The trip from Sihanoukville to Kampot was made by train, as for some reason there were no buses available. Reading reviews of the limited train network in Cambodia, I was promised A/C, comfortable seats and allocated seating (when booking online, I was asked to choose from my seat a dozen different carriages). There was none of that. There were two carriages, neither of which corresponded to one in my ticket, all the windows were open, and the seats were unbearably upright. As long as it got me there, I didn't mind.
The train started off passing through the outskirts of the city, perilously close to ramshackle houses and small kids who thought the train track was a fantastic place to play (see the video below for a snapshot of this journey). The horn was used frequently, if not continuously. We then hit open green fields, but the views weren't great as rain was falling most of the time. It was a good day to leave the island.
After eventually arriving in Kampot and checking in to a lovely riverside bungalow, I walked into town the same way the locals did - along the train line. It was suddenly clear why the train needed to use its whistle so frequently, in case we needed to scamper off to the side in a hurry (plus the lack of boom gates across roads necessitated a loud warning).
Kampot's main streets were dusty, busy, unattractive and noisy. My first impressions were not positive. As I began venturing down side streets, I started to find the colonial architecture everyone talked about. The buildings were mostly run down, but they did have a certain charm about them.
Continuing on, I accidentally found the restaurant/bar district where seemingly every tourist in town was hanging out. I immediately noticed that many of the bars were clearly aimed towards the other gender, so I quickly skipped by these. In among the eateries and food stalls I managed to find a vegetarian restaurant, which was heaven.
I read that Cambodia is having a surge of dengue fever cases this year, which is alarming because Cambodia already has the worst rate of dengue infections in Southeast Asia. I was bitten half a dozen times before I made it to bed.
Despite the lousy weather, I was keen to jump on a scooter (an automatic one this time) and begin exploring. First stop was Veal Pouch Waterfall, down a long, bumpy dirt road that the scooter didn't love. Other than a couple of staff members, I was the only person there. Like the falls in Sihanoukville, this one was lined with hammocks strung up underneath wooden huts, overlooking the rapidly flowing river. I followed the path up to two sets of wooden bridges that I’m sure had been erected decades ago and never maintained. Cautiously, I tested my weight and it seemed to hold, so I crept along to take a few photos of the minuscule cascades before scurrying back to dry land. It was a scenic spot, but I'm not sure it was worth the bone-rattling ride to reach it.
The main tourist draw near Kampot is Bokor National Park, which was where I headed next. Formally known as Bokor Hill Station, it was built in the 1920s by the French as a retreat for colonial soldiers. At 1,000 m above sea level, it was also a welcome respite from the heat. On the downside, about 900 locals died building the resort. After the French were kicked out of the country, the Cambodian elite took over area. Eventually the Khmer Rouge decided they wanted it as an easily-defendable base in the 1970s. Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the 1990s it has been open to all, although the buildings are in various stages of deterioration. A few have been renovated and look as grand as they used to, while others are a crumbling mess.
The drive up the mountain, in spitting rain, was through a lush green forest, with hundreds of monkeys guiding the way. It was slow going with all the twists and turns, but I finally arrived at my first stop, the Big Buddha (Lok Yeay Mao) and the Black Palace (Damnak Sla Khmao). The Buddha statue was nothing special, so I turned my attention to the palace. It was a summer residence for King Sihanouk and was surprisingly tiny - I’ve lived in bigger apartments. There was nothing left but a concrete shell covered in graffiti, although you could imagine how grand it would have been in its day. The views over the sea in the distance would have added to its splendour. Now the view is blocked by trees, but Buddha came to my rescue. Climbing up to its base, I could see out towards a dark grey sky dotted with puffs of low white clouds over the water. It wasn't the most spectacular viewpoint I’ve been to, especially with the road cutting through the foreground.
As I continued up the mountain, the scenery changed from dense forest to cleared land with numerous areas of development. Apartments, hotels and a flashy casino really didn't fit with the National Park vibe.
I tried to block the ugly sights from my mind as I drove up to Wat Sampov Pram on top of the mountain. This was clearly a popular place, as many families had brought food along to have a picnic beside the Buddhist temple. There were many smaller buildings and statues to explore, but all I really wanted to see was the view. This time the clouds were right beneath me, but the sky still threatened rain. It was probably the best view I would have all day, but I can't say it blew me away.
As I was preparing to move on, I saw large clouds start to roll in. By the time I reached my scooter, the entire hilltop was shrouded in a thick fog. It was difficult seeing other vehicles in front of me, let alone the sights that I came here to see. I completely missed the church, even though it was only 50 m from the road.
At the end of the street was Le Bokor Palace, the main getaway built by the French. Its grandeur had been maintained all these years and it was fully fitted out as a luxury hotel, but currently it stood empty. I'm sure it looked magnificent, I just couldn't see much of it through the fog.
Next on the hit list was the 100 Rice Fields. I'm not sure how it got this name or why it was even listed as an attraction. All I could see was a lumpy field with flat rocks poking through the grass. On many of these rocks people had built up small pile of stones. That's all there was to see. A couple of minutes later I was out of there.
The final sight was the Popokvil Waterfall, where I was hoping for something more impressive than my first two waterfall experiences in Cambodia. From the car park I walked along the overflowing river, passing by the obligatory huts and hammocks until I reached the top of what seemed like a large, powerful drop. That’s where the path stopped. I was beginning to think that Cambodia really didn't what to do with a waterfall when I saw someone pop out of the forest beside me. I searched where she had come from and found a hidden trail through the trees. A few minutes’ walk along the overgrown, barely visible path took me out to a flat, exposed rock with no barrier to prevent me from hurtling over the edge to my death. Ignoring this, I happily stood and gazed out at the roaring falls in front of me. Although the water was a muddy brown colour, its power was mesmerising. This was what I expected from a waterfall. The falls continued over another ledge below me, but I couldn't see a way to get further down.
Now that the fog had cleared, I decided to return to Le Bokor Palace. The views behind the building were similar to others I had seen, but the palace itself was quite impressive. I wish the interior was open to visitors.
Nearby was the Catholic Church that I had missed the first time. All that was left was the skeleton of the original structure, although a small shrine had been set up inside. Above the church, more views were offered of the same scene.
I can't say it was the best national park I have visited, especially with the lack of hiking routes and the excessive development being undertaken. Maybe if the weather has been nicer I would have appreciated it more.
After winding my way down the mountain, I drove around a small region near the city known for its salt flats, which involved more off-road riding. All I could see were muddy pools of water, with no salt visible from the roadside. These were interspersed with the occasional rice field, which provided far more picturesque photos than the dirty ponds.
Another bumpy ride took me out to a resort on the other side of the river from where I was staying. Bokor Mountain provided a stunning backdrop, but unfortunately the miserable weather prevented the sunset view I was after. The mosquitoes didn’t care though, and had a feast on my exposed legs and arms. It will be a miracle if I don’t get Dengue fever.