Thursday, 9 January 2014

Living the Good Life - Kep

We were delighted to have arrived in Kep in plenty of time for a swim, and after settling into our room headed straight for the pool. Our home for the next few days was the Spring Valley resort, a Christmas and New Year treat. Set in lush gardens punctuated everywhere with bright flowers, it truly felt like a paradise to us. Swimming in the pool and admiring the light of the setting sun against the lush jungle of the mountain behind was a wonderful sight, and we immediately felt like we had made a good choice. We finished off the evening with a refreshing cocktail, and enjoyed a feast of a dinner. Falling asleep with only the noise of the cicadas in our ears was wonderful, and for the first time in a while we enjoyed a snooze without earplugs.

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We had planned to have a relaxing first day, and stayed true to this with a decent lie in before heading down for breakfast. Breakfast being included was a real treat for us, and the food on offer did not disappoint. We filled up on numerous helpings of pineapple, banana and dragon fruit salad, followed by omelettes, crepes and fabulous sourdough bread. It must have been pretty obvious to everyone present that we had not seen a buffet breakfast in a long time...To be fair, it has been a while since we have stayed anywhere so classy, so it was quite possible we had forgotten how to behave!

Eventually we did manage to get going, and decided to walk along the coastal road to the Crab Market. It was a pleasant stroll, even if we did have to negotiate our way past a gang of bin-raiding monkeys. Still slightly scarred from how vicious they could be in Nepal, I was pleased to note that they were not particularly interested in us, and that they just carried on about their business as if we weren't there. Upon making it to the market area, we stopped in one of a small number of restaurants on the sea and enjoyed a refreshing ice cream. Feeling like we had exerted ourselves quite enough for one afternoon, we slowly walked back the way we had came, and spent the remaining daylight splashing around in the pool.

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On our jaunt to the Crab Market, we had noticed a nice looking place for dinner (La Baraka), so headed back out along the road. The food was excellent, and after existing mainly on fried noodles and veg whilst in Cambodia, I was more than happy to indulge in a pizza. Western food can be a bit touch and go in Asia, but this was fabulous – the perfect amount of cheese and a thin, crispy base. Oli had taken very little persuasion to try a pizza also, and it was definitely a good choice all round.

We set off from our meal full and happy. The road back home was pretty dark and lonely, and we became gigglingly paranoid about stray dogs and monkeys as we walked. We took the sensible precaution of each picking up a handful of rocks (just in case), and carried on our way. This was obviously the perfect moment for the power to cut out, and the street lights that had dimly been showing the way flickered and died. With no other light sources, we peered for a moment into impenetrable darkness, before remembering that thankfully we had thought to bring a torch. On the plus side, the stars were beautiful. Luckily, it was only that section of road that was affected, and the power was working as usual when we got back to our hotel.

Not wanting to be too lazy, the next day we had planned to explore part of Kep National Park. The main routes were located just a short walk from our hotel, and we quickly reached the Nun's Path, a steep, minor way up the mountain. The humid heat of the day had set in as we started to climb, and we zig-zagged up through dense jungle. Since Oman, we had forgotten that it was humanly possible to sweat so much, and even with a few rest stops, we were pouring. Thankfully, there weren't too many people around to witness us in all our disgusting glory.

We emerged from the narrow path onto a wider track, with a small temple to our right. This was populated with a large family of monkeys, all running about, playing and chasing each other. Although they watched us they didn't seem too bothered, but I picked up a solid looking stick, just in case. We continued a little along the road, before two large dogs appeared in front of us. They did not seem to be feeling too welcoming, and on noticing us immediately commenced barking their heads off. It was either go through them or back to the monkeys, so we picked the dogs. Oli bravely strode forth, clapping his hands and throwing stones near them. I wussily hung back a few paces, surprised that although the dogs continued to bark, they did back off as we approached, eventually giving up. At this point a nun appeared through the trees, scaring a monkey away with the aid of a catapult. Never a dull moment in Cambodia.

After the excitement of the Nun's Centre, the rest of the walk was far more relaxing. We explored the many interlinking trails with the aid of helpful signs and directions, put in place and maintained by an enthusiastic expat. The mountain held plenty of hidden sights, such as a small Buddha sat in a leafy clearing, and a tree that had grown in an archway, the path carving straight through it. The final part of our route was a steep scramble but we were resourceful, our monkey-scaring sticks doubling as walking poles. On re-joining the main path we stopped for a refreshing lime juice at the Led Zep cafe (owned by the same expat who had done such great work on the mountain trails). Sitting on the deck overlooking an incredible view, whilst Mr. Mister's Broken Wings blasted out was a surreal but not unenjoyable experience.

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The next day was to be our last in Kep, and although it was tempting to spend it entirely by the pool, we were determined to make the most of it. Until the 1960s, Kep was Cambodia's premier seaside destination. It was around this time that it was superceded by Sihanoukville, and its golden era was truly finished off by the wars of the 1970s. As a relic of this bygone age, Kep is still home to the shells of at least 100 ruined villas. These were mostly destroyed during Cambodia's troubled years, stripped down by people desperately in need of cash and resources. We were keen to see these buildings with our own eyes, and set out for a walk along a route that we knew would take many of them in. Nature has taken over most of them, but the remains of walls, staircases and grand boundaries can be seen everywhere. Kep is now most firmly on the up, so quite possibly it could look very different in the near future.

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In a very different vein to ruined villas, Kep is also randomly home to a butterfly farm, a few kilometres detour from the main ghost town area. It was a hot but pleasant walk, made more exciting by encounters with local animals. One large bull was definitely not too happy with our presence, and we eyed each other warily. Later, as we walked by one house, a gang of older puppies flew to the fence line yapping away. They squeezed under the boundary and ran towards us, but were terrified when we took a couple of bold steps towards them, bee-lining it back to the safety of their garden kingdom. Thankfully, they did not have any older, bolder mates!

We made it to the butterfly farm unscathed, where we were given a quick tour and then left to it. It was a slightly random place, especially as it seems to have no purpose other than as a point of interest. The shady garden was a pleasant place to sit, and we rested for a while and chatted with a couple of Aussie girls who happened to be there at the same time. The butterflies were beautiful, but unhelpfully did not want to sit still for photographs. As far as we were aware there was no entry fee for the place, but we bought a cold drink from the attendant and donated a few dollars before leaving.

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We wandered back to our hotel in the heat of the day, resting from the intense sun wherever we found shade. Although the walk was beautiful, it was definitely a relief to arrive back to the shady haven of our hotel. We relaxed by the pool until the sun started to go down, feeling sad that our few days of luxury would soon be at an end.

We had originally planned to eat out that evening, but had second thoughts as we walked through the gardens. The atmosphere of the hotel at night was wonderful, all soft lights, relaxing music and quiet ambiance. Adding to the incentive, Saturday night's dinner takes the form of a 'street food' party, albeit the poshest variety of street food imaginable. Surprisingly, veggie versions were available for most of the dishes. Oli and I worked our way through all the stations, giddily accompanying our food with a rather strong (but delicious) rum and fresh pineapple juice. It really was the icing on the cake of a fabulous stay.

It would have been easy to stay forever, but after a final hearty breakfast we packed up the bike. We delayed further by chatting to the hotel staff for a while, before waving goodbye and getting on our way. We had enjoyed our taste of the good life, but as we continued on the road, we were already getting excited for what lay ahead.

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