We left our hotel room and booked into one just down the road because they’ve got the builders in and it was really, really noisy. It’s fifteen dollars a night here but we have aircon and we had a quiet day after a noisy night before. There’s also cameras and a security man outside, the door at pepper looked like it could be blown in by a good huff and a puff by the big bad wolf.
There’s a restaurant and bar opposite that’s owned by a couple of English men and the bar is run by a big long haired Scot. They serve good food and on Tuesdays hold a quiz night. They sell Kampot pepper vodka, and John, the Wigan bloke we’d met in Trat thought we should try it.
It’s not a delicate drink. Black with peppercorns, it’s a robust flavour which first makes you gasp, before your eyes start to water. It’s like having serious heartburn.
Enough said. It was a long night and we came sixth out of nine teams.
I gave up trying to describe how stupid we looked.
The day before yesterday we hired a bike and went up into the Bokor mountains.
Before that we’d been for a potter around the town and down to the old market.
They drive on the left, nominally, though this rule is more a discretionary one than a rule set in concrete, or I suspect, actually written down anywhere in anything like a highway code or anything, and I’m not sure that there is anything like the inconvenience of having to pass a driving test, unless they take it when they’re very young, maybe twelve or thirteen.
The Bokor mountain national park is about a fifty km ride up the world’s greatest road, and I don’t care what top gear say.
This road snakes and winds and hairpins and climbs and snakes some more, and just to make it really really cool, there’s some more hairpins. Up just over a kilometre high where you find an old French colonial retreat, and from where you can peer on the majestic splendour of creation. If you believe in god the creator, you could almost forgive him for all the wars and death and the mosquitoes.
A travel writer said in the nineties that the top of Bokor mountain is the eeriest place in the world but we were lucky enough to see it on a good day. More often than not the top is wreathed in cloud and mist. I’ll bet it is spooky then.
From there, a kilometre high, looking down from the top of a stomach churning drop, the forest looks like…sorry, words fail me, what do you think a forest looks like from over half a mile up? Help me. Answers on a postcard.
It’s like coming in to land when you’re flying somewhere, the town looked just like looking at a satellite picture.
The world’s greatest road
There are gibbons in them trees, cos we heard them, and there are also elephants and leopard and two types of bear and definitely white crested hornbills, because we saw a couple of those. There are pangolin, which is an Asian penguin, deer, martins, civet cats, mongoose, and more than a billion different types of tree. There are also Khmer Rouge reputed to be there still, though officially not, because the authorities wouldn’t be able to open the park were it true.
Honestly, go on Google earth and follow the road we took from Kampot to the top of Bokor mountain on a little 110cc moto to the old Bokor Hill Station and then look online for the Bokor National Park and you will be amazed, although probably not as much as we were, getting up there on a 110cc bike.
We were supplied with helmets, when I asked. Well, a helmet. I asked for another but was told it’s only necessary to wear one if you’re driving, and bollicks to your passenger. But he managed to find another for us. The helmets are limited to about 40 kmph, any quicker and the blow off your head backwards and throttle you.
Another weird law we were told about, one that’s just too weird to get your head around is the one that says it’s illegal to have your lights on during the day but it’s ok to drive with no lights at night!
An exclamation mark isn’t enough to end a statement like that. I could do with a new set of punctuation for Asia, really. Perhaps a ‘what the f ***’ mark, and a ‘well I wasn’t expecting that’ mark. I’d have used one of those when we were overtaken yesterday by a man on a moto with a fully grown pig in a cage on the back, squealing its lungs out. That made me jump I can tell you!
I’m going to gloss over Wednesday entirely and try to forget the hang over we had and move quickly on to Thursday.
We got up reasonably early and decided we’d take the little Honda to a place called Kep, about twenty five km away once you find the right road.
A lot further when you ride round for twenty minutes, fill up with petrol, go the wrong way, look for the right route again and finally give up and go back to the hotel to find the map that you left there by mistake.
There’s a place called the secret lake on the way we thought we’d go to take a look at as well.
We’d been warned not to take the old bridge by a couple of people. It’s not so bad, John from Wigan.
