One aspect of South East Asia that I have been looking forward to is the beaches. I’m not one to lie around on them all day, but the sight of palm fringed white sandy beaches being lapped gently by crystal clear water is one that always brings a smile to my face. It was with this in mind that I left Cheung Ek, the killing fields memorial site, and began the ride south towards the coast.

I had not seen the sea since I arrived in South East Asia eleven weeks ago. Hearing so many people tell me how much I would enjoy the beaches, especially in Vietnam, I was looking forward to my ride to the coast. As I am now at the southern-most point of my journey and the temperature is rising on an almost daily basis I knew the ride was going to be hot but what I hadn’t counted upon was a hot head wind that dried my mouth as I rode. The ride to Kampot, the provincial capital, was a long hot morning that literally took my breath away. Four cold fizzy cans, at least three litres of iced water and three ice-creams as well as noodle soup for breakfast helped get me to my destination. And all of that in just 4 hours of actual riding.
The road in to Kampot was not auspicious. Noisy and congested with trucks and cars overtaking each other indiscriminately while being buzzed by dozens of scooters and bicycles. However, once I turned off the main highway and rode past the market into town I could see beyond the crumbling facade. The town has a run-down French Caribbean feel to it, just as I imagine Haiti to be, “a sleepy place with a relaxed atmosphere and one of Cambodia’s finest (though run-down) ensembles of French colonial architecture” – Lonely planet.  What the LP guide doesn’t say however is that in the morning light it could be just another run-down town. The French colonial buildings are mostly in a state of severe disrepair if not falling down completely. Many are squatted and their pavements used as street food eateries. Perhaps the French would be happy that despite the buildings having seen better days at least the cuisine is still good.
My one night in Kampot was also rewarded with one of the tastiest meals that I have experienced while in the region. A simple plate of noodles, bean sprouts, a fried egg and a small pastry filled with what seemed like cabbage or spinach all covered with a sweet curry sauce with a spicy ingredient that I failed to recognise. I don’t know what the dish is called but it tasted fantastic. The cost was the standard fee for most street food, just $1 or about 66 pence. I was tempted to ask for a second plate but knew that I would not be able to eat it all if I did. Instead I wandered further down the street for desert, a fruit shake. Walking back and a street stall was making mouth-watering sweet-milk (condensed milk) and ovaltine sprinkled crepes. Delicious. I had two. Considering I must have sweated enough calories this morning to make up for at least three I think that I showed considerable restraint.

Still on a culinary note, one peculiar aspect of Kampot is the choice of roundabout adornment. The largest roundabout in the town pays homage to the locally grown fruit Durian. Kampot is the countrys largest Durian growing area. It is regarded as the king of fruit by those who like it but to others it's extremely distasteful. First described to me by its smell as "the odour left when a rubbish bin has not been cleaned out properly and allowed to stand with rain water in it". Not the most mouth-watering description. I must admit that I couldn’t get over the initial revulsion brought about by my first smell and even after holding my nose while tasting and chewing it I couldn’t face swallowing it. Luckily for me there are plenty of mangos around to help take the taste away.
On leaving Kampot on Highway 33 I immediately found myself on a hard compacted dirt road. Weaving around potholes and rough patches while riding through clouds of dust kicked up by passing trucks reminded me of other touring cyclists descriptions of romantic sounding sections of road. There is a feeling seldom experienced while on the road but instantly recognisable to those who have in fact felt it. It’s hard to put it into words but feels like a sense of belonging to the place you are in. I suppose it could be likened to a sportsperson being ‘in the zone’, but is much more transitory and illusory. Contrary to the sportsman you can’t create that feeling, you can’t just focus your mind or carry out a routine to ‘get yourself’ into that zone, you just recognice it when it happens. It’s not a one off feeling as you may experience it often or even regularly but each time it will be unique to that one spot, not a zone as a sportsperson feels but an aura of belonging to that place for a time. It may be a few seconds or it may last for minutes but recognition of that moment makes you smile to yourself even though you know that that smile itself will mark the end of that brief moment of belonging. A little like waking and realising you have been dreaming, wanting and even trying to continue the dream but knowing that the thread has been broken and you are back to the present, the here and now. Recognition brings instant loss, but also another smile. You know you have been there and that you will remember it for a long time if not always.

About 30 minutes after leaving Kampot along a dusty, potholed road and glimpsing the ocean through palm trees for the first time on this journey I had that feeling. A truck had just thrown up a cloud of red dust, a scooter buzzed past me, a cow was beginning its slow meandering walk into the road and just for a short time I was lost to the moment and place.
Approaching the turn off to Kep I met a lone female cyclist coming the other way. I recognised her for a tourer immediately despite the lack of panniers and other baggage. It was the bike and the clothing that gave it away. Any bike that is rented here is usually a mountain bike with front suspension or a town bike. Snetzana Radojicic was instead riding a rigid mountain bike with ‘butterfly’ handlebars, a bar bag and pannier mounts. As with all touring cyclists (except for an old Dutch couple a group of us passed a couple of times in Laos) it’s customary to stop for a chat, to find out where they have been, where they are going and to gather information and ‘gossip’. Snetzana (translated from Serbian literally means Snow White) has been on the road for twenty two months, initially with a boyfriend until they parted ways, now continuing solo. She was on the way back to Kampot to collect her gear and then return to Kep the following day where she had already arranged cheap accommodation. We had spent about fifteen minutes at the road side talking in general but I could tell there was much more to be heard from this woman. Agreeing to meet the next day I continued on to find the place for myself and await her arrival and to hear more of her tales of adventure.

‘Snowy’ as I have come to call her is funding her trip by writing articles for an internet forum in Serbian as well as blogging for her own site. She is also the author of a short novel and a collection of short stories. National Geographic have also taken two articles from her but have not as yet published them.
She also told me of a British cyclist that funded his trip by ‘selling’ kilometres of his journey on the internet. Apparently people who have always wanted to visit certain places but have not as yet had the chance to do so make a contribution to his journey and pay for kilometres in their name. It sounds like a great idea don’t you think ? So, if you have your credit cards handy . . . . .
There are numerous guest houses and burned out shells of what were once opulent villas set in their own spacious grounds on the road into Kep. Each one individually styled. Obviously this was once a place to be. The crab and seafood market is now a haven for tourists from those guest houses and appears to be more a collection of restaurants than a working market. A kilometre along the sea front brings you to the beach area and you go another kilometre again before you reach what is the main centre of Kep according to Google maps. This is actually the furthest point away from most of the commercial and residential areas.  A network of streets set out in a grid formation to the north of the main highway has long since fallen into disrepair. What was once a residential area with individually designed villas set in large gated grounds has now become a line of empty or burned out shells. Many plots are actually devoid of any buildings being used instead as grazing ground for cattle. What were once garden walls have now become retaining walls for the herd. The roads themselves are now nothing more than extremely overgrown rutted farm tracks. Kep was once a playground for the richer French. It is now becoming popular again with Cambodians especially on weekends so I am told. It's Friday as I write this so maybe tomorrow it will be a bit harder to secure a seat or a hammock on the sea front. Yes, even in paradise life can have its drawbacks.

 


29/03/2013 09:37

Reminds me of Curacoa mate, white beaches, palm trees and a herd of goats wondering across the road!

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01/04/2013 19:00

Just to say you "Hi"!
I started writing a novel yesterday and I am happy how it's going well. Nothing new here: the dogs are barking all the night, in the In Villa again serve breakfast without butter and jam, only your bed got a new pink sheets :)
Happy riding!

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