‘Are you sure this is a wise idea?’ I asked
Fed up with the long-winded one-way system built to negotiate the twisting, spaghetti-thin streets of Cazorla, Simon grinned confidently. ‘We’ll be OK, you’ll see… There must be a way down in this direction..,’ he insisted. Since I was not in the driver’s seat, who was I to stop him from resolutely ignoring the ‘dead-end’ sign at the bottom of our road…
Key in ignition, down we rolled. By then I had almost overcome the spasms of vertigo that accompanied all our trips in and out of town. Driving around Cazorla felt like being in the clutches of a perpetual, unending roller-coaster: swept along bend after tempestuous bend, drum-roll climbs followed by plunging depths. Hold on to your stomachs…
Perched against the western slope of the Sierras de Cazorla at an elevation of 836m, the town had not exactly been constructed with the motorist in mind. Simon’s cousin had kindly offered us the use of her house on the edge of the old part of town, where parking spaces were at a premium at best, and non-existent most of the time. ‘You may find it easier to park at the bottom of town and walk up the rest,’ we had been advised. But the trek up was pretty strenuous, arduous almost, and not without its perils. On occasions we only just saved life and limb by tightly squeezing into shallow doorways to let raging cars charge past. The temptation to claim that one vacant parking spot near the house often proved hard to resist…
If parking was a challenge, so was finding our way through the maze of lookalike streets… Not everyone is as sold on Google Maps as I am, ….hence ‘the’ plan of taking a short-cut into the unknown. Needless to say, that ‘dead end’ road indeed meant dead end road, no way out… Make a u-turn… Easier said than done with a large Range Rover wedged in the middle of a two-pronged fork, each end tapering into a sliver of nothingness.. Of course we could have coaxed the car into reverse and edged our way back up the precipitous, narrow street, but with just a few centimeters to spare either side of the car, this was madness, a last resort. So Simon set about the three-point turn whilst I, nerves a-jangle, stood guard on the side to prevent damage to the car and the surrounding masonry…
It didn’t take long for our futile attempts to attract the curiosity of the locals. Dolores – for name’s sake let’s call her Dolores, as we never made it to first-name terms – waddled from her front door surveying the racket, the smell of burnt tyre, brake fluid and diesel perfuming the air… Frustrated with our ineptitude and lack of progress, she decided to lend us a helping hand.
‘Gire, gire!!!’ Dolores commanded, followed hotly on the heel of ‘Pare, pare…!!!’ or ‘Izquierda!!!’ ‘Derecho!!’. Wildly gesticulating with Spanish gusto, she bombarded Simon with Spanish instructions, whilst I took a seat on the sidelines leaving it to the experts… In the end, it took the appearance of Pedro – whose name could easily have been Manuel – to get us on the right track. Whereas the verbal language was mostly lost on us, the body language made up for it. Simon turned the wheel left or right as directed and stopped when Pedro’s hand indicated a close encounter with a wall. The speed and efficiency with which Dolores and Pedro orchestrated our getaway led us to conclude we were not the first ones to find ourselves in this predicament… They were pros, they had done it all before…
All credit to Simon though. If I’d been the driver – apart from the minor fact I would have avoided going down a ‘dead-end road’ – I would have had to hand my keys to Pedro or one of his compatriots. It’s not my fault really, poor spatial awareness courses like an untamed river through the female line of my family…
Finally some reprieve. With Cazorla only four hours’ drive away, we
relished the chance of a little sightseeing on route.
A speedy breakfast and quick outing with our host’s dogs later, we set off to explore the pretty little gem of Escalona. Although Escalona Golf Village may have been a little underwhelming, the town itself was quite a revelation, with its rich heritage dating from before the invasion by the Muslim Moors in the early Middle Ages. And to think that just a day before we hadn’t even known Escalona existed.
At first a Roman villa, then a Moorish fortification near the Alberche River, in the hands of King Alfonso VI of Castile around the 12th century, the town developed into a stronghold for attacks on Toledo. Escalona’s most emblematic monument, the Castillo de Escalona, was built in the 15th century; its moats, walls, towers and walkways still dominating the town. The castle is currently privately owned and open to the public, but try as we might, we could not find an entrance to explore what lay beyond the walls and towers. Being a little pushed for time, we only sneaked a cursory glance at this main attraction and it wasn’t until we stopped to top up with petrol and looked back that we could truly appreciate the vast scale of the ruins.
