The Cambodia I Missed

I was back on the road, eager to get to new and undiscovered places. Roads untraveled, at least by me. After a hasty exit from Vietnam (unfortunately unable to extend my visa at the time), two night buses followed by another morning one, I was back in Cambodia. No plans to speak of, I didn’t expect to be here for another few weeks. My last trip here was short and spent rushing around Phnom Penh and north to Siem Reap. I guess I was going south this time. Kampot it was. I’d heard the name but not a whole lot else.

The bridge in Kampot
The bridge in Kampot

I got into town late with nowhere to go as usual. An expat pointed me in the direction of a cheap bed along with the rundown of what to do in the area. No need to plan, things tend to work themselves out. First thing in the morning, I was back on two wheels off into the Bokor Mountains. A windy road slowly up 1 kilometer of elevation into what is known as the ‘Bokor ghost town’. It starts with a few old abandoned buildings and a large Buddha. Further along there is a huge casino resort of some kind with a completely vacant parking lot and a handful of people working. My guess… it’s a front. Passed that, a ruined Catholic church from the French Occupation and another casino. This one abandoned in the middle of construction. Eerie, but stunning views after climbing the staircases to the top.

With the monks at the Buddha
With the monks at the Buddha

Apart from the bike ride (always at the top of the list), what made this day so special was quite an unexpected experience. Stopping at the first buildings to explore on my way back to town, I stumbled upon a group of young monks and teachers out on a day trip. Chatting with the teachers briefly and many exchanges of ‘Hello’ with the children, I noticed they were making food. Curious as always, I poked my head around to see what was cooking up. Soup with octopus, squid and shrimp was simmering, while local fish and stingray were prepped for frying. Lunch on the go isn’t so bad here. As I was getting ready to leave, they insisted I stay to eat with them. Graciously accepting the honor to join them, I took my place cross legged on the concrete alongside them. I believe that your surroundings play a part in the enjoyment of your food and the connections you make with the people you’re with. There was no better place for a meal with new friends and my first bites of stingray.

Hauling in the catch
Hauling in the catch

Kep, a small seaside town bursting with seafood, succulent crab in particular and only a 30 minute ride from Kampot. This wasn’t a question so I set off for an early seafood breakfast. I made my way through the vendors, ogling the catch, while making some tough decisions. Grilled crab (of course) and fresh prawns were the contenders. I situated myself on the end of the dock so no one had to witness my savagery. Ripping them limb from limb, picking every last morsel of flesh from their shells while watching their kin be dragged in for dinner. I had the day to spend before my second orgy of crab began and what better way than a boat trip to Rabbit Island (actually Koh Tonsai) with a durian in tow. An island with daily power cuts, a few simple guesthouses and a general feeling of isolation. The Kampot region is renowned for the bearing of fruit, particularly the ominously fragrant durian. This explains the massive statue of a durian showing their dedication. I quite enjoy the sweet custard-like flesh, but in small doses. I couldn’t devour a whole one and unable to entice others with it, I left it with a local family.

Sitting on Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsai)
Sitting on Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsai)

Round two, I was relaxed, cleaned up and ready to get messy again. The popular specialty is the fresh crab fried with local green peppercorns. I could smell the fruits of the sea as I sat in one of the seaside restaurants, half supported by beams over top of the water. Looking out across the Gulf of Thailand where my dinner was swimming this morning, I enjoyed a couple of Angkor beer while the sun slowly set. The smell was intoxicating as it was placed in front of me. Fresh crabs now swimming in a fiery orange curry like sauce with a mild heat, but intense peppery flavour. The fresh green peppercorn fragrant, subtle yet at the fore front of your palate. A somewhat sacrificial looking moment and pile of napkins later, I had wasted no flesh giving the crab the respect in deserved.

Giant Durian statue in Kampot
Giant Durian statue in Kampot

I returned to my scooter for a sunset ride back to Kampot with a stronger longing to reside by the sea someday I want this freshness in my life everyday with ingredients grown within miles and the water at my doorstep. I really didn’t know what to expect from the region of Kampot hearing almost nothing about it, but this allowed me to discover the area for what it is for myself. A peaceful, relaxed and quiet town where I was able to reflect on my past year now of travel. Ride the calm countryside roads, taste the bounty of the region and became introduced to some of the culture while dining with the beautiful people of southern Cambodia. Beyond all of this for me, if your foodie the Kampot region is not to be passed by on the way to Sihanouk Ville.

Fresh Crab with Local Kampot Green Peppercorn
Fresh Crab with Local Kampot Green Peppercorn
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