Exotic Breaks: Kampot, Cambodia
This country is one of the year's must-see far-flung destinations. Andrew Spooner explores the faded grandeur of Kampot
Sunday 13 January 2008
The mist is swirling as we arrive, the thick jungle dripping with sticky moisture. The road to the top has been a mess of potholes and muddy rivulets; a 15-mile journey has turned into a two-hour epic. The dense cloud clears and I glimpse a giant, weathered edifice: Bokor. "This used to be a Khmer Rouge camp," says my Cambodian guide and driver, Cheung Try.
Once, the remote destination of Bokor was one of the jewels of French Indochina. Set on the edge of a 4,000ft plateau at the centre of the Elephant Mountains, this leisure complex of grand casino and hotels was the resort of choice for well-to-do French colonialists. The altitude created a cooling climate, offering relief from the heat of Phnom Penh.
The casino is big, cast over four floors, with terraces, balconies and ballroom. The walls are riveted with bullet holes and worn into a greying organic state by years of damp. "The Khmer Rouge used to shoot at the Vietnamese from here," says Try.
To get to Bokor most visitors base themselves in the small town of Kampot, 20 miles to the east of Bokor and three hours to the south of Phnom Penh. "Kampot used to be the most important port for the French in this part of Indochina," says Try, as we arrive in this dreamy riverside town. "Some of the buildings are very old," he adds, pointing to a factory building which he claims was built in 1820.
I don't know if Try's dates are right but what is apparent is the mouldering charm of the run of French villas, shops and walkways. There are even mini boulevards and an abandoned covered market. The town feels like a decaying open-air museum.
My room for the night is at the Bokor Mountain Lodge, a delightful old French villa set by the Prek Kamping Bay River and run by a New Zealand Maori expat, Eric Karatau. "I took this place over about six months ago, so we are still getting things together," says Karatau.
What is already together is the location. With a soothing breeze off the river and great views back to Bokor and the Elephant mountains, I feel ready to unwind. "This is a great riverfront," says Karatau. "There are quite a few places opening and foreigners moving in. We're getting a bit of an international vibe going."
The riverfront is lined with antique French villas, some still abandoned. Several have been taken over and turned into eateries and bars complementing Kampot's languid atmosphere.
Despite its lazy feel, Kampot is still an important trading town, and the market doesn't disappoint. There are smiling ladies lounging in hammocks proffering rumps of pork and buffalo; tiny Khmer tobacco sellers, just about visible behind mountains of leaves. Buckets of exotic fish and acres of fresh fruit add astonishing colour
I head for the river with goodies bought from the market. The dramatic skyline evokes memories of Bokor's dark beauty and Cambodia's painful past. As I soak up the view and the juice from a fresh mango, local children begin to tease me mercilessly. It is moments like this that make travel worthwhile.
HOW TO GET THERE
Travelmood (08700 664556; travelmood.com) offers return flights to Phnom Penh with Malaysia Airlines from £629. The Bokor Mountain Lodge in Kampot (00 855 33 932314; bokorlodge. com) offers rooms from £8 per night. Andrew Spooner travelled in Cambodia with Red Raid motorcycle tours (motorcycletourscambodia. com), which offers motorcycle rental from £22 per day and organised tours from £50 per day.
Further reading 'A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam' by Norman Lewis (Eland, £12.99)
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