Kampot, CambodiaApril 6, 2011
Kampots not the place to go for exciting nightlife, but what it does offer is a break from it all in a setting of romantic colonial history and intense natural beauty.
While most travellers come for the ruined villas, hotel, and casino atop Bokor Mountain, there are lots of ways to spend a few extra days unwinding in Kampot. To start, there are river cruises, caves, ancient temples, beaches, motorbike trails, and world famous durian and pepper plantations.
Yet, for many, Kampot is just a place to spend a few days doing nothing, drinking cold beer by the riverside, watching sunsets, and devouring unbelievably fresh and inexpensive crab, shrimp, squid, and fish.
At one time, Kampot was one of Cambodias most important ports. The legacy of French colonial administration is stronger there than in most other provincial towns. The riverside is lined with turn of the century buildings languishing in stately decay. At one time, their strong, simple geometrical forms, high ceilings, hardwood floors, and mustard yellow walls symbolised both the simple orderliness and foreign grandeur of French administration. One of the most distinguished examples is the old market that sits chained, padlocked, and abandoned but for the few noodle stalls that set up on its edges in the evenings.
The most prominent symbol of Kampots history, however, is more than a thousand meters above the town on the top of Bokor Mountain. The site for this renowned community was first accessed in 1916. In the years that followed, the French constructed a luxurious hill station there in order to have place to escape the brutal heat and oppressive humidity of the tropics and partake of the cool, fresh, and supposedly healthful air of higher altitudes. For many homesick colonials, the hilltops climate was a reminder of European summers.
The community was inaugurated on Valentines Day, 1925. Originally, there was a post office, Catholic church, schoolhouse, and other buildings. French officials and Cambodian royalty took the convict-built road to the top. There they held opulent gatherings at the hotel and threw away fortunes at the celebrated casino. In its heyday, broken gamblers were rumoured to have flung themselves from the casinos terrace and plummet to their deaths down the jungle-covered cliff overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.
The approach of war brought the days of Bokors colonial splendour to a close. It was abandoned first in the 1940s, during the Vietnamese struggle for independence from the French, and then again in 1970 with the growing menace of the Khmer Rouge. Forces loyal to Pol Pots radical Maoist ideology took control of the mountain in 1972 and established a strategic military outpost. The road fell into disrepair, and mines were laid that rendered the site hazardous for decades. In 1979, the invading Vietnamese army engaged the Khmer Rouge on the site, and the vestiges of their outposts are still visible today.
Following the end of Vietnamese occupation, the area around Kampot continued to suffer from bad press. In 1994, Khmer Rouge soldiers attacked a passenger train bound for Sihanoukville. They slaughtered local passengers and abducted three foreigners, who were forced to endure slave labour while officials negotiated for their release and were finally taken into the jungle and executed. The last pockets of Khmer Rouge were not extinguished here until long after most other parts of the country in 1998.
III. Kampot Town
Kampot is a charming little town thats rich in colonial atmosphere and blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. It sits on the banks of the broad Preak Kampong Bay River, overlooking the dark silhouettes of the Elephant Mountains, and is encircled by sweeping green paddy fields and dense tropical jungle. It is renowned for a sleepy backwater feel that has beguiled many travellers to stay for a few extra days.
Unlike most other small towns in Cambodia, but similar to certain riverside towns like Kratie, Kampot hosts a relatively high concentration of Western expatriates. For the traveller, this means that there are plenty of Western owned bars, restaurants, and guesthouses serving a wide variety of delicious food and dishing out sound local information in a number of languages.
The town goes to bed early, and for many seems to be caught in a time warp. There is no riverside scene seared by neon lights, no kids racing doing wheelies, and no traffic jams of Lexus SUVs. Kampot is a town where you can go for a stroll down the street, sucking in deep breaths of fresh air, dine al fresco on seafood straight from the waves, and admire the clean, straight lines of colonial architecture that is such a welcome contrast to the Wedding Cake and Legoland styles so popular in present day Phnom Penh.
IV. Around Kampot Town
Most of the attractions in the vicinity of Kampot lie either to the west (toward Sihanoukville) or the east (toward Kep). Since most people will want to combine visits to several of these places into a single days sightseeing, the following list of attractions has been divided into sections on the westward way and the eastward way.
