CALM CORNER: A Cambodian Buddhist reads a book under a tree near a temple on a hill in Bokor National Park in Cambodia.
CALM CORNER: A Cambodian Buddhist reads a book under a tree near a temple on a hill in Bokor National Park in Cambodia. Yarygin

A wat more to Cambodia

THE utterly charming town of Kampot is on the estuarine reaches of the Kampot River in southern Cambodia.

In the shadow of the Elephant Mountains, surrounded by verdant rice paddies and swaying sugar palms, this former French resort town has considerable appeal.

Mangrove saltpans and pepper farms provided the fragrant seasoning for some mighty fine local cuisine.

Fresh squid quickly tossed in a light, fragrant soy broth and then served with crushed fresh green Kampot pepper, salt and lime juice was sensational.

We stayed at the Villa Vedici, a couple of kilometres downstream from Kampot town.

A self-contained villa gave us all the comforts of home, sweeping exotic vistas and a deep blue pool and welcoming bar to set the scene.

At the weekend, some expats from Phnom Penh stayed and regaled us with tales of clearing some of the up to seven million landmines that remain, a dangerous legacy of 30 years of war.

We hired scooters to explore the countryside at our leisure. Narrow roads were dotted with oxen dragging wooden carts laden with rice or palm sugar cakes for market.

Farmers planted rice seedlings in anticipation of the coming rains as water buffalo wallowed in ponds.

Towards sunset, boats raced to catch squid and fish.

One day we went to Kep, a playground of French colonials, deservedly famous for delicious crab cuisine. It was my 49th birthday and I was delighted to celebrate it in a rustic timber shack overhanging the cool, breezy waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

We ate the famed Kampot pepper crab with a steaming side of hot and sour seafood soup. Of course, my son Jack had the chips.

Jack turned 12 during our stay in Kampot and he wanted to go rock climbing with Climbodia.

My wife and son are confident climbers but my abilities are challenged by a naked terror of falling.

Our host, David, had arranged to meet us the evening before.

His calm enthusiasm and reassuring manner helped settle any nerves, although the icy cold beer didn't hurt either.

The next day we met David and his two Cambodian guides.

The site was a limestone peak punching up through the rice paddies and towering over the local houses and village.

We started with a reasonably easy climb and then traversed across a cliff edge (all the while safely belayed or attached to thick wire guide ropes).

The views to the Elephant Mountains were tremendous. Then we abseiled down a 30m chimney.

At all times the guides were extremely safety conscious and helpful. One fellow had developing English skills that sometimes made interpretation interesting.

Then we went through the caves inside the peak and saw lots of cavey things including some bizarre underground creatures such as scorpion-spiders and monstrous millipedes.

The following day we rode our scooters up the Bokor Mountain, where the French had established a hill station in the early 1920s.

At more than 1000m above sea level, Bokor offers a chilled climate above the dusty plains.

We raced tour buses and other bikes up the mountain, while dodging rainsqualls and ferocious winds.

Towards the peak, glimpses of astonishing views over the sea became apparent. Near a massive seated Buddha, the ruined summer retreat of the Cambodian king provided a spooky half-way house. At the top, the clouds rolled in and provided an atmospheric ambience that dominated the afternoon.

Riding further into the mist we spied a haunting sight, the infamous Bokor Hotel. Wreathed by swirling fog, the spirits of days gone still lurked.

Officially opened on Valentine's Day in 1925, the hill station provided the location for many a soiree.

During its construction and that of the access road, more than 900 people died, many from malaria. It was abandoned for the first time in the late 1940s during the struggles for freedom by Free Khmer fighters.

Following independence from France in 1953, the resort was slowly restored and by the early 1960s again saw custom from wealthy patrons.

The military advances of the Khmer Rouge led to its second abandonment in 1972, with the KR not fully relinquishing control until the early 1990s.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnamese troops were based in the Bokor Hotel fighting viciously against the KR who had ensconced themselves 500m away in the now-ruined Catholic church.

The near-vertical kilometre-high cliffs just a stone's throw behind the hotel provided a point of no return for some.

Today the hotel stands mute in the mists. A recent render of concrete is seen by some as the start of a third incarnation for the Bokor Hotel.

The views are said to be magnificent, although the day we visited we were lucky to see 20m away.

I hope it does work out, as Cambodia needs every tourist dollar it can get (currently providing 20% of GDP, mainly through the Angkor temple complex).

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