We were told that this is the now place to go: a former French colonial seaside town, abandoned in the Khmer Rouge years, but with the shells of the old villas now being slowly restored. We decided to try an eco resort up in the jungle above the town, not without some misgivings given the warning in some of the reviews.
But first we had to get there. We had a car with driver to take us. There had been a few heavy thunderstorms over the previous couple of nights. On the morning we set off, we could hear some localized donner-und-blitzen-ing in the distance. Hitting the airport road it soon became clear that there had been a major downpour. Water was shooting in torrents off the roofs of the buildings. The road was flooded to a depth of several inches. Everyone was trying to drive in the slightly less flooded crown of the road, in both directions at once (and in other random directions). Chaos, as the saying goes, ensued. 4WDs were ploughing fast through the grey waters, splashing everything in sight. Motorbikes were breaking down by the dozen. Our unfazed driver ploughed on through this: the waters lapping against the chassis so that it sounded like we were in a rowing boat. Somehow we made it, and off we went across the vast waterlogged plain south of Phnom Penh, all rice fields and drainage ditches, with houses clinging to the causewayed highway.
Then passing through the town of Kampot, just before our destination, we hit another snag: a huge traffic jam, apparently immobile. The driver seemed happy to just sit: so Ian went to investigate. Ahead of us, a bridge was being replaced. A temporary single lane crossing had been constructed of hardcore and gravel, and right in the middle of this, a large flatbed truck, attempting a crossing, had sunk into the mud, and slid onto its side, completely blocking the way in both directions. Eventually our driver made a few phone calls and backed up. Following a route through all the shanty towns and back alleys of Kampot, and eventually along a muddy, rutted track in the middle of a rice-field, he eventually emerged triumphant just past the obstruction. The final snag was getting up to the resort, via another highly rutted narrow track, that seemed impossible in this low slung ancient Datsun – but we made it.
It is located in the most beautiful heavily wooded valley, with jungle noises all around; arranged as a series of straw-thatched huts, some on the ground, some built up into the trees, like a hill tribe village. The staff are all local and the greatest thing about the place: incredibly warm, friendly and helpful. But as for the accommodation, even the Spartans would find it spartan. Our room is open to the outside, to provide ventilation at the roof level, because there is no A/C. Power is limited to a few 12V bulbs and a half hearted fan, powered by a battery linked to a solar panel: and, we are warned, if this runs out that’s it for the night. And no hot water. The hotel notes say that the water is ambient ‘and most people think this fine’, but the supply seems to come from some deep aquifer with a direct link to the Himalayan plateau. There is a pool – but its water is muddy, the colour of milky tea, and its approaches slimy, with fish and who knows what else in it: not a single guest dared to use it while we were there. I’m reminded of those vegetarian restaurants of the 60s, where you were made, by the bearded and be-sandaled owner, to feel that an essential part of the experience was to make you suffer.
But here there’s a lovely restaurant, with a wood burning oven and lovely non-veggie food; and, perhaps the saving grace, an array of interesting and lively guests. As we are all essentially stuck at the end of that track once night falls (this would be a great setting for an Agatha Christie) everyone stays in and eats in the restaurant around a big table faced with broken tiles, Gaudi style, and the whole thing turns into a house party.
There’s Brian, the most liberal American you will ever meet, on his first holiday for seven years. Ellie and Stefan, a British-Swiss couple with two very young girls, Anna and Aimée, on a five month Asian life-changing tour: the girls very friendly, lively and articulate (‘So you speak two languages?’ ‘No, four!’ ‘No, five!’). And a delightful Australian lady with a remarkable history, who is giving English classes to the staff, part of a continuing program that makes me want to take all the negative comments back about the place. So each night we sat and chatted around many and various topics and by the end of a few days had solved all the world’s problems. Why can’t politicians do this?
Then to bed in the profound darkness of the forest, drifting off to the sounds of creatures of the night, blurting toads from the pool, restless night birds, the sad falling cry of the geckos; trying not to think about odd furtive rustling sounds just outside. Then you're asleep, to be woken at dawn by the light from the curtainless windows and a whole new daytime soundscape.