Of course, we managed a quick dash into the town to look at the walkways and walls, but were easily distracted by the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in a grocery shop. Rather than spending time being impressed by the architecture of the central square, we were seduced by a glut of Spanish strawberries, their sweetness and succulence irresistible… For the next couple of days we overindulged devouring the largest two kilogram punnet of strawberries I have ever paid for, the fruits only second to the best strawberries in the world that used to grow in my Cotswold garden. OK, it is possible I am a little biased, but they were definitely more mouth-watering and delectable than any shop-bought ones, even the Spanish ones…
With our sights set on an extended lunch break and playing tourist in Toledo, we headed for the city’s old historic centre. Whereas Escalona’s legacies had come somewhat as a surprise, Toledo’s cultural heritage is well documented and had piqued my curiosity. After a well-deserved coffee, I left Simon on a quest for antiques in town and forged my own route through the winding, narrow and steep roads that characterise Toledo’s old centre.
Toledo is a fascinating place, blending the architectural styles of its past cultural influences: Moorish, Christian and Jewish. Moorish mosques have been built on Roman foundations; an early, primitive mosque minaret houses the bell tower of the Catholic Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador; the old Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church, was constructed under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use. Santa Maria La Blanca is considered a symbol of the cooperation between the three cultures that populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.
Another impressive example of this unique blend of architectural styles and religious tolerance is the Toledo Cathedral, considered to be one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe. Construction of the current building was started in 1227 on the foundations of a former Visigoth Cathedral originating from the 6th Century. During the Moorish occupation of Spain, the site was also used as a Mosque.
And when in Toledo, the El Greco Museum, which displays some famous paintings by ‘The Greek from Toledo’ himself, is a must. But with Easter only a few days away and schools clearly in holiday mode, the place around the museum thronged with teenagers, chaperoned by teacher-lookalikes… and blocking the entrance to the ticket boot. Free entrance for students, so no hope of me securing a ticket during our brief visit to town… A mural inspired by some of El Greco’s masterpieces was plastered on an adjoining wall! A perfect photo opportunity for the youngsters, trying to match their outfits with the colourful attire of the adulating apostles… But for now, this was the only El Greco work I would feast on, unless of course I ventured into some of the Toledo churches where other El Greco famous works can be seen. In his heyday, El Greco was quite prolific and whilst in Toledo received several major commissions and produced his best known paintings.
On my way back to meet up with Simon, I lost myself in the tangle of small roads cluttered with tourist bagatelles… Oils and olives, sweet turrón, caramelized nut brittle, churros con chocolate offered by nuns, and of course the famed Toledo swords. As early as the 15th century, a Toledo sword crafted by Toledo bladesmiths marked a warrior’s superiority.. Musicians, displaying their prowess on stringed dulcimers, mesmerised passers-by into buying CDs, or just dropping a few euros in a box.
Still, we needed to continue our journey, our last leg, onwards to Cazorla where we would spend the next six days. And Tarja, our last Airbnb host, had not been exaggerating when she told us the best of our road trip was still to come. For miles we traversed across an enormous valley, stretching from Toledo all the way to the Sierra de Cazorla, a massive area of seemingly drought-stricken lands where agriculture thrived. Row upon row of neatly trimmed vines thirsting for rain and drenched by the sun; unending grassy slopes dotted with lonesome trees; the green of olive groves as far as the eye could see …
‘Can we stop, please, Simon,’ I gently nudged my companion, ‘I’d like to take some better pictures of the olive groves. They may well be the last ones we come across.’ We were no longer using motorways, so pulling off onto the roadside was finally within our grasp. I clicked away merrily, as if there would be no tomorrow… I needn’t have worried about olive groves. Little did I know then that Cazorla happens to be surrounded by olive groves and we would be spending most lunchtimes and evenings gazing at them from our rooftop terrace…
Having learnt our lesson the hard way, on Day Two we consulted every means of up-to-date navigation available to us: Simon’s iPhone and the trusted Google Maps on my reliable Androids phone! Obviously, nothing as solid as a road atlas. They went out of vogue years ago and are probably out of date as soon as they roll off the printing press anyway. A little bit like ‘Satellite Man in the Know’ in Simon’s car who had probably missed out on an update or two…
To ensure a timely arrival, our next Airbnb
host – Tarja from Finland in Toledo – had lavished us with plentiful advice on
how to reach her home via ‘the scenic route’ and thus avoiding getting trapped
in or around Madrid. Rather than
putting Toledo as our final destination, she suggested using exotic sounding
locations such as Vitoria-Gasteiz, Burgos, Valladolid, Segovia, Avila as waypoints… ‘May add more miles to your journey, but the
scenery will make up for it.. providing
you get here before dark…’ she had tagged on.
