Day 333 – 28 January, 2016
Feeling perhaps a little melancholy after leaving my island paradise behind, Kampot would be where I would bide my time before I could enter Vietnam. Kampot sits on the river by the same name and is a sleepy town compared to the metropolis of Phnom Penh or the touristy Siem Reap. It feels unrushed and friendly, with good food, nice views, and less chaos.
Kampot is known for its salt and pepper, a rather abstract claim, I know. Salt is extracted from sea water just outside of town and somewhat further afield, pepper plantations are abundant where the berries are sun-dried to make black pepper. The infamous salt and pepper crab had more than a few mouths watering at the hostel.
Purely by coincidence, I poked my head into Epic Arts, a non-profit cafe that encourages special needs students to participate in the arts. The atmosphere was inviting and they boasted fresh coffee (which can sometimes be difficult to find), but it wasn’t until after reading some of the literature posted on the walls that I discovered the true agenda behind this cafe. They actively promote the message that the disabled matter (in a society that is rooted to the contrary) by giving them an outlet of creativity and fostering their natural talents in the arts. Their work is on display and for sale in an adjacent storefront.
Among the various tours on offer, nothing much appealed to me. They seemed somewhat contrived or forced, as if the serene setting of Kampot itself wasn’t enough to entice travelers to visit. I found the fact that there wasn’t much to do to be the most appealing part about my stay there. The food was remarkable and innovative cafes were popping up along the Main Street. Amok, a soup of coconut milk, chilies, and other veggies that can be made with either fish or chicken, was one of my favorites and to find it served in a hollowed out coconut was a real treat. After eating the same food for weeks, finding sautéed green pumpkin and tofu was another fantastic meal. And for breakfast, Epic Arts served fresh tomatoes, diced over toast with a poached egg. I was eating better than I had in ages in this forgotten town!
A half day trip to Bokor Mountain Hill Station, originally built as a resort by French colonial settlers, proved to be an interesting excursion. The highlight being the abandoned Bokor Palace Hotel that began construction in 1925, but was never completed. With an eerie backdrop, the graffitied and moss-covered building was left vacant when the First Indochina War began. Reopened in 1962, it was established as a casino only to be subsequently reabandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over the area. An empty Catholic church and a post office complement the site. Other stops included some average-looking temples, a viewpoint that was obscured by the clouds, and a waterfall that was completely devoid of water (dry season), which did not help the case of renewing my interest in waterfalls.
Kep, a forgotten beach town, was only 42km away so that seemed worth a visit. Many people visit Kep as part of a tour from Kampot for only a 30 minute stop, which did just not seem long enough. So contrary to popular agenda, I took a local bus in order to spend the whole day. Upon arrival, I managed to view the whole 200m beach in one sweep. It wasn’t a bad-looking beach, but it certainly didn’t stand up to expectations. I decided to walk to see what I might have been missing further south. Well, nothing, actually. There were rows of elevated platforms with hammocks and ladies waving passing vehicles into their stalls. The purpose of these stalls wasn’t clear, but I can only assume that you could “rent” a hammock by purchasing beer from the corresponding attendant. One of these women spanked me with a broom as I walked by (for no apparent reason). When I turned to scowl at her, she just laughed with a toothless cackle.
On the north side of the beach, a foul odor was almost suffocating. Upon observation, the odor was coming from an open sewage line that emptied right into the same water where tourists were swimming nearby (not unique to Kep, raw sewage is also a prominent feature on Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville as well). With that, I spent the remaining hours of the afternoon in the only shade I could find, sipping on an overpriced banana smoothie, and wishing I was back in Kampot.
Leaving Cambodia with mixed feelings, I felt ready to go. At times, I had been wildly impressed – the temples of Angkor Wat, the beaches on Koh Rong Samloem, the peacefulness of Kampot. And at other times, I had been wildly disappointed, constantly on guard against scams, pickpockets, and false advertising. The bus that picked me up for my final journey across the border was a creaking, squeaking, leaking hunk of metal. It had no shocks so that the tiniest imperfection in the road would send your head dangerously close to a concussion on the ceiling. Not enough seats for the passengers, nor enough storage space for luggage, people and backpacks were piled high in the aisle and somehow I had been pushed into the very last row.
At the border crossing, two petite youngish girls climbed on board. They very sweetly requested our passports and for $1, they would expedite our immigration process. Two hours already on this horrendous bus journey and the passengers were not prepared to relinquish passports this time. An argument ensued where the still smiling ladies pointed out that obviously we could not get off of the bus ourselves because the aisle was blockaded with luggage and bodies (by design). The bus attendant stood in front of the door to prevent any unauthorized exit while the girls patiently stood at the front, collecting passports and $1 bills. It was not the money; it was the coercion that was despised. Nothing like being held hostage on a fire hazard of a bus in the heat just to exit a country that you so desperately want to leave at this point anyway.
Our passports were stacked, thrown into a plastic bag, and taken inside the immigration office while the bus drove on to the Vietnamese side of the border, at which time we were then told to get off of the bus. This was obviously accomplished by crawling over the seats, all of the passengers growing louder and more irritated about the previous ruse. It took over an hour for our passports to come across and, one by one, our names were called to retrieve our documents. We had long since figured out that we were still missing a stamp. The long wait had only been for the Cambodian exit stamp.
Inside Vietnamese immigration, the first counter was a “medical” counter where we had to answer a couple of questions about whether we had had a fever recently or any other flu-like symptoms. A man behind the counter aimed a laser thermometer into the crowd of people from perhaps 2 meters away, wrote down a number on the top sheet of paper, identified who the paper belonged to, and then demanded $1 from said person before setting that paper aside. This same accurate temperature-taking method was repeated for several of us, as we ultimately rolled our eyes and moved on to the next counter without paying. We weren’t detained. We weren’t forced to pay. I am learning that this is a game in how far they can push the limit and how much they can get away with – this group of travelers had been pushed too far.