“You don’t want to go to Kep, the road is really bad at the moment”
While staying in the Southern Cambodian town of Kampot we had heard this sentence from the owner of our hostel, the owner of the local Irish pub and diners at popular eatery, the Rusty Keyhole. But knowing there is somewhat of a healthy competition between the two towns we didn’t take it too seriously… but perhaps we should have.
The day I left the riverside haven of Kampot it was bucketing down with rain but I still wanted to visit the Phnom Chhnork Cave en route to our next destination of Kep.
While there are busses that travel the 25 km trip direct twice a day for about $5 USD, we needed a Tuk Tuk in order to make the stop over at the entrance of the caves.
The ride cost us $15 USD for two people but our lovely driver Nat more than earned the fare because, as it turns out, the roads really were quite terrible.
The torrential rains had turned the red dirt road into a 25km uneven mud pit and there were a few moments when I thought our tuk tuk might tip over. All we could do was put on our handy 25 cent ponchos to protect us from the rain and grip to the sides of our noble chariot.
We had negotiated for Nat to keep watch over our bags while we explored the caves as part of the overall price and when we arrived he introduced us to three local boys who were to act as our guides for $1 USD each.
I had been very careful not to give money to children and conscious of the growing problems associated with child tourism in Cambodia but as it was a weekend they wouldn’t be attending school so I decided to make the exception.
Honestly, we couldn’t have negotiated the caves without them and they really were hilarious. They had huge (read: very cheeky) personalities and spoke several languages – very intelligent kids!
I had worn sneakers but the second the kids and Nat saw them they told me to go barefoot. So there I was barefoot, squelching through ankle deep mud, past rice fields, farms and assorted animals.
Then there were the river crossings, I am notoriously clumsy so the idea of balancing along a thin log over a dirty river wasn’t overly enticing but trying to balance while your feet are caked in slippery clay is a whole different challenge. One, I am happy to say, that I passed.
Eventually we made it to the entrance where we paid $2 USD and proceeded to climb the 216 stairs to the mouth of the cave where we were shown stalactites that looked like elephants and a 7th centaury temple dedicated to Shiva.
Then the visit started to get tricky as the boys helped us through the dark and down the slippery, steep rocks while pointing out the best footholds, bats and other oddities.
At the very end you have to duck under a rock and shimmy yourself onto a wooden plank that is suspended under it. Which is fine if you are a child or a 5-foot-nothing Cambodian but alas I less graciously had to shimmy along on my bottom while the kids laughed at me. Shucks!
To exit you need walk along another wooden plank through water while balancing yourself on a shakey piece of bamboo.
Then it was back to Nat and past the beautiful villages and farms that frame the mud dirt road of hell.
And so it was that I arrived in the beautiful seaside village of Kep that had once been the illustrious summer playground of King Sihanouk covered in mud with hardened clay on my feet and looking quite a mess.
So the answer to what lies between the two towns is simple really: a whole lot of mud, some incredible natural scenery, a history lesson and some of the cheekiest kids you will ever meet.