Even though it was raining when I awoke, I was keen to fit in as much as I could on my last full day in the country. Jumping on my scooter, I drove south towards the beachside town of Kep, with the aim of exploring Kep National Park. I parked at the gate, paid the US$1 entrance fee, then set out for what I hoped was a strenuous mountain hike (unlike most of my on-foot adventures so far in Cambodia). That dream was soon shattered. The entire route, about 6 km from entrance to exit, was entirely paved. It was so smooth I could have walked it in thongs. It was also wide enough for cars to drive along, ruining the serenity as they did. Other than several monkeys and squirrels, plus a few glimpses of the coastline through the trees, there was a fairly uninspiring walk.
Once I reached the exit, rather than backtracking along the mundane path, I decided to follow my map to see if I could find a real trail through the forest. I was in luck. Climbing up a set of stairs beside a temple, I found myself in an overgrown entanglement of thick forest, with only the narrowest of tracks visible on the ground. It didn't look like many people took this route. Using my phone and a series of hand-drawn maps nailed to trees at trail intersections, I scrambled, ducked and clamoured my way to a point called Sunset Rock. Here, the branches suddenly parted and a sweeping view the coast was laid out before me. Not far in the distance I could see Phu Quoc, an island of Vietnam, that is strangely closer to Cambodia than its own country. It was the greatest view I had all day.
I had the option of returning the way I came out to the road and following it back to the entrance, or continuing on the jungle route and pray that the trail came out where the map said it did (my phone isn’t always reliable). The latter option sounded much more fun, plus my hiking shoes were finally being put to use. Progress was exceedingly slow - running would be virtually impossible through much of here. At one point I had to face a gauntlet of monkeys, but luckily they let me through unscathed.
Eventually, I saw the main concrete path that would take me back to my scooter. The only problem was, it was several metres below me. A steep embankment covered in loose stones was between me and my destination. I took a couple of deep breaths, psyched myself up then ran down the slope, hoping I was going fast enough to prevent me from slipping. Just before the end, I leapt as high as I could to jump over a narrow ditch and, incredibly, landed safely on firm ground. Thankfully, no one was around to see my antics.
I didn't see a single other person along the entire dirt trail. I’m not sure why - it was clearly the best part of the national park.
For lunch I headed to the coast, sitting by the choppy water and relishing the cool sea breeze as I ate yet another amok. Afterwards, I took a walk along the tiny beach, where no one made use of the umbrellas on the shore or the deckchairs overlooking the sand. Instead, everyone seemed to be sitting in hammocks under a shelter in the middle of a car park, across the road from the beach. What is the obsession with hammocks in this country?
Other than a handful of sculptures there wasn't much in Kep to hold my attention, so I commenced the drive back towards Kampot. On the way a decided to detour past the not-so-secret Secret Lake, which of course was many kilometres down an unpaved road. It was difficult to find a decent viewpoint, because much of the lake was hidden behind trees (maybe that's where it got its name). I stopped at a small shack functioning as a restaurant (with yet more hammocks), took a couple of photos then drove off.
My final piece of sightseeing was the Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple, along more dirt roads. (These places look so close on the map, but throw some rocks and potholes into the mix and they take an eternity to reach.) There are several caves in the area, but this was highlighted as the most popular one. As soon as I arrived I was accosted by an entire family, telling me that I must have a guide, there's no point going in without a guide, you won't know where to go without a guide. I didn't believe any of this but I eventually agreed on US$3 for a kid about the age of 14 to show me around. It turned out to be a wise decision.
After paying the entry fee, I was directed up a long flight of stairs to the entrance of the cave, where a small shrine had been installed. My guide pointed out a few rocks in the shapes of animals, at which I politely nodded. He then pointed his torch down a narrow opening, and asked if I wanted to go down into the interior of the cave. He warned it was ‘very slippery’. I have difficulty keeping my balance on stable ground, so I didn't think the slippery route was for me. He then informed me that where we were standing was the end of the cave. If I wanted to see more, I had to descend. I was keen to get my $3 worth, so down we went.
I was expecting to see a handful of stalagmites and stalactites then pop out the other side after a few minutes, but it turned into a full adrenaline-pumping caving expedition. Most of the time I was either using arms to lower myself down or sliding on my bum. Several times my guide had to hold my legs as I descended, to make sure I didn't plummet all the way down to the bottom of the cave. When I wasn't concerned about my safety, I was able to shine my torch around to take in my surroundings. There were no amazing rock formations, but I found cave’s features fascinating. Bats flew overhead, and several times I had to skirt around pools of water that reflected the jagged protrusions above. Despite being absolutely filthy by the end, I had an awesome time. It made all the dirt roads worth it.
Late in the afternoon, I travelled back to Kampot and ventured out to another riverside resort. The cocktails were a hit, but there was only a hint of the sunset I was after. It was quiet, peaceful and the perfect way to spend my last night in Cambodia.
After two days of grey weather, I was given clear blue skies on the day I flew out. Thanks Cambodia.