The choice was between Sihanoukville en Kep. Sihanoukville is the established beach resort, reasonably good sand, many large and small hotels, swimming pools, in short, low risk, comfortable. Also very touristic, favourite back-packer hangouts, beach parties, casino, prostitution, whatever else a successful resort brings. Kep used to be the exquisite, exclusive coastal retreat since the beginning of last century, first for the French, and after independence for the Cambodian elite. Kep-sur-Mer, it was called.
Problem is that anything exclusive attracted the attention of the Khmer Rouge, and thus Kep, especially, fared badly during the short but violent Democratic Kampuchea era. Many of the villas were burned down, blown up or shot at, facilities were destroyed, and more than 30 years later not much has changed, with amenities pretty basic – although development is underway (as everywhere in Cambodia, really).
Kep, thus. Why go for an easy option if there is a more complex possibility?
Having the front seats in the bus allowed us a good view of the world of intercity traffic in Cambodia. No highways, of course, just two lane roads, and for most of the time remarkably few cars and trucks. The bus has a horn, and as soon as this is being used, all bicycles and motorbikes scurry off the tarmac, into the dusty stretch of sand or gravel next to the road. Many of the motorbikes are, in fact, somewhat bigger than we would be used to, carrying big baskets with fresh produce to the market, which perhaps better explains why they dive for protection. Cars are slightly less disciplined, but after one or two more honks, the right of the biggest is firmly established. Did I, on a previous occasion, complain about being squeezed into a minivan? I withdraw that, after having seen the vans here, the backdoor open to allow people’s legs outside, and several people on the roof – you don’t want to know how many people are actually inside.
(1) Traffic on the road to Kep.
The country side remains pretty boring, a problem in the dry season – I imagine that in the rainy season this must be a much more enjoyable drive, in between bright green paddies, with people working the rice fields. Towards Kep we get onto a smaller road, through a more densely populated area, many attractive wooden houses, and every village or small town a center of activity, many shops, invariably a market, and lots of people in the street. One of the remarkable things in Cambodia that I haven’t mentioned yet is the pajama fashion, many of the women seem to be perfectly happy wearing colourful pajamas during the day. A little weird, but obviously perfectly acceptable attire in the streets. Another characteristic of this country is the hammock. Already in Laos we would see tuk-tuk drivers stretched out inside a hammock strung inside their vehicle whilst waiting for customers, but in Cambodia the hammock is part of daily life, present everywhere, in every village, and, to be sure, always full and gently swinging from one side to the other.
(2, 3) Young women in Cambodia sporting pajama fashion.
Upon entering Kep, still on a secondary road - there is nothing bigger within a 40 km radius - we are suddenly attracted by huge traffic signs above the road, creating the impression of a major junction. Funny. In fact, the road to the slightly bigger town of Kampot goes straight, there is a small turn off on a dirt track to the station of a hardly ever used railway, and another dirt road turns left into Kep, which is surprisingly spaciously laid out. You can see that this has been an exclusive retreat. Once.
(4) Traffic directions outside Kep. We haven’t seen anything like this yet, since we started our trip, and this one certainly wasn’t justified either, what is announced here are mostly minor dust roads.