Thursday, 2 January 2014

Happy New Year - Koh Kong to Kep

Oli was feeling considerably better on Boxing Day, although still not quite 100%. We decided it was best not to overdo it, and confined ourselves to going out for a coffee in the morning, then resting again for a while back at our hotel. By the afternoon we were satisfied that Oli's breakfast was definitely not going to reappear, so thought it was safe to go for a wander around the city before going out for cocktails and dinner. Our walk took us past the Independence Monument (built in 1958 to recognise Cambodia's liberation from French rule in 1953), then along the busy streets of the city. Although we did not exactly get a full dose of the seedier side of Phnom Penh, when we ducked through a side street on our way to the river, we did notice several insalubrious looking bars. Our suspicions were compounded when we noticed one bar sign that assured everyone that there were “no lonely sad girl, only happy friendly girl” within the establishment. That's good then.

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The river front itself is a slightly strange area of Phnom Penh, but not altogether unpleasant. Whilst the promenade has been beautifully renovated with manicured greenery and trees, the riverbank itself was full of rubbish. There was a strange mixture of buildings lining the road, some shabby and others fancy. Our destination was one of the latter – the Foreign Correspondents Club. Set in an old colonial building on the river front, this place has an iconic status in Phnom Penh. Once a hangout for foreign journalists, it is now a hotel, restaurant and bar. As it was happy hour, we treated ourselves to a couple of delicious Ginger Rogers cocktails each. The final bill for this extravagance came in at just $10 (£6). As we have mentioned before, it is going to be very hard to get used to European prices again when we eventually stop travelling!

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Whilst the food at the FCC did look tempting, we had another place in mind. We decided to use some of our Christmas money from the family to treat ourselves to a meal at Van's, a French restaurant located within an old mansion. It was a beautiful setting, with food to match. Oli's stomach was still not up to mega eating, but he put in a good effort before deciding he could not manage a dessert. Ever the brave soldier, I finished my meal with a trio of crème brulee, which was incredible. Stuffed to the gills, we for once relented and took a tuk-tuk home rather than walking, and collapsed into bed.

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Sadly, either my body did not agree with my brain regarding the excellence of the food, or I had managed to catch whatever Oli had been suffering from. Not long after falling asleep I was most unfortunately awake and violently sick, which was not the ideal end to the evening (apologies for the overshare). I managed to sleep for the rest of the night, but still felt terrible when we awoke the next morning. We were supposed to leave Phnom Penh that day for Koh Kong, but I just did not have the energy to attempt it. We spent the day much as we had Christmas day, although this time it was me feeling sorry for myself rather than Oli.

A day's rest had done wonders, and the following morning I was feeling a lot better. We successfully loaded up the bike, thanked the guest house owners for looking after us so well, and were on our way. The political dramas are still ongoing here, and we saw a couple of rallies as we drove. Unfortunately for us, one of these was blocking the road entirely, with no obvious detour available. A man on a scooter waved to us as he U-turned, gesturing for us to follow him. With no alternative, we happily complied, and ended up riding along a narrow, dusty road. Our route took us through a monastery and a small village, our loud and ridiculously large bike drawing curious stares. Eventually we reached the main road, coming out just the other side of the rally. We waved gratefully to our guide, and cheerfully sped off.

The remainder of the ride to Koh Kong went relatively smoothly, with the only issue being my feeling faint a couple of times, as I was still recovering. The route was beautiful, with the second half of the ride taking us on a more minor road, over pretty wetlands and through dense jungle. With the exception of a few short sections, the road was on the whole in good condition. Apparently the roads are fairly new, built within the past 3 – 5 years. However, it appears to have been cheaply done. The surface is deteriorating already, opening up into small but deep potholes. We could see from these that the asphalt layer of the road was barely a centimetre thick. No wonder it is breaking up.

Aside from the variable road conditions and my illness, we enjoyed the drive immensely. The forest that the road carved through covered a vast area. We even noticed road signs warning of elephants, although the creatures themselves were feeling shy. Looking at how dense the forest was, it was difficult to imagine such a large animal moving through it. In places, the jungle would open up onto wide rivers, the forested mountains rising serenely from the water. We stopped on one of the bridges and admired the scene for a while, both totally understanding how a person might wish to sell everything and just move to Cambodia instead.

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Sadly however, Cambodia's forests are under threat, and deforestation is a huge problem. According to a U.N. Report, in 2005 the country had the third highest rate of deforestation in the world. Nearly 75% of the forest has been lost since 1990. Although efforts to crack down on illegal logging are ongoing, poverty can lead to people becoming involved with the lucrative trade. Even official sources have publicly (and controversially) stated that deforestation can be good economically [Link] Hopefully these issues can be resolved and the remaining forest protected.

