May 17, 2010

Adventures in Kampot

Of all the places to stump my inner writer, Kampot Cambodia—home to some of the most charming, most creepy, and most historic sites in Cambodia—has done just that. It's Sunday night and my last week with CWF starts tomorrow. My brain is in a fog even thicker than that on top of Bokor Hill.

Sifting back through the pictures from the weekend, the picturesque town of Kampot seems a world away. For a person grown numb to the dingy smog of Phnom Penh, the clarity of Kampot was striking. Blazing blue skies reflected onto shimmering water lined with brightly colored buildings and houses. The quaint little town on the riverfront--made famous by some of the best pepper corns in the world—waits beneath the jungle hills for its comeback as a swanky spot for the rich.

Cambodia in the 1920's was a swingin' place, and no place was more swingin' than the casino and hotel atop the misty Bokor Hill. Designed for the high life, this grandiose building was built on the peak of the hill, overlooking Kampot, Kep and the sea. All the amenities of the town were built to cater to the visitors. A watertower, hospital, restaurant, and even a catholic church were available for use in this home-away-from-home.

Fast forward to 2010. Bokor still stands a testament to the fine construction, but what remains on the hill looks less like puttin-on-the-ritz and more like a scene from a thrilling horror movie. Due to wartime abandonment, the casino had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s. The Khmer Rouge used the orange lichen-covered casino as a stronghold against opposition forces until the early 1990s. The bullet holes in the walls are a frightening reminder of the reality of Cambodia's recent history. With such a foreboding exterior, I imagined the inside to be more similar to Tuol Sleng museum. To my delight, inside the casino was creepy, but not reminiscent of war. The gutted rooms stood quietly as I explored, climbing floor by floor, checking views out the window and wondering how it would've looked in the 20s. I understood the appeal of the place when I saw the balcony view of the sea and the town below.

At such an elevation in Cambodia, the misty low clouds brush the hill, leaving a eerie gray cast to the surrounding buildings. The old hospital, now a ranger station, lurks to the west of the casino, and to the east, the steeple of Catholic church rises out of the mist.

But it's never just the destination, is it? The journey to Bokor is the part that made it an adventure. In a effort to revamp tourism in Kampot, a multi-million dollar hotel is being built on Bokor. The problem is that the road to Bokor is mostly impassible. To cart up enough tourists to fill the rooms, a multi-lane, multi-season road is being built. Unfortunately, this construction altogether foiled my plan to hire a taxi because no cars are allowed to use the road. The only other option is to hire a guide and climb through the hillside jungle. Although I had sworn off Cambodian jungle trekking after Mondulkiri, my desire to see Bokor forced me to take the available option. Two hours straight uphill through a jungle.

With the finesse and precision of a blue whale, I lugged, pulled and swore my way through the thick forest. It was a true adventure to sort out how to scale the fallen trees and the mossy rocks amidst low branches, bugs and slippery mud. My khaki pants were literally soaked in sweat within the first thirty minutes of climbing, and it only got steeper from there. We had to climb to a certain point in the forest where a truck would meet us on the partially completed road. This truck, meant to haul non-human cargo, hauled us bump to bump up the rest of the way. We agreed that the truck ride was not only more painful, but also more difficult than the hiking.

Coming down was an exercise in Cambodian law and patience. We hiked part of the way, at which point we were told to stop at the hill overlooking the road and stay out of view until our truck came to pick us up. We needed to stay hidden because the road is officially closed to the public for safety reasons. Normal Cambodian systems dictate that safety measures can be given up for the right price (the fine for no helmet is $1.25), but in this case the amount of money being spent on the road was much greater than the fees we had paid to enter the park (illegally, perhaps). Therefore, it was somewhat important that we stay hidden to avoid fines (and/or the big guns that we see everywhere). So we waited. And waited. And waited. What was supposed to be a 30-minute wait turned into nearly two hours as we sat in the sun wondering if we would be on an episode of Locked Up Abroad. As usual, all was apparently well, or at least paid for, as we made it back safely and with no prisons in sight.

The adventure at Bokor was one of the best so far. Lots of physical challenge, some scary old buildings, and a flirt with Cambodian law.