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CAMBODIA – Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville

28 Nov

KAMPOT

The charm of Kampot, a somewhat sleepy provincial capital & port town, lies in its colonial architecture and its attractive riverfront. Kampot has a retro ambience and is mostly known for its caves and pepper plantations (they produce varieties of pepper that are well sought after by chef’s worldwide- and having tasted it now first-hand, we know why!).

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Kampot’s pepper (red, green or black), sought after by chefs worldwide!

In Kampot we stayed at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge (http://www.mangokampot.com) – a wonderful compilation of wooden huts, overlooking the Kampot River with stunning views of the mountains. The sunsets there completely draw you in!

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Our bungalow, overlooking the Kampot River at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge

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Stunning sunsets overlooking Kampot River & surrounding mountains

Emile & Filou loved this “French place” (run by a French-Cambodian couple), as Les Manguiers attracts many Frenchies with kids so a great deal of friends were made!  This eco-lodge also had some fun things to entertain the young ones – such as a Tarzan rope that propelled the kids into the water (Emile and Filou spent hours perfecting their different jumps!), animals to pet (the sweet looking rabbits where their favorite), and many board games, table tennis, swings, hammocks etc.

They even offered a fabulous night river cruise where we saw hundreds of fireflies light up the trees like it was Christmas!!! – Going out on a boat and exploring the river by night (it was pitch black)… was priceless!

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Filou spent several hours feeding and playing with the rabbits at Les Manguiers Eco-Lodge

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Emile rope-jumping into the Kampot River

One of the highlights of staying at Les Manguiers was their Table d’Hôte menu (2 options to choose from at each meal).  The surprise of what we would get to eat each day was first a bit daunting for the kids (we don’t get to choose? What if we don’t like the food?), but this quickly turned into the wonderful surprise of the day! All the dishes offered were amazingly fresh, copious (even for the “light” meal option) and absolutely scrumptious! Eating, overlooking the river made the meals even better and the kids still can’t stop talking about them (we are starting to create some real foodies!).

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The scrumptious Table d’Hôte Menu at Les Manguiers, Kampot

On our first morning in Kampot, we took a tuktuk and ventured out to the local Phnom Chhngok Caves that house a 1200 year-old temple. The drive on the extremely muddy road, full of potholes, was half the adventure!  It was an hour-long roller coaster ride before we arrived, but it was worth it, as we were greeted once again by many warm Cambodian smiles & “hello’s” while enjoying beautiful green landscapes & rice paddies– and of course the caves. With our very young Cambodian guides (they probably shouldn’t be working yet, but were all smiles and had good English), Emile and Filou climbed very steep walls down, deep into the dark, slippery caves and loved every minute of it (mom and dad decided it was best not to risk breaking a leg)!

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Climbing the Phnom Chhngok Caves

We also learned about the local social initiative “SAMAKI” – a program supported by Solaid International that provides school support & help to the most vulnerable families by association. So to give back a little, we took our bikes and rode to the local school “Kampong Kreng” to go help with their English program.

We all had our turns in front of the class while helping the hardworking children practice sentences & improve their English pronunciations. At the end, class was divided into four, and each of us had a small group to interact with (they loved learning about the snow in Canada and wanted to know everything from our favorite colour to how old we were)!

At the end of the 1-hour class we were all sitting in the dark – as electricity is very expensive and the one light they had in the classroom was not put on (also we could hear every word of the class being taught next door as windows and doors are just holes in the walls). But even though the class had the most basic of amenities, the kids were happy with their enthusiastic English teacher and our “surprise” appearance.  After a productive class and a smiley group picture, they happily jumped on their bikes and raced back home…

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English teachers Filou & Emile  in front of the class!

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The kids we helped with their English, at Kampong Kreng School in Kampot

And after a last look at Kampot river‘s “Green Alley” via canoe, we raced to the next local town of Kep.

KEP

An idyllic coastal location, backed by hills covered with lush jungle, Kep was originally built as a retreat for the French colonialists.  For sixty years it thrived as Khmer’s favorite coastal holiday resort, with its heydays in the 50s and 60s until it fell into ruin – especially after the Khmer Rouge, when locals in need of money and food started to dismantle the old villas.  But Kep is currently experiencing a tourism revival and we got to enjoy it (thoroughly!!!).

