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"I'll find my way home while exploring the galaxy"

Day 230: Kampot's Pretty Kool

Dearest Kampot,

You have been so incredibly awesome, but one favor please (I’m talking to your weather),

-Quit playing games with my heart pleeeeease!  Either that, or I should accept that late May in Cambodia, aka monsoon season, is just not for me.  

Undesirable weather patterns aside, I’m feeling supremely grateful for this past week and all the incredibly mystic chapters that have unfolded. If you know of a more profound word than “mystic,” I’d like to hear it.

If I had to create a table of contents to capture the week’s vibe, it would probably go something like:

/ Magic Sponge and Men’s Antidandruff Shampoo
// Kool Kampot and the Hood, Trampolines and All
/// Love Me a Good Breeze, Coconut and Crab in Kep
//// Simple Things and Crazy Connections
///// Bokor Mountain Bonding and Bodhi the Dog
////// Monks Take Selfies Too
/////// Caves Do Feng Shui After Rainfall
(There would also be a bunch of food porn sprinkled throughout)

This probably sounds like a bunch of gibberish, so lemme break it down…

There was no logical place for this photo, so dropping it here :) Nothing to spruce up a roundabout then a giant statue of a DURIAN in the middle, obviously. 

There was no logical place for this photo, so dropping it here :) Nothing to spruce up a roundabout then a giant statue of a DURIAN in the middle, obviously. 

Little secondhand shop abounds in Kampot

Little secondhand shop abounds in Kampot

Upon arriving in Kampot, I immediately dropped into a state of idyllic calm and peace. I had been hearing only A plus things about this small provincial riverside town, boasting the famous pepper and salt plantations along with the mountain/volcano duo Bokor Mountain, a former holiday refuge for the wealthy French colonialists back in the day. Fast forward to present day and this place has still got it going on – chill local vibes and a whole bunch of expats that have done one thing really well: vegetarian food and cappuccinos. See the evidence for yourself and tell me I’m not wrong…

Poached egg drizzled in pesto sauce and black sesame seeds on a bed of thick beans

Poached egg drizzled in pesto sauce and black sesame seeds on a bed of thick beans

Vibes at Cafe Espresso - the laid back Australian dude with the hat is the owner

Vibes at Cafe Espresso - the laid back Australian dude with the hat is the owner

Perfect cap with a homemade wafer cookie at Cafe Espresso

Perfect cap with a homemade wafer cookie at Cafe Espresso

Vibes at Ellie's 

Vibes at Ellie's 

BEST breakfast in ALL of Cambodia (at Ellie's) - corn fritter pattie, beans, roasted tomatoes, sautéed spinach and mushrooms, fried eggs, potato hash browns, toast and locally harvested salt and pepper. Can I get a what whaaaaaaaat?

BEST breakfast in ALL of Cambodia (at Ellie's) - corn fritter pattie, beans, roasted tomatoes, sautéed spinach and mushrooms, fried eggs, potato hash browns, toast and locally harvested salt and pepper. Can I get a what whaaaaaaaat?

Double stacked pancakes coated in salted caramel syrup, topped with caramelized bananas and BACON. Basically, eat, die, and go to heaven.

Double stacked pancakes coated in salted caramel syrup, topped with caramelized bananas and BACON. Basically, eat, die, and go to heaven.

Her face says it all!

Her face says it all!

