“Can’t do it, too much,” I say fegining shock at her proposal.
“Okay I do $55” she counteroffers. Negotiations are not going well. Attempts at haggling with a handful of travel agents cause me to ditch the idea of a taxi for the more affordable shared minivan. I secure us seats on a small van, $6 each, headed to Kampot at 12:30.
The driver walks the four of us towards his parking space, “Is that our van?” I ask, pointing to a reformed pickup truck with metal benches welded to the bed. “Yes,” he responds, continuing to walk forward. Panic floods my system, starting at my forehead and quickly rushing down my body, outweighing the remnants of nausea from our choppy boat ride half an hour ago (from the Island of Koh Rong Samloem).
The Pepper capitol of this continent, Kampot, is a 2.5 hour drive, with at least an additional hour of stops and delays. 3.5 hours of field burnings, dusty roads, and traffic is enough to make me reconsider the $55 taxi. But Judy and Arthur, an older couple we met on the Island, are gung ho. “This’ll be an experience, every trip has em’. And at least we’ll stay cool.” Arthur says, shlepping his suitcase forward.
Just as he finishes his sentence we pass the open air vehicle and approach a conventional minivan. We burst into relieved laughter. It is commonplace for Cambodians to respond “yes” to any question they don’t understand.
The beat up fender and worn in faux leather seats have seen better days. The bus pulls away from Serendipity Bay, the shrill blare of a construction worker drilling into the sidewalk fades away behind us.
Ten minutes later we stop. Four more passengers get inside, going to the back seats, while their accompanying suitcases are stuffed in behind them. Two more passengers join us. By some miracle their belongings are secured within the vehicle. Just as we start driving two Cambodian women and an infant join the driver upfront.
During the ride Arthur tells a slew of travel stories, with Judy occasionally correcting a detail or delivering a punch line. Their stories of flight delays from hell on their way to Rome or the time they saw Roger Waters preform in the desert are weaved into the passing scenery of rural Cambodian farms and endless clouds of dust.
We arrive nearly four hours later. Dropped at the visitor center we are greeted by a group of drivers, each hoping to bring us to our hostel. We opt for a ride on PassApp (Cambodian Uber) foregoing the haggling for the day.
Our ride arrives in under a minute and after showing him our directions, to Ela’s Guesthouse, we set off through downtown. The driver misses the turn a few minutes later but he cannot hear me hollering to stop until he pulls off the main road. With an, “Oh, so sorry” he turns the rickshaw around.
We arrive at the destination on the map but a local informs us, “Ela Guesthouse no more,”
“But we have a reservation. What do you mean no more?” Esther responds. These words mean nothing to him as he repeats, “Ela Guesthouse no more.” In my frustration I try figure out what is going on, to no avail. There is a heaviness settling on my chest, the weight of the hot and long ride here, the feeling of being stranded. Still on the meter I start losing hope for making it to this Guesthouse that may, or may not, exists.
After some despair and unfruitful communication a western looking guy drives past on his motorbike. A hundred feet ahead of us he stops and come back, “You guys needs some help?” He says in an Australian accent.
“Yes please, we have no idea where we are. He is saying Ela’s Guesthouse isn’t around anymore.”
The man breaks into an apologetic smile responding, “Oh ya they moved. People are always getting lost here.”
“Why haven’t they switched the address online?” Esther asks indignantly.
“The owner lost the password, they couldn’t update it or something like that.” With a few words of direction in Khmer from our new Australian friend the driver knows where to take us.
Arriving at Ela’s we are greeted by a large man with dread locks flowing from his head, “Ello, welcome, my name is J.P.,” he says in a deep French accent mixed with decades of smoking. “I will show you to your tent.” As we follow him down the short dirt road we recount our kerfuffle, “Ah yes, zis es a very big problems, we try to fix but no, it cannot.“
Sunset from the guesthouse is vibrants with hues of purple, blue, pink, and yellow. Falling asleep to birds chirping the day finally comes to an end.
After a late Brunch in town wander with mission. As we pick up a nail clipper, baking soda, some granola we pass the famous Durian roundabout, visit the many local shops, and contemplate our plans for the week.
Esther wakes up sick the next day. Still fatigued from Sunday we spend the day moaping around the guesthouse, enjoying the open space and relative quite.
There is a mosque nearby and at intervals throughout the day, starting before the sun rises and after it sets, an amplified voice chants, “Alah Akbar” over and over again. How about that for an alarm clock at 5am?
After two days of relaxation in Kampot we head out on our moped for our first activity; La Plantation. The black pepper farms here are world renowned. Because of Kampot’s proximity to the ocean, lake, and mountains these plans excel. We learn all of this on our tour of the farm.
By each variety of pepper we taste. The tall red peper is a sleeper, cajoling the taste buds with sweetness, only to seconds later gut punch with an extreme heat, similar to fresh horseradish.
There black pepper tastes like an over spiced spoon of mashed potatoes, urging me to spit out the remnants of seed floating around my mouth.
After the regerious gustatory tour we spend time gorging ourselves on local bananas the size of pickles relaxing at, “Secret Lake,” named such because it was a hiding spot for enemies of the state during Pol Pots reign.
With hints of yesterdays spice still in our mouth we head to Preah Monivong Bokor National Park. The shining jewel of this park is Bokor Mountain, the peak visible from our guesthouse. The winding road up the mountain is tricky for a novice motorbiker. But the real challenge is dodging the nonstop deluge of Cambodian and Chinese teenagers zipping by at ungodly speeds.
We later found out that it was the last day of vacation for many of those youngsters, being the Chinese New Year. We chose one of the busiest days to visit.
We pull off near Yey Mao, a 60 foot goddess statue. There are hundreds of people at the foot of the statue, in the midst of a New Years ritual.
We find solace across the street at the abandoned Black Palace. Much more recent than the temple Tap Rohn, the over grown Bunyon Trees snaking their way through the ruins, are similar.
We cut our trip in the park short, unwilling to spend a few more hours amid rambunctious bikers and huge crowds.
I find similar unkept trees two days later in the caves of Phnom Kbal Romeas. I spend the afternoon exploring caves and rock climbing with Climbodia.
Today is our last day in Kampot before heading to the neighboring town of Kep. Famous for it’s seafood we will spend one night here before bussing west to Thailand. With the ever present unexpected circumstances that arise with this kind of spontaneous travel we end our nearly 3 weeks on the road exausted but excitedly looking forward.