Unpretentious Kampot is slowly becoming a popular destination on a traveller’s map. The lure of a quieter charming riverside town especially after Phnom Penh, which offers an array of Cambodia’s finest, if dilapidated, collection of French colonial architecture, is very appealing.
More appealing to me as a pepper-lover (and have been accused of drowning my food in pepper), is the fact that this province is renowned for growing pepper.
Apparently, before Cambodia’s civil war, Kampot’s black pepper was sought after by the best restaurants in Paris. Sadly, the Khmer Rouge, who believed in growing rice not spice, all but destroyed pepper crops. Today, Kampot-grown peppercorn is making a comeback thanks to a group of eco-entrepreneurs and foodies, passionate about pepper.
The medium-sized KSRV Transport Co. bus from Phnom Penh was supposed to only take about 3 hours. However, in true Cambodian fashion, the journey took about 5 hours. Instead of a straight-through bus as promised, we stopped along the road at undesignated stops to pick-up and drop-off passengers but also at Kep.
Bus travel in SE Asia
Thought I’d share my experience of the typical drill when catching a bus in SE Asia; no matter in which country you travel…
The bus (and you) will have been waiting at the designated stop for at least half an hour, one hour, or more. Everyone is loaded on and the bus leaves. But, only drives around the corner to fill up with fuel, which typically takes another 15 minutes. Finally underway, the bus will stop anywhere and everywhere along the route to pick-up or drop-off passengers. Nothing is designated, no matter what you pay for the trip or whether it’s a VIP bus. If there’s money to be made, then money the driver will make…
Also, if the driver feels like a smoke, lunch, snack, pee stop (on the side of the road or behind the bus), drink, or whatever…then stop he will. So, be patient, stick your headphones in and try to enjoy the ride, as you never (or seldom) arrive on time! Has anyone else experienced this? I would love to hear of your adventure, good or bad.
Kampot (capital of Kampot Province in southern Cambodia) makes an excellent base for exploring the Bokor National Park. But at USD$10 entry fee, it’s not cheap. Apparently, there’s an abandoned French hill station at the top of the mountain but also this area is being destroyed by a US$1 billion casino development; see it while you can, sadly, I didn’t.
Kampot is the type of place to go when you need a quiet break and just to chill out. Walking around the riverside you’ll see run down colonial buildings (Old Town) but its peaceful just promenading along the riverfront (it’s a long walk).
Many ex-pats seem to have made Kampot their retirement abode and typically, many have a small business of some sort to supplement their retirement income.
Day trip around Kampot and Kep-sur-Mer (Kep)
The bus from Phnom Penh stopped off at Kep briefly to drop-off passengers before going onto Kampot. From the bus, Kep looked good enough to return for a day trip. So, hired a bike for USD$5 (USD$3 for the day’s fuel) from the Raksmey Kampuchea Guest house.
Rode around villages north of Kampot to get of the tourist scene and see more of the traditional villages before heading south-east to Kep.
Founded as a colonial retreat for the French elite in 1908, this small town was Cambodia’s old seaside destination before Sihanoukville came into the limelight and overshadowed Kep. Didn’t hang around for the sunset as riding back on this type of road in the dark wasn’t too appealing, but I hear the sunsets are special.
It’s a flat, dusty, and a bumpy good hours’ ride from Kampot to Kep (an update in March 2015 advises that this road is now sealed, so you may get a smoother quicker ride).
Once you arrive in Kep, there’s a little village of shops and restaurants serving local and western food at inflated prices. There’s an abundance of accommodation here at varying prices. The beach and Bokor National Park are what tourists come to visit. If you have time (and money to spare), visit for a couple of days.
Raksmey Kampuchea Guest House (Kampong Bay Village, Kampong Bay Commune)
Excellent staff and good clean accommodation; Jamie (manager’s nickname) is excellent, very helpful, and friendly – always smiling! The guesthouse is close to everything and only a 10-minute walk to the riverfront and western restaurants. The room is a good size and serviced daily. Wi-fi is good with a router on each floor. Good hot shower and air-con; toiletries and bottled water provided.
Although the riverfront offers many western-style restaurants and cafes, try some of the side streets in town for better-priced and delicious Khmer food. You only need to walk 5 minutes from the riverfront and you’ll run into a couple.
- Epic Arts Cafe (#67 Oosaupia Muoy | Sovann Sakor, Kompong Kanda) – Excellent food, service, and cause! Great staff, good music, and ambiance. The menu offers something for every palette and you won’t be disappointed. Loved the poached eggs on Bruschetta with Mediterranean vegetables – simply delicious. Free good wi-fi also and there’s also a shop where you can buy handmade arts by disabled locals. A free class is held upstairs if you’re interested in learning sign language.
- Kampot Pie & ice Cream Palace (Riverside Road) – The shakes are very good and cheaper than “western” restaurants in town. Try the Bird’s Nest breakfast – really delightful. The ice cream is refreshing. Lovely home-baked cakes and pies on offer that looked wonderful but alas, I didn’t get to try everything; no time and an ever-expanding waistline!
At the time of writing, Kampot Pie was opening another larger and flashier shop along the riverside.
- Ecran Noodle Shop (Old Market street) – Wonderful handmade dumplings and pulled noodles! The food here is very cheap and excellent! The pork dumplings (vegetarian on offer also) are deliciously fresh. The handmade noodles are “pulled” on a stainless bench in front of you and very scrumptious; amazing and mesmerising to watch. The menu offers only a few items but everything is so fresh and delicious, I could just sit here every day and eat the same. This small restaurant also has a movie theatre upstairs.
- Cafe Espresso Kampot (17 R717, across from 333 Bakery in the side street from Epic Arts Cafe) – Very busy with tourists and great for breakfast or coffee. This is an Australian-run cafe with freshly-baked cakes and bread.
One thing I have noticed not only throughout Cambodia but also in Laos and Burma is the number of flashy NGO and government 4×4 vehicles driving around. Typically, these organisations rent very expensive offices and much of the donor’s money is spent on ‘administration’ costs or corrupt officials’ pockets.
After travelling a month in Cambodia and comparing this country to ten years’ ago, but also knowing that Foreign Aid has contributed to this country for at least 25 years or more, I really can’t see where billions of dollars has been spent. Many will argue that if a small amount of the donations trickle down to the cause then this at least is something and better than nothing. I argue that a lot more could go to the cause and could be done. In my eyes, Cambodia is a mess, which may be a harsh observation.
Kampot to Phu Quoc Island (Vietnam)
The 30-day visa in Cambodia is drawing to a rapid close. With Vietnam on the horizon as the next destination to explore on a 3-month visa, I was anxious to cross the Cambodian border. After the last not-so-great border crossing experience from Dong Khong (Laos) into Stung Treng (Cambodia), I was hoping for a much smoother crossing this time.
Raksmey Kampuchea Guest House sold the 15-seater minibus ticket (USD$20) from Kampot to Phu Quoc Island (Vietnam), so an easy ticket to organise. This next journey is supposed to be a smooth one taking everyone through the border crossings in both countries without hassles, we’ll see…