Kampot: The Southern Charm of Cambodia

One of the many cute cafes in Kampot.

Located in southern Cambodia, is the sleepy town of Kampot. Nudging right up against the Teuk Chhou River, it’s the perfect place to unwind and relax. The city itself is small, with a population of only about 35,000, but the aging French colonial buildings and cute cafes and bars ooze charm throughout the city. There’s not too much to see and do in Kampot, but that’s what makes the city so wonderful. It forces you to slow down and take in the surroundings in a leisurely way.

We found ourselves in Kampot after a few too many days in Sihanoukville, and immediately fell in love with the vibe of the city. It was one of those places you know you’re going to enjoy from the moment you drop off your bags and go for a stroll. The main city area is walkable, with most of the action located near the eastern riverfront and on the streets running off from it. Bakeries, used book stores, cafes, bars, restaurants, and small guesthouses line the streets. But some of the nicer guesthouses are located on the west bank of the river about 2km from the city centre.

The sign welcoming you to Olly's Place.

We stayed at a wonderful place called Olly’s Place, run by a Belgium expat named, you guessed it, Olly. The place was simple and laid back with 4 bungalows and two rooms in the main building for guests to stay in. The food was excellent with western and Khmer dishes to choose from, cooked by Olly’s girlfriend. Enhancing the flavour of the food was the backdrop on which to enjoy it, sitting on the terrace hanging over the water while watching the sky change colours as the sun set.

It was easy spending a day doing nothing except reading a book, drinking a coffee, and watching the river float by. We originally were only going to stay for two nights but decided to extend our stay for an additional two nights. Unfortunately Olly’s Place was already booked up so we ended up moving next door to the Bungalow Kampot River. We stayed in one of 8 private loft-like bungalows with our own private washroom below. The food was also excellent and the staff helpful.

If you want something a little more exciting than spending days riverside, there are still things for the more adventurous types. Renting a motorbike for a day or two is the best way to explore and see the countryside on your own timetable. You can head up to Bokor National Park and checkout Bokor Hill Station, an abandoned French colonial town built in the early 1920s as an escape from the humidity and heat of the low-lying areas. The views are stunning and exploring the empty buildings can be a bit eerie (but make for some great photographs). There are currently talks and plans underway to restore the old buildings and build new ones. It’s possible to visit Bokor Hill Station without a tour group, though there’s a $5 entrance fee per person, payable at the guard station at the bottom of the mountain.

Motorbiking through Kampot.

The highlight for us, though, was taking the motorbike and driving over to Kep, a nearby town located right on the coast. Even smaller than Kampot, Kep is great for a day trip.  You can relax on the man-made beach or, better yet, learn about how pepper and salt are made at the local plantations and mills. The area is renowned worldwide for it’s pepper production with a large majority of the crops being exported to some of the best restaurants in France.

We stopped in at the Phnom Voul Natural Pepper Plantation to see first hand how pepper is grown and cultivated.  At the plantation, all three varieties of pepper are grown (black, white, and red) with black being the obvious main crop. It was free for us to enter the plantation and we were even given a little tour by the owners, including a bit of an explanation about how pepper is harvested. We picked up two large packages of black pepper corns and a small bag of white pepper corns. We couldn’t leave empty handed!

A pepper plant before it is picked and dried.

Motorbiking to and from Kep gave us a chance to really see how rural Cambodians live. Sprinkled around rice fields, wooden houses with corrugated metal roofs jut out from the earth, men and young boys wade through swamps and rivers trying to catch fish, women tend to the fields, children play in the streets, and puppies, kittens, and chickens fill in the gaps. The scenery was beautiful with blue skies, green rice fields, palm trees here and there, with a backdrop of mountains. The locals were constantly greeting us with smiles, waves, and a few “hellos”, including a truckload full of smiling older Cambodians. It was worth it just to spend the day motorbiking off the main road and getting a feel for real Cambodia.

Friendly locals.

If you don’t want to venture far from the city and if motorbiking isn’t to your liking, there are still a few active things you can do around Kampot. Taking a bicycle and cycling to the surrounding areas is a great option, with most guesthouses offering free bicycle rentals. You can also enjoy various activities along the river including kayaking, paddleboarding or windsurfing. Olly offers paddleboards and windsurfing boards for free to use and he’ll even give you a crash course for the uninitiated. Both Tristan and I tested out the paddleboards (essentially larger sized surf boards that you can kneel or stand on and paddle down the river).  It’s a great form of exercise and allows you to see the riverbanks from a different perspective. One afternoon we even decided to paddleboard down to the old railway bridge and jump off it into the river. With the bridge only being about 5m high, it was a lot tamer than our canyoning experience in Vietnam.

Showing off our paddleboarding technique.

Kampot was a wonderful break for us and really allowed us to rest up and get a more in depth look at the Cambodian people. The city seems to understand it’s growing popularity in the travel sector with a lot of restorations and new buildings popping up all over. We highly recommend you make it one of your stops while traveling through Cambodia. You might just find yourself lingering longer than you had expected.

Kampot Sunrise