There are a multitude of options for expat-travellers living in Phnom Penh, who find they have the week off work (thank you Cambodian public holidays) and want to escape. Kep is a firm favourite, and is connected to Kampot and Sihanoukville by coastal road. All are within a five-hour bus or taxi ride from the capital. For those with a sense of adventure, or with an ego complex, there is the option of hiring motorbikes and being your own boss (i.e. not having to wait an hour for a man with a drove of pigs to turn up and take his seat next to you).
You can also be in charge of coffee stops along the way. Losing as much fluid as one does covered from head-to-toe and sporting the truly safety-tested helmet (yes Mum, it is legit), these breaks are a must.
When the outskirts of Phnom Penh – characterised by traffic jams, factories for rent and clouds of dust – give way to rice fields, one feels certain that although a significant risk of being ploughed down by a minivan is being run, you are breathing fresh air.
Arriving in Kep, you can sigh a sigh of relief. And then not come up for air for a while, since you ought to be chowing down on the famous Kep crab. Sit down at a restaurant, or grab one straight the market and ask someone to boil it up for you.
Kep is a small town with a calm vibe and tumultuous history. Abandoned seaside houses of the Khmer riche still stand as monuments of the post-emancipation, pre-civil war days. Stark white, often overtaken by vegetation and occasionally occupied by unofficial guards or squatters, visiting the buildings can be something of an adventure.
Now, there are scores of guesthouses in the area, offering accommodation for a range of budgets and tastes.
Off to Kampot – famous for its pepper – negotiating travel along one of the worst roads in the country. There are more potholes than road, more dust than air, more vans than cows. The journey is rewarded with ribs: the Kampot steakhouse on riverside is known among expats for its competitive edge. Eat a large portion to yourself and earn pride of place on a blackboard league-table, divided simply by pass or fail categories.
The road to Sihanoukville runs along the coast. Its beauty, at certain times of day, is unparalled. But be warned: upon arrival, one is sure to notice the immense volume of backpackers. Quickly becoming known as Cambodia’s answer to Koh Pha Ngan in Thailand, there are few places left in the former King Father’s province which offer a genuine chance to relax. Still regarded as “quiet” in comparison is Otres Beach: the Cambodian expats’ worst-kept secret. Guesthouses claim areas of the beach for their punters, which means that you might be lucky enough to bag a bungalow on the seaside, but there are few areas of the beach empty of deckchairs and loungers.
Tips and tricks
- Travel with friends, especially when biking. A puncture is inevitable, and you most definitely do not want to stand at the side of a road in Cambodia looking desperate.
- Beware of newly-formed and half-formed bridges. Especially ones made out of twigs.
- Travel in a shared minivan at your own risk. And if you’re biking, use your wing mirrors. It’s not Khmer but it’s definitely a life-saver.
- Take a map. Contrary to popular belief men don’t necessarily have a build in GPS system