Why I loved Kampot – Cambodia’s most underrated destination
Sleepy, riverside Kampot somehow oozes charm out of it’s dilapidated yellow French colonial buildings and dusty, pot holed roads. Its not so much a doing place but rather somewhere to kick back, relax and soak up the atmosphere, get to know friendly locals and expats and dine on fresh seafood or creamy, coconuty Khmer amok.
The town is small enough to explore on foot or by wobbling over the pot holed, dusty roads on a rusty bicycle, watching the ever affable locals going about their day, shopping in the market, slowly repairing roads and houses while school children in neat, impossibly white shirts perch 3 astride a bicycle.
Surprisingly this small, dilapidated city is home to many expats and the revival in guest houses, western restaurants and foreign imported foods keep those who fall in love with the place and choose to linger longer here in comfort.
The pretty riverside is lined with bars perfect for sunset cocktails gazing over the river to the jungly hills, over the peculiar, rickety, old bridge that was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and later rebuilt using various parts of 4 differently styled but equally rickety old bridges.
For the faint hearted, or those who like their bridges without holes and gaps, there is a new, much sturdier and safer bridge a little further up the river.
Exploring the Cambodian countryside
There’s something charming and unique about Cambodia’s lack of development. This country has been to hell and back, in the late 1970s the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and left them to crumble but the real gem of Kampot, and of Cambodia, is the undeveloped, bucolic countryside.
As you leave the town the delightfully dilapidated, crumbling, yellow French colonial buildings give way to dusty, orange roads surrounded by rich, luscious emerald green paddy fields, interspersed with palm trees and clusters of wooden houses on stilts accompanied by a few lazy cows, pigs, goats and chickens and children playing around on bicycles or in waterholes. The scene feels almost idyllic and a long way from the trappings of the modern world (and the horrific events of Cambodia has endured)
However, to get to the beauty of the countryside you have to endure the roads first. The better ones are a mixture of gravel and bone shaking, jarring potholes but the majority are not much more than dirt roads that disintegrate into mud baths in the wet season and dust bowls in the dry. Exploring on motorbike is a great way to see the countryside but be prepared for a dusty and bumpy ride!
Bokor Hill Station
The twice abandoned French hill Station sits on top of Bokor Hill in national park jungle. A new (bitumen!) road has just been built making it easily accessible. Once on top you can still poke around the decaying, mildewed remains of the grand French villas including the famous 1920s church and casino.
After the Khmer Rouge banished the French, the wealthy and the educated and evacuated people to work as farmers the hill station was abandoned until the last dying days of the regime when the Khmer Rouge held out in the old church while the Vietnamese shot at them from the old dilapidated casino 500 meters away.
The blackened church is covered with orange lichen and the walls inside that the Khmer Rouge built are covered in Khmer graffiti giving it a really eerie feel. Disappointingly though the old casino is being stripped back and slowly undergoing renovations. It is now just a concrete shell having lost the eerie, devastated effect but has plans to restore it to its former 1920s French glory.
You can still explore and climb all over the old casino, the views from the roof are stunning and stretch out down the hill over Kampot’s green rice fields to the glittering blue sea and all the way to Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island.
The air feels cooler and fresher up here and the smell of the jungle envelops you. Apparently tigers and gibbons live up here but are so elusive they have only been spotted by camera traps.
Almost as deserted and eerie as the old, decaying buildings is a huge, brand new, posh hotel and casino that commands the highest point of the hill. At the moment the number of staff far outweigh the number of visitors but the restaurant is open for a delicious and great value a la carte meal and they will also turn on the lights and slot machines for you if you wish.
45km east of Kampot lies the old French seaside resort town of Kep. Dusty dirt roads past gleaming green rice fields takes you to the once grand seaside resort town. Nowadays Kep is like the town of just walls.
The Khmer Rouge destroyed all the grand villas of the French colonialists and Khmer high rollers and much of what is left in the town is just the grand walls leaving you to imagine what kind of grand mansions lay beyond in the town’s heyday. Some blackened shells of villas overgrown with jungle are still visible giving the town an eerie feel.
It’s a surprisingly intriguing place to explore but I doubt this will remain for long though as Kep looks to be staging a revival as a big triple lane tarmac road is being built, the beach and seafront are being smartened up, a pool added and a large hotel, eco resort and a few guest houses and restaurants are starting to open up, with more in the pipeline.
For now, Kep is blissfully quiet, in the shadow of the famous Kep crab statue I take a dip in the refreshing sea after a scorching hot and humid morning and cleanse the dust of my body while saffron clad young monks rearrange their robes before splashing around to cool down, children play in tubes in the water while their mothers splash in fully clothed.
For lunch, when in Kep, it has to be Kep crab so in a wooden shack by the crab market overlooking the sea and fishermen we spend a long, leisurely lunch picking apart every last morsel of delicious crab meat fried in fragrant, punchy Kampot green pepper. Afterwards a hike through the jungle that rises up in the middle of Kep is rewarded with the discovery of a strange, half abandoned temple and more great views over the ocean.
As we drive slowly back stopping to peer through another set of decaying gates, buying fresh sugar cane juice from the road side and watching the sunset over the river I can’t help thinking that in a few years these charming, sleepy unique towns that gracefully bear the scars, trials and tribulations of such a fascinating past may turn into another gentrified tourist resort and will lose its charismatic, dilapidated uniqueness.
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Have you been to Kampot? Did you love it as much as I did?