Kampot by Hans A.Rosbach

After decades of bloody genocide and civil war left it largely isolated from the international community, Cambodia finally reopened its doors to the world in the mid-1990s. As the number of tourists arriving each year has increased – topping 2 million for the first time in 2007 – the country now finds itself firmly entrenched as part of the Southeast Asia travel circuit, and a virtual must-do for cultural enthusiasts, history buffs and good-time seekers. But because the focus lies predominantly on three well-known areas – the magnificent temples of ancient Angkor just outside Siem Reap; the macabre reminders of the recent past found at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh; and the beach party life in Sihanoukville – it’s easy to forget that the kingdom possesses other destinations of interest worth checking out for at least a few days.

Enter the sleepy provincial town of Kampot.

Located a few miles upriver from the Gulf of Thailand, Kampot (pop. 40,000) is the capital of Kampot province. Once an important trading centre, it was Cambodia’s primary deep sea port until the development of Sihanoukville in the 1950s. While the town today might not look like much upon first glance, with its dusty streets and ramshackle market, it’s ultimately a charming and serene place that offers a small glimpse into another side of Cambodian life for those who have only had a chance to visit the aforementioned big three. Here is a quick guide to the attractions to be found in and around Kampot.

The River

Kampot: Teuk-Chhou-River_Robotadam

The Teuk Chhou River skirts its way along the edge of Kampot and is a beautiful place to simply sit and watch the sunset. Several restaurants, both expat and Cambodian-run, offer diners the chance to eat or enjoy a happy hour cocktail with a front row seat as the sun recedes on the horizon (or, if you prefer, you can buy a cold Angkor on the cheap from a local shop and park yourself on one of the benches that line the river). A handful of sunset boat tours are also available, with Captain Chim’s probably being the best. $5 USD gets you a beer or fresh coconut on your evening’s journey down to the Gulf.

While many choose to stay in the somewhat expensive-for-what-you-get guesthouses available in Kampot itself, two rustic bungalows upriver are well worth the journey. Aussie-run Bodhi Villa is a chilled out spot just 2 kilometers outside of town, and is the kind of place where you’ll find dreadlocks and Bob Marley lovers in abundance – feel free to read between the lines however you’d like. The atmosphere is extremely relaxed, the staff friendly and helpful and the food is pretty good if a tad pricey. If possible, try to snag the floating bungalow. Right on the river and with only three walls, it’s perfect for a wake-up splash. About 5 kilometers past Bodhi Villa is Utopia, run by German expat Max. A little quieter than Bodhi, Utopia is a wooden wonderland of wicker chairs, hammocks, throw pillows and other devices to laze about the day on. Inner tubes and a rope swing are available for river play, or you can swim out to the floating dock and catch some rays.

The Hill

Bokor Palace Hotel Kampot Cambodia

Bokor Hill Station was established by the French in the 1920s, 1080 meters atop Phnom Bokor just outside of Kampot.  Constructed by the colonial rulers as a small resort town to escape the brutal lowland heat of Phnom Penh, it featured a post office, church, Royal Apartments and The Old French Palace. Abandoned in the late 1940s during the First Indochina War,  it was used once again in the 1950s and 1960s, with the Old Palace being transformed into a casino. It was given up for good by the French and Cambodian elites in 1972 as the Khmer Rouge took over the area, and remained a KR stronghold well into the 1990s. Today, the ruins of the ghost town still stand on Bokor Hill (with the exception of the post office), creating a creepy atmosphere that has been used as the backdrop for several films, including City of Ghosts. On some days an incredibly thick fog rolls in, making the atmosphere exponentially spookier.

If you want to take in the ruins of Bokor, you’ll need to act fast. The Sokimex Group leased the land from the government in 2008, and plans for a new high-end resort with casino and hotel are already in motion. In fact, the bumpy, windy old road that used to make the journey to the top an adventure in itself has already been paved over. From Kampot, rent yourself a motorbike and go west on National Highway 3 for approximately 8 kilometers. On the right you’ll see signs for Bokor Hill Station. Just sign in at the checkpoint and enjoy your ride to the top – and keep your eyes peeled for wild elephants and tigers, which are rumoured to still roam around the area.

The Champagne of Black Pepper

Kampot Pepper by Robotadam

If Kampot is synonymous with one thing, it’s black pepper. Strong, spicy and incredibly flavourful, the area around Kampot became famous during the French colonial period for producing some of the very best pepper in the entire world. While the pepper plantations in the area can be traced as far back as the early 19th century, like so many other endeavors they were abandoned entirely (or forcibly changed to subsistence crops) during Pol Pot’s horrifically misguided Khmer Rouge revolution in the 1970s and have only begun to recover fairly recently. Consider booking yourself a tour of one of the local plantations to learn all about the history and process, or if you prefer to learn by ingesting head over to Ta Ouv restaurant on the river for fresh, delicious seafood spiced with the region’s famous black gold.

Kep

Kampot and Kep

Once a top resort playground of the French and Cambodian elite, Kep reached its zenith in the 1960s and, as seems to be the trend, fell into disrepair shortly thereafter. Established in 1908, the French influence pervades in the Provence-style architecture and cuisine. The remains of overgrown, run-down villas – not to mention the late King Norodom Sihanouk’s crumbling mansion high atop the hill, which provides a great view of the Vietnamese island Phu Quoc on clear days – can give the place a somewhat eerie, Bokor-like ghost town feel. With that said, like Bokor, Kep is being revamped by high-end developers with its eyes on making a big comeback for both domestic and international tourists. While the beach is nothing more than a dirty strip of sand and definitely a miss, the black pepper crab alone is worth the trip. Approximately 32 kilometers (35-40 minute journey) from Kampot on a smooth, well-paved road with a few caves along the way to explore, Kep is a solid day trip.


Photo Credits: Street in Kampot, Cambodia by Hans A. Rosbach, Wikimedia Commons; Bokor Palace Hotel by Mat Connolley, Wikimedia Commons; Kampot Riverfront courtesy of Flickr, Robotadam; Kampot Pepper courtesy of Flickr, Robotadam; Kep – Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D./Wikimedia Commons, adamjones.freeservers.com

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Alex Rathy

Alex Rathy

Alex is a writer, ESL teacher, baseball enthusiast and Hunter S. Thompson fanatic currently based in Sydney, Australia. He has previously lived in Canada, the U.S., South Korea and China and has traveled extensively throughout Asia. He enjoys hiking, spicy food, dance parties in the jungle, questionable hairdos, Vonnegut novels and has been known to appreciate a good hammock on occasion.

Departful is a full service travel agency for busy professionals seeking unique and transformative custom travel experiences. We create memorable holidays that are 100% tailored to our clients, saving them time and energy by handling all of the little details while providing value by leverage our expertise and network of travel partners. We are based in Toronto.

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Departful is a full service travel agency for busy professionals seeking unique and transformative custom travel experience. We create memorable holidays that are 100% tailored to our clients, saving them time & energy by handling all of the little details while providing value by leverage our expertise and network of travel partners. We are based in Toronto.

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