Somehow I got the better part of the deal on our trip; navigation was mainly in the hands of modern technology, and I was relegated to being passenger, a role I embraced with plenty of gusto… I love road trips!! Trains, buses, cars. Gazing through the window at ever-evolving landscapes. The greens and yellows and pinks of a budding spring. The curves and folds of gently sloping hillsides. The crags and peaks of rugged, snow-capped mountains. Plains that stretch as far as the eye can see. And the South of France and Northern Spain did not disappoint with the rapeseed fields in bloom, vineyards stretching upwards to catch the sun, the Pyrennees still clinging to their winter robes… It’s that part of Spain that most tourists never lay eyes on taking flights to the more popular beach resorts to soak up sea, sun and sangria…
The biggest drawback of mostly sticking to motorways was that taking photographs was nigh on impossible. Just as the next amazing landscape unfolded, a line of trees would block the view… Cars and lorries would whizz past just as I pressed the button… The foreground blurred into the haze of an impressionist masterpiece, leaving just the distance razor sharp. I did my best whilst the windscreen slowly but surely filled with splatters of insect adding their finishing touches to my digital canvas.. Luckily the odd heavy shower along the way, washed the most offending blotches away. Anyway, as befits a road trip, my photographs show plenty of road…
‘Simon,’ I pleaded, ‘on our way back, we must try the B-roads. We can actually stop to take photographs…. and it will also be a lot cheaper…’ The French motorway system is terribly efficient but its use comes at a sizable cost with every few miles yet another toll booth demanding a hefty Euro contribution to the upkeep of the network… Even so, when speed is of the essence, there is no alternative and the drive from La Rochelle to Toledo would take us around 9 hours, the best part of a full day allowing for regular top-ups of solid and liquid refreshments, as well as much needed rest breaks.
As we neared our destination, Google Maps suddenly drew a blank. Tarja’s address was nowhere to be found in Toledo. After a few frantic attempts to get hold of her, she finally replied to fine-tune her information. ‘Try Escalona instead,’ she urged, ‘Toledo is the name of the province’. How were we supposed to know… Not only was Google Maps more obliging after receiving further instruction, it also shaved off a fair bit of mileage from our day’s journey. We would definitely arrive before the onset of darkness.
Tarja lived in a lovely house, in the middle of nowhere. A brand new estate next to an abandoned and desolate golf course built at the height of the economic boom of the noughties and now providing luxurious living at a fraction of the intended cost… And as for the golf course?? Left to the dust of time whilst nature was happily reclaiming its territory. Perfect for Tarja with her brood of dogs and a horse…
Still, we were not in any mood to try out the golf course and headed into Escalona, in search of dinner. ‘Too early,’ the restaurant owner shook her head. ‘The chef only starts at 8 pm. But you can have a drink whilst you wait…’ Of course our Spanish left a lot to be desired but with a bit of French, our imagination and plenty of hand gestures we got the gist.
So we had our drinks first, accompanied by tasty tapas. The shape of things to come.
How the hell did we end up in Paris? I know, it is probably many a girl’s dream to
be whisked off to Paris, but we had been on a mission to miss the place
On a road trip to Southern Spain, our first stop was La Rochelle, a picturesque seaport on the Bay of Biscay. We’d carefully studied the route on Google Maps on my laptop and phone: a blue line snaking down the length of the French Atlantic coast. Nowhere near Paris… Only, when we set off in the very early hours of the morning to catch the train across the channel, we’d put Google Maps to sleep. No need for instructions to the port of Folkestone. And once we reached France, Simon’s car, equipped with its own navigation system, took over. My navigation skills totally redundant!! Music on full blast and ‘Satellite Man in The Know’ only sporadically interrupting, we let ourselves be guided..