1) The Westward Way
a) The Westward Way and Fishing Villages
The road to Sihanoukville promises to be one of the most scenic in the country. While it is home to many of the tourist sites near Kampot, just cruising the road, whether as part of the drive to Sihanoukville, or just for pleasure, is a picturesque and potentially photogenic ride.
To the north of the road are the dark, rolling Elephant Mountains. To the south are glimpses of the coast through palm trees and, for many kilometres, the ever present sight of Koh Dtral, the large island handed over to Vietnam by the French, to the enduring chagrin of Cambodia. Wild tree covered scenery, frequent rivers with views of stilt huts, and palm-fringed shores greet you at every turn.
There are fishing villages along the way that provide photographic opportunities. The first is twenty-two kilometres from Kampot. The small harbour at the mouth of the river is full of boats by day, as they are taken out to catch fish at night, and wait moored in the bright sunshine for the camera. With their decks painted orange, and their hulls aqua green, the colourful clutter of vessels floats next to ramshackle wooden houses, fishermen mending their nets, and a small market filled with the pungent smell of fish.
b) Tuk Chheu Wildlife Refuge Centre (Zoo)
Despite its full name, the zoo is not the modern, humane place that some may be used to back home. Most people will find it a sorrowful place, with small wire cages housing a tiger and three cubs, sun bears, eagles, and other species that are indigenous to this area.
Still, the site is a lovely one for a zoo, located on the slope of a hill, with wildly overgrown gardens, big peaks rising on all sides, wreathed in cloud and mist in the monsoon season, providing a scenic backdrop and captivating vistas, making it a sort of little oasis.
It is quirky Cambodian place, a combination of typical holiday resort, temple grounds, and zoo. There is a PA system, with half of the speakers inoperable and the remainder broadcasting crackling Cambodian rock tunes. And there is all the bizarre statuary, seemingly out of place in a zoo, mythical monkey warriors, austere Chinese goddesses, and blue-skinned Hindu deities riding giant roosters.
Sometimes the visitor stumbles on an old, faded sign that makes him or her wonder what the zoo was like a decade before, when the crab market in Kep sold endangered sea turtles and wild deer, and the Phnom Penh firing range saw tourists blasting chickens with RPGs. Next to the elephant pen is one billboard featuring a merry European family with the father holding a fishing rod baited with a chunk of red meat, casting it into the jaws of a hungry crocodile, while his gaping toddler standing next to a basket of meat looks on in awe.
Cost: $4 (foreigners), 3000 riel (locals), including entry into Tuk Chheu.
c) Tuk Chheu
The gorgeous river bubbles down from the mountains at the bottom of a green valley. The road to Tuk Chheu skirts these steep slopes with benches set up where you can sit down and enjoy the relaxing view.
At the end of the road is a wide, muddy parking lot surrounded by thatch huts. Upon arrival, old ladies rush out of the huts to offer you rice, chicken, fish, and other simple dishes. There are other huts perched on the banks of the river where you can enjoy a picnic with friends.
After eating, you can pick your way down to the shore. During some times of year, the river is swollen and it is impossible to swim in places. At others, local boys leap from boulder to boulder, dive into the swiftly flowing current, and allow it to carry them bobbing down the river until they swim to shore.
There is now a newer resort area past the muddy parking lot. The dirt road winds into the countryside, where there is a post where officials check tickets, and a white monument in the shape of an obelisk at the centre of a roundabout. This is just one more place huts next to the shallow, rocky riverbed where you can go for a cool dip.
Those with their own transportation might like to explore further. A metal bridge spans the stream and leads deep into the jungle. This path is rocky and rough during the dry season and muddy during the monsoon season. But it provides a narrow, jungle trail to explore, with many views of the rivers deep, black, swirling pools, and frothy, white rapids, all amongst the lush jungle covered hills.
