A wat more to Cam­bo­dia

The Angkor tem­ples draw the tourists but the rest of this coun­try is well worth ex­plor­ing

Sunshine Coast Daily - Caloundra Weekly - - TRADES & SERVICES - BY SI­MON WALSH

THE ut­terly charm­ing town of Kam­pot is on the es­tu­ar­ine reaches of the Kam­pot River in south­ern Cam­bo­dia.

In the shadow of the Ele­phant Moun­tains, sur­rounded by ver­dant rice pad­dies and sway­ing sugar palms, this former French re­sort town has con­sid­er­able ap­peal.

Man­grove salt­pans and pep­per farms pro­vided the fra­grant sea­son­ing for some mighty fine lo­cal cui­sine.

Fresh squid quickly tossed in a light, fra­grant soy broth and then served with crushed fresh green Kam­pot pep­per, salt and lime juice was sen­sa­tional.

We stayed at the Villa Vedici, a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres down­stream from Kam­pot town.

A self-con­tained villa gave us all the com­forts of home, sweep­ing ex­otic vis­tas and a deep blue pool and wel­com­ing bar to set the scene.

At the week­end, some ex­pats from Ph­nom Penh stayed and re­galed us with tales of clear­ing some of the up to seven mil­lion land­mines that re­main, a dan­ger­ous le­gacy of 30 years of war.

We hired scoot­ers to ex­plore the coun­try­side at our leisure. Nar­row roads were dot­ted with oxen drag­ging wooden carts laden with rice or palm sugar cakes for mar­ket.

Farm­ers planted rice seedlings in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the com­ing rains as wa­ter buf­falo wal­lowed in ponds.

To­wards sun­set, boats raced to catch squid and fish.

One day we went to Kep, a play­ground of French colo­nials, de­servedly fa­mous for de­li­cious crab cui­sine. It was my 49th birth­day and I was de­lighted to cel­e­brate it in a rus­tic tim­ber shack over­hang­ing the cool, breezy wa­ters of the Gulf of Thai­land.

We ate the famed Kam­pot pep­per crab with a steam­ing side of hot and sour seafood soup. Of course, my son Jack had the chips.

Jack turned 12 dur­ing our stay in Kam­pot and he wanted to go rock climb­ing with Clim­bo­dia.

My wife and son are con­fi­dent climbers but my abil­i­ties are chal­lenged by a naked ter­ror of fall­ing.

Our host, David, had ar­ranged to meet us the even­ing be­fore.

His calm en­thu­si­asm and re­as­sur­ing man­ner helped set­tle any nerves, although the icy cold beer didn’t hurt ei­ther.

The next day we met David and his two Cam­bo­dian guides.

The site was a lime­stone peak punch­ing up through the rice pad­dies and tow­er­ing over the lo­cal houses and vil­lage.

We started with a rea­son­ably easy climb and then tra­versed across a cliff edge (all the while safely be­layed or at­tached to thick wire guide ropes).

The views to the Ele­phant Moun­tains were tremen­dous. Then we ab­seiled down a 30m chim­ney.

At all times the guides were ex­tremely safety con­scious and help­ful. One fel­low had de­vel­op­ing English skills that some­times made in­ter­pre­ta­tion in­ter­est­ing.

Then we went through the caves in­side the peak and saw lots of cavey things in­clud­ing some bizarre un­der­ground crea­tures such as scor­pion-spi­ders and mon­strous mil­li­pedes.

The fol­low­ing day we rode our scoot­ers up the Bokor Moun­tain, where the French had es­tab­lished a hill sta­tion in the early 1920s.

At more than 1000m above sea level, Bokor of­fers a chilled cli­mate above the dusty plains.

We raced tour buses and other bikes up the moun­tain, while dodg­ing rain­squalls and fe­ro­cious winds.

To­wards the peak, glimpses of as­ton­ish­ing views over the sea be­came ap­par­ent. Near a mas­sive seated Bud­dha, the ru­ined sum­mer re­treat of the Cam­bo­dian king pro­vided a spooky half-way house. At the top, the clouds rolled in and pro­vided an at­mo­spheric am­bi­ence that dom­i­nated the af­ter­noon.

Rid­ing fur­ther into the mist we spied a haunt­ing sight, the in­fa­mous Bokor Ho­tel. Wreathed by swirling fog, the spir­its of days gone still lurked.

Of­fi­cially opened on Valen­tine’s Day in 1925, the hill sta­tion pro­vided the lo­ca­tion for many a soiree.

Dur­ing its con­struc­tion and that of the ac­cess road, more than 900 peo­ple died, many from malaria. It was aban­doned for the first time in the late 1940s dur­ing the strug­gles for free­dom by Free Kh­mer fight­ers.

Fol­low­ing in­de­pen­dence from France in 1953, the re­sort was slowly re­stored and by the early 1960s again saw cus­tom from wealthy pa­trons.

The mil­i­tary ad­vances of the Kh­mer Rouge led to its sec­ond aban­don­ment in 1972, with the KR not fully re­lin­quish­ing con­trol un­til the early 1990s.

Dur­ing the late 1970s and early 1980s, Viet­namese troops were based in the Bokor Ho­tel fight­ing vi­ciously against the KR who had en­sconced them­selves 500m away in the nowru­ined Catholic church.

The near-ver­ti­cal kilo­me­tre­high cliffs just a stone’s throw be­hind the ho­tel pro­vided a point of no re­turn for some.

To­day the ho­tel stands mute in the mists. A re­cent ren­der of con­crete is seen by some as the start of a third in­car­na­tion for the Bokor Ho­tel.

The views are said to be mag­nif­i­cent, although the day we vis­ited we were lucky to see 20m away.

I hope it does work out, as Cam­bo­dia needs ev­ery tourist dol­lar it can get (cur­rently pro­vid­ing 20% of GDP, mainly through the Angkor tem­ple com­plex).

❝ The views to the Ele­phant Moun­tains were tremen­dous. Then we ab­seiled down a 30m chim­ney.

CALM COR­NER: A Cam­bo­dian Bud­dhist reads a book un­der a tree near a tem­ple on a hill in Bokor Na­tional Park in Cam­bo­dia. TOP RIGHT: Build­ings along a river in Kam­pot. ABOVE RIGHT: An aban­doned tem­ple in Ph­nom Bokor, Kam­pot Prov­ince. PHOTO: ISTOCK

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