cambodian beach travel

Southeast Asia in Pictures: Week III

Every week during our eight-week trip across Southeast Asia, I plan to post a handful of snapshots and stories from the week just gone.

After a week exploring Phnom Penh and Kampot, we edged closer to Cambodia’s 275 miles of coastline, exploring the seaside town of Kep by motorcycle and taking a whirlwind one-night trip to the placid island of Koh Rong Samloem, returning to Kampot – our favourite riverside haunt – in between.

Kampot, a base we kept retreating to, having grown fond of its oscitant feel, has a burgeoning food scene. Plenty of expats – likely having also fallen in love with their surroundings – have decided to stay and set up restaurants, many of them social enterprises. Brunch at Espresso Coffee, an Australian-run café and roastery, was one of our favourites. The in-house roasters uses coffee beans from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and emphasises local and regionally produced java. The menu also featured local ingredients, such as local salt (cycling to the salt flats to see it being harvested is a good Kampot activity), palm sugar, limes and bananas to name a few. Delicious and sustainable.

The sloping, verdant countryside between Kampot and Kep is emerald green and sublimely beautiful.

These roadside shacks are a common sight in the Cambodian countryside. And do you see the owner’s outfit? Patterned pyjama sets are also popular daywear for women across the country. The Kingdom is a conservative nation and these ensembles serve the dual purpose of preserving a woman’s modesty and keeping cool in the tropical heat. I became quite fond of them.

“You want a tuk-tuk?” Anyone who has walked the streets of Cambodia will be familiar with the question, endlessly repeated. We generally preferred to rent bicycles and travel under our own steam, especially in the smaller towns where terrifying traffic was less of a concern, but we took a few tuk-tuk rides here and there. We got the impression that being a tuk-tuk driver is not an easy way to earn one’s daily bread, even in the frenetic and busy city of Phnom Penh. In sleepy Kampot drivers seem to be perpetually underemployed, spending plenty of the daylight hours napping in their carriages on the roadside, jumping to attention whenever a western face walks by. “You want a tuk-tuk?” I felt really sorry for these drivers, especially in Kampot, which is such a walkable place that I imagine making a living is a near-constant struggle. We took a bus to the nearby town of Kep, because it was a few dollars cheaper, but left wishing we had used a tuk-tuk driver, just to put a little extra in their pockets rather than in the coffers of a tour company. A travel lesson banked and learnt for the future. (For the interested, this article was a fascinating read on the struggling existence of remorque drivers.)

Our visit coincided with Bon Om Touk, Cambodia’s three-day water festival celebrated on the full moon in October or November, which marks the reversal of the flow between the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers (look it up, it’s incredible). We only realised this when we arrived in the country – a happy piece of good fortune, because experiencing local traditions has to be one of the best things about travelling. Kep Beach, we were told, is deserted for much of the year but our experience during Bon Om Touk was anything but. The roads looping around the seafront were chock-a-block with pick-up trucks and taxis crammed to bursting with Khmer families, mobile food carts powered by motos loaded with Kep crab, sticks of bamboo, dried fish, chicken sausages and sliced chillies – ready to be whipped up into a dizzying array of streetside meals. The pavement was laid with colourful woven mats, occupied by entire families feasting on peppered shrimps and fresh crab.

Somewhere above the Gulf of Thailand, as the plane shuddered and the overhead lights flickered off and then on again, my seat companion – a young student, local to Phnom Penh – began to practise his English on me. After the usual pleasantries, I asked him about his favourite places in his home country. His eyes, I’m not kidding, began to glaze over as he said “Koh Rong Samloem, the most beautiful place on Earth.” I’d come across it already in my research, flaunted as a hidden gem, with pristine white beaches and aquamarine waters an hour off the coast from Sihanoukville. It was certainly gorgeous and I’m glad we went, but I was saddened by the amount of plastic on such a remote beach – so much so I started taking photographs, like some kind of investigative journalist. I’m still not sure whether the plastic litter washes up there or is dumped by locals and/or visitors, though it’s likely both. I imagine waste disposal facilities on a remote island are necessarily limited. Single-use plastic was everywhere in Cambodia, and refusing it can be hard when shopkeepers are so kind and want to help, but seeing the shores of the island (which weren’t by any means covered in plastic, but I’d expected little to none) hardened my resolve. (And with that little eco-warrier-rant, peace out!)