We sampled the green pepper straight off the vines and also freshly dried--it packs a punch! I think we bought enough to last us the next 15 years.

This beer doesn't exist yet, but it's advertised all over Cambodia
We're so happy to have had 2 1/2 weeks in Cambodia--a beautiful country with some of the friendliest people we've ever met. It's high on my list of favorite countries--pushing toward the top. Tomorrow we have one more lazy day in Kampot where we'll celebrate John's 70th birthday. Wow! The next day a car will take us back to Phnom Penh for a quick flight to Ho Chi Minh City, where we'll spend the night and then fly westward to the Pacific (via Singapore and Manila) for three weeks of R&R on tropical islands--a vacation from our vacation.

Next stop: Palau, a diver's dream island in the Pacific

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