We stayed at Kep’s Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort (www.jasminevalley.com)– where our accommodations were a large jungle tree house, complete with veranda overlooking the Cambodian Jungle! Every night we enjoyed the many sounds of nature (a chorus of vocal frogs and birds) and took in the magnificent views of the mountains, and smells of Jasmine and jungle blossom.

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Our jungle tree house at Jasmine Valley Eco-Lodge

Kep is known for its seafood, and in particular its crab dishes. We went to Kim Ly Restaurant (http://www.kep-cambodia.com/mainpages/PlacesinKep/kimly-restaurant.html), well known for having the best crab in town, and we were not disappointed. Emile is still raving about his crab dish with ginger! It was truly divine and without a doubt, the best we have ever had!

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Kep and its famous crab!

We also spent an absolutely lovely beach day on Rabbit Island, an island just of the coast of Kep, given its name mainly due to its shape. It is a true idyllic beach hideaway, with its gorgeous blue ocean water and stunning views of clouds with fishing boats on the horizon.  We took a 30-minute boat ride to get to the island (which is delightfully non-touristy) and enjoyed swinging in the hammocks, swimming in the incredibly clear blue waters and taking in a lovely massage on the beach.

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Sweet little Cambodian boy on Rabbit’s Island

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The views from Rabbit’s Island

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Rabbit’s Island, the perfect place to chill for a day!

And to end our wonderful stay in Kep, we took a 6:30 am morning walk, via the local monkey and mountain trail, to reach the mountaintop. The few enjoyable hours that we explored Kep National Park, were aided by the useful and very informative signage posted by the local Squirrel Association. The park is home to many red squirrels, as well as many snakes, birds, butterflies etc. – overall amazing flora and fauna! Filou was eager to capture it all on camera (he took pictures of every little animal, flower or leaf we saw in the park)!

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Sunset playing on the beach at Kep

SIHANOUKVILLE

A jolly Khmer taxi driver took us on our 2-hour trek from Kep to Sihanoukville.  He told us that he used to work in construction but that he had to leave his post behind due to the pain in his arm.  I did notice the many scars on both his arms! He explained that his father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge (as they thought he was a policeman), and that he – at 5 years old – was given a gun to kill someone. When he refused, they broke and cut his arms in many places. Such a sad tale, from a man that had the happiest face and seemed to be the local comic entertainment for the girls at Jasmine Valley. We were happy it was he who took us safely to Sihanoukville! 

Once there, we arrived at the Don Bosco Hotel School (http://www.donboscohotelschool.com), where we were welcomed by a large group of enthusiastic students.  The Don Bosco Hotel School, created by a foundation with the same name, is a unique concept in that it is at the same time a quality, 31-room hotel in Sihanoukville (with fantastic food and an amazing pool in a lovely, quiet location), and a professional school educating and training Cambodia’s disadvantaged youth for the hospitality industry and a better life.  A former hospitality student myself, this was totally up my alley…

One of the volunteer teachers, Thomas Lerch (specializing in Front Office Management), was kind enough to tour us around the hotel & technical school complex. Set on well-kept grounds, the school provides bright classrooms and clean, comfortable eating and sleeping quarters for the students.  Thomas explained that each year, about 1000 students from all over Cambodia, apply for the program (of which 200 get enrolled into the hospitality program and 400 into the technical one).  The selection criteria used are guided by the core principles of the Don Bosco Foundation, which is to provide the most disadvantaged children a chance of education.  Although the students are required to pay for their own school supplies; some of their English textbooks and pencils (usually a couple of dollars a year), few cannot even afford that.

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The hard-working students of the Don Bosco Hotel School in Sihanoukville

Educating and supporting these children makes a real difference in their lives (and the lives of their families as they go on to support not only themselves but the many loved ones around them!).  Thomas Lerch (pictured above) and his volunteer colleagues – educators from England, Germany, Poland – are truly committed to making these kids succeed (Thomas for example is taking a full year away from his wife in Dubai, and is totally driven to see his students land jobs at top 4 or 5 star hotels in the country – positions at local guesthouses is not what he has in mind for his protégés!)

Apparently, they do lack a volunteer French teacher, so if anyone is interested  🙂 or would like to stay at this great hotel, please contact: Thomaslerch2003@yahoo.com

We were grateful that our stay helped a little towards the education of these very friendly and hardworking students! A wonderful program and relaxing stay in Sihanoukville before heading to the jungle in Koh Kong!

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