Kampot is a sleepy riverside town in Cambodia, and although only a 3-hour drive from Phnom Penh, it is worlds away from the frantic chaos of the bustling capital city. By no means a party seaside town (you’ll need to venture to Sihanoukville for that), Kampot, and nearby Kep, is a popular weekend escape for locals and expats looking for an opportunity to relax and unwind.
At first glance, it may seem that there is little to do in Kampot—and perhaps that’s precisely the whole point—but wander through this minute-sized town at your leisure and you’ll inadvertently stumble upon some lovely not-so-hidden gems. Kampot’s appeal lies in its charmingly decrepit French colonial-era buildings, surprisingly strong cultural heartbeat and laissez-faire attitude (particularly refreshing after the constant cacophony of the city), seamlessly weaving together to form a tapestry of quiet elegance, turning Kampot from just another sleepy riverside town to one worth returning to.
Things to do in Kampot
1. Spend time on the river
If things seem a little quiet in the centre of town, it’s because most of the activity in Kampot happens riverside. I’ll be frank: it won’t be the most scenic river you’ll likely ever stumble upon; however, the hazy silhouette of the Elephant Mountains in the background and sprinkling of boats on the river still make for some lovely photos while strolling down the tree-lined promenade. Many of the guesthouses offer river-based activities including sunset cruises, kayaking, fishing and wakeboarding. At the time I was there, there were no boats running, as there had been a boating incident a couple of weeks prior and they were seeking to rectify the safety situation—hopefully this has been addressed.
2. Catch fireflies
Another popular river activity in Kampot is firefly watching, and there are different companies that run cruises each evening. Although there’s no guarantee of spotting these glowing, iridescent creatures, you won’t have to part with too much money to head out on one of these boats.
3. Brunch at Espresso
This Aussie-owned cafe is well worth a visit. Once located in the centre of town, it has since moved to the outskirts of town (not very far considering how small Kampot is) into a large industrial warehouse. The food, coffee and ambience are all top-notch, and if you’re a visiting digital nomad, this is definitely the place where you’ll want to set up shop. Next door to Espresso is the ethical clothing label Dorsu, also set up by an Aussie. (Read an interview with the co-founder Hanna Guy here.)
4. Kampot Writers and Readers Festival
There’s a sense that Kampot has lofty aspirations to become the cultural hub of Cambodia, akin to Ubud in Bali, and one of the telling indicators of this is the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival. The inaugural festival was held, only recently, in 2015, and it has quickly emerged as Cambodia’s biggest literary festival, bringing together a diverse cast of characters within the fields of literature, arts and culture from Cambodia and all around the world. The festival takes place annually in November.
5. Try one of the finest ground peppers in the world
Kampot pepper is globally renowned and is the first Cambodian product to receive a Protected Geographical Indication—other examples of products to have received a PGI include Gruyère cheese and Champagne, so it’s in some pretty elite company. Kampot pepper comes in black, red, white and green varieties, which are picked at different times during the year. Visit a working pepper farm, such as Sothy’s pepper farm, or pick up some pepper at Farmlink to go. Alternatively, head to the crab markets in Kep to experience the pepper fresh in a crab dish from one of the numerous crab shacks dotted along the beachfront.
6. Explore the salt fields
Where there’s pepper, surely you’ll find salt, right? Okay, so there’s no credibility to this claim but it does make for a perfect segway for the Kampot salt fields, which are located just outside of town on the road from Kampot to Kep. It’s said that the salt produced in the Kampot province has a more natural quality than other foreign-produced salts, as the developmental process doesn’t involve any processing in factories.
7. Visit the Phnom Bokor National Park
The main attraction of the Phnom Bokor National Park (or Preah Monivong National Park) is the old French colonial hill station which was previously a holiday resort, and a respite from the heat, for French authorities. The derelict facades of abandoned buildings add an element of eeriness to the place; however, nowadays, the ambiance and has been affected somewhat with the newly built Thansur Bokor Highland Resort and further development is slated for the future.
8. Find a pre-loved treasure at Kampothead
Advertised as a purveyor of all things, I was instantly charmed when I stumbled upon this kitsch knick-knack store filled with a plethora of pre-loved treasures. The store owner—a beautiful Cambodian woman—explained that she and her husband had bought so many things over the years during their travels that they needed to unload themselves of their items; hence the store. There were cluttered shelves of bowls, plates and other pieces of crockery, some misshapen, all with character, and it was especially poignant how the store owner could tell us the back story of each piece.
9. Check out a movie
If you’re looking for a place to relax for a couple of hours, mosey on over to the Ecran Movie House, which is as probably as relaxed as movie theatres go. Either watch one of the public screenings, which includes Cambodia-related movies such as The Killing Fields, or rent a movie of your choice and watch it in a private room. Order noodles and dumplings from Ecran Noodles if you’re feeling peckish.
10. Feast your eyes on the big durian
Did you know Kampot is the durian capital of Cambodia? I didn’t either…until I saw the big durian in the middle of the town’s main roundabout—an ode to this smelly fruit! Whether you’re a fan of, or repulsed by, this divisive fruit, it’s unlikely that you’ll find this anywhere else (happy to be proven wrong, though).
11. Get your crab fix in Kep
The seaside town of Kep is only a 30-minute drive from Kampot and can easily be visited in a day trip. The biggest attraction in Kep, apart from the beaches, is the famous Crab Markets. Crab, and seafood in general, is king in this town, evident by the giant crab that greets you with its claws as you enter the town. Crabs are taken directly from the pots pulled out from the ocean only a couple of metres away and cooked fresh. As it’s so cheap, you can bet you’ll be ordering a few dishes!
12. Go (temple) caving
There is an extensive network of limestone caves located around the Kampot province. The main cave is the Phnom Chhngok (Chhnork) cave temple, which is located off the main road on the way to Kep. Phnom Chhngok is unique in that it is home to a seventh-century pre-Angkorian shrine to Shiva.
WHERE TO STAY IN KAMPOT
I stayed at the Columns, a cute boutique hotel in a lovely French colonial-style building. It was centrally located, albeit in a quiet street, and a short stroll to the riverfront, bars and restaurants. Breakfast was also included in the booking.
HOW TO GET TO KAMPOT FROM PHNOM PENH
By taxi: Most people arrive to Kampot from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, and it is about a 2.5- to 3-hour drive. It can cost anywhere between US$45 to $65 for the journey depending on how good you are at haggling. Always agree on a set price with the taxi driver beforehand so that there are no unwelcome surprises later on.
By bus: There are several bus companies that travel this route including Giant Ibis Transport, which departs from Phnom Penh twice a day. Tickets cost US$9 for a one-way trip. You can find other bus service providers here.
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