The Kampot countryside in southern Cambodia is a gorgeous place.
Pockmarked dirt tracks thread through thick jungle, rice fields and past wooden houses on stilts. These are all backdrops to rural scenes, framed by the wooden bars of our tuk tuk as we judder past.
We swing around blind bends and are met by capillaried waterways and shimmering lakes, or emerge into clearings to awesome views of the surrounding mountains and beachfronts, or sometimes just surprise a nonchalant white-humped cow ruminating in the shade.
Everything is a vibrant, Chartreuse green and smells of baked clay earth. It is thirty-six degrees.
Our destination today is Kep National Park, but first we bump down a left turn signed for ‘La Plantation’: an organic farm that produces caviar-quality pepper for which the Kampot region is famed. The farm’s social mission is to take care of the families of its farmers, as well as supporting the nearby school with new buildings, roads and resources.
We sample the goods an hour later on the seafront when it comes laced on fresh blue crab, swimming in green Kampot pepper sauce; a Kep speciality. We crack and slurp our way through a brace each. Spice crackles on our tongues like popping candy. Not the standard pre-hike fare.
Bellies full, we head for the park and exit our three wheeler on a main road. The driver encourages us with vague directions claiming that the path starts somewhere along the trail beside us. It plunges straight into the jungle.
The trails in the park are maintained by the wonderful people at the Squirrel Association, led by a selfless man called Christian. I would presume the $1pp entry fee would go to them but it does not; tapped off instead to a less apparent government effort. The Squirrels receive no official funding for their work and do it all off their own back.
Not only do they safeguard the trails (installing ropes to reach the hilltop, clearing rubbish, creating maps), the Squirrels have also added trivia boards and ‘off-the-track’ points of interest. We scramble down a slope towards one and arrive at the Kep Butterfly Farm.
If someone ever needs cheering up, take them for a wander through a butterfly farm enclosure; everyone glides around with infectious codeine grins and glassy eyed gazes.
The farm is aimed at training locals to fulfill an export market demand for the butterflies. It requires no deforestation and brings sustainable income into the rural community.
Scrabbling back onto the path we can hear something crashing around in the treetops above us. On closer inspection, it is a troop of Gibbon monkeys. We try to take photos but they are a mangle of limbs and fur, shrouded in the canopy. We outstay our welcome and they screech abuse at us, so we take our leave.
At the end of the walk, we drop into the Led Zed Cafe, owned by Christian, for an iced lime juice. The walls are covered in paraphenalia on the history of the park. It is a wonderful spot to cool down and, along with their park work, it is a worthy physical manifestation of the Squirrel’s superb enterprise.
It is all in stark contrast to nearby Bokor National Park which we visit on the following day. The government has sold off a vast swathe of the park to Sokimex Group. The giant hotel-casino Sokimex have built is a remarkable shade of jaundice. What looks liken an unfinished concrete airhanger and ongoing condo buildings are almost as aesthetically offensive.
One would hope that the money from this deal would go to fund preservation in the rest of the Bokor park or education projects. Maybe it is.
From talking to locals, this seems unlikely. In 2013, Cambodia’s government was designated the most corrupt in the ASEAN countries too. More unlikely still.
In defence of Sokimex, they were not the first to build there. The French constructed a casino and hill top retreat here starting in the 1920s. The Khmer Rouge then held Bokor Hill as one of their last strongholds in the early 1990s. The place has an interesting, chequered and sad past.
It is a shame as the rest of the park is a real beauty. It has a top of the world feel to it, sitting at 1,048m above sea level.
The French also built a church that sits on an isolated hill. It is downright eerie. A one armed Jesus statue presides over the main chamber. In the room behind him is scrawled:
‘Watch around you’
A warning that seems to have gone unheeded by those in charge of safeguarding Borok.
Lessons could be learnt from Kep. The Pepper Planters, Butterfly Farmers and Squirrel folk of the Led Zed Cafe seem to be a little more aware of their surroundings.
N.B. To get to Kep National Park, hop on a tuk tuk and ask for the entrance. Its an 8-10km circular track (unless you go up the hilltop) but maps are available at Led Zed Cafe and are also dotted at fixed points around the park. Kep can also be explored by bike or moped.
A silver lining to the Sokimex development in Bokor is a fantastic road from Kampot all the way up to the hill station. Tours are available but the best way is to hire a moped and do it yourself. Take precautions (check the bike, especially tyres and breaks) but it is a fairly chilled ride for even inexperienced riders (like me). Mopeds available for around $5 a day from Kampot. From there its 1.5hrs roughly each way.