Monthly Archives: December 2013

Cambodia’s Hidden Secret

Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you are enjoying your holidays wherever you are. Here in Cambodia, it’s been freezing. There has been a record-breaking cold spell for the past week, and it has become sweatshirt weather. Normally we only wear a t-shirt and shorts, but this past week has been in the 60’s, when normally it’s the 80’s. It’s not quite below zero, but a big enough change for us!

We stuck around Cambodia this holiday season; we have two sets of visitors here. (First our friends Abby and Kyle from Kuwait, then my Dad and sister from America. My mom will come later—again with my dad—at spring break.) As a consequence, I am able to type this blog post with a cup of coffee and a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, in the comfort of my own apartment. It’s mega tourist season right now in Cambodia. While the weather is perfect for travel, everywhere you go in Cambodia is now full with tourists. However, I discovered one of Cambodia’s hidden places a few weeks back. This is one of those quiet, secret, beautiful places, that you hope never changes. It’s a little town called Kep, located on the Gulf of Thailand just three hours south of Phnom Penh.

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Where Kampot has “Bokor Mountain National Park”, Kep has “Kep National Park” which contains Kep mountain. We had heard stories that you could hike around the mountain, but I wasn’t expecting this type of signage….
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We felt like we were in a National Park in the United States! There were at least ten different hiking routes you could take around the mountain. Each was sign posted with elevation, distance, and sights along the way.

 

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As we began to climb up the side of Kep mountain, I immediately fell in love. Kep not only has rolling hills that slide right up to the coast, it has a beautiful shoreline that stretches on for miles, with small islands dotting the horizon. It felt like Hawaii!

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We found a few creatures on our hike… This was the husk of a bug, just stuck on a tree.

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This guy did a whole photo shoot for us; we were snapping photos for at least ten minutes, and he didn’t move a muscle!

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We were determined to find the summit of Kep Mountain. We think we did…?

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After the summit, we had decided to make a loop to get back to the trailhead. We took the “jungle hike” trail on the way down. Without a doubt, it was the toughest hike we’ve done so far in Cambodia. The trail began to drop off over large boulders, sticks, fallen logs, and streams of water. We had to use the ropes that were tied onto the side of the trail to lower ourselves down. I think going up that side would have been fine, but trying to maneuver backwards down a slippery jungle mountain is no fun!

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But we weren’t without our rewards.

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We emerged on the other side, with sweeping views of Kep’s countryside.

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It reminded me of both Maui and Sri Lanka.

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Then we found this massive guy on the trail! Luckily, I have never seen this type of bug before, and hope I don’t have to again. He was as long (or longer than) my forearm.

After our hike, we met up with our friends who also went to Kep for the long weekend. They told us about their favorite seafood place, as Kep is famous for seafood, caught right off the shore.
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I got the crab with Kampot pepper. I am getting hungry just looking back at this picture!

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We had crab, shrimp, octopus, and squid. It was a feast fit for a king. (Or a Chihuahua?)

After lunch, we were all feeling a bit adventurous. So, we decided to look for a small beach we saw on the map, supposedly hidden from the main area in Kep.

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After much driving, the only thing we had found was a lot of red dirt on our cars, and suntans on our faces. We asked a few people, who eventually pointed us in the right direction. However, this was exactly the type of trip where the journey was just as beautiful as the destination. I loved the Kep countryside!
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We found the beach at dusk. Just enough time to walk along the shore, hunt for shells, and watch the sun sink lower in the sky.

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We were happy we endured the off-roading and mis-directions; we found an incredible sunset!

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Back at our lodge the next morning, Sean found two critters near the bathroom.

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This spider was hanging out on the wall of the bathroom! It was larger than my palm!

 

Sadly, we had to head back to the city of Phnom Penh the next morning. It was a four-day weekend, and we had school the next day.

I left the coast knowing that I will return to Kep— or in my eyes—Cambodia’s secret. It is a small town, with unbelievable shore line, mountains, sweeping views, seafood, and endless trails to get lost between the palm trees and fragrant flowers.

We will be taking our family back to Kep when they come visit, and I can’t wait to share it with them. We just finished a trip to Siem Reap to see the temples of Angkor Wat, which I will blog about soon. I am really behind with the blogging; there is so much in Cambodia to see and do, I can’t keep it with it all. What a great problem to have, huh?

Enjoy your holiday season, and your new year, and I will write again as soon as I can.

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Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bokor Mountain, Kampot

We love Cambodia. We find more and more to love every day. A few weeks ago, we found Bokor Mountain.

As you drive South from Phnom Penh, you begin to enter rolling hills. Pretty soon you come across taller hills, oddly shaped hills, hills with temples on top, hills begging you to explore them. It’s all part of the Elephant Mountains, a small mountain range in Southeastern Cambodia. The tallest mountain of them all is 3,547 feet.

And its name is Bokor Mountain.

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Sean did an amazing job shooting all these panoramas; click on them to open in a new tab. It’s better to see them on a bigger screen to get all the amazing detail.

