I'm not sure if you've caught on yet or not, but the people in Cambodia are really friendly, I can see why people never want to leave this place. On my second full day in Kampot, I figured it was time to get out of town, away from the tourists and explore the countryside. There are a few options for doing so: hire a tuk-tuk ($5-$25 depending on where you want to go, rent a motorbike ($5), rent a bicycle ($1) or walk. I chose to rent a bike figuring it wouldn't hurt to get a little exercise [the food here is delicious and cheap] and I had plenty of time to kill. My handy little "Costal" guidebook mentioned various day-trip options, most of which were accessible by bike so I just had to pick my poison.
I decided to start the morning by heading north towards the White Mountain [Phnom Sor] to add a little hiking to my itinerary. Before hitting the road I made a short detour to the west side of the river and soon found myself enjoying breakfast [bananas and convenience store coffee] on the bridge of the old railroad tracks. It was incredibly peaceful up there, dangling my feet high over the water, breeze in my hair, listening to the laughter of a few schoolboys below. I really could have stayed there all day but I soon remembered the unbearable mid-day heat that hits this city and decided to get on my way.
I tend to underestimate distances, so after cycling for nearly an hour I decided I overshot my destination and decided to make a U-turn. The sun was beating down like a ball of fire but after months of cold, I didn't mind it. I took a few stops for pictures and water but otherwise, I was thoroughly enjoying my ride, and the numerous "Hello's" that came from everyone I passed: man, woman, and child. The White Mountain was supposed to be 2.5km down a side road, turning under and arch, so after backtracking a bit I took the next side road I saw and gave it a try. Well, I biked for another 20 or so minutes but wasn't coming upon anything even remotely resembling a White Mountain.
I turned back towards the main road and about halfway there decided to turn off near what appeared to be a school an old pagoda. The kids had all been outside when I passed by the first time but now it appeared they had all gone home for lunch as the schoolyard was nearly deserted. I took advantage of the large trees and open courtyard, parked my bike and sat down to enjoy a few more bananas, breakfast #2 I guess? I was intrigued by the pagoda, which seemed to be abandoned, so decided to take a walk around to explore and take a few pictures. The grounds kept going, up one set of stairs, down another, around a moat and through some fields. I was impressed by the colors and architecture, even if it did appear that no one had been using this place for a while.
Tired and needing a break from the sun I returned to my bench for a few more minutes of rest before getting back on my bike. As I sat there I saw a young boy shyly approaching me looking like he wanted to say something. He waved hi but kept a decent distance from me. I looked up to the building he had come from and noticed an older woman motioning me over, what she wanted I couldn't imagine. As I approached she continued waving, now with a big smile on her face. As I came inside she started pointing towards the center of the room motioning for me to sit down, it was then that I noticed about seven monks sitting near the window, enjoying lunch. I thought this was about to be a fun game of hand gestures and awkward silence but then one of the monks spoke up "Hello, welcome. Where are you from?" I was surprised to hear English, after all, I was definitely off the beaten trail, I don't suspect too many tourists had visited this place before.
The rest of the monks sat giggling as I talked to the head monk, him asking if I'd had lunch yet and then insisting that I share a meal with him. These are the kind of stories I've read about as I browse through countless travel blogs, but definitely not a situation I had expected myself to land in. As they set out various dishes my mind was racing, is this really happening, this is so cool, I love Cambodia. The monk had already finished eating but he stood by as I was served, of course encouraging me to eat more! As I ate, two more men came into the room and the monk asked if it was okay they eat with me, "they would like to share a meal with you" he explained, "if that is okay." This baffled me, I was a guest at his pagoda, being served lunch but yet he asked if it was okay if others join me? Of course, my answer was a wholehearted yes, and so this is how I came to eat lunch with two Khmer men, an adorable young boy, and a few tiny kittens, under the eyes of the head monk of Phnom Sor, Sokunthy Pech.
After lunch, Sokunthy asked if I would sit in his courtyard with him, which again I, of course, replied with an enthusiastic yes. We talked about where I had come from, what I do and for how long and why I was visiting Cambodia. I was impressed to find out that he is only 23 years old, yet the head monk at this Pagoda. He was excited to hear that I am an English teacher but apologized that he could not speak English very well. After hearing that he had only studied for two years I insured him, to the best of my ability, that his English is excellent and that I've had students who've studied much longer with a significantly lower speaking ability. As if it isn't evident through the abundance of WiFi and other technological advances that our world is rapidly changing, I was convinced of this fact when my new monk friend whipped out his iPhone and asked for my phone number. I could tell he was genuinely excited to meet a foreigner, someone he could practice English with, like I said, I don't think many tourists make it out to Phnom Sor.
I spent close to two hours sitting and talking with Sokunthy, practicing English [delicious, create, friend, sugar and sweet have been added to his vocabulary], learning about his pagoda and getting a private tour, I felt kind of bad for thinking it was abandoned. The tour also extended to his mango tree 'plantation' behind the pagoda and ended with a nice big glass of fresh sugar palm water. I was invited back for a festival which will be held on March the 15th, but unfortunately I don't think I'll be able to make it, as much as I'd like to. Sokunthy explained that there are only seven monks living at his pagoda and three other staff, two of which would include the friendly boy and grandmother that invited me over. Despite the heat that was waiting for me outside the shade of this courtyard, I figured I should be on my way. We said our goodbyes and he wished me good luck and happiness for my time in Cambodia, adding that he hopes to see me again; and, I of course, the same.
Although I never made it to the White Mountain I couldn't have asked for a better alternative. This will definitely go down as one of my most memorable experiences, but then again as my friend said, I'm only getting started. To put a cherry on top of this already perfect day, later in the evening I received the following text:
Hi Sister how are you today? What are you doing now? Eat dinner already? I'm very happy when I know sister. I like you.
If you ever find yourself in Kampot Cambodia I would highly recommend a bike trip down the less traveled roads. If you're lucky enough Sokunthy will still be around and might even ask you to share lunch with him. You can find this place on a map but basically you take N#3 north for maybe a half hour (by bike) and turnoff to the left, under an arch. I wish I could provide more detail, but hey, even my directions to the White Mountain didn't do that ~ so good luck.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.