But with the car’s satnav only revealing our route an inch at the time, we had been lulled into a false sense of complacency. Apparently, there is more than one road that eventually leads to La Rochelle… and some of those indeed skirt the lovely city of Paris, its ring roads as notorious as its centre. I must admit I had pondered why the distance between our car and Paris seemed to shrink as we drove along. But then again, British cars talk in miles, whereas the French signs speak an entirely different metric language, as one would expect… and neither of us had really considered the possibility that the car was sending us into an entirely undesired direction… Paris was definitely not a place to get stuck when all we wanted to do was hurtle down the motorway with a deadline to meet.
We had booked our accommodation a few days
ahead, an Airbnb find we hadn’t been able to resist. Sleep on a boat in La Rochelle in the largest
yachting marina in France: Les Minimes,
Port de Plaisance des Minimes?? Rock
that boat. Awesome!! But in our rush to book, we hadn’t noticed
the small print requiring a check-in time before 6pm… ‘Of course, monsieur,’ we had argued, ‘we
will get there in good time.’ Our host,
Maxime, was less convinced and suggested maybe we should cancel. ‘Annuler..?? Mais non… Miss out on rocking
that boat?’ we gulped. We took an
earlier train across the channel, put our foot down as we raced through France,
ground to a halt around Paris as we snailed through standstill traffic and took
the wrong exits on the ring roads.. But
we made it!! With about two hours to spare and a speeding ticket in the post!!
Although we had hoped to spend two nights in La Rochelle, the boat was clearly in high demand and there was no availability to stay for a second night. A shame really, because La Rochelle’s old harbour and city are certainly worth a day of exploration. With another long drive ahead of us the next day, we had to content ourselves with mingling with the locals over a couple of glasses of crisp white wine and oysters. Of course, La Rochelle and oysters go hand in hand…
We watched the sun go down as cooler air breezed in, and woke up with the squawking seagulls to greet the sun. No time to dawdle though. After a quick breakfast, onward to the Spanish border and the Pyrenees. Next stop somewhere near Madrid and Toledo…
When I landed back in the UK at the end of November, winter hardly registered on my mind. My UK visit was to be brief: a six-week interlude, a mere interruption of some well-laid travel plans… Alas, as plans go, they often need adapting to the changes in reality, and so it is that this six week break is turning into a six month break and beyond…
Of course this doesn’t mean I am entirely at a standstill and not going anywhere. Only, after a while the scenery along the motorways that link Southampton in the South, where my daughter lives, and Birmingham in the middle of the country, where my son lives, has become a tad monotonous. The same hills, the same plains, the same tarmac… In my stubbornness I continue to hike, or walk and complete daily one hour treks to the local shops, or the train station, or the local park or along the canals. I no longer own a car and refuse to fork out on unnecessary buses or taxis as long as my legs and other essential body parts are willing to cooperate in my quest. Or, as long as I am not in danger of being doused by the persistent drizzle and unrelenting showers that are the hallmark of British weather… Walking is my contribution – or lack thereof – to climate change!
At first it was passport woes that interfered with my return to the Far East. Who would have thought that renewing a British passport would be such a long drawn out process?? Whereas a few years ago the Belgian Embassy employees in London hadn’t batted an eyelid over the discrepancy in surnames on my passports, their British counterparts were less forgiving… I was given a stark choice: renounce my Belgian nationality (Who on earth would give up a European passport with the spectre of Brexit on the horizon???) or produce a brand-new Belgian passport in my new name as it appeared on my current and still valid British passport… A name change that had been so flawlessly accepted by the British authorities at my naturalisation now proved a serious hiccup.
Although the British Passport Office returned my defunct and expired Belgian passport, they kept the valid British one firmly in their grip. Still good for another two years, but so full of stamps that when I entered Malaysia in early November, the border control official had looked rather worried. ‘No room in your passport,’ she argued until I pointed out that the Malaysian visa stamp was hardly going to cover more than a half page, of which I still had two left… What was the problem?? Plenty of room for one last entry and exit stamp…
With no valid passport or other legal travel documents, I was stuck in the UK. A process that should have taken two weeks at most, dragged on for almost two months. Why women should consent to giving up their own name on marriage is beyond me.. A bureaucratic nightmare which I refused to buy into until about 10 years ago when I finally became British after passing the Britishness test with flying colours and sitting through the British Citizenship Ceremony… Having moved to the UK in the 80s and married in the 80s, it took me until the late noughties to accept the British nationality along with my Belgian one. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be British and I definitely feel more British than Belgian.. In the end, my concession to name changing at marriage (22 years after the event…) was annexing my husband’s (now ex-husband..) short English name to the end of my maiden name: an addendum or a kind of afterthought. Aren’t hyphenated, double-barrelled surnames the latest rage anyway??