These are all shot from the top of Bokor Mountain. You can see the ocean, and islands off in the distance. This part of the ocean is known as the Gulf of Thailand.

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Bokor, in Khmer, means cow hump. (Pronounced: Bo-Ko.) You know what I mean; those cows you see in the countryside of certain countries with the massive hump on their back. It is apparently incredibly delicious. Sean has been dying to try it ever since he saw his first cow with that massive chunk of meat rolling between its shoulders…

I’m pretty sure the type of cow see in Cambodia is a zebu, check it out here. They live primarly in this region, and are known for their massive hump between their shoulders, or in Khmer, their bokor.

While doing my research, I stumbled on a fascinating article about the Kouprey, Cambodia’s national animal. It is a species of cattle found only in Cambodia. I had no idea! They are a “wild, forest-dwelling bovine species” in the jungles of northern Cambodia. They are seldom seen anymore due to deforestation and hunting. They weren’t even discovered until 1937! Learn more about the kouprey here.

Anyways, back to our trip to Bokor Mountain…

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You can drive to the top of the mountain and hike around from there. If you look at the left side of the above picture, you can see all sorts of cars and people on picnics. We were there during a holiday, so it was a bit crowded. But that didn’t make it any less beautiful.

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This is the statue of Lok Yeay Mao, also at the top of the mountain. Lok is the most formal version of Mr. or Mrs. You use Lok when speaking to someone of extreme status (like royalty, or someone in a government role). Yeay Mao is an ancient hero and divinity for the Buddhists in Cambodia. She is seen as the protector of travelers. One legend says that she used to be married to Ta Krohom-Koh, literally “Grandpa Red Neck“. (I’m not kidding.) They used to live in the forests, and her husband left her alone once and a tiger devoured her. Another legend has it that she was married to a powerful warrior, and when he died, she took control of his armies and became very powerful. I choose to believe the second story.

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Never miss an opportunity to have someone take your picture! We never have enough photos of us together.

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Near the statue of Lok Yeay Mao there is an abandoned building with some awesome graffiti. I later found out these abandoned buildings were part of the old King Sihanouk’s residence.  So much history on this one mountain!

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If you driver further along the mountain road, you come across an old French church. The French built it during the twenties when they wanted to have a French community at the top of the mountain.

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It’s abandoned now, but makes for an amazing place to explore…


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Inside the church.
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Speaking of abandoned things, the most popular artifact is the abandoned hotel. It was also built by the French in the twenties, but was never finished. It is in excellent condition, and you can explore every hallways and rooftop. There are no railings, security guards, or caution signs, so explore at your own risk!

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Explore we did. This is the view from the top of the abandoned hotel.

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The architecture was really neat, as was how well it is preserved. It was almost eerie…

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Then we found Popokvil Waterfall. IMG_8534

These guys live life on the wild side. They must have amazing balancing skills, because I would have fallen over the edge minutes ago.

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One of the steps of the falls. It was tough to get it all in a picture; they rolled on for quite a ways!


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A Cambodian phenomenon: The amount of people you can fit on one moto.

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Another view from Bokor. That is the town of Kampot off to the left. Isn’t it gorgeous?

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Then we checked in to our guesthouse… or ‘nature lodge’ I suppose. It was thatched huts on stilts in the middle of rice paddies.

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The view from the balcony of our hut. That’s Bokor Mountain. How massive! You could spend a week explore every inch of its plateau.

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Then we headed into the town of Kampot for dinner. I loved the colonial-looking architecture…

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Sunset over the river in Kampot.

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When I woke up in the morning, I saw a woman heading to work…

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I wanted to get a shot the next morning of where we parked our car. We were skeptical when we saw that we had to park here and walk through the woods to get the bungalows. It was the first time I’ve seen a mosque since outside Kuwait!

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Sean in trusty Champee. The sign pointing towards Ganesha, where we stayed.

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The road was absolutely terrible. There were times that it felt more like a swamp than a dirt path!

Genesha4The rice paddies in front of Bokor Mountain.

Kampot is a beautiful place.

…but then we found Kep.

Check back soon for the rest of our weekend adventure!

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bicycling Around Phnom Penh

 

Bon Om Thouk, the water festival. Happening every November, Bon Om Thouk marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River. I know, sounds crazy. A three-day festival that draws millions of people to the city from the countryside. Boat races, costumes, parties.

This year, it didn’t happen. We still got off school for the holiday, but the boat races and the celebrations were cancelled. Why? Some say it was due to political instability. Some say it was due to the extensive flooding.

What to do with a five-day weekend? Sean and I wanted to go to an island, but were scared by impending storms. It was the weekend right after Typhoon Haiyan, and Vietnam was getting hit pretty hard. The island we wanted to visit (Koh Rong) is a two-hour boat ride from the mainland. We thought it best to hold off ’till clearer forecasts.