This is one area used by locals who harvest bamboo. Travellers will find them strapping the shoots along the frames of bicycles, riding along the level stretches of ground, and trudging up the slopes. Steel wires stretch across the river, with wooden baskets attached to carry people to the other side, and you can cross on your own and snap photos of the rapids with a birds eye view while surrounded by the hum of insects and the fluttering of black butterfly wings.
d) Bokor Mountain
Today, Bokor Mountain belongs to one of Cambodias six national parks. The journey to the top of the thousand-meter peak is a gruelling four-hour ride in the back of a 4X4 or on a motorbike. There is a ranger station where treks can be arranged, and the area is home to leopards, tigers, and elephants, but most travellers come to witness the faded glory of Bokors ruined colonial hotel and casino.
The first set of ruins of the road consists of derelict villas. The floor tiles are smashed tiles, and the walls are pocked with bullet holes. Especially during the monsoon season, the area has an eerie quality thats enhanced by swirling mists. Some travel writers ham it up by comparing the experience to waking up into a black and white horror movie and hearing the howls of wolves in the distance.
Past the turnoff to the waterfall are the most famous ruins: the Catholic church, the Bokor Palace Hotel, and the casino, all smothered in red lichen. Visitors can wander corridors, kitchens, dining rooms and bedrooms freely. Yet, it can be hard to tell what any of the rooms were once used for now that they are all in a state of uniform decay, with bare walls scrawled with graffitti and everything of value long since looted.
On a clear day, the view from the ruins is a breathtaking panorama of the Gulf of Thailand and the lush hills of distant Koh Dtral, or (for the Vietnamese) Phu Quoc. During the monsoon season, it can be difficult to see more than a few feet, but the plateau on which the Catholic church sits can often be glimpsed through a ghostly shroud of gently curling fog.
The final major attraction is the two-tiered waterfall, Popokvil. At the end of a winding jungle trail, visitors must undertake a short hike into the jungle to reach the cataract. From the top, you can stare down into a leafy gorge, with thick vines hanging all the way to the bottom, and bathe all alone in icey pools of pure mountain water.
Entrance fee : $5 (foreigners).
e) Preak Ampil
Just seventeen kilometres from Kampot, the seldom-visited Preak Ampil offers visitors a secluded beach and great views of the coast.
While the sand is neither white nor powdery, and is more likely to be strewn with leaves and sticks from the trees overhead and whatever waste washes up on shore, the beach rivals the kilometre of crushed stone at Kep.
Fishing nets are sometimes set in the water nearby, the beach crowded with overturned fishing boats on blocks, and the sea filled with jagged rock outcroppings, making this a less than ideal swimming spot.
But there are many hexagonal wooden huts, with thatch roofs, on stilts by the water. Just pull up and girls from the nearby main hut will race over and put down mats, weighted with chunks of coral, and serve you food or just cold drinks.
A refreshing coconut. The sea breeze. And a clear view of Koh Dtral.
2) The Eastward Way
a) Phnom Chhngok
Just a short trip north of the road to Kep or east of the road to Phnom Penh, a big cliff comes into view amidst shimmering ricefields dotted with farmers huts and grazing cattle.
The hill sits behind a modern wat. A small footpath leads through the field. Small boys race over and volunteer to show visitors the caves. Most speak no English, and are unnecessary for those with a guide, but can provide local knowledge and unintended comic relief.
There are two caves here: one with fantastic limestone formations and the other with an ancient temple. The boys will make sure you dont miss any of the rock formations, giving you their sometimes dubious reading of a lump of stone as a lotus flower, crocodile, or elephant.
The other cave is the most famous in Kampot. At the bottom of a set of stone stairs, there is a spacious chamber with smooth stone floors. An ancient brick temple sits in the dusky light in the corner.
The temples name is Prasat Sloc, and it is more than 1500 years old, dating from the pre-Angkorean kingdom of Funan. Indeed, it is so old that stalagmites and stalactites have grown through its floor and ceiling.
The Ancient Kingdom of Funan
The kingdom of Funan thrived in the Mekong River Delta prior to the ascendance of Angkor in the northwest. Little is known of it, but archaeological evidence suggests that it was a mighty trading nation with ties to other major Asian powers.
Funan was heavily influenced by Indian culture, engaging Indians in the bureaucracy and using Sanskrit as an official bureaucratic language. Yet, it was ruled by China for the last three centuries of its existence.
It reigned for the first six centuries following the Common Era. It was then supplanted by the Chenla kingdom for the next two centuries. Starting out as a vassal state to Funan, Chenla later overcame its master and established control of the region.
