The Mouth of the Dragon

We recently spent six nights in Kampot, and then three nights in Kep. Both are relatively quiet, tourist-focused towns (actually Kampot seems more expat-oriented), in the south of Cambodia near the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. There are about a million blog posts on the internet focusing on these two places, and we don’t have anything new to add to those, so this blog is going to mostly ignore the fact that we were even there.

That said, we can highly recommend three western desserts in these towns: Kampot offers a banana cream pie at Bon cafe, and the pumpkin pancakes at Sisters II cafe, and Kep has chocolate tarts at the L’epi D’or bakery, which are so delicious they should be made illegal.

Also, the header photo above (of the golden monkey-men) was taken in Kep, at a jungle Wat in the national park.

From Kep, we caught a $3 public bus to the little town of Kampong Trach, not really knowing what to expect. If you have a peek at the town on Google Maps you’ll see that it contains a bank, a market, and a small handful of nameless streets. It looks rather quiet, but was in fact the opposite – if Kep was black, Kampong Trach was white. Kep was practically dead; Kampong Trach was a bustling frenzy of madness. Kep was sparsely dotted with slow-moving foreigners; Kampong Trach was teeming with busy locals. Kep had very little street food, and even when it could be found it was double the normal price; Kampong Trach had only street food, and it was cheaper than other small towns we’ve visited – generally 75 cents per meal. In Kep everybody ignored us; in Kampong Trach everybody stared at us (relentlessly).

The only time people stopped staring at us was when a group of fancy looking Cambodians emerged from somewhere – presumably Phnom Penh. One of them had (pretty awful looking) corn rows, and he became the object of focus and amusement to the farmers and moto taxi drivers (the ones that sit on their bikes all day doing nothing except yelling at people, while their wives make money running food stands, simultaneously raising children). Corn Row and his friends strutted through the muddy streets in their fancy shirts and ironed trousers, and stood around smugly at a shop selling mobile phones. Momentary relief from being stared at was enjoyed during this public distraction.

We stepped from the bus into the pouring rain of Kampong Trach, bound for a guesthouse on the opposite side the road, and tried to quickly talk our way past the sodden touts before we became soaked as well. They had sprinted alongside the bus as it pulled into the town, grinning wildly. “Tuk tuk sir?” “Where you go?” “Moto?” “Where you go?” “Where you go?” “Where you go?”

“No thanks, we are just going to that guesthouse right there,” we smiled, pointing, while internally screaming off with you, you piranhas! You vultures! Do you not require shelter from this downpour? Can you not be satisfied with a simple ‘no’? 

The guesthouse was so new that they were still building it. We entered to the stares of bemused locals, and to the sound of a screeching glass-cutter making strategic holes in two entrance doors being prepared in the lobby. Clunky motorbikes and construction equipment littered the foyer, as well as pools of water. Just outside the side entrance was a pony tied to a cart, standing motionless in squelching mud and bits of wood. Somewhere on the floor above was the sound of an air compressor refilling, the screaming drone resonating and amplifying as it bounced around the glossy tiles of the guesthouse. Amazingly, in the midst of the commotion, a young girl behind a counter waited, presumably for guests. We approached and asked if there was a room available. She appeared shocked, and then scurried off in a fluster to hastily prepare one for us.

The grand entrance to our guesthouse

The grand entrance to our guesthouse

Our seat while we waited for a room

Our seat while we waited for a room

The lobby

The lobby

A reliable pony.

A reliable pony.

It is highly likely that we the first people to ever stay in the room, and at $6 per night it was basic. The walls were internal and windowless, and so during the frequent town-wide power cuts we would be plunged into total darkness. Soon we learned that the rooms opposite ours had windows, so we politely and apologetically explained that we couldn’t see, and requested a transfer. Our new room had hot water, which we hadn’t had for a week, so this was a nice luxury, although using the shower resulted in blowing the circuit breaker and killing the power to our room (twice). When we returned downstairs to explore, the pony was gone.

The town was completely void of foreigners, and so we were a great point of interest for the locals. We approached grubby little food vendors and Caroline would use her Khmer skills to extract delicious food and warm smiles from them. Conversation was limited to whatever Caroline could understand, and most locals used the ‘speak louder’ technique to repeat themselves, as opposed to the preferable ‘speak slower’ technique.

"Khmer Noodles' is what an English-speaker told us. They were amazing! Served cold with fresh mint and coconut milk, and when we returned the next day for more, the store was closed. $1 per bowl.

Bahn Sung, or “Khmer Noodles’ as an English-speaker told us. They were amazing! Served cold with fresh mint and coconut milk, but when we returned the next day for more, the store was closed. $1 per bowl.

Fruit was a big commodity in the town, as were pigs, ducks and chickens, all tied up or crammed into baskets. A man cycled past us with several bags slung on his bike. One contained a small pig, which started screaming. The screaming set off several stray dogs, who came running and barking while the concerned man yelled and flapped his arms to keep them at bay. We watched in fascination as these developments unfolded.