The old bridge has become quite an icon for the reason that it is, in fact, three bridges welded together in a bit of a rush it seems, after it was breached in the days of the fighting. They’re the same width, happily, these three bridges, but different heights, and the authorities, or somebody somewhere has laid steel sheets along its length for the road surface. Mostly these lay nicely. Mostly. Some of them are laid with the edge coming up off the surface in an intimidating way that seems likely to burst your tires. John had a point actually, come to think of it.
We were advised to go instead about a quarter of a mile to the new bridge, which was built as a bridge, with the purpose of bridging the span between the two banks of the river with a bridge. Not three bridges cobbled together, but when in Cambodia, do like the Romans do eh.
There’s a loud blang, which is a bump combined with a clang when you accelerate up the steep bit where the bridges join, and then more blanging all the way across before you dismount the bridges with another, enormous blang, and then you’re on the road. But not for long.
Tarmac gives way, sort of without much of a fight to a rutted, rock studded and terrifying dust track.
Lorries, bikes and the occasional car hoot their intention to come by as you’re gently picking your way through potholes and surface rocks, trying, unsuccessfully in our case, not to burst your tire.
About two thirds of the way to Kep, the back tire began slurring about and we stopped to take a look. A man stopped and pointed out unnecessarily, that the back tire was flat. Oh great.
We turned back and headed back to Kampot even more slowly than we’d come, and then saw a roadside repair shop. Excellent.
The brilliant man had the tire off in seconds and within fifteen minutes had fixed the inner tube, one of them. There were three in there, flattened out to provide extra protection.
He reinflated the tire and pointed out a big split in it, and then deflated it a bit so it wasn’t apparent and we were ready to go.
‘One dollar,’ he said.
One dollar, that’s 64p. He could have charged us two, or three, or ten and we wouldn’t have known whether he was being fair or not.
He accepted his dollar with both hands, which is the polite way for Cambodians, either with two hands or with the right but holding your right elbow with your left hand.
I really wish we’d given him two dollars now.
A man fixes a puncture
To call it a dirt road is to do a grave injustice to dirt. At home you might think ‘that cup is dirty’ and rinse it under the tap before making a refreshing cup of tea, for example, or ‘that shirt is dirty’ and wear another one. A dirt track is a whole different order of dirt.
Your visibility is down to feet sometimes, and no matter how tightly you shut your mouth, you’re grinding the stuff in your teeth. Your eyes feel gritty and your clothes are ingrained with it. No amount of slapping your shorts with your hands will work and they probably wouldn’t burn nearly as successfully as mine did when I didn’t notice my lighter was still lit before I put it on my shorts last week.
We bumped down another track to the secret lake, where there are two open cafes and some children swimming.
We sat to have a coke, the only white men around, feeling slightly nervous since we heard about a French girl whose mutilated body was found in the river two weeks ago.
There’s always a dark side.
I don’t know why the secret lake was built by the Khmer rouge, only that it was built using forced labour. There’s always a dark side.
It was a couple of miles off the road and completely rural so we didn’t hang around. I’m sure it was quite safe but that story freaked me out and Nel’s hair is now bleached very blond, and they like that.
After bumping back to the main dirt track we carried on to Kep, a coast town where we drank cans of winter melon, which, it turns out is made from marrows and was quite foul and not some kind of melon as we’d assumed it would be. Melons are tasty and sweet. Marrows are vegetables and are not, I repeat, not suitable for making into a soft drink.
Kep had the feeling of a seaside town in Britain during the winter, but more desolate. Apparently it comes alive at weekends with visitors from Phnom Penh but yesterday the roads were deserted and there were very few people around. There was a strange and eerie feeling to it.
The twenty odd km back to Kampot took us an hour or so, bumping and choking our way.
Even after a shower with loads of soap and shampoo, the towel was streaked with with red dust still and my shorts are probably unsalvageable.
We had another quiet night in after dinner at Blissful guesthouse restaurant, and listened to the afternoon play on radio 4 at quarter past nine. Haha!
Dug out canoes at the secret lake.