Several weeks later, in early January, with my Foreign Office authenticated Deed Poll* in hand, I made it to the Belgian Embassy, along with numerous other dual nationals who suddenly discovered the value of a Belgian passport… Brexit was still ticking down, 29th March had not yet come and gone… Finally, by the end of January, I had completed the mission: two brand new passports. Ready for Europe after Brexit and beyond…
One silver lining of my rather protracted UK visit was being in the country when my tenants moved out and new ones moved in. Being in a rush to get going, I had allowed myself a mere week for the turnaround: just one major issue and a few minor issues in the house to deal with. It was 31st January and an escape to the Far East at the end of the next month still looked a distinct possibility… What could possibly go wrong?
The weather. Hard to believe that with last winter’s (February 2018) ‘Beast of the East’ – and the resulting deluge of snow that paralysed the country – still on everybody’s mind, the workmen who were scheduled to start a two-day repair on an inside wall should decide to follow their Sat Nav’s advice instead of using common sense… On the one and only day this winter that heavy snowfall made travel tricky, they decided to trundle along the smaller, hilly roads across the Cotswolds.. No surprise they got stuck just a few miles from my house!! Sandwiched between masses of snow in front of them and the snowplough on their heels, they were well and truly snookered on a hill crest and had to wait to be rescued. Another well-laid plan scuppered… Luckily, the setback was not insurmountable, but it piled on the pressure on those already very tense few days between tenants..
Whilst February marched on, other issues reared up their ugly head. In my ‘wisdom’, I was persuaded by my GP to make use of the free National Health Service, rather than giving in to my gut feeling and make a quick escape back to Vietnam, where private health clinics offer the same good quality care at a fraction of the cost of private clinics in the UK… When a hospital appointment that was supposed to happen within two weeks failed to materialise, my telephone enquiry about its progress was hardly encouraging. The stern and toneless voice at the other end declared, ‘Well, at the moment we are seeing people who have been referred to the clinic in August… Your GP letter is from January… ‘ Basically, don’t hold your breath, nothing’s going to happen anytime soon.
I discussed the issue over lunch with ‘Red Porsche Andy’. ‘Well,’ his reasonable advice sounded, ‘if you want to get things moving on the NHS, there’s no surer way than ending up as an emergency in A&E (accident and emergency)’ ‘ How about a little panic attack?? Might just do the trick…,’ he suggested.
In the end, after the stress of getting the house ready for new tenants in record time, I had no need to pretend and wholly justifiably called the NHS 111 number. Not 999, the emergency number, but the next best thing. I felt sure I would be able to make it to the hospital on my own steam, but there are certain key words that ring alarm bells with the 111 service… Ambulance was on its way. A gross overreaction, I thought, but at least someone was taking notice. After 16 hours in A&E, an ECG, several blood tests and an X-ray later, I was discharged as dawn was breaking. Urgent appointments for diagnostic tests to follow in the post…
At least the weather didn’t disappoint. After an abysmal start, February turned out almost spring-like. Plenty of blue skies in Southampton,
Sudeley Castle and the Cotswolds offering a great hiking reprieve,
and the smooth mirror canals of Birmingham reflecting “winter-scapes” in all their glory.
Onwards to March… Hospital letters started arriving. Somewhere in between the early hours of my hospital discharge and the doctor’s recommendations landing on the desk of the appointments clerk, the word ‘urgent’ had taken on a different meaning. With no immediate escape from the UK in sight and the first signs of Spring in the air, I relentlessly carried on stomping the by now familiar grounds of Southampton and Birmingham…
Still, with a five week break between hospital visits on the horizon, April got off on a pleasant start. A quick 10-day getaway to Spain and the birth of grandchild Number 1 later, there was cautious optimism in the air whilst the English countryside streaked yellow, the woodlands sprouted blue and the leaves on the trees unfurled in verdant extravaganza. Maybe, just maybe the end of April appointment would signal a turning point and I would be on my way… or at least in a position to fix a date for my return to the Far East…
Nope… At the onset of May, the NHS is keeping me stubbornly within its grasp. More tests, more appointments, no quick exit route ahead… I have decided I might as well plan for the long haul and aim for a return to warmer shores nearer the end of the summer… Surely, an English summer isn’t all that bad…
*In the UK, a surname can by changed by Deed Poll, an official document that shows the transition from the old name to the new one. As my Deed Poll was required by a foreign embassy (Belgian Embassy in this case) I also needed to have the document authenticated by the British Foreign Office. Not only time consuming, but also adding cost…
After almost four weeks on the road, we’re
gasping for a bit of beach therapy. We
haven’t seen the sea since dipping our toes into the South China Sea in Hoi An;
it seems a lifetime ago having crammed every bit of every day with abundant
excitement and thrilling new experiences.