/ Magic Sponge and Men’s Antidandruff Shampoo

Anyways, upon arriving, that sense of AMEN hit right away as I was banking on spending my final week-ish in Cambodia in this town. My new travel buddy, Jen and I, hiked our giant bags over to the hostel that we had booked the night before, called Magic Sponge. As is always the case when I roll up to a hostel on foot, I was fully drenched from head to toe, and greeted by the strangest most peculiar hostel energy. An American named William, also the owner, welcomed us with a car salesman strand of chipper-ness while older man after older man turned their heads to smile at us eerily from their seats both at tables and bar stools. It suddenly became apparent that we landed a hostel attracting a particular niche of expat/traveler looking for a particular experience likely involving younger ladies and mini golf (yes, there was a mini golf course outside the hostel grounds). Not to mention, when we climbed the two sets of super narrow windy stairs to our “penthouse” dorm (open fourth wall and no door onto the penthouse floor), we burst out laughing upon seeing our “welcome” package on the bed. Tucked not so obviously inside the pink towel that lay spread like live origami sat a packet of Men’s Antidandruff shampoo (!!!) which further proved my very likely hypothesis that this was a hostel for older retired men looking for a little something something in Cambodia. I was not keen on sticking around for too much longer to understand that something something, nor was I too curious to pursue the origin of the name, Magic Sponge. Needless to say, Jen and I spent the rest of the afternoon on the hunt for a newer, better, cooler hostel, which landed us no further than Kool Kampot. With a capital K, no less.

// Kool Kampot and the Hood, Trampolines and All

I could list a whole bunch of reasons why Kool Kampot wins number one hostel in all of the land. Despite the fact that Kampot’s architecture is a throwback to colonial French design with a decaying twist, the hostels that I either saw firsthand or online were all a bit mehhhh as far as good looks. Not Kool Kampot.

Located riverside just south of the downtown area – and by downtown, I mean the cluster of restaurants and coffee shops within a 3-4 block radius – this spot has the best of all worlds: riverside views; access to arguably the best Thai restaurant in town owned by a Laotian-American husband wife duo and their super feisty black cat; next door to a local street gym, series of trampolines whose traffic peaks at sunset with local Cambodian children, and a merry go round blasting Cambodian pop music. Such an unexpected little neighborhood block within which you pay $6 for a dorm and epic two-tiered rooftop overlooking Bokor mountain in the coolest swingy seat contraptions I have yet to find in any accommodation thus far. Also, not a bad place to set up a super spontaneous interview with the same 74-year old musician expat that I met in Otres Village only days earlier. Love me some shade, breeze and effortless views of Kampot all from the comforts of a soft cushioned surface.

Rooftop vibes, looking at the misty Bokor Mountain

Rooftop vibes, looking at the misty Bokor Mountain

Grateful for the bottom bunk of THREE

Grateful for the bottom bunk of THREE

/// Love Me a Good Breeze, Coconut and Crab in Kep

Did I mention I love a good breeze? This might seem like a silly thing to harp on, but when you’re trudging around Cambodia in monsoon humidity where every moment feels pregnant with condensation or imminent rain, a steady semi-cooling breeze is EVERYTHING. The simple things really become the highlights, and a breeze can make or break an entire day’s experience. Case in point – adventures to Kep, a field trip I took with my travel buddy Jen.

I had recently watched Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Kep, which basically comes down to two important things: crab and pepper – namely, savory riverside crabs from ocean to mouth in the span of minutes. The crab is drizzled in the infamous local sauce which apparently fuses salt, pepper and lime juice. Before I get ahead of myself, let me back up though to events leading up to this momentous moment, starting with my favorite mode of transportation in Asia: motorbikes.

Jen, my new travel buddy, used to own a Kawasaki Ninja back in her Montreal days which she later sold to help fund her trip around the world. Having had my motorbike roadtrip around Bali did give me a boost of confidence to rent a much hardcore model of moto (as the locals call it), BUT having Jen around as a moto expert made everything that much more legit. We shopped around for the perfect bike to weather any kind of storm/monsoon, and finally landed the Honda Airblade, whose tire threads were already coated in residual bright orangey mud from the previous ride. After a hearty breakfast at an Australian owned café, we were off in STYLE into Kampot-Kep’s countryside. DAMN did it feel good to be back on the bike J

There she is...the Honda Airblade!

There she is...the Honda Airblade!