At its peak, Funan held sway from modern day Malaysia to Myanmar, though as its focus was on establishing trade and amassing wealth, it employed a feudal system of governance left local customs and culture largely intact.
b) Phnom Sasear
Just a few kilometres east of Phnom Chhngok is Phnom Sasear. While there are no ancient temples in its dark recesses, it contains numerous shrines and is home to a large colony of bats.
There is a wat on the hill, so there are stairs to the top. Visitors can stop at several levels on the way up. Each one has concrete benches on which to rest and look over the edge of the cliffs, and gigantic trees casting cool shade over the hot stones underfoot.
Boys will again find you and show you around. The first stop should be the main temple. Its walls and ceiling are full of bright murals depicting scenes from the national epic, the Reamkay.
A set of mossy old stairs lead down into the caves. Visitors have to scramble down the uneven floor into a dark chamber with a vaulting ceiling. The boys point out various rock formations that resemble animals as bats wheel out of a black pit, squeaking and flapping.
The locals tell some tall tales about caves everywhere in Cambodia. The most common myth, especially beloved of the older generation, is that caves in one province lead hundreds of kilometres to emerge in other provinces or even in Thailand or Vietnam.
No one goes all the way nowadays, though, because the caves were dynamited by the French or Khmer Rouge. No one agrees on why, but theres no doubt they were dynamited. One more common tale is that the cave is inhabited by a snake, tiger, or ghost. That alone is enough to strike mortal fear into the average Cambodian.
A National Epic: The Reamkay
The Reamkay is a Cambodian national epic, written in the 17th century, that translates Hindu ideas of the Indian Ramayana into Buddhist ones.
It was brought to Southeast Asia by Indian traders who had close economic ties with early Cambodian kingdoms, first located in Funan, and later at Angkor.
The Reamkay strongly influenced the art of the region. Depictions from it can be found in most Buddhist temples in Cambodia, and it has also left its mark on traditional drama, shadow puppetry, and other art forms.
The most famous, and perhaps most recognisable, figure from the epic is Hanuman. The monkey-god, with his legions of monkey warriors, wields a spear as he goes to battle with giants and monsters.
The plot focuses on the exiled Preah Ream (Rama), an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, his wife Neang Seda (Sita), who was abducted by the evil yak, or giant ogre, Reap (Ravana), and rescued by Hanuman and his army of monkey-warriors.
Some of the best known representations of the Reamkay in Cambodia are in the Silver Pagoda. A 600-meter long mural was commissioned there by the king and executed by a contingent of painters.
While the basic plot comes from India, some scenes from the Reamkay are unique to Cambodia. One example is Sovan Maccha, the mermaid, a Cambodian folkloric favourite.
c) Kampong Trach
The town of Kampong Trach is dustblown and sunbeaten with little to recommend it to the visitor. But there is a guesthouse should one be forced to stay, and it is a stepping off point for other destinations.
In the middle of town is a dirt road leading to the ever-visible Phnom Rungneas. Taking this path to a fork, there is a rusted metal sign with holes and an arrow pointing to the right. The writing is all in Khmer, but it doesnt need to be in English to get the point across.
The road skirts the base of limestone hills, with steep cliffs, decayed as old teeth, with great holes, filled with water for much of the year. Trees cling to not too steep slopes. Stopping along the way, almost every cave of a certain size is occupied by a shrine, generally a Buddha statue, some streamers, and a ceramic pot with incense sticks.
Boys will find you and lead you along a garden pathway to an open area surrounded by trees, and drink stands selling chilled cans of soda or fresh sugarcane juice on ice. There is a temple entrance, flanked by two kneeling Buddhas, leading into a cave whose ceiling collapsed long ago, creating a little oasis with tall, slender trees, hanging vines, and black monkeys.
The entrance to the caves diverges from this space. The boys have lights attached to motorcycle batteries that they wear around their heads like miners ready to lead the way. Even if you have a guide and a torch, they can show you the many chambers and make sure you dont get lost and only expect a modest tip.
They speak English, and mechanically repeat, Mind your head. They beat on the stalactites to reveal each ones unique sound. They know the words for natures rock sculptures, abstract animal shapes carved from the limestone by water. They point and say, White elephant, Crocodile with his head down, Stone flowers, and Eel.
