My first morning in Kampot, a small seaside town in southeastern Cambodia, found me frantically on my phone, Googling “how to ride a motorbike.” The first few search results gave me useful information such as what the throttle is, and where the brakes are, and the difference between the hand brake and the foot brake (apparently one of them increases your chance of flipping over the front of the bike by 50%), and shifting between the different gears (only it did not inform the manual-drive noob of what in god’s name the different gears do), and how to find neutral, which is apparently a process in which you press and step on and twist a few things simultaneously until you “feel” it. Oh my God, I’m going to die!
Learning to ride a motorbike has long been on my bucket list—I spent my formative summers in Taiwan, after all, where thousands of scooters wove through the hectic and narrow Taipei streets with a finesse approaching artistry—and somehow, whether through things I read or things people told me, got it through my head that Kampot was the place to learn. The compact town numbered 40,000-something residents yet retained wide streets, and there were plenty of backroads on which fewer large vehicles traveled—the better for me to avoid hurting someone (namely, myself).
My new friend Emily, whom I had met on the minibus over from Sihanoukville the day before, and I decided we would learn together. The hostel owner led us out back, where he pointed me at compact little Honda Wave semi-automatic. So cute! Until I was on it, of course, and the owner was pointing out the location of all the important bits—start button, important brake, less-important brake, turn signals, headlights (which cannot be turned on in the daytime unless you want to pay a fine), emergency parachute deployer. I nodded along as confidently as I could, hoping to convince him that he could entrust his bike to me for 24 hours. Judging by the expression on his face, I was not successful.
After the hostel owner had run through all the bike’s features, it was time for me to actually try starting up the bike. “Just turn the throttle gently,” he said. And so I did, with a wrist-twist movement that wouldn’t have disturbed a fly. The bike leaped forward as if it were a poorly trained bull, and I nearly fell onto the hostel’s gravel path.
“Hmmm.” The hostel owner’s tongue was in his cheek. “That won’t do.”
To cut the theatrics short, after a while I began to get the hang of riding a motorbike, and I am happy to report that I didn’t die. In my first five minutes, I only flattened one roadside bush, but it and I both sprang back up, unharmed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that learning how to ride a motorbike is the best thing I’ve done so far on this trip. Gone was being limited to a predetermined itinerary with a tuk-tuk driver. Suddenly, the whole of the country was in my hands! I could go anywhere I wanted to! At my own pace! Without any hassle! Oh holy cow did the slipstream from that passing truck nearly wipe out my bike.
And where I wanted to go was the Kampot countryside. Kampot Province is arguably the most beautiful place in Cambodia (besides for Koh Rong, which is a different story altogether). Facing the sea, fed by an estuary, and guarded by the rolling hills of Bokor National Park, Kampot has a little bit of everything: sea, mountain, countryside, all swept through by a near-constant breeze off the hills.
The guidebooks tell you that Kampot is famous for its delicious pepper (indeed, it is so good that back in Cambodia’s colonially occupied days, Kampot pepper was a prized delicacy exported to France), but it is also known for two other things: the maze of caves that hide in the countryside, and potholes. I felt, absurdly, like I was training for the Motocross Championships as I dodged potholes with all the finesse of a two-day-old motorbike driver, i.e. awkwardly.
All of which leads to the climax of my time in Kampot: the adventure to find the caves at Phnom Chhnork. Emily and I had heard that these were the best system of caves in the area, so one afternoon, armed with a map and full tanks of gas, we set off to locate the caves.
Two hours later, we emerged from the warren of pothole-riddled dirt paths criss-crossing farmlands near the (not-so-)Secret Lake…which was approximately 15km away from where the caves supposedly were. HUH??? After consulting our map, we decided we had taken a wrong turn somewhere, which had led us to some off-the-map paths, and by the time we stopped for directions, the nice little old lady who couldn’t speak English yet tried to help us naturally assumed we were looking for the lake (as she indicated with swimming arm motions) and so helpfully pointed us in the “right” direction. Oops! But hey, no big deal.
Really, no big deal. Getting lost in the countryside surrounding Kampot is AWESOME. Because it looks like this:
The Cambodian people have a reputation for being friendly, and never is that more true than in the countryside. As we rode by, I kept on hearing children’s shouts of “Hello! Hello!” following us. Sometimes it was hard to figure out where the hellos were coming from, as the children are incredibly small, and sometimes they were calling out from all the way across the fields that their families were tending. Sometimes the calls came from right along the side of the road and were accompanied by bright grins and waving hands. I couldn’t stop smiling the whole time we were lost, and managed to perfect my motorbiking skills to be able to wave back to the kids as we passed them.
Four hours after we set out, we finally managed to find Phnom Chhnork. Talk about an adventure! It involved a million more potholes, happy children, and some directions by enterprising locals. By that time, though, the sun was setting, so we resolved to return the next day to actually enter.
The next morning, we returned to the caves as part of a foreigner motorcycle gang. I’m serious. Emily and I picked up fellow travelers before we set out, until by the time we finally left, we were part of a group of nine or ten. This time, we arrived at the cave entrance with plenty of daylight to spare and hired a young local guy to be our guide through the cave.
Caving—great fun! Well, there’s the less fun part that involves the guide pointing his flashlight at nondescript rock formations and saying, “What shape you see there? It bird/elephant/crocodile.” But we also squeezed our way through or under turns within the cave, saw our flashlight beams bounce off the rocks and get swallowed back into darkness far below us. Our guide was playful, and so at one point he insisted that we all switch off our flashlights and go forward only by feel. Let me tell you, it’s hard to conceive of our reliance on our sense of sight until you are crawling through an echoey cave where, back when you had light, you had seen holes opening up beside you on the cave floor. Whenever one of us would plead, “Can we use our lights now?” our guide would shout back, “No light! No light!”
The best part, though, was when we came to a clearing just before the cave exit, and our monkey of a guide grabbed a vine that was hanging down and encouraged us, via personal demonstration, to take a swing on it! Those of us who accepted our guide’s Tarzan challenge flew through the air mere meters above sharp rocks. It was heart-stopping, thrilling, and could turn me into an adrenaline junkie.
We staggered out of the caves way past lunchtime, having stayed hours longer than I had anticipated, knees wobbling, feet aching, skin caked with cave dirt. Looking forward to food and hydration, we headed back into town and filled up with delicious and affordable eats at Captain Chim’s. I ended the day as I had ended nearly every day I spent in Kampot: sitting on a bench beside the river and watching the setting sun turn the sky pink.
Kampot is laid-back and convenient, with endless things to explore. It was, hands-down, my favorite place in Cambodia.