Bus journeys, motorbike and tuk-tuk rides as well as a fair amount of
hiking and cycling have left us in need of a well-deserved rest. We are on holiday after all.
‘Don’t bother with Sihanoukville,’ a friend in the know advises us. ‘If you want the beach, go to Kep instead. Stay at The Beach House, awesome location overlooking a sumptuous stretch of sand and sea.’ She lived in Cambodia for a couple of years and is better acquainted with the country and places worth a visit. Kep hadn’t been on our agenda, but with no fixed itinerary, and accommodation booked last minute and on a whim, flexibility forges our path through Cambodia…
Kep is a mere 30km from Kampot so we get a tuk-tuk across. Probably just as comfortable as a bus journey as long as we wear our dust masks en-route… I have to be honest, it probably is the first time I have bothered with one preferring to put up with the air impurities rather than being suffocated by the heat.
And indeed, as my friend intimated, Kep is
definitely the place to be. Less overrun
by tourists than Kampot, but clearly still on the ex-pat map, it has a lot to
offer. From the vibrant crab market
along the seafront to a trip with the locals to Rabbit Island, from hiking and
biking in the National Park to peddling the cycling routes along the coast. And of course, watching the locals enjoy a
day at the beach. A lot to sample in
just a couple of days.
We never make it to the Crab market early enough to watch the fishing boats pull in; only very early risers have that privilege. By the time we arrive, the market is busy and bustling and we watch on as locals bargain and barter to get the best price for Kep’s highly prized blue crabs, their distinctive electric-blue legs and claws twisting and writhing inside the large bamboo baskets. Just over the wall, several bamboo baskets bob in the sea, storing more crabs in the coolness of the water until they are sold. We return to the market in the evening as the sun casts its last shadow over the water and, still, fishermen and women are milling around, eager to find buyers for the last few crabs in their baskets.
We actually don’t get to sample Kep’s delicious crab until we venture to Koh Tunsay (Rabbit Island), an idyllic paradise just a few miles off the Cambodian coast. The island is best accessed by small local boats which not only ferry tourists and locals to the island, but also much needed provisions to feed those visitors.. With mainly palm trees as vegetation and very little else in the way of edible produce, the island relies on the daily deliveries of food, coconuts, more coconuts and probably crabs as well…
Whereas Liz and I spend the day exploring the nooks and crannies of the island,
splashing in the refreshing waves, lazing about in hammocks and engaging in other touristy antics,
locals have other priorities. For several hours I watch a woman trudging the length of the beach in search of cockles, a hard day’s work for a pitiful heap barely covering the bottom of her red bag.
Before heading back to the mainland, we gorge ourselves on a sumptuous lunch of succulent crab, although not the ‘Crab and Kampot Pepper’ version Kep is famous for. A pity, but at the hotel we have already indulged in a finger-licking awesome ‘White fish and Pepper’ dish and the delectable pop-in-the-mouth green peppercorns are simply to die for…
Of course, tourists are not the only ones making the most of the being near the seaside and at the weekend Cambodians take full advantage. Only, they seem to do it quite differently from Westerners. No crowded beaches here! We watch on as early in the morning hammocks, colourful umbrellas and jazzy mats start cluttering the pavement. Slowly people start filing in and by lunchtime, every little space is crammed with men, women and children tucking into picnics or taking a nap. Even the hammock shelters on the opposite side of the road are heaving whilst at least some daring souls are braving the sun to get to the coolness of the sea. But the beach remains largely deserted… The party mood lingers until later in the evening when dark falls and more food is shared among families and friends. Not a single local is going home with sunburn here..
Not much of a beach bum myself, I look for distraction on the hillsides. Liz and I take an early morning hike into the National Park, which is just a short distance from our hotel. Somehow we struggle to find the official park entrance and we may have added a few unintended miles to our journey, but thankfully a couple of French tourists who set out much earlier than us kindly point us in the right direction… After stopping off at a pagoda on the way, we meander along an easy path. By then the weather has hotted up quite a bit and we only manage a short hike, barely scratching the surface of what the Park has to offer. Definitely worth another visit, if I make it to Kep again sometime in the future..
On our last day in Kep, we rent some bicycles to venture a little further along the coast. It’s a hot and sweaty trip but interesting to get a glimpse of the lives of local fishermen and their families. The track is pretty isolated as most people are sheltering from the late morning heat . Fishermen have long since returned with their morning haul and only children are out and about enjoying a little fishing or a dip in the murky water surrounding their homes.
Kep definitely deserves to be on the tourist map, but then again, it’s attraction for me is the absence of tourists… and the little French bakery in the centre of town, a reminder of Kep’s colonial past as a thriving resort for the French and Cambodian elite until the early 1970s. Not only does the bakery offer the finest Arabica coffee in town – a must for Liz – but it is a magnet for foreigners missing a bit of home: croissants, pain aux chocolat or pain aux raisin, bread that looks and taste like bread… And of course conversation. Few of the foreigners we meet here are tourists. In actual fact, most seem pretty settled in local life or are engaged in voluntary work, such as the French twenty-something engineer who is involved in the construction of a youth centre. ‘At the youth centre, local youth leaders provide counselling and activities for Cambodian teenagers,’ he explains. ‘The widespread killing of teachers and intellectuals during the Khmer Rouge regime war has left a whole generation without educators and positive role models.’ As everywhere in Cambodia, spectres of the genocide still lurk in every corner…
And then there are the sunsets… From the hotel balcony overlooking this stretch of the Gulf of Thailand, to cycling or hiking along the beach towards the Crab Market, the views are breathtaking. Certainly some of the most impressive ones I have seen on my travels so far…
‘A visit to Bokor Mountain is a must,’ our
guesthouse host in Kampot explains.
‘Mind you, since the Chinese leased the mountain, a lot has
changed. You better go now before it’s
too late and nothing is left. They have
already spoilt Sihanoukville…’
They are eyed with suspicion, distrust
even. Just like in Vietnam, the Chinese
are not welcomed by the locals in Cambodia.
Under the surface, sentiments run high, trampled into silence and
acquiescence as the locals feel powerless to turn the tide. They watch on as more and more of their
country is sold out to Chinese and foreign companies whilst the grease of
corruption only touches the greedy hands of the ‘establishment’. Here, progress doesn’t touch the lives of
ordinary citizens. Welcome to 21st
century communism. Welcome to modern
Liz and I visit Bokor Mountain riding
pillion, safely seated on the back of motorbikes; we haven’t taken to renting
them for ourselves… yet… It’s quicker
than cycling or a hike up I suppose and, at a distance of around 37 km from the
centre of Kampot, it may be a little too far to cover in a daytrip. With a motorbike, it is easy to take in all
the sights in a matter of a few hours.
It doesn’t take long to see how a splash of foreign investment has put its mark on Bokor Mountain. We leave Kampot on dirt roads but as soon as we reach the National Park, beautiful tarmac greets us, courtesy of the developers who need good access to set their plans for the National Park into motion. On the upside, it also makes for a comfortable journey to the top of the mountain, a trip that in the past would have taken almost an hour and a half by jeep or 4×4 on a bumpy, muddy track…
Bokor Mountain overlooks Kampot from the other side of the river. The impressive mound – its peak often clad in opaque fog and prone to more rain than the lower lying regions – used to be covered in dense jungle and home to an abundance of wildlife. Tales of roaming lions, tigers and elephants may well have been exaggerated, but the trees are a habitat for giant birds, parrots, wild monkeys and some of the smaller cats. Not that we see any of those either on our trip, apart from the inquisitive and bold monkeys maybe. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to loot unsuspecting tourists. Loss of habitat doesn’t mean they are on the brink of starvation.
Bokor Mountain National Park is under construction, Chinese style. Vast swathes of prime forest have been devastated by logging. Bulldozers and other machinery have flattened land ready for construction and development. Not that anyone in town knows what the long-term future holds for Bokor Mountain; it’s all kept under wraps. My guide, who speaks reasonable English, is not exactly shy about voicing his disquiet. ‘Before, locals used to come to the mountain to collect fire wood,’ he elaborates, ‘but now this is no longer possible. Maybe they [the Chinese] are really exploring for valuable minerals, who knows…’ Although small-scale, illegal logging by locals and poachers has been happening for years, it is the magnitude of the current devastation by the new owners that is causing grave concern. The rainforest has no time to regenerate; what is lost is lost forever.