When they shine their lights into crevices, however, and say bat, dont be surprised if a very real one comes flapping and shrieking across your face.
Ha Tien: The Ride to the Border
Fifteen kilometres from Kampong Trach is the Vietnamese border. There is nothing much on the Cambodian side, just a shantytown and small market area, and a bit further is a river and on the Vietnamese side the town of Ha Tien.
At present, this border crossing is only open to locals, but the trip out can be scenic, as the road turns to dirt a few kilometres past Kampong Trach, and its deeply potholed surface is fun for dirtbike enthusiasts.
d) Phnom Voar
The caves of Phnom Voar came to international attention when three international tourists abducted by the Khmer Rouge in 1994 were held captive there before their executions.
The mountain can be approached from the road to Kampong Trach or the road to Phnom Penh. It is not easy to reach. It lies deep in the countryside. The road is cut off by massive erosion during the monsoon season. And many locals are recent arrivals whose knowledge of the local geography can be sketchy.
The ride through this country is bliss for dirtbike enthusiasts, though, and it can all be done in one long loop. The landscape is gorgeous, with narrow, muddy roads skirting the big hills and cutting through open fields planted with corn, mangoes, durians, and bananas.
The people in this area are a long way from major roads and lead a truly agrarian existence. There are very few motorbikes to be seen anywhere, a novelty in most places in Cambodia, as farmers simply stay in their wooden homes and tend their fields and cows.
Near the spot where the path emerges onto the Phnom Penh highway, a slight detour takes visitors to an unusual site, the Rung Chack Cement factory. Locals claim the facility started up in the 50s and was abandoned in the 70s at the inception of the KR social experiment.
Today, you can climb around some of the buildings, though locals seem suspicious and try to turn you away, and see the tracks and carriages that bore rocks to be crushed, the chutes that deposited the crushed stone into trucks, and the plant where the cement was made.
It was Chinese run, apparently, and so does not qualify as a ruined colonial villa, but its another one of those strange derelict sites that excites the curiosity of some travellers to Cambodia.
Kidnapping, Phnom Voar
In 1994, Khmer Rouge forces ambushed a passenger train on its way to Sihanoukville, murdering thirteen locals and taking three foreign tourists captive.
The three Westerners a Australian, a Briton, and a Frenchman all in their twenties were held for ransom and forced to perform slave labour near the caves of Phnom Voar (Vine Mountain).
Officials worked to secure the release of the tourists, but when negotiations broke down after two months, the Khmer Rouge executed them.
War ended in the region in 1998, later than in most other parts of the country, and at length authorities captured those responsible for the abduction and murder of the tourists.
The Khmer Rouge commander, Chhouk Rin, was convicted in absentia to life in prison in 2002. Two other former Khmer Rouge cadres, Nuon Paet and Sam Bith, were also given to life sentences.
In 2005, Chhouk Rin had escaped detection under unusual circumstances and was evading recapture with the help of local residents loyal to him.
Despite his personal doctors claims that Chhouk Rin was dying of AIDS, hepatitis, and tuberculosis, authorities eventually located him and returned him to prison to live out his sentence.
Because the end of the war came so recently for residents of the Phnom Voar region, many people are reluctant to discuss the past.
Many seem mistrustful of foreigners. Some travellers report a vague sense of hostility, right down to screaming babies and growling dogs, but today there are no major security concerns.
e) Durian Plantations
Visitors to Kampot from Phnom Penh are greeted with a giant statue of a durian. Its no coincidence as the province is supposed to grow the most delicious durians anywhere in the region.
The trees can grow very tall and have smooth, yet scaly bark, long green leaves, and fluffy flowers that give forth a sour, buttery smell. They produce fruit once or twice per year.
The fruit is the size and shape of a rugger ball, with a thick, green husk covered in strong, sharp spikes. If the stem is snapped off, these spikes can make it impossible to pick up a durian with bare hands.
Once open, the fruit inside consists of pale goo, divided into five cells, with two to three chestnut-sized seeds. The flesh is often compared to custard, and its smell is described in turns as sweet and revolting.
|Its consistence and flavour are indescribable. A rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it comes wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities (Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago).|
Westerners are often familiar with signs on public transport politely reminding passengers not to smoke or eat durian. Many people find the smell offensive, but the odour, as well as the flavour, varies according to ripeness. The riper fruits have a more pungent odour and a creamier consistency.