While mapsme’s GPS voice played in the background, we decided to wander around and deviate onto roads that lured our curiosity, namely to catch glimpses of untouched land masses. There may have been an ulterior motive to have a photo shoot or two while finding the best pockets of breeze…

We soon enough rolled into the super tiny coastal town of Kep, which boasted local family time on the beach and vendors selling their usual fare of coconuts and street barbeque. We continued to gallivant on wheels, slowing down to take in the ocean views and occasional mandatory photo shoot with palm trees. The town was tinier than expected, so we took a much longer break at a port, which stretched far out into the ocean and made for a one stop shop for meditation, sunbathing, photography and all around euphoria. The breeze was by far the best, hands down.

This breeze gets a 10/10

This breeze gets a 10/10

A breezy hour or two later, we finally decided to venture over to the famous crab market. Channeling Anthony Bourdain’s energy for getting in on the market action, I charged forward to where market meets ocean and stared out onto the fishermen collecting baskets of prawns and crabs which were soon dragged onshore onto the market ‘dock.’ The ensuing action was nothing like I’ve seen before, filled with sounds, smells and faces unique to this moment alone.

Baskets that collect all the sea creatures

Baskets that collect all the sea creatures

Sorry friend, you're about to become seriously delicious food 

Sorry friend, you're about to become seriously delicious food 

IN THE CRABS GO

IN THE CRABS GO

Fresh Kampot pepper to add some mouth-watering Anthony Bourdain-approved flavor to the crab mix

Fresh Kampot pepper to add some mouth-watering Anthony Bourdain-approved flavor to the crab mix

Crab market life

Crab market life

Nothing's off limits, not even sting rays

Nothing's off limits, not even sting rays

Nap time for some

Nap time for some

Vendors cracked open the baskets and all at once, hands upon hands were digging through to inspect and quickly grab the prized crabs, while disposing of the less attractive ruts which were left inside. Calling this a sport or art would be an understatement, as the sequence of events happened so quickly yet with chaotic ease. Once plastic 1 kilo bags were filled to the brim with LIVE crabs clawing for their life, vendors would move the conveyor belt action along over to the pots and pans, ready for the next and final phase of this swift operation. The crabs were dumped into large wok style pans which were already boiling with the savori-est of sauces, blasting with hints of garlic, pepper and oyster sauce. My vegetarian disposition gave way to remnants of carnivorous instinct, as my taste buds were literally reaching into these pans, wishing I could just maybe have a small tiny microtaste. Within ten minutes, these bad boys were ready for consumption. I made friends with a Cambodian local who travelled from Phnom Penh just to have his delicious fill, very quickly telling me to always go for the smaller crabs as their meat far outweighs the texture of their larger counterparts. From an ex-carnivore’s standpoint, I can say with certainty that if I ever need convincing to become a pescatarian or seafoodtarian, I will most definitely make the trip back to Kep and see what happens…

Before heading back to Kampot, Jen and I stopped for a quick coconut break on the beach, consuming every last hydrating drop of coconut water and then my favorite part – the juicy dense coconut meat to top it all off.

Seaside coconut o'clock

Seaside coconut o'clock

Perfect day all around.  

//// Simple Things and Crazy Connections

This ‘chapter’ if you will all took place within the same day as the Kep field trip, so as you can imagine, it was a LONG day. All I wanted around dinnertime was peace, quiet and some good food. I also had to stop by the Fish Market, a swanky restaurant along the river, to capture some B-roll of Allan, the musician, as he was playing his final set that evening. Must have been a good omen that I walked into the restaurant as he’s playing the flute rendition of “Girl From Ipanema,” a childhood Brazilian favorite and classic. After a few minutes of shooting, I sprinted out as my stomach had a life of its own. I ended up not even a block away at a yoga and vegetarian staple, aptly named “Simple Things.”

Allan in action

Allan in action

Upon sitting, I noticed the chalkboard sign hanging above me which read: “There’s no specials today, but here’s a cool drawing of a cat.” I liked it enough to take a photograph, after which I sat down determined to get some good journaling and centering done.

