Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021

© Margo Pfeiff

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On the Cambodian Riviera

Once a chic French colonial enclave, the country's southwestern coast is begging to be rediscovered

The ceiling fan was doing its lazy whoop-whoop above my big rattan chair as I sipped weapons-grade coffee watching a morning parade of monks in pumpkin-coloured robes, trios of uniformed school-kids balancing on a single bike, and pedal-powered tri-shaws heading to market carrying pyramids of mangos. Then I hopped on my own wheels — a clunky buck-a-day single-gear Chinese-built rental bike — and set off in the relative morning cool to explore the riverside town of Kampot on Cambodia’s south coast.

Lining the small grid of roads was a remarkable collection of faded French colonial shophouses, crumbling villas and grand administrative buildings: some on the verge of collapse, a few dressed up and chic again. Street vendors sold warm baguettes or sweet-smelling crêpes as men rolled boules in the shade and Edith Piaf murmured through tinny loudspeakers. I cycled up dirt tracks to find Muslim fishing villages tucked among the mangroves or deserted Buddhist temples. For the most part, the biggest cycling hazards were scraggly roosters and bare-bummed toddlers. Local escape

After three hectic weeks working in Phnom Penh (or PP) one of Asia’s fastest developing cities, I had hopped the three-hour bus to the coast for some much needed R&R. Kampot was once Cambodia’s biggest port and the nearby village of Kep had been the beach resort for French expats in the 1960s until it was abandoned in the face of civil war, its luxury villas gobbled up by jungle during the nightmarish reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. On my last visit to Phnom Penh in 1997 this area was still dangerous, but over the past decade the coast has again become a popular weekend getaway for PP expats, especially the chaotic beach party town of Sihanoukville which I steered away from in favour of quieter Kampot/Kep and its tropical islands.

What I found, to my surprise, was a rare Asian gem — low-key, still rough around the edges and not yet been developed, except for a few dozen guest houses, small resorts, cafés and restaurants run by colourful expats mostly from the UK, France and Australia. So far, it’s off the radar except for adventurous, European solo travellers and backpackers. But not for long: the bulldozers are already humming in the distance.

Chill in Kampot

After, stepping into the charming Rikitikitavi Inn, half-buried in bougainvillea, I immediately extended my three-day stay to seven. Owner Dom Price left his British home in 2000 on a Honda 650 dirt bike, arrived in Cambodia three years later and never left. He restored this old riverfront house that tells the region’s history: it was the French rice export office, a Khmer Rouge theatre complete with posters of happy peasants, then a military barracks during the 1980s Vietnamese occupation. “During reconstruction we found buckets full of bullets,” said Price.

An hour later I ran into French-born artist Vincent Broustet when I stopped at the stylishly out of place Jolie-Jolie Spa near the Art Deco Old market building, currently being restored. Vincent exhibits his work in Siem Reap galleries near the Angkor Wat ruins and on the walls of his wife’s salon. Five minutes after meeting him, I was on the back of his motorbike bumping along backroads as he pointed out his favourite local hangouts.

There’s not a lot to do in Kampot and that’s its charm — apart from a simple country market, a bookstore and a few local craft boutiques there’s not even much shopping. A faded colonial-era nostalgia makes you want to simply chill-out over a frosty Angkor beer sampling specialties like fish amok, a Cambodian coconut curry that is the delicious national dish. And it’s an easy place to relax: the US dollar is the reigning currency and it’s safer than pickpocket-riddled Phnom Penh, even at night when the riverside establishments perk to life as families saunter the waterfront promenade snacking from pushcarts.

Every day at 4PM, $5 (all prices in US dollars) buys a two-hour, no-frills sunset cruise in a skinny “long-tailed” boat heading with a few passengers up or downriver into tropical wilderness past simple fishing villages. Darren Knight, an Aussie expat, offers the occasional dinner cruise downriver to a huge sandbar for a seafood barbecue.

Faded glory

Before Sihanoukville became the country’s main port in the ’50s, the French built more than 500 colonial buildings in this small town, including lavish architecture like the restored Governor’s residence. The colonial and Art Deco treasures reminded me of Old Havana. When I found a ramshackle architectural gem with a new day job like the Red Cross office, I asked in bad Khmer if I could poke around inside — no one said no.

One of the more intriguing was a grand affair with rounded balconies, a parapet and the sign: Magic Sponge: Restaurant, Bar and Mini-Golf. “A magic sponge is what revives injured soccer players,” explained William the American manager. This budget guesthouse, popular late-night snooker bar and Indian restaurant was once the regional headquarters for Acleda, Cambodia’s leading commercial bank. “The bar is where the tellers once were,” said Will as he led me through thick carved hardwood sliding doors and up a circular terrazzo staircase to high-ceilinged rooms.

One of the area’s biggest attractions is the once-elegant 1920s French casino and mountain-top resort, Bokor Mountain Hill Station. Abandoned in the ’40s during the war of Independence from France, it’s now an eerie place often shrouded in fog. The grand buildings where glitterati sipped champagne stand empty, gathering a surreal coat of orange lichen, the perfect location for the final scene in Matt Dillon’s movie, City of Ghosts.

Despite Bokor’s national park status, in late 2011 a new summit road was carved into the mountain for a massive development including a casino which opened in the spring of 2012, several hotels, a golf course and something called Buddha Religion Land. Luckily, the colonial ruins are being restored and there are still hikes to waterfalls and occasional sightings of wild elephants and other creatures in the jungle.

Villa central

I hired a driver named Chak to take me in his pink-upholstered tuk-tuk — a small, motorized open-air chariot — to Kep, 25 kilometres away. We passed coastal salt-harvesting ponds and dropped in at sprawling, hillside pepper plantations. Kampot pepper filled the grinders of the best Paris dining rooms until the Khmer Rouge sent everyone to the rice paddies. But since 2000, Kampot white, red and black pepper has been replanted and is sought after in European and Asian gourmet shops.

Kep is not really a town, it’s several dozen resorts, many of them bungalows from low to high-end with on-site restaurants dotting a tropical mountainside above a kilometre-long beach created by the French with barged-in sand.

During Cambodia’s Golden Age in the ’60s, Kep was a jet-set hideaway with hundreds of modern villas inspired by famed contemporary French architect Le Corbusier. They called the place Kep-sur-Mer, the Cambodian Riviera.

While a few of the grandest villas have been restored, including the 1968 Villa Romonea which re-opened as a luxury resort in 2010, many more were demolished or abandoned, including Cambodian King Sihanouk’s mansion — still riddled with wartime bullet holes — overlooking the beach. I wandered through some where trees grow through shattered roofs and tree roots ribbon through windows and doorways like some Beatles-era Angkor Wat.

Crabs on the beach

Dinner that evening was a pile of crabs topped with a rich coconut-milk sauce laced with twigs of fresh local green peppercorns at the Crab Market, a cluster of rustic eateries on stilts over a small Kep bay. Outside, fishermen keep crabs fresh in floating wicker baskets until they’re ordered; peering down between the floorboards, I saw the bay beneath my feet.

A 25-minute boat ride from the Kep Pier took me for the day to tiny Koh Tonsay — Rabbit Island — a tropical outpost of white sand beaches, palm trees and a few no-frills thatched-roof bungalows for rent by local families who also serve up killer Kampot pepper-grilled seafood. It felt like the middle of nowhere. But when I finished up my beachside massage with a coconut shake, toes wriggling in the sand, I looked across to Kep at a big non-descript waterfront hotel that was about to open and found myself listening to expats at the next table talking about the five-star resort planned for Rabbit Island and possibly a casino outside Kampot.

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