Getting just the right durian is a matter of knowing how to make your selection. Shaking it might reveal the rattling of seeds inside, indicating that it is overripe, while checking that the stem is still thick and moist indicates the opposite. The smell is another indication of ripeness as well as flavour.
When visiting a durian plantation, visitors are often asked to don hardhats. The likelihood of being struck by a falling durian is low because the fruits do not tend to fall all at the same time, but receiving a blow to the head from a falling durian could very well prove fatal.
One final piece of durian trivia is related to its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. The locals have a saying, As the durians fall down, the sarongs fly up. Some countries in the region now produce durian-flavoured condoms, though one would think at the stage of tasting such things, an aphrodisiac would be unnecessary.
|These erotomaniacs remind us of the Durian-eating Malays, who, because of the erotic properties of this fruit, become savage against anybody or anything that stands in their way of obtaining it. Fraser writes that upon eating it, men, monkeys, and birds ‘are all aflame with erotic fire.’ It is a blessing that this fruit is not obtainable in the West, because our store of sexual lunatics is already full to overflowing. We might perish in the foulest of mucks (Herman Vetterling)|
f) Pepper Plantations
Prior to the Khmer Rouge era, when production and export was halted, Kampot and Kep were renowned for the quality of the black pepper that grew in their iron and magnesium rich soil.
Today, Kampot once more grows first-class black pepper, and a visit to the town provides a perfect opportunity to sample this local delicacy.
The green berries grow on climbing vines sometimes reaching ten meters tall and are harvested shortly after the end of the monsoon season.
Despite its quality, Kampot pepper is not the sort most commonly found in shakers on restaurant tables in Cambodia. Most restaurants use cheaper varieties imported from Thailand.
In Kampot, many restaurants do recognise the appeal of using local pepper and chuck fresh, green peppercorns still on the stem into frying pans full of sizzling seafood.
The green pepper-corns are not overly hot, but munching on a few of them provides just enough zing to cause most people to draw in a sharp breath and reach for a cool glass of water.
The peppercorns can also be dried until they shrivel up and turn black. They can then be crushed into the familiar powder, which Khmers love with fresh-squeezed limejuice to liven up just about any dish, from barbecued beef to fried squid.
Bamboo trains. These motorised platforms are hoisted onto railway lines and used to transport goods between areas that may not be connected to major roads. In places like Battambang, guesthouses organise rides, but you may have to make your own arrangements in Kampot. While theyre very slow and sit in direct sunlight for much of the day, they offer glimpses of rarely seen parts of the countryside.
Culture. Traditional music and dance are taught and performed at a school in Kampot. It is located between the river and the taxi stand. The notice board outside gives details of performances. Donations are welcome.
Fruit shakes. With the incredible variety of fruit in Cambodia, the country deserves its reputation for delicious fruit shakes. Theres no better place to try one than the road leading to the bridge. At night, the sides of this road are lined with stalls displaying various fruits in glass cases. An assortment of tropical delicacies is chucked into a blender with crushed ice and condensed milk to produce a cold, sweet, refreshing shake called a tokalok.
Hiking. There are several hiking trails in the area that can bring you closer to the sights, sounds, and smells of the jungle than you could ever get on the back of a roaring dirtbike. Treks can be arranged in Bokor National Park, and these are also dirt trails around Tuk Chheu that repay patient exploration. Remember to bring lots of water and dress appropriately.
Massage. After the bone-jarring trip to the top of Bokor Mountain, nothing feels better than a soothing massage. These are two popular places located right on the riverside: Khmer Lady Massage and Seeing Hands. They cost four to five dollars per hour.
Reading. Apart from the beach, theres probably nowhere better than Kampots riverside to pull up to a caf, order a hot coffee or a cold beer, and relax with a good book for a couple hours. Theres now a good bookstore just up from the colonial market, Keplers Books. Several guesthouses, such as Blissful and Orchid, also offer small collections of books.
