After the craziness of Thursday and Friday in Sihanoukville, it was time to get back to what we were here to see – history and culture. The cultural part was a visit to the morning market in Kep, which, and I’m being polite here, wasn’t exactly brimming with five star food hygiene ratings. In fact it was quite the opposite, so I was happy to wait on the bus for everyone to return. After that it was time for some history, and what better way to see that than a trip to the Bokor National Park.
Actually I should re-phrase that, as the road to the top of the hill was like something out of an episode of Top Gear. You know the ones where they try and find ‘the best driving road in the world’? It was like that, but on a bus in searing humidity (with a little bit of sunburn) wasn’t my idea of fun.
That all changed once we got to the top as you can see the view was totally worth it. We meandered around a few statues of Lord Buddha before visiting the old hill station, established by the French in 1925. The entire Bokor region saw fierce fighting between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge — at one stage one side was holed up in the Catholic church and the other in the casino — all the while trying to shoot each other to pieces. The eeriness of the hill was certainly lessened by the shiny casino and resort around the corner, not to mention the fact the hill station had kind-of been renovated. I expected bullet holes and something spooky, and all we found was a very old building with plenty of graffiti, wheelie bins in the garden and portaloos outside. With a bit of tinkering it could have been phenomenal.
The national park itself has loads to see, including some spectacular waterfalls. Our guide told us the best time to see them would be during the rainy season, so it’s a must re-visit on our list. On the way back down we stopped off at the Old Catholic Church before buckling in for the long journey to Phnom Penh. We were told it could take up to and above five hours, which didn’t thrill me.
As the mounds and mounds of rubbish piled up along the side of the road went by, I thought about what kind of traveller would head to Cambodia. Siem Reap is a huge attraction, as is Angkor Wat. Beyond that Phnom Penh as the country’s capital appeals, but it was days like today that made me realise just how much potential Cambodia has. The views were breathtaking, the scenery and landmarks unforgettable and the people welcoming. If Cambodia is going to catch up to their Thai neighbours and make the Asean region a true collaboration between some of South East Asia’s tourist superpowers, it’s places like Bokor National Park that can make it happen.
Back on the road, we have finally reached Phnom Penh. As warned it was pretty mental. However, what we weren’t warned about was how stunning the city was. I’d read plenty about the Mekong River and how your arm would fall off or melt away if it touched the water, but as we made our way to the Frangipani Living Arts Hotel, it was obvious that this city needed some exploring.
Thankfully we had just that opportunity, as tonight we wouldn’t be eating in the hotel, we would be on a cruise along the Mekong River, enjoying more amazing food (well, if you liked rice dishes it was), Angkor beer in plentiful supply and a few laughs along the way. Seeing any city by night is my favourite thing, and Phnom Penh was no different. From five-star hotels dotted along the river’s banks to casinos, we saw some stunning sights.
After disembarking we wanted to head to the night market, but were too late. So instead we jumped in a Tuk Tuk – my first experience of one – and asked to be dropped off in the city centre. Before long it became apparent that the red and pink neon lights meant that place was actually the Red Light District. Dodging the multitude of women asking what our plans were for the evening, we found a bar open 24 hours by the river and settled down for a few more Angkor beers, thinking how nice Cambodia was. And then it happened. I got savaged by mozzies. A firm reminder of how far the country has to go to match it’s more illustrious Thai counterparts.