We arrived in Koh Kong town by late afternoon, and quickly settled in to our hotel. The term “sleepy” is definitely banded about too much in the world of travel writing, but Koh Kong really is. Quietly sat on the banks of a tidal river, it is a peaceful and tranquil little town. We swiftly decided to relax the next day, and save our sightseeing for the day after, when we would take a trip to Koh Kong island.

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The island itself is set just off the mainland, around two hours away by slow boat. It is almost completely uninhabited, although it is used by the military. We set off early in the morning with a small group, and arrived on the beach just after 10 a.m. It was beautiful – exactly the picture of what a tropical beach should be. Crystal clear water lapped gently onto sand so fine that it squeaked when we walked on it, and dense jungle fringed edge of the beach. A lunch of barbecued barracuda (and veg for the non-meat eaters such as myself) was provided, rounded off with generous helpings of fresh pineapple. The only down side was the sand flies, and despite heavy duty bug spray we all managed to pick up a few bites.

We left the beach in the early afternoon, just as the sky started to cloud over. The open sea had become more choppy, and our narrow boat splashed through the waves. We all ended up cold and drenched with sea spray, although Oli and I enjoyed the excitement of the ride. We arrived back to shore without any problems, where it was time to visit a mangrove forest before heading back to town.

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The mangrove reservation of Koh Kong is supposedly the largest such preserve in Asia. We weren't quite sure what to expect, but for a small entry fee of $1.25 each, we could enter the forest and wander for around 1.5 kilometres along a concrete walkway. Despite said walkway not being the safest, it was actually a great experience. The roots of the trees at low tide rose spider like from the mud, whilst small crabs skittered around the forest floor. Loud popping noises (apparently made by the crabs) provided background noise, adding to the beautiful but slightly eerie atmosphere of the dense forest. As we exited the mangroves and found ourselves back on the river, we noticed many tiny fiddler crabs. I found them hilarious, as the species is characterised by the males having one claw dramatically larger than the other. They looked incredibly comical dragging this huge arm around, and I was quite enamoured with them as a result.

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From the mangroves, it was just a short boat ride back to town. Night had fallen by the time we arrived, and I was slightly alarmed by the state of the jetty at which we docked. Situated quite high above the water, it was constructed from wood and bamboo. Narrow, and with some substantial holes, I did not enjoy negotiating it in the dark, much to Oli's amusement. Thankfully I made it to shore without embarrassing myself too much, where we waved goodbye to the rest of the group before heading home for much needed pre-dinner showers.

The next day was our last in Koh Kong. After a slow start, we were determined not to waste the day. We hopped on the bike and made our way towards where we had been told we could see a large waterfall, a few kilometres out of town. We decided to leave our bike on the dirt track leading into the jungle, as a walk would do us good. It was an easy and short hike to the falls, only becoming steep towards the very end. The falls themselves were beautiful, although the serenity was reduced somewhat as there were plenty of loud visitors. We sat for a while admiring the rush of the water, before hiking back up the hill to the bike.

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Before heading home, we decided to pay a visit to Wat Mondul Seyma, situated a little way out of town and very close to the Thai border. At first, this seems a pleasant place of worship, right on the banks of the river and set within seemingly peaceful woodland. However, a short walk through the trees reveals an unexpectedly macabre tableau of disturbing statues. These invoke bloody images of Buddhist hell, with signs explaining in Cambodian what wrongdoers can expect as divine punishment for specific crimes. Whilst horrible and unsettling, it was interesting to see, as it was an unusual and disturbingly unique display, and not one we would normally associate with a place of worship.

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Leaving the grisly scenes behind, we jumped back on the bike and made our way back to town. It was New Year's Eve, but as with Christmas, it did not feel like it to us. We ended up spending the first part of the evening at Fat Sam's, a bar / restaurant run by a friendly Welshman, his Cambodian wife, and an amiable Scotsman. A mixture of $0.75 beers, good food and a pleasant atmosphere had actually made sure that we visited every evening of our stay, so it felt only right that we ate there on our last evening in town. We left considerably before midnight, and saw in the New Year at our hotel, falling asleep as the fireworks eventually died down.

We left Koh Kong yesterday morning, and reached our destination of Kep in surprisingly good time. Unsure of the road conditions, we had been expecting the journey to take around six or seven hours, so were surprised to reach it in only four. Whilst we had been relaxing in Koh Kong, sections of the forest road had been resurfaced. This would have been great, if we did not discover it on rounding a blind bend, covering a twisty section of road. The new tarmac had been strewn with a thick layer of very loose gravel, which would have been difficult to ride on even if we hadn't approached it at speed. Somehow, Oli managed to hold it, and we made it back to solid ground without skidding off. Phew.

Our hotel in Kep is beautiful. We had decided to treat ourselves to somewhere nice with our Christmas money, and for just £35 a night here we have a huge room. The resort is situated in lush tropical gardens, and has a pretty pool area. After £6 a night hotels it feels like full on luxury, and we can see that it is going to be hard to motivate ourselves to do anything other than laze around!

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