Not even minutes passed before I noticed the restaurant cat staring at me from below. This was no ordinary looking cat – for starters, it was thicker and wider in frame with a different texture of cat hair than I’ve seen in Asia. I unfortunately don’t have a photo to share, but if you can imagine the owl animation on a Mac’s welcome screen, this cat had a carbon copy version of those same intense eyes with an uncanny fixating stare. Looking into this cat’s eyes was like looking into the soul of a mythical creature from a different epoch. I’m not exaggerating. What began as a cool connection to the cat, soon began to freak me out alittle as the gazing would NOT stop. That’s when I looked up to the guy sitting next to me, who I immediately felt would understand this little predicament I was in.

We began to talk, and the cat finally moved her eyes away from me and onto this other human. Thank goodness. The conversation continued to flow as we realized we had quite a bit in common. Meet Paul Simon, a Lithuanian American from Chicago who had been travelling for three months. He had also spent a considerable amount of time in Rishikesh and could keep up a stimulating conversation around crystals, the complexity of human nature, cats and other animal connections, and most interestingly: a friend he had made recently who lived in a monastery for two weeks.

Wait a second, could this be…Jen? I asked him immediately, “does your friend have red hair??”

Almost instantaneously, he threw his head down into a silent ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ laugh, and looked right back at me. “Jennifer??”

Holy sh********t! Call this a crazy coincidence, or whatever, but this was unreal. One of the first things I had learned about Jen when meeting her in Otres Village was that she had met a precocious 24-year old in Siem Reap who she later travelled with for a few days, and had even showed me a photo of him. Now, in this very moment, the facial recognition of that photo and this human in front of me clicked right away. I was blown away by every aspect of this encounter, and we both agreed that we had to reveal this to Jen. Coincidentally enough, Paul Simon wished to head to Bokor Mountain by bike the following day, and Jen and I were planning that very same field trip. The plan quickly unfolded: meet tomorrow at 8:15a at the gas station by the bridge, don’t tell Jen who this new friend is, and see how she reacts.

///// Bokor Mountain Bonding and Bodhi the Dog (Sampov Pram Pagoda)

So in the spirit of mysticism and surprises, the plan totally worked. At around 8:15a, Jen and I rolled up to the gas station and I watched as her face moved from sheer disbelief to amazement in silent wonder as she soon realized who this new friend really was. Due to the erratic weather patterns forecasted, we had to cut this little reunion short to get on our bikes and move into the mountains as soon as possible. Rain or shine, we were all on board for an epic adventure ahead.

As we moved farther out from the city center, the mountainous curves rose ever more graciously and dramatically ahead at 1100 meters above sea level. The speedometer cruised around 40km as we weaved around curvy roads in the silhouette of infinity. Jungle overgrowth and the most saturated green hues I’ve seen in a long time popped in and out of my periphery as I glided onward and upward. The Honda Airblade and I made a pretty good team, I have to say.

The clouds seemed to be moving in speed and through ever changing gradients of grey at time-lapse speed above. The breeze fluctuated from bursts of chill to tropical temperature level, and my body was soon acclimating. We finally made our way through a roundabout and parked up at what was supposedly an awe-dropping waterfall called Popokvil. No lie, after seeing Bali’s offerings of waterfall, it’s a bit hard to top anywhere else, but I was still open to Cambodia’s natural wonders.

No clue what this beauty is, so holler at me if you know

No clue what this beauty is, so holler at me if you know

Waterfall bubbles on my mind

Waterfall bubbles on my mind

Hey there baby gecko!

Hey there baby gecko!

After many hours of weathering sunshine, sunshowers and straight up rainfall to find multiple vantage points to view the waterfall, we finally decided to hit the road in search of some mangos. We bumped into friends of Paul’s who pointed us in the direction of the Chinese casino which supposedly had a fruit stand or two nearby. The fog was descending in our direction, and I couldn’t make out what kind of weather we were soon in for. No weather app would have been able to keep up either. We circled the creepy looking yellow casino to no luck, and decided to explore a bit up the road.