Water-sports. Canoes can be rented from the Little Garden Bar for a paddle on the river. The Bodhi Villa, about a kilometre across the bridge, has a speedboat and can take travellers out on the water for water-skiing, wake-boarding, or fishing. Many of the guesthouses and tour operators in town promote river trips and sunset cruises.
The standard rules for accommodation in provincial Cambodia apply in Kampot. For around five dollars, you can expect to get a basic room with fan, en suite shower, and cable TV. For ten dollars, you can add air-conditioning and, if youre lucky, hot water. From fifteen dollars, the overall standard of rooms improves, with superior locations, furnishings, and other amenities.
For really cheap lodgings, try Blissful Guesthouse away in the southeast corner of town.
In the centre of town, the Borey Bokor II is a reliable Khmer hotel with a range of clean, but characterless rooms.
The Bokor Mountain Lodge has the best location in town in a magnificent colonial building right on the riverside with prices at the top of the range.
The other top-of-the-market place in Kampot is the Borey Bokor I, which proclaims itself the choice for NGO visitors.
VI. Drinking & Dining
Theres plenty to choose from when it comes time to eat out in Kampot.
Once the first choice for seafood connoisseurs, Ta Eao is a wooden restaurant located on the riverside north of the bridge. Choose from a full range of seafood dishes, and experience dining Khmer-style. A selection of canned drinks is placed on the table, and you are charged only for the ones you drink, while beer girls do the rounds with buckets of ice.
The best Western restaurant in town hands-down is the Rusty Keyhole. Aussie Christian and his lovely Khmer girlfriend serve up an extensive menu of Western and Khmer dishes. Legendary pork ribs off a stone charcoal grill. Battered shrimp in sweet and sour sauce. Squid fried in garlic and Kampot pepper. Hefty sandwiches, battered chicken strips, fish n chips, monster hamburgers, and the biggest full English breakfast in town. Daily specials like homemade brownies and ice cream. Western music, moderately priced drinks, comfortable patio seating overlooking the river.
The tastefully decorated Bamboo Lights is a franchise of sorts, with branches in Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, serving up Sri Lankan dishes with a view on the riverside. The vegetable samosas are golden brown, stuffed to bursting with potatoes, carrots, and onions, and at just fifty cents each, make a great snack at any time of day and are great value to boot.
For basic Khmer fare like fried rice with shrimp and roast chicken, give Heng Leap, across the monument from the Borey Bokor II, a try. The Khmer-style seafood dishes are excellent, and the huge portions are always piping hot.
Owned by a native of Jaffina in northern Sri Lanka who has lived in Cambodia for more than a decade, Lukis Restaurant serves an extensive menu of korma, massala, and curries, with a free beer or samosas with every order. Located next to the abandoned market just off the riverside.
Living up to its name, Blissful Guesthouses ground floor restaurant has big, comfy chairs and a selection of Western and Khmer dishes. Its also is one of the few places on the south coast where you can sate your hunger for Mexican food.
Located in a lovely colonial building on the riverside, the Bokor Mountain Club does all the familiar Western dishes, including a big English breakfast. With prices slightly higher than the competition.
Say Sabok on the riverside has a menu in English, French, and Khmer. The breakfast menu is limited, with some overpriced options like eggs and bacon, but there are some items that are different from other restaurants, such as crab in coconut cream sauce and prawns fried in cashew nuts.
Communications. The post office is located on the river road. Internet is 3000 riel to one dollar per hour at shops on the road over the bridge. Internet phone calls are available and inexpensive.
Financial Matters. Travellers cheques can be cashed for a small commission at either Canadia Bank (centre of town) or Acleda Bank (near Blissful Guesthouse). There is no commission on cash advances on Visa or MasterCard at Canadia Bank. There are no ATMs.
Medical Treatment. There are no clinics worth speaking of in provincial Cambodia. For basic problems, there are several pharmacies in town, including one around the traffic circle in the town centre. In case of more serious difficulties, its recommended you return to Phnom Penh and seek advice from a Western physician.
Shopping. All the essentials can be found at Heng Dy across around the traffic circle in the town centre. There is an impressive selection of alcohol, junkfood, and toiletries for a drinkshop in the provinces or anywhere in Cambodia for that matter.
