Long described as “sleepy”, the Kampot of today is transforming into a lively tourist destination, with plenty of good restaurants, bars and music to be found. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up on the hardcore riverside lounging that the city has built its name on. Not by a long shot. It’s also an excellent base from which to explore Bokor National Park. And of course, you must pick up your own peck of the best pepper in the world, straight from the source.
The town was once an important trading centre and until the establishment of a deep sea port at Sihanoukville in the 1950s, Kampot was Cambodia’s primary port. A small fleet of fishing boats can still be seen unloading each morning a short walk south of the main town. Given Kampot’s proximity to the Vietnamese border, fish often aren’t the only catch being unloaded, with smuggling — particularly of cigarettes — a handy extra earner for the trawlers.
Pepper plantations (though perhaps easier visited from Kep) as well as a few low-key sites can be visited from town, but Bokor is the one unmissable spot, a highlight of any visit to the Cambodian coast. From atop the hill, an abandoned church and casino, remnants from Cambodia’s French colonial period, stare bleakly out into the passing clouds, trying to remember the sounds of pious hymnals and pompous affairs that once animated them.
Today, their romance lingers somehow despite their battered state — the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese spent a long stretch shooting at each other here, with one team in the casino and the other in the church, and yet another in the king’s house around the corner and facing the church. But then again, anything will look romantic compared to the monstrosity that is the new casino development built down the road. Bikers will bemoan the fact that a proper road has now been built to whisk you all the way to the top, but it at least means you no longer have a tough trek to the top.
Kampot is pretty, in a rundown kind of way. Plenty of villas and old shopfront trading houses, especially along the river road, make it a pleasant area to wander through — thankfully Kampot hasn’t lost too many of its older buildings to the glass and brass brigade (yet). Given time and sufficient interest from travellers, many of these buildings will hopefully be retained. The Old Market, long a derelict landmark, has recently been revitalised with shops and eateries and the old fish market on the riverside in front of it looks set to be relaunched as a swish restaurant in 2016.
Along with its relaxed ambience comes an excellent selection of places to stay, from cheap backpacker-orientated guesthouses through to some fine flashpacker and midrange hotels. Kampot also boasts plenty of decent places to enjoy Cambodian and Western food and just hang out.
Within town, activities include taking a walk over the once-bombed but now repaired river bridge for a view of the town, enjoying a sunset boat cruise up the Kampot River or just hiring a bicycle and meandering about. You also, of course, need to enjoy at least one sunset over Bokor by the river with a drink in hand.
Just on the other side of the river, and south a little, Fish Isle is an easy excursion that gives a slightly more pastoral view of life around Kampot, as well as a chance to see a fishing village at work. To get there, cross the New Bridge and take the far left on the roundabout, then keep going until you cross a metal bridge, and you’re there. It’s quite a large island and a very pleasant spin on a motor scooter.
Bored with gazing across the river? Culture vultures should head to the provincial museum in the old French Governor’s House at the southern of the riverside — beyond Rikitikitavi and the post office. And then hope for the best. We tried to get there three different times, to find closed doors on each occasion. However, we were later told that it’s open on weekday mornings, and not the scheduled times you’ll find in different brochures and publications in town. Entrance, if your timing is good, is $2.
There’s a small zoo around eight kilometres north of Kampot, just after Arcadia Guesthouse, on the west bank of the river. While plenty of materials in town advise going as the owner uses the entrance fee to pay for the animals’ feed, we feel that it should be avoided at all costs. This place is quite simply entirely inappropriate for the animals that are unfortunate enough to be caged there. The facilities are inadequate, the care is even less than that. Most are hungry, and vets are rarely brought in.
Reporters have witnessed animals left with untended injuries, not to speak of the daily psychological damage they live with. And it’s not just us who feel this way. We spoke to representatives from two different leading wildlife conservation organisations, both of whom recommended against advising anyone to visit Teuk Chhou. In the words of one: “It’s a nightmare place”. Please don’t go, and please ask anyone who’s thinking of going to reconsider. For more information, take a look at www.zoowatch.org, and note that the person who sent us the link said that actual conditions are even worse than they appear on this website.
A growing number of people are also attracted to Kampot to spend some time with a volunteer project. Choose from a range of options, from short-term through to longer-term projects working with disadvantaged groups. Epic Arts Cafe is a good place to start with any enquiries.
It’s also worth noting that although the town is sporting sparkling new signage, most locals don’t know the street numbers — the signs are apparently for the benefit of a certain Google car. Most navigation is still done by landmarks, usually roundabouts and bridges. Pick up a copy of the excellent Kampot Survival Guide for a town map and some very tongue-in-cheek advice.
Orientation Look after your banking needs at Acleda and Canadia Banks. Both have ATMs and money exchange facilities. The latter has Western Union services. You’ll find the Canadia Bank on the Durian Roundabout, and Acleda is on the junction of Streets 724 and 701. There are plenty of ATMs along the riverside as well, the easiest one for most being on the riverside end of the Old Market arcade.
Internet cafes are dotted around town, with the best selection on the road running between the old bridge and the traffic circle. A few guesthouses offer WiFi access, including Jasmine and Bokor Mountain Lodge.
The post office is at the southern end of Kampot, on the River Road, past Rikitikitavi. We’d recommend waiting until you get to Phnom Penh for anything international, or valuable.
There’s a basic hospital a block north of the old bridge, but for anything remotely serious you’re better off heading to Phnom Penh. For anything less serious, there are a number of pharmacies, though the one just off the Salt Workers Roundabout, on Street 701, looks pretty well-stocked and some of the staff speak English.
The police can be contacted on (012) 594 224, or (012) 824 067. As anywhere else in Cambodia, don’t expect the greatest response.
There are supermarkets on both of the main roundabouts — the Durian and Salt Miners’ — where you’ll find most of the basics including toiletries, snack foods and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. There is also a large, shiny supermarket on the river road just south of the New Bridge which seems to be the most modern of them all.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 12th November, 2016.