Learning the Real Cambodia
There’s a huge hotel on one of the beaches, The Independence Hotel. It’s deserted and derelict. Marked down for demolition. I ask the Cambodians standing around the entrance selling soft drinks if there is a room free, with bathroom. No more dorm rooms for me. This they this find quite amusing.
You can wander around and see a bit of its former glory. The locals say it’s haunted. It’s certainly eerie. I was on my own and went to the top floor long corridors, every room open, but stripped bare. All the windows gone, you can see magnificent views down the coast, or peer at the vertical drop to the tarmac below. A vast ballroom, wooden floors, and the chandeliers still hanging.
I stand behind the reception desk and pretend to answer phones and give guests their keys. All the room-numbered key boxes are still there.
I continue down the coast, Cambodia by the sea. A town called Kampot. I take a shared taxi, haggled down from $10 to $3; it’s 105km! There’s only me and the driver. That is sharing I suppose, it’s just that every other taxi seems to have at least seven people in it. It takes three hours, and I expect an argument when I hand over the fare, but the driver even managed a smile. He thanked me and wandered off.
There’s a deserted French Hill Station on the top of a mountain near here. I decide to have some fun and hire a DT 125 trail bike (not that much fun) to take me there. Once again, this costs me $8 a day, no questions asked. I fill the tank full of petrol (30p a litre) and find the power band. The Hill Station is really an old hotel and casino, about 40km from the town where I’m staying, all uphill, all on a dirt track. Most of Cambodia’s road infrastructure resembles motor cross circuits, which is fine, as long as you are on a motocrosser.
It’s another stinking hot day when I set out, with a bag full of bananas and oranges (I was never any good at pack lunches). It takes about an hour and a half of immense fun, the bike snaking about under me and the engine screaming (well, it ain’t my bike). By the time I reach the top, 1080 meters, the clouds have come in and it’s lashing it down. I couldn’t be any wetter if I’d jumped in a swimming pool. I’ve got a t-shirt and jeans on, which are stuck to me. All my money I’ve got about $500 in the waistband of my trousers my passport and address book are equally sodden.
Visibility was about 20 yards. Everything else was just white, and wet. The rain and wind were making it very hard to even open my eyes, which tends to be quite important while riding a motorbike.
The hotel is straight out of The Shining; it ghosts in and out of view in front of me. I drive the motorbike actually into the lobby. The sound of the exhaust thunders off the tiled floor. What the hell, I’m the only guest. Glad to be out of the rain, I check in and start exploring, keeping an eye out for Jack Nicholson, and his axe! “Heeeeeeere’s Justin!”
Once again everything has been looted. There was a famine in Cambodia, and the people stripped this place to pay the Vietnamese for food. All that remains is the structure. Huge sweeping staircases open out on to vast banqueting halls. I try to imagine it in its heyday, the French elite whiling away the hours gambling and dining in style. From the terrace, I’m told, there are magnificent views over the lush jungle, right to the sea. I can only see whiteness in the driving rain. Every few minutes I can make out other buildings in the distance; there’s a church, a few villas.
My bag of bananas and oranges has turned to mush with all the bouncing about on the back of the bike. I skip lunch and head on out down the hill, back to Kampot. Where it better not be raining.
I immediately become lost. There’s at least three or four tracks leading away from the hotel. I shout out for valet parking, just to be put on the right track. It’s no good. They couldn’t hear me, probably pissed off about the tip I never gave him.
I can only make things out 20 yards in front of me. I come across a pagoda, but I never passed it on the way up. There’s motorbikes outside.
“Do you know which exit I take off the freeway to Kampot?”
About six Cambodians are peering out at me. I get off the bike and run to join them in the dry. Everyone is dripping wet. They are making a fire and preparing food. I stand there, like a scarecrow, my arms outstretched, impersonating Jesus, trying to dry off. I laugh; they laugh. They laugh; I laugh. My Cambodian is coming along just fine. Hope the rain stops soon.
I get back on the bike; I can’t get any wetter. I find the right track, by osmosis, and about halfway down come out of the clouds and the sun is shining again. Incredible tropical climates: one minute it’s raining, drilling holes in your head. Next minute you’ve got to put sunscreen on! I decide to be very uneconomical with the petrol on the way down, winding the throttle fully open on the straights and locking the back wheel up in the corners. What the hell, it ain’t my bike. Make it back to the hotel with a huge smile on my face, a very enjoyable day trip, and I got the blisters to prove it.
Points of Reference:
- A lesser-trodden route into Cambodia from Thailand is to cross at the coast. From Bangkok take a bus to Trat (any of the hotels on Kao San Road can organize it). In Trat you will have to stay overnight as the border closes. Continue to the border by bus or taxi, then take a boat across the river to Koh Kong in Cambodia.
- One of two ways out of Koh Kong is by air, one flight a day to Phnom Penh ($20/$30). The other is by boat, $3 to Sihanoukville, where the road starts.
- The derelict French hill station at Bokor, 40 km inland from Kampot, is well worth a visit. It’s actually in a national park. $3 entrance fee, a motorbike or 4-wheel drive is the only way to get there.