The south coast of Cambodia is less visited by tourists. There is little to see in former beach resorts like Kampot and Kep, but much to experience. Here was a taste of the real country. Kampot is a sleepy riverside town with a giant market. Here we bought some of the region's famous pepper. Kep, further east, is a former beachside holiday getaway. Many of the former holiday homes are only ruined, burnt-out shells. The main beach is lined with a row of waterfront fish restaurants. We chose our fish from the cooler and relaxed on a plastic mat overlooking the ocean while our food was prepared. The fish came with a special sauce, a mixture of freshly ground locally grown black pepper, lemon juice and salt. It tasted delicious when dipped in the thick, peppery sauce. We took a boat to nearby Rabbit Island and spent the day lying around in hammocks and the night in a shack on the beach. Sihanoukville, Cambodia's port city, is a schizophrenic mix of beach resort and industrial port. There are beautiful white-sand beaches in and around town. Cambodia is full of ex-pats who have fled the hectic development and strict visa regime of Thailand. Westerners run many of the guesthouses, restaurants and recreational activities. To get around Sihanoukville, we rented a bike from the local motodop gang. It took some time to explain that we wanted just the bike and not the driver, and some bargaining to get a decent price. In the end we rode off on a beat-up bike as the owner joked sheepishly with his fellow gang members. The reptile house is a hotel and bar started by a Russian ex-pat. He has quite an impressive collection of reptiles, especially poisonous snakes. A large crocodile sits in a pool next to bar, lazing with its eyes half-closed as it surveys the drinkers, a chain around its waist tied to a hook in the wall. Two giant, red-spotted geckos with jeweled yellow cat eyes cling to a post in a glass cage.
After only two weeks in Cambodia we were tired of the country. Most of the interesting culture and tradition was lost during the Khmer Rouge era. The Theravada Buddhist tradition so prevalent and important in South-East Asia was almost completely annihilated, and little has returned. Cambodians have a hard, impenetrable character, as if the violence of those years lies right below the surface - a violence that still pervades the society. We didn't feel safe in the country. Despite the fact that we never had a problem, there was always the thought of landmines and guns in the back of our minds.