Turning down a road that was more water than dirt, we made our way towards a distant outcrop of limestone crags and caves, towering spectacularly in an otherwise flat landscape. The area was simply called Phnom Kampong Trach, and evidently the caves were quite a popular attraction. As we walked down our dirt road three large busses filled with school children drove past, being tailed by local kids on bicycles, planning to make a quick buck. The entrance fee to the caves was $1 per person, and we entered into the chaos that only several hundred children can create. Two young girls of about 10-years-old approached us, being tailed by a little boy of about 5-years-old. The girls asked if they could guide us through the caves, and we agreed.

“This is the mouth of the dragon,” said the yellow shirt girl, as we approached the cave entrance.

“The mouth of the dragon,” agreed the white shirt girl.

“We are entering the mouth of the dragon,” said yellow shirt as we entered.

“The mouth of the dragon,” echoed white shirt.

The mouth of the dragon,” put in yellow shirt, just to be sure. The young boy said nothing, but followed the older girls and prodded at things.

“We are in the mouth of the dragon,” said yellow shirt, when we were inside the cave.

“The mouth of the dragon,” said white shirt, almost in a whisper.

There were children from the busloads everywhere, squawking and taking selfies. Local kids kept trying to offer us torches, and asking to guide us, but our guides shooed them away, and made sure our attention didn’t wander.

“This is the tongue of the dragon.”

“This is the throat of the dragon.”

“This is the steaming Buddha.”

“The steaming Buddha?”

“The skinny Buddha.”


“This is the rock-climbing Buddha.”

“The rock-climbing Buddha?”

“The reclining Buddha.”


We were shown the ‘elephant’, the ‘turtle’, the crocodile’, the ‘commander’s foot’, the ‘eagle’, and ‘the stomach of the dragon’. Our guides were excellent and charming, and we paid them accordingly. They were much better than our lousy guide at Wat Phnom Sampeau.

Waving goodbye to our guides, we took a half-hour walk around the mountain, passing dogs who didn’t know whether or not they should be barking at us, and small wooden houses at the foot of the sheer limestone cliffs. One man offered us his house to stay in, telling us that we could sleep on his hammocks any time for free, but since we had already paid for our chaotic guesthouse we declined. Shame – it could have been a great experience. Further around the hill we noticed some almost invisible concrete stairs leading up the cliff face. We climbed up, and rounded into a huge, smooth-walled cathedral of a bat cave, with sunlight streaming in from gaps in the ceiling 20 metres up. It was perfectly still and peaceful, and we stood alone in awe. The lack of empty plastic bottles suggested that it wasn’t a highly frequented spot, unlike the madness of the paid area.

Sadly, we forgot to bring the camera for our cave adventures, so you’ll just have to close your eyes and imagine everything.


Just an ordinary train

6 Replies to “The Mouth of the Dragon”

  1. I am reading your posts with interest, and actually admiring your style of writing.
    But I keep wondering, why, for heaven’s sake, are you traveling…LOL

    Is it for this: “we can highly recommend three western desserts in these towns”

    Or for this: “No thanks, we are just going to that guesthouse right there,” we smiled, pointing, while internally screaming off with you, you piranhas! You vultures! Do you not require shelter from this downpour? Can you not be satisfied with a simple ‘no’?

    1. You’re right. We shall immediately return home and recommence work. 🙂

      Actually, I can’t tell if you’re being serious.

      If you are, here’s my rebuttal: we eat mostly local street food which is always delicious, but it was lovely and quite novel to find high-quality but cheap Western desserts in Cambodia. In Kep, apart from their amazing green Kampot pepper crab and freshly caught seafood, the lack of Khmer street food available meant that Western food (also of exceptional quality) was the same price or cheaper than local fare.

      Now, imagine this:

      You are trekking to a waterfall, but every two minutes a man steps out of the jungle and offers to show you a shortcut to the waterfall for a price. You want to just carry on and enjoy your walk, and you also want to be polite, so you must calmly fend off his sales pitch and carry on. One man might retreat to the jungle straight away, but another might follow you for five minutes, insisting that you pay him to show you the shortcut. Often, two or more men will walk out at the same time, all wanting to show you their different shortcuts, talking over the top of each other and getting in your face. After twenty men have come out of the jungle, you are probably no longer enjoying your walk as much.

      If you then went and wrote about your experience trekking, it would be strange not to mention all the jungle men, even briefly.

      I truly hope that my posts don’t make me look like I dislike traveling – because for the most part I love it. Like anything in life though, it has its ups and downs. Perhaps there is occasionally an undertone of cynicism in what I write, which I mistake for humour.

  2. Another wonderfully written post!
    I love reading your descriptions of daily life as you travel through Cambodia and although it’s hard to see and hear about that pony, the pigs, chicken and ducks, you do paint an accurate picture of how animals are often treated here.

    I can’t wait for the next post!

    1. Thanks for the words and the support, Caryl. Yes, it’s hard to ignore the treatment of animals in this part of the world. I do quite like how the dogs have been left to form hierarchies, and have been allowed to hold on to their balls. Admittedly, this can make the pack leaders aggressive, but it seems more natural to me.

Leave a Reply