That’s when we literally rolled right up to a monastery, which had zero signs in English to indicate our point of reference. I was a starving marvin by that point, but it seemed crazy not to park up and continue the adventure while we could. I stumbled on a food-ish stand which had a giant stalk of bananas, some of which were open and the others consumed by giant plumes of flies. The man graciously offered me two bananas for free, and I nearly inhaled them as my body craved a spike of flavor and some sugar levels to get me through the afternoon.                                           

Definition of a misty mountain

Definition of a misty mountain

Temple textures

Temple textures

This monastery, which I later found out was called Sampov Pram Pagoda, was absolutely breathtaking. It was no coincidence that I was also surrounded by two new friends who had lived in a monastery in Myanmar and India respectively, and understood this way of living from pure experience. It felt as if we had left all civilization behind and ascended a cloud boasting beautiful temples integrated seamlessly into the mountain’s cliff-scapes. All was calm and inviting even as the fog began to thicken. A tiny black lab puppy pranced around, and monks from the age of 10 to 40ish walked about the grounds, taking in the misty views and occasionally snapping a selfie or two.

As suspected, the mist eventually turned into full on torrential rain, and the three of us (including the puppy) made a run for the nearest temple. In place of where a Buddha statue would naturally be lay a statue of a Goddess whose face was decked out in real makeup – we’re talking concealer, lipstick and finger/toe polish. The case of lipstick and concealer powder were quite literally sitting on the altar top along with incense and other more conventional offerings. The walls were covered in either Sankrit or Khmer, and the quarters were just perfect for our group’s size. In the hour or so we had to pass the time, we had a delightful little photoshoot with the little pup, whom we named Bodhi (short for Cambodia). There’s nothing quite like bonding in a tiny temple with Buddhist friends and temple dog when you’re stuck on a mountain in relentless rainstorm.  

Meet some cool friends - Jen, Bodhi (the dog), and Paul Simon 

Meet some cool friends - Jen, Bodhi (the dog), and Paul Simon 

So how do I adopt Bodhi?

So how do I adopt Bodhi?

Selfies are a great way to pass time in the rain :)

Selfies are a great way to pass time in the rain :)

Aaaaaaa zabembwaaaaaa zamaneeezamanaaaaaaaaaa #lionkingmoment

Aaaaaaa zabembwaaaaaa zamaneeezamanaaaaaaaaaa #lionkingmoment

Eventually, we made it down the mountain while leftover rain drizzled down and blew around in giant gusts of wind. Paul Simon led us to Park Inn, a newly opened restaurant of two weeks where we chowed down on delicious mango-passion fruit smoothie and homemade fried rice.

////// Monks Take Selfies Too

They all had smart phones under those robes

They all had smart phones under those robes

Monks sure like posing for a photo shoot

Monks sure like posing for a photo shoot

/////// Caves Do Feng Shui After Rainfall

When in Kampot for one more day, do a cave or two or three. When in Kampot for one more day during monsoon season, do just one and make sure to drive your motorbike REALLLY slowly on the dirt mud roads leading up to Phnom Chnong Cave. Hydroplaning in dirt is a thing, and when I slow, I mean less than 10km/hour. You’ll be able to take in the sights, including traditional Cambodian stilt houses with hammocks underneath, and the many cows that graze the country land.

And the best part of arriving to a cave right after a fresh downpour? The INCREDIBLE feng shui breeze you feel standing right inside its opening. Stand there for a few minutes and then walk inside, prepared to crane your neck and eyes up and UP.

Taking in that cave breeze

Taking in that cave breeze

By evening time, if you’re craving falafel in a restaurant that keeps a pet rooster in-house, I’ll show you the way.

Found a Bodhi look alike that day

Found a Bodhi look alike that day

There he is!

There he is!

Tiffany Wen