Over a week has zoomed by in Cambodia and we are really enjoying the new sights and people. Without having much of a plan we headed off to Kampot in the southwest knowing that we would have to return to Phnom Penh to visit any of the other places we had in mind. We knew that it was a coastal town with a history of pepper plantations and not much else when we selected this as our first stop-off.
Kampot is a pleasant surprise on the backpacker trail. It is largely unrestored but has a genuine charm whilst still being not much more than a dusty rundown collection of decaying, colonial buildings and rapidly constructed concrete homes and hotels. There are certainly a few well-restored and beautifully appointed places in town but they are not the norm. It is home to a large number of expats and a wide variety of cafes, many of which sponsor organizations supporting the needy in the community.
Our hotel experience was nothing short of a “Monty Python” episode. It began with a $2 ride from the bus station in a tuk tuk. That seemed like a more than reasonable price until we realized it was less than 400metes! OK, it was our mistake as we were without a map. Google maps had our hotel plum in the middle of the river! With all our luggage we were better safe than sorry in a tuk tuk so it was not so much to pay for the lesson.
At reception there were tables lined up with florescent lights burning brightly and covered with newspaper to direct the maximum light toward the table and not above it. Huddled around the table were 6 young women all with tweezers in hand carefully examining white gelatinous masses floating in water in bowls. Mmmmm … Oh well! One of these women extricated herself from the group and hastily and perfunctorily confirmed we did have a booking, so she had to check us in. Well, she thrust a piece of paper in front of us and glared while we filled it in.
We stromped upstairs and along an endless corridor to arrive in a somewhat dirty triple room, not the double we booked but how can one more bed be such an issue? We could see the pool, which lured us to book this hotel from the window and that too did not bode well. Surrounded by rampant construction with what appeared to be rubble on the bottom and concrete dust floating on the surface, it was not the best look for a pool.
Within minutes, we also ascertained that we couldn’t connect to the internet from this room and without further ado our now somewhat disgruntled staff member instructed us to, “Change room.” Right next-door was a double that was in fact cleaner, so good move! She promptly returned to her table in the reception area leaving both rooms and both keys! Good thing as it turns out as we could now access the pillows and towels and bathroom basin plug (essential for in room laundering…) from the first room so as to supply our new one.
On the way up the stairs (of course there is no lift) we noticed a strange, screeching birdlike sound echoing throughout the hotel. We explored it on the way down and discovered it was coming from room 201, which just happened to have 3 large padlocks on the outside of the door. It sounded like a room full of birds all squawking their beaks off. Pity the neighbours! Avoid the second floor!!We were convinced that it was actually birds in there, but why? The noise was audible throughout the hotel which was quite a feat as both new building as well as much needed renovation work was in progress with its associated crashes, bangs and screeches.
Ian investigated via Google and found out that they were most likely swiftlets. They produce the edible bird’s nests from which bird’s nest soup and other Asian delicacies are produced. In fact what is going on in the lobby is the cleaning of these “harvested” nests.
The strange noise didn't end once we left the hotel either. Many places in Kampot play loud, recorded bird song to entice the wild birds into enclosures on the roof so they will build their ‘white gold’ nests. Throughout the town you could hear the chirping cum squawking. The sounds were coming from speakers on this kind of structure on the rooves of many buildings.
We wandered around town decided that despite the eccentricities of this hotel we would stay for few nights and see what is on offer in Kampot. Quite a lot actually! Just wandering the streets it became obvious that this little haven was a magnet for expats and backpackers and that the bird’s nest business is THE local enterprise. As it turned out while we were in town there was a French TV crew filming too. No doubt the authenticity of the place meant not too many alterations were required to recreate the 1940’s set.
Back at the hotel I enquired about the pool at reception and was instructed that we needed to go out of the hotel and turn left at the corner then enter the gate. There is a solid brick wall between the actual hotel and the pool! And well yes it is right in the middle of what will be the new hotel building once they have actually finished building it, probably some time in 2016! In our 3 day stay I did see one foreigner in the water but I simply wasn’t brave enough, what with the arc welding, sawing and hammering going on all around and the lumber piled between the entrance and the pool proper, it didn’t really seem like a very good option.
The only other conversation we had with reception was at checkout when we were told the paltry sum we needed to pay. The bird’s nest business at around a $2,000 a kilo is certainly more lucrative than hospitality and there are no questions asked!
Nonetheless we loved Kampot and the sunsets, the dusty streets, the delicious food, the friendly locals, the small town atmosphere and the eccentricity of the expats.
Next we took ourselves to Sihanoukville where the beach is lovely and the hotel pool was perfect for actually swimming!