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As I walk toward Phnom Penh’s Damkor Market, tuk-tuk drivers call out to me. Do I want to go to S-21? The Killing Fields?

WORDS Lucy C E Jordan

You can’t blame them for making an assumption about a rucksack-toting white girl. After all, most visitors come to Cambodia for little more than a hit-and-run tour of its rich and tragic history – the sublime temples of Angkor Wat, or Phnom Penh’s macabre monuments to its bloody past.

But, right now, I’m not looking for Cambodia’s history. I’m looking for a £20 taxi to meet friends in Kampot, a sleepy riverside town with buttercup-yellow colonial buildings and the jump-off point for our tour of Cambodia’s rustic coastal regions. 

Kampot

I snooze in the cab. It’s easier here than on the £3 bus, where karaoke videos blare and drivers lean on the horn with a frequency that suggests it’s more a psychological balm than anything else. Shutting my eyes seems preferable to watching the road, which can be, frankly, arse-clenchingly alarming. 

Some three hours later I arrive at our guesthouse, Les Manguiers, 2km out of town on the wide Kampot river, cooled by a serene breeze. Resident goats make a comic attempt at disturbing the peace, alternating cautionary brays with absurd sneezes. 

After nightfall, cicadas and clucking geckos are the only noises you’ll hear. Unless, like me, you bed down one thin wall away from a French couple watching The Bourne Ultimatum. Then the only noise you’ll hear is the The
Bourne Ultimatum. 

The owner is a mop-haired, affable chap called Jean Yves, who peppers his speech with plenty of Gallic “ehs” and “bouffs”. We’ve decided to hike to a waterfall, and Jean draws us a map (pass a lotus pond, left at the temple), hands us a packed lunch and motors us across the river. We set off through banana and jackfruit trees. 

The warmth and generosity of Cambodians I meet throughout this trip strike me again and again, made all the more remarkable by the horrors of recent decades. A couple of examples from today alone: we predictably lose our way on the hike, but just as panic takes hold, we come across a local repairing his small farm’s irrigation system, who promptly leads us to the splash pool (“Whoooosh” is the universal word for waterfall, it seems) and rewards himself with a quick dip. On the return leg, local men playing cards insist on sharing their watermelon with us, for no other reason than because we are passing. Parched and flagging, we’re grateful for the refreshment, but they won’t accept payment.

After taking the night to recoup, we visit Bokor Hill Station, built by the French in 1922 as a retreat from Phnom Penh’s swelter, and abandoned in 1972, when the Khmer Rouge took over the area. The burned-out and lichened grandeur of the buildings, including a palatial casino and a Catholic Church, is haunting – or at least it would be, if our guide would stem his incessant stream of jokes and animal impressions for a few seconds. He doesn’t. “To walk up the mountain, it takes one hour,” he continues. “To walk down the mountain, it is faster. Because of gravity.” 

Bokor is rich in wildlife, so we also enjoy the company of armed forest rangers, there presumably to nip any impromptu poaching in the bud. They scamper up and down the pitted, slimy trails in flip-flops and hold AK-47s, putting us red-faced, plodding foreigners to shame.

If you can, visit Bokor soon. The government, ever attuned to the prospect of a tidy profit, has leased the site to one of Cambodia’s biggest developers. 

They plan to redevelop the smoke-blackened casino,
and build a massive new hotel halfway down the mountain, for which foundations are already being laid. Tourism accounts for roughly a fifth of the GDP here, so you can’t really blame the government for wanting to capitalise on an attraction. But it’s also difficult to see how a huge, glitzy hotel on this remote mountainside could be anything but bone-jarringly out of place. 


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A holiday in Cambodia - TNT scopes out the Cambodian coast
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