Getting around the town itself is fairly easy. Kampot is flat and compact, allowing travel by foot or relatively inexpensive short rides by motodop. Most of the attractions in the vicinity of Kampot, on the other hand, are some distance away and require motorised transportation.
One way to see the sights is to hire a motodop for the day. This can be arranged at guesthouses, which will also improve your chances of finding someone with extensive experience in guiding tourists and who can speak adequate English.
Rentals are available from shops and guesthouses in town. Bicycles are ideal for seeing the town, but unless youre in good shape, have the time, and dont mind getting sweaty, might not be ideal for trips far out of town to Kep or on the perilously degraded road to Bokor Mountain.
Motorcycles of the 100cc variety are available and are the right size to take you just about anywhere. The one exception is Bokor Mountain. How Khmers manage to force these bikes up its bone-jarring road defies explanation, and rental shops would probably be aghast if they learned you were planning a similar journey on your own. Motorbikes cost around $3 per day.
The bigger 250cc dirtbikes make you look more attractive and are about the only thing most people would want to take up Bokor Mountain. Learning to ride one is more difficult, and the Mountain is not an easy ride no matter what transportation youre taking, but an afternoon of practice should be enough to make most people feel comfortable on normal roads. Big bikes go for $7 to $10 per day.
As always, you will need to deposit your passport or a sizeable amount of cash before taking any rental. It is advisable to check any rental thoroughly before accepting it. It is not a good idea to end up halfway up Bokor Mountain before realising that your horn doesnt work and your brakes are faulty. Also check the lights, the tires, and try to ensure the odometer works.
IX. Getting There & Away
1) Phnom Penh to Kampot
Kampot is 148 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, and the trip takes around three hours. Busses leave in the morning and afternoon and cost four dollars. They depart from the Central Market and Olympic Stadium.
Taxis and mini-busses can be found at Psar Dum Kor, near the Intercontinental Hotel, on the southern edge of Phnom Penh. They leave when full, but they can be much faster than busses. Aim for $3.25 per seat or $20 for the entire car.
If youre taking your own transport, there are two possible routes. The first is National Hwy. # 3 (follow the Russian Blvd. to the circle past the airport and take the left fork) and the other is National Hwy. # 2 (take Norodom Blvd. south out of town toward Takeo, and hang a right to hook up to National Hwy. # 3 when you hit to T-junction a short distance from Takeo).
2) Kampot to Phnom Penh
All transport from Kampot leaves from the taxi stand in the centre of town. One seat in a taxi is currently around $3.25. The trip takes just under three hours. The stop is at Psar Dum Kor near the Intercontinental Hotel in the southern part of Phnom Penh.
3) Kampot to Sihanoukville
Taxis and mini-busses leave from the stand in the centre of town. The trip takes ninety minutes, and the cost is around $2.50. This route follows the road to Bokor Mountain (National Hwy. #3) until it meets up with the Sihanoukville road (National Hwy. #4) in the town of Veal Renh. Then a left turn takes you south to the coast.
4) Sihanoukville to Kampot
Taxis and mini-busses leave from Psar Leu in the centre of town. The trip takes ninety minutes, and the cost is around $3.50. The route goes north toward Phnom Penh. In the town of Veal Renh, a right turn puts you on National Hwy. # 3 to Kampot. It follows the stunning Elephant Mountains.
5) Kampot to Kep
There is a bus service leaving from downtown Kampot twice a day to Kep. Reckon on about a dollar for the thirty-minute trip. A much better option is to flag down a motodop, who will take you there at any time of day for two to four dollars. The cost is not much relative to distance when you compare it with rides in either Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville.
6) Kampot to Chau Doc (the Vietnamese Border)
As there are few locals plying this route, you may not find taxis ready to go. The remaining option is to charter one yourself for twenty dollars. The trip takes you through Kampong Trach and requires a little over an hour. There is an international border crossing at Chau Doc. Visas for Vietnam need to be arranged in advance, though coming from Vietnam it is possible to get your Cambodian visa at the border.
7) Kampot to Koh Kong
Mini-busses depart once per day early in the morning for this gruelling journey. The road is not one of Cambodias finest. See the Sihanoukville section for more details on the section from Sre Ambel (where the tarmac ends) to Koh Kong. Visas are available at the border.