We soon hit our first tourist attraction, a gigantic statue of the Lok Yeay Mao Buddha, the lady Buddha protector of the hunters and travellers and a divinity revered in Cambodian Buddhism, especially in the coastal areas of Kampot and Kep. The statue was inaugurated in 2012 by the new lease-holding company and part of a 15-year development plan of Bokor National Park. But the statue feels at odds with its surroundings and history; it’s ostentatious, if not grotesque and does not sit well with the more modest and simple Cambodian way of life…
‘Far more interesting are the collection of dilapidated buildings across the road from the statue,’ my guide explains. And indeed, nestled between the encroaching jungle stand the remnants of the Black Palace and other royal entourage buildings, built in 1936 as the residence of King Sihanouk. Clearly restoration of those historical keepsakes is not part of the grand plan for a bright future for Bokor Mountain National Park. Still, being reclaimed by nature and graffiti artists makes the ruins so much more fascinating and eye-catching. A tangible legacy from a not too distant but more affluent past. Easy to see why royalty picked out this site: the view from the clifftop overlooking the bay is simply spectacular, although veiled by a wisp of cloud when we are there.
Bokor Hill Station, originally built by the French in the 1920s at the top of the mountain, was a luxurious retreat for colonial residents offering respite from the summer heat and stuffiness of Phnom Penh. The hotel and casino have long since fallen in disrepair; its haunting skeleton a tourist attraction and used as a location for ghost movies. As the clouds are drawing in and the light drizzle is becoming more persistent, we don’t stop at the old hotel and only take photographs of the entrance.
But we pass the newer version of the hotel though: grandiose and overbearing, recently built by the new owners as part of the redevelopment. The casino and hotel are already functional: taking in predominantly Chinese guests looked after by Chinese staff with none of the proceeds benefiting the local community. Bokor Mountain, a little Chinese enclave… No wonder there is resentment.
But it is the Wat Sampov Pram, or ‘five-rocks-pagoda’ at the top of the hill that really catches my eye. The jumble of pagodas, temples and statues breathes mystic tranquility and peace. Although the legend linked to the pagoda spins a yarn of ancient love and sailing boats, the pagoda was actually only built in 1924. Whilst the French administration claimed the mountain for their own pleasures, the King added the pagoda complex in keeping with the country’s Buddhist tradition.
But even this sacred place has not escaped the attention of the new guardians of Bokor Mountain. Just opposite the stairs leading to the main pagoda, a newer building has arisen, this time more in character with the architectural style of the surrounding structures.
The real eyesore however can be seen through the gate to the pagoda, a modern block of apartments housing the Chinese mainland workers brought to Kampot to help in the construction and development. And as our guide points out, ‘They don’t even have to go into town for their shopping. All food is imported and made available on the premises here…’
On our way down, we stop at the old,
disused French Catholic Church. The
building crumbling and its windows gaping, graffiti has sprouted on its walls
whilst church paraphernalia still rest on the alter. Still an interesting place to visit, though, if
only to witness the contrast in the landscape:
on the one side a valley thick with rainforest, the other side blemished
by the tide of progress…
We finish our visit to Bokor Mountain
National Park with a trip to the Popokvil waterfall. We get our entry tickets in a cavernous
building, hollow for its space and nothing to fill it. Chairs and tables stretch inside what must be
an enormous dining hall, only it is empty, another soulless addition. Luckily, the waterfall itself doesn’t
disappoint. Recent rainfall has ensured
a healthy flow of water and it’s fun to dip our toes in to cool down…
Bokor Mountain is in flux and Kampot town is watching on, nervous about the outcome. No one in this town wants Kampot to become the next Sihanoukville which turned from a backpackers and beach lovers haven into a gambling addicts paradise, a playground for the cash-rich Chinese middle class. Deprived of gambling opportunities in their own country, they are taking full advantage and flock to Sihanoukville to spend their money in Chinese-owned and Chinese-backed hotels and casinos. They buy up the properties, pricing locals out of the housing market and livelihoods…
It is a delicate balance. Cambodia is a country in need of money for development,
but at what price…