So, we lived like royalty in Phnom Penh, exploring parts of the city we hadn’t made time to visit before. We left the city the second half of the break, but the first half we had a lot of fun being visitors in our own town.

On the first day, we headed down the riverside and rented two bicycles.
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The weather was perfect! Bright blue skies mixed with fluffy clouds.
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We rented two bicycles from The Vicious Cycle/Grasshopper Adventure Tours. For $7 each, we got first-class Giant mountain bikes with great suspension and tires. Those things were beastly! We felt like we could take on the world… or Cambodia for a day, at least.

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We cruised around the riverfront for a while, enjoying how easy it was to zip up and down the promenade.
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A regular street in Cambodia, seen from my bicycle.

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We stopped at every ‘photo opportunity’… I was nervous in this picture because you aren’t supposed to stand on the grass in the parks. I know! They have concrete paths and nice benches, with perfectly manicured lawns. In every park, you only ever see people on the concrete; it is illegal to walk on the grass! I don’t think you’d ever get a ticket, but I do think people would give you some sideways glances. Sean really wanted me to pose with the elephant, though, so I sprinted into the frame, the scofflaw that I am…

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Our plan all along was to get to one of the islands on the Mekong. We got directions from the bike rental place, and headed to the car ferry. It was a busy day; I didn’t know how they could fit everyone on that tiny boat!

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But they managed just fine. A twenty motos squished up against Camry bumping a Lexus next to a Toyota Hilux in front of thirty people. And two foreigners with fancy bikes.

We thought we knew exactly where we were going… to the island… We had grandiose plans to go to Koh Dach, or Silk Island.

We couldn’t have been more wrong:

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We biked down the riverside, and hopped on a ferry. We ended up in a remote area, thinking it was a seldom-visited island. Nope. Just normal Cambodia outside of the bustling center that is Phnom Penh. We biked around, waiting to find the ferry to the ‘next island’, where we thought Silk Island would be waiting for us. This all could have obviously been avoided had I checked Google Maps.

 

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Regardless, we had fun bicycling Cambodia’s countryside! This phenomenon is often seen, but I haven’t blogged about it yet. Weddings and birthday parties are thrown on the street, outside of the house. You set up the tent and tables in the middle of the street, and anyone passing just moves around your party. Isn’t it convenient? You want to have a party? Why not just throw it in the street? It’s another example of how laid back everyone is here. I love it!

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Bicycling the remote wilds of the Cambodian countryside… (Not an island.)

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We stumbled on a cock fight! Sean snuck into the melee to see the dueling roosters. I was the only woman there so I hung back and took photos. How many kids in trees can you spot?
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And then we found Smango, the bicycle oasis. It is a resort/restaurant our friend told us to look for. Unfortunately our sweet friend also thought she was on Silk Island. Looks like this blog is going to crush many dreams…

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But the food at Smango was amazing! Sean had sweet and sour chicken, and I had Banh Chao. I’ve had it before, and I always enjoy it when I order it. It’s a delicious rice milk/coconut pancake filled with bean sprouts, sauteed veggies, and meat if you want it. You then tear pieces off, dip them in a peanut sauce, and wrap it up with cucumber and lettuce leaves. Yum!

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Smango had a pool, too, but we were looking forward to getting back to our apartment and taking a dip in our own pool. We had many kilometers left to pedal!


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We found a more major road that went through small villages. Can you spy the woman in the background balancing the basket on her head?
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Once we decided to head back, we crossed the Japanese Friendship bridge to get back into the city. This bridge crosses the Tonle Sap, which switches directions in November.

We still had a few hours to spend before we returned the bikes, so we headed to Wat Phnom, the major temple in the city.

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Not quite sure what she’s selling. If you know, please post in the comments!

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Me in front of Wat Phnom. It has a large clock on the grass in front of the temple. Wat means temple, and Phnom means hill. It is the major temple in Phnom Penh.
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I really love Wat Phnom because it has a large shaded park all around it. You can stroll thrpugh the park, look at the temple, have a picnic, or watch the sellers. I find it really peaceful!

IMG_8416As the sun got lower in the sky, we made our way back to the riverside to return the bikes. I spotted this building, which screamed French architecture. Cambodia was actually the “French Protectorate of Cambodia” from 1867 to 1953. You can still see a lot of French architecture, and excellent coffee and baguettes are actually more common than you’d think!

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After dropping off the bikes, Sean and I headed to a balcony with a view.

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Anyone who’s ever been to Phnom Penh has probably been to the yellow building, having the opposite view of this one. The yellow building is the FCC, or Foreign Correspondents Club. It is the historic bar of the city, check out a great article on its history here. They’ve also got a great, half-price happy hour. We chose the bar across the street though, for a change of pace. Which did we like better? You’ll have to visit yourself to decide…
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We were lucky we returned our bikes when we did. It looked like a storm was brewing. We savored a cold drink, an order of french fries, and the view over the Mekong river.

It was a great first day to a vacation. However, now we have to go find the real Silk Island….

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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