While I have enjoyed exploring Phnom Penh over the last several weeks, it is nice to get out of the congestion and grit of the city. Since being in the country, I have had a couple of occasions to explore other towns and communities, and have enjoyed getting to see a different side of Cambodia. Growing up, my family always did a lot of road trips, and early on I learned to appreciate the journey as much as the destination. Driving through the countryside here, I have enjoyed looking out at the lush tropical vegetation, the thatched homes tucked in among the brush, the children running about in the yards and the cows grazing by the side of the road, and the farmers maneuvering their hand-push plows. Though being on the roads themselves can be a bit of a scary experience, as people drive too fast, pass each other with very little clearance, and frequently swerve to avoid a moto or the occasional cow, if you can look beyond that (or cope by singing along to the random ‘90s rock CD playing in the van, much to the enjoyment/bewilderment of your fellow passengers) then it is really a beautiful and unique landscape to behold.
          Several weeks ago, in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat of the city, we headed down to Otres Beach, a tropical enclave 15 minutes outside of the more major (and a bit seedier) city of Sihanoukville, for a 24 hour escape. Despite the mostly overcast weather, it was a beautiful setting, with our bungalow right on the beach, and the water just steps away. Floating in the ocean, strolling along the white sand beach, and sampling the delicious Khmer seafood curry was the much needed escape I had hoped for (minus the vendors constantly hounding you to buy their bracelets, sarongs, or massage services).

                                                  otres        otres 2
          This past weekend we took a group trip down to the southern towns of Kampot and Kep. Our group of 13 (consisting of law students and public health students from the States and Canada) first stopped by Kampot, a sleepy and somewhat rundown town. After an initial stop at the Durian roundabout (Yes, that is exactly what it sounds like. It is a roundabout with a giant durian statue in the middle.), we headed over to the waterfront and then proceeded to wander up and down the sleepy streets. It is a relatively small town and has a quiet, somewhat abandoned feeling to it. It was hard to get a sense of the identity of the town, i.e. what people did for work or what the town was known for (the area is known for its pepper, and I guess durian too, but I’m not sure about the town itself). We stopped for lunch at the Rusty Keyhole, a joint boasting “the best ribs in Cambodia,” before heading out of the city to a cave on the outskirts of town. Though it didn’t receive that much attention in the guidebooks, it was definitely one of the coolest things we did. Led by a couple of local youths, we made our way in, past the alter at the mouth of the cave, and up and down rocky slopes, with neat rock formations and stalagmites and stalactites all around. Sunlight peeked through in a few places, but for the most part it was completely dark with only the flashlights of the two guides to light our way. It was a bit treacherous going at times, and we had to crawl through some pretty tight spaces and maneuver through very narrow crevices, but it was well worth it (even with the bats occasionally swooping low around our heads).

              durian roundabout  kampot group  cave
          After a brief stop by a pepper plantation (that is what the region is known for), we headed onwards to Kep. Kep is located right on the water and is known for its crabs. (In case you forget, you are greeted by a giant crab statue in the water as you drive into town.) We enjoyed the sunset from one of the local beach bars before heading over to the crab market, a series of stalls and fish restaurants along the waterfront. Choosing a dinner location at random, we sampled the local delicacy of fried crabs in green Kampot pepper, along with another crab dish, squid fritters, a whole fish, and a couple of prawn dishes. Delicious!

          The next morning a couple of us got up early to wander down near the waterfront. We passed ruined colonial buildings that were being overtaken by the surrounding brush, and stopped along the way to watch the monkeys chasing each other through the trees. After meeting up with the others, we set off on a hike through Kep National Park. The trail wound around the side of the “mountain”, and was a pleasant trek. It wasn’t too steep (a gradual incline), and was largely tree covered, so it stayed much cooler. Though I got eaten alive by the bugs, it was definitely worth it, as it was just nice being out in nature, looking at all the trees, seeing a couple more monkeys, and catching picturesque glimpses of the valley below and water in the distance.

                                                  colonial building        kep national park
          To finish out our time in the south, we headed out to Rabbit Island, a small island a 30 minute boat ride from Kep. After surviving a somewhat death defying boat ride (no joke—it was so windy, the water was incredibly choppy, and we were constantly being violently rocked from side to side and sprayed by the waves), which I absolutely loved and was laughing throughout, we pulled up to the shores of this tropical paradise. All you see is tropical vegetation, a single thatched building, brightly colored fishing boats moored in the water, and chickens running around everywhere. To get to the beach and the one restaurant on the island, we had to trek for about 10 minutes through the dense vegetation, pushing plants out of the way and slipping and sliding in the squishy mud. When you come through the clearing, there is the ocean right in front of you, the single beach restaurant, the thatched roofs of the few bungalows one can stay in, and hammocks strung up in the trees. I think I could have stayed there forever. Or at least for a week. We enjoyed a seafood lunch on the beach, a swim in the ocean, and a brief rest in the hammocks before having to turn around and head back to the boat. The ride back was just as bad, if not worse, and by the time we arrived on the far shore, we looked like a group of wet dogs. But it was totally worth it. It was just nice to get out of the city for a bit and experience the side of Cambodia that I had always pictured.

rabbit island
          I am already looking forward to this coming weekend when I will head out to Siem Reap and get to explore the temples of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon!