Connect the dots

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bullocks in the Boondocks

Like most places we've visited, the heart (sweat and soul) of the country is found in the countryside. No more is this true than in Cambodia. It's where traditions continue and life is slower, simpler and genuine. With the exception of Phnom Penh, most of the country is rural. Ground zero for the Angkor temples, Siem Reap, filled with tourists, still retains a provincial feeling. Sleepy Kampot and Kep are surrounded by salt farms, pepper plantations and fishing villages. Its second city, Battambang proper even feels rural, with all the action coming to a stop by 9pm. There aren't even remorks you can hail down at that time. So, hire a remork (while they're around), sit back and brace yourself for the bumpy, dusty country roads. This is what life is like (or was) for most Cambodians.

Mechrey Floating Village

There are other floating villages in the area but we decided to take the advice of our remork driver, Chay, and give it a go. We were not disappointed being only one of a handful of tourists visiting.

Local farmers take a break for some whisky and green mangos
The ever industrious water buffalo

Fishing the canals

When the dirt road ends, you've hit the dock. Just let the boat man take you down the canal, through the floating village and into the wide open Tonle Sap Lake.

Kampot Pepper, Kep Crabs and Cribs

Here is the home of the distinctive Kampot pepper that was obliterated by the Khmer Rouge but has now returned to it's former status as one of the best peppers in the world. The town itself barely has one eye open. There's no traffic, rarely is a restaurant crowded, and a few shops that are associated with NGOs sell locally made handicrafts to supplement their projects. But you can spend a few days here to walk around admiring colonial shophouse architecture, see the salt and pepper farms, visit a Shiva temple in a limestone cave, eat the delicious Kep crabs, hang at the small Kep sandy beach, imagine what the Kep-sur-Mer mansions were like, visit the old French hill station on Bokor Mountain and take a lazy river cruise. But hurry because Kampot and Kep will be getting a big wake up call with the brand spanking new "neo-deco" (for the lack of a better description and really, I'm trying to be nice) casino and villas that are almost complete. A serious blemish on this beautiful mountain!

Fresh green pepper fried with those delicious crabs. Don't forget to add the salt!

Mountains of harvested salt
Pick a mansion, any mansion. There are dozens several hundred meters from the sea. The shells of these former villas are now homes for the locals.

You no longer have to climb the mountain to get to the top. Thanks to the new casino, a tarred road leads all the way to the top of Bokor Mountain to the former Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino and escape for the French from the stifling Cambodian heat.

29 meters of Lok Yeay Mao - she's a protector of travelers

Former Catholic church

In restoration - the former Bokor Palace Hotel
The new one, nearly completed.

On the way down the mountain, hike through the boulders and cool off

End the day with a river boat cruise

Wat Ek, Wat Banan, Wat Sampouy

Just outside Battambang you can find crumbling, pre-Angkor temples. Locals even like to claim that they were the inspiration for Angkor. On your way there you'll get to see how the rice paper for fresh spring rolls are made, a fish market that salts, dries, and grinds the fish to extract fish sauce and a winery (yes, you read that correctly).

Everyday affairs such as weddings and preparing the carnival for the new year's festivities at a temple.

 350 or so steps to Wat Banan

Stay on the well worn path, I repeat, stay on the well worn path!

The legend of the lost stick or bat dambang, the city's namesake

Monkey temple

Old Colonial Shophouses

If you're looking for some great examples of early 20th century French colonial architecture, Kampot and Battambang are great places to stay and explore. 

Kampot shophouses

Renovation project, anyone?

Room #2 at La Villa, a restored 30's home

Shophouse turned art gallery

Old mansion converted into monk's quarters at the temple

Poor modern execution of the shop house
Battambang's central market

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