Sunday, March 6, 2011

Kampot Trip - Part 1 - Getting There

One of our favourite Khmer dishes is Lok lak.  The secret ingredient for producing the tastiest Lok lak dipping sauce is Kampot pepper, grown only in.... (you guessed it).... Cambodia!   Selling around the world for at least $19 an ounce, Kampot pepper is considered to be the 'champagne of peppers'.  You can't come all the way here and not buy some, so we set off last Wednesday on a wild adventure to the town of Kampot (in Kampot Province) - Gordon wanted to make sure we were getting the real deal.

Throughout Cambodia, bus travel is surprisingly inexpensive.  For the first leg of our journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we opted for express mini-van service, featuring luxurious seating and a comfortable ride - a bargain at $8 per person.  The operative word here is 'express'.  The driver flew along the highway at breakneck speed, leaning on the horn every two minutes to warn everybody to get out of his way.  Apparently he was either late for a hot date, or preparing for his debut in the Indy 500. 
Gordon waiting to board the express mini-van
The passenger behind him is from Paris.
We boarded the mini-van at 6:45 and were given a boxed breakfast -
Fresh sweet roll and bottled water
During our 'rest stop', I chatted in French with an interesting man who, at the age of 15, fled to France from Cambodia in 1979, after the Pol Pot regime.  When this man, who drives taxi in Paris for a living, also expressed his concerns about the driving, I really began to wonder how safe we were.  Obviously I wasn't the only passenger with white knuckles.  Fortunately we arrived in Phnom Penh intact - a full hour ahead of schedule. 
Mini-van driver cooling off the engine

I've never had a strong desire to visit Phnom Penh, mainly because I don't care much for big cities.  I've also heard a lot about the crime and drug problems there, and I prefer to avoid trouble when I can, but here we were in the midst of it.  We were immediately swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers eager for a fare.   At this point, choice became a matter of 'eeny-meeny-miney-moe', and we picked one... who charged us $6 to get to the 'other' bus station, six kilometers away!  Seeing as we'd just paid $8 each to get all the way from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in a luxury bus, $6 did seem a little outrageous.  However, we'd only bought our ticket to Phnom Penh and had no idea what time the next bus to Kampot would leave, or even how to get to the bus station, so we were in no position to argue or negotiate prices. 

The tuk-tuk sped through the city, past markets, tall buildings, and people.  Lots of people.  Lots of motos.  Lots of bicycles.  I can only describe Phnom Penh as 'Siem Reap on steroids', except that Phnom Penh has large office buildings and not as many resort hotels.  Everywhere there were lots of tourists, and lots of Cambodians, doing what tourists and Cambodians do, only more of it.  Same crazy traffic, with one difference - Pedi-cabs.  Same crazy traffic patterns.  Our driver didn't even blink when he rode past the 'Do not enter' sign and went the wrong way down a one-way street. 
Market stall in Phnom Penh
Birdhouses or spirit houses??

Pretty lady wearing a hat and a helmet


Crazy traffic!

Yep, 'Do Not Enter'!

At the bus station, we learned we'd have to wait three hours for the bus to Kampot.  (It could have been worse - we might've had to spend the night in Phnom Penh.)  The tuk-tuk driver tried to convice us to go to the Killing Fields rather than wait at the station and offered to drive us there for $15 round trip.  When we learned the entrance was an additional $20, we decided to take a pass.  (We'd already been to the Killing Caves, which had been emotionally draining enough for me.)    Instead we decided to look for a restaurant to eat lunch.  We walked up and down the street three or four blocks each way, but other than street food, we could not find a place to eat.  We returned to the bus station and had fun observing the Cambodian men who hung out there playing chess.  In another corner, about ten men gathered round an old TV, totally engrossed in an American movie which was dubbed in Cambodian, with English subtitles.  The bus station is situated in a part of Phnom Penh not frequented by foreigners at all.  The only barangs we saw were a couple of girls waiting for a bus to Sihanoukville.

A chicken was tied onto one of these bags
waiting to board the bus.
I wonder if it rode in the bus or the baggage compartment?

Gathered around watching TV at the bus station

Finally we boarded the bus to Kampot.  It was an interesting ride that took us through several small villages and through the seaside town of Kep.  Just as the sun was setting around 6:30, we arrived in Kampot.  It had been a 12-hour journey, and the real adventures hadn't even started yet! 

Sign on the bus to Kampot
The bus had a TV screen with Cambodian karaoke
Next they played a very bad movie dubbed in Khmer
that ran through three times.....yawn...

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