The two sleepy towns of Kep and nearby Kampot on Cambodia's southern coast may be some of the best spots in the world for an ultra relaxing getaway. That is, of course, when you take away the moderately stressful and involved travel days we spent arriving. However through the rose colored glasses of memory, those annoyances can just as easily resemble adventure. We leave late on Sunday night, after my night classes, taking a sleeper bus to the Mekong town of Chau Doc on the Vietnam/Cambodia border. Jim is not excited by the prospect of squeezing his tall body in the Vietnamese-sized seats. We are fortunate, however, to snag two spots at the very back of the bus where seats have significantly more space.
The ride is relatively relaxing, stopping only once at a mega rest stop for a bland food and bathroom break. My 5-6 hour ride is a blissful combination of podcasts and snoozing. We arrive in the normal fashion–sleepy and confused at around 1 AM, and grab a couple xe oms (mototaxis) who deliver us to our hotel. Despite the fact we booked one of the better rated budget hotels in Chau Doc, our hotel can best be described as dingy. With a broken AC, too many windows with poorly covering curtains, a standard rock-hard Vietnamese mattress and a leaky bathroom, it is a good thing we are leaving early the next morning.
A rickety cyclo picks us up around 6 AM the following morning and slowly pedals us through the already lively streets of Chau Doc, passing bustling wet markets and cheerful coffee spots, to the docks where we'll be catching our boat to Phnom Penh. I'm happy for an excuse to be up early enough to experience the vibrant morning festivities so often found in these parts of the world, while Jim likely would be happier experiencing his bed.
The air is already thick and the sun intense as we quickly grab a banh mi breakfast and iced coffee before our boat departs. The 3 hour ride involves tranquil views of the delta and river, with the added bonus of a refreshing breeze. We stop just twice for exit stamps, visas and immigration–all arranged by our guide–making for one of the most relaxing border passings I've ever witnessed.
The sun bakes the concrete walkways and streets of Phnom Penh as we cruise into the docks . We gladly accept the first offer of an overly friendly tuk-tuk driver who takes us to a hostel, where he clearly has a deal. We are too sweaty and hungry to care. Here we grab a cold drink, a decent meal and conveniently buy our bus tickets to Kampot.
Our next journey involves over 3 hours on a hot, cramped bus, blaring strange Indian musical dramas and bizarre Cambodian comedy shows. Upon arrival we check into basically the first hotel we find, which lucky for us, passes for decent accommodation. After dinner and cocktails, sleep comes easily and early.
The following day is spent wandering languid city streets near a placid river, enjoying vistas of napping tuktuk drivers, viney trees, crumbling French colonial facades, and the gentle green Cardamom Mountains always looming in the distance. Though billowy clouds fill the grey sky, the sweltering rays of sunlight still manage to peak through. A stubborn layer of moisture covers our skin and a heavy fatigue fills our bones, remaining with us through our entire trip, a constant reminder that it is indeed hot season in Southeast Asia.
We buy tickets to Kep at one of the only bus companies in town–with just one departure time per day to the little town a mere 40km away. After, we fill the remainder of our day roaming from cold drink stops to sweets shops, wasting time fidgeting with mobile devices, reading e-readers, attempting to keep cool.
Sticky heat combines with the overall chilled vibes of Kampot draining away all our energy and before we know it a shuttle swoops in, taking us to a run down tour agency no more than a kilometer away. Here, we are forced to wait nearly 2 hours for another bus to pick us up, to take us, again, just 40 kms away. Jim, sweaty and agitated, angrily pleads with the woman to refund our money so we can take a slower and more expensive, though readily available, tuk tuk. She refuses, smiling awkwardly, and we wait until the crowded bus appears.
Thankfully when we arrive we discover the eco resort we booked is an accurate representation of it's overwhelmingly positive Trip Advisor reviews. We will be staying in a jungly bungalow (just $40/night!) overlooking the sea and lush countryside, on the outskirts of the national park. With the exception of the staff and a couple quiet guests, we have the resort to ourselves.
On day two, after a top notch breakfast of eggs, crepes, fresh fruit and coffee, at our resort, we rent a motorbike and venture out, attempting to explore the area. We don't drive far before, once again, the high temperature makes a refreshment stop necessary.
Lunch is at the Kep Crab Market, where we enjoy minutes-fresh, boiled crab in a buttery sauce made with the fresh pepper for which this part of the world is renowned. We spend a couple hours scoping out the national park before heading back to our hotel for lazy time near the pool. Like children, we are occupied for far too long with the the lily pads growing in the natural swimming pool; playing, splashing and dripping water on them, hypnotized by the plants' hydrophobic properties.
Later in the evening we head back to the crab market for cheap sunset cocktails and more fresh seafood. Here we meet a French expat couple based in Vietnam, also escaping the frenzy of a public holiday in Ho Chi Minh. The couple encourages us to check out the Sailing Club. We take their advice and are rewarded with a breezy white-washed seaside restaurant worthy of at least a few Instragram posts. Here we grab a proper western style dessert and a cocktail, vowing to return again tomorrow.
We book a tour for the next day to Rabbit Island, which is said to have some of the best beaches in the area. We aren't disappointed. The island with it's tall palms, clean sand and clear water is just where we want to spend the steamy afternoon. Though we are definitely not alone on this island, we aren't too bothered by the small thatched restaurants and bungalows, or the chill workers and tourists. We blissfully read under the shade, float in the warm water, eat seafood and people watch. Our last hour on the island, we indulge in an open-air, coconut oil massage ($6 each!).
We keep our promise and return to the Sailing Club, where we drink fruity happy hour cocktails, eat crab cakes, seafood pasta, and baked fish as the sun sinks under the choppy grey sea. The perfect ending to our mini vacation. Our peace won't last, though, as we still have a full day of travel ahead before returning to Ho Chi Minh.
The bus picks us up at around 9 the next morning. We are first shuttled to the nearby border. Here, for whatever random reason which so often clogs border crossing checkpoints, we must wait in the heat, away from food and drink venders, for well over two hours. By the time we pass through immigration and board another shuttle which will take us to yet another bus, we are hungry, overheated and irritable. Due to our holdup at the border, there's no time for food, and our stomachs grumble as we board the crowded bus. This ride takes almost nine hours and doesn't stop for a real meal until seven hours in.
We arrive in Ho Chi Minh to a city bus station somewhere in the outskirts of a faraway district, and must take a shuttle to another faraway bus station, followed by a taxi home. It's nearing midnight by the time we get home, and head straight to bed, our happy little getaway just a warm memory.
For a bus/boat from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh: Bus tickets can be purchased for 150K dong at one of the Futa (Phuong Trang) offices in the city. The bus itself leaves from District 10, at 335 Le Hong Phong St. You can book boat tickets online from two different companies; one on a slightly higher quality boat for $50 through Blue Cruiser and one with the decent, though much cheaper Chau Doc Tourist for $24. Be sure to bring $35 USD and a few passport sized photos for the Cambodian Visa–the guides on the boat will help arrange the visa.
For transport from Ho Chi Minh/Vietnam from Cambodia's southern coast: Several bus and tour companies in Kep, Kampot and Sihanoukville sell bus tickets, which pass through the border town of Ha Tien, continuing on to various stops in the Mekong Delta and on to Ho Chi Minh.