Saul Kaiserman describes in words and pictures the virtues of taking a
break to the lesser-known seaside towns of Kampot and Kep.
Ready to get
out of Phnom Penh but tired of Sihanouk ville? A few days in the resort towns of
Kampot and Kep will remind the most jaded of travellers what it is they love
about Cambodia. In the 60's and early 70's Kep was the resort of Khmer high
society and Kampot its bustling little gateway town.
The Pol Pot regime
had only animosity for these places and their inhabitants and destroyed the
luxurious villas and roads that connected them with each other and the rest of
the country. But the economic revival in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville
has now reached these towns as well. Although you can no longer spend your
holiday in aristocratic style, the charm and natural beauty of these practically
untouristed spots is sure to win your heart.
Getting to Kampot is simple:
Taxis depart for the 148-km journey from the same stands as for Sihanoukville
and the fare is similar - $5 should get you the front passenger seat. As always
the more people who share the taxi, the cheaper the ride with four passengers in
the front and four in the back apparently standard. The trip normally takes 2
1/2 to 3 hours. Make sure you bring your pocket English-Khmer dictionary and
plenty of riel. Taxis for the return trip to Phnom Penh leave from Kampot
If you have your own means of transportation or you'd prefer to
hitchhike, set off as early as possible down the airport road (National route 3)
and take the left-turnoff to Takeo and Kampot just outside Phnom Penh - there's
a nice big sign to help avoid confusion.
The turnoff for Takeo is at the
market town of Ang Tasaom, about the halfway point, just before the road enters
the province of Kampot. You'll pass colorful mountain ranges, buffalo-plowed
rice paddy fields, and government soldiers fishing on the sides of the road and
shaking down passing cars. There's also a picturesque Cham village on the right
just before Kampot itself.
Another option for the trip down is the freight train, which makes the trip
from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville every other day. Officially it is supposed to
leave at 6:45 AM but it rarely goes on time. Cheaper than a taxi and with
spectacular views from the roof, especially in the foothills around Takeo,
you'll arrive sometime in the afternoon.
Foreigners can expect throughout
their stay to be approached by friendly townsfolk who are eager to practice
their English language skills. There is little to do in Kampot itself other than
to take a stroll down the grassy promenade along the river, similar to the one
in Phnom Penh but smaller, prettier, and the sun doesn't set on the wrong
Kampot is currently visited almost exclusively by affluent Khmers
on weekends, and then only for accommodation before and after day-trips to Kep
or Takshoe, a less well-known and scenic locale with bamboo-huts-on-stilts, 7-km
outside of town. There are several good restaurants specializing in seafood; the
one at the roundabout in the center of town is recommended by residents and
popular with foreigners.
Along the river, the Bokor Mountain Club is the
upscale, strangely out-of-context and either prescient or premature venture from
the folks who brought you the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia; it's busy
on the weekends but during the week you'll have the place to
Your choices for accommodation in Kampot are limited and
unimpressive - most foreigners stay in either the Hotel Phnom Khiew at $20/night
or Hotel Kamchay at $10. The Restaurant Hotel on the riverside is becoming
popular with backpackers at $8-10/room. Some NGOs and local families also rent
rooms elsewhere, usually for about $5/night - ask around. I was planning on
recommending the Hotel Khet, a faded reminder of the good old days with huge
common rooms downstairs and a balcony that looks out on the river. I rented the
entire hotel for 20,000 riel in early January but when I returned the following
week I was met at the gate by several representatives of the military, the
English-speaking one explaining, impatiently, "no hotel." Give it a look
For evening entertainment, there is a live band and dancing at
the Hotel Kamchay. Your beer will be poured by one of a group of pretty women
wearing too much makeup and an outfit that primarily highlights the name of the
brewery you have chosen. She, and the other women who frequent this place, will
be happy to engage in conversation if you have a common language (one of the
Foster's ladies speaks Bulgarian, for example), but will expect to receive money
for any time you spend together, no matter how you choose to spend it. Also,
those cashews that they bring to your table when you sit down aren't a gift from
the management. If you get bored, the band will let you do some lead vocals to
"Black Magic Woman" (or, at least, that's what I did).
traverse the 33-km road to Kep for a few thousand riel. Along the way, the
driver may ease your mind by informing you that the KR are not in the mountains
that stretch out to your left, they are behind them in the next mountain range.
Nevertheless, in mid-January it was possible to hear the boom-boom of shelling
familiar to anyone who has visited Angkor Wat.
After 20 minutes or so
you'll reach the outskirts of town, passing ruins of villas and one giant old
hotel. Most of the villas, particularly the ones that still have roofs, have
families living in them. Often these residents have been squatting since 1979,
although the actual property-owners tend to live in Phnom Penh. Many of the
ruins still retain a sense of their majesty, some are rather spooky, and a few
clearly deserved their fate and their appearance was probably improved by the
Kep has no town center as such, construction follows the curve of the coast
without going very far inland. The market is rather pathetic and about three-km
down the road from the beach, which frankly is also rather
Looking down upon the beach from the point on its near end are
the ruins of Sihanouk's villa, where the local militia now stretch their
hammocks. At the far end of the beach is a larger-than-life statue of a nude
female bather that provides much amusement and photo opportunities for Khmer
tourists. Lining the concrete beach front are several little stands that will
cater your picnic, providing food and drink and even removing the meat from your
crabshells for you. On weekends, the promenade is crammed tight with
bamboo-mats, but during the week there are usually only a few picnics at any one
If you have the inclination you can buy the crabs live directly
from the fishermen at a small cove on the coastal road leading back to Kampot.
The rate is about $1/kg and they will boil them for you for just a little bit
extra. Even on weekdays there is a steady flow of white Mercedes from Phnom Penh
buying crabs in multiples of 10 kg. If you'd like to bring some back for your
friends (crabs, not Mercedes), make sure to have them boiled first (the crabs,
not your friends), and remember that they must be eaten the same day.
you thought the range of accommodation in Kampot was limited, you'll certainly
be at a loss in Kep. There is a small hotel behind the hospital that rents rooms
for $7/night and has good meals for $1. Several families will rent you a room in
a villa for about $5, as will the Aspeca orphanage at the road fork entering
town. Don't expect to have a shower, though, or even a toilet. You could also
string up your hammock in one of the abandoned villas for free, but bring plenty
of mosquito repellent. If you ask around, you will probably find a place that
will suffice at an inexpensive rate.
Although the beach at Kep is rather disappointing, a 1/02 hour ride in a
fishing boat will get you to Koh Ton Sai. This island has several pleasant
beaches with warm water, decent snorkeling, and absolutely no
My friend and I strung our hammocks up in a chicken-coop
and realized that we really are freaks after all. The island is inhabited by a
few fishing families who will probably invite you to a meal or to stay the night
if you wander by and will really have you over the barrel if you haven't made
plans for getting back to the mainland.
Boats will make trip to Koh Ton
Sai for $5 or more, depending on how many hours you want to stay.
to Thailand will be familiar with the moan on the backpacker circuit about "how
great this place was 10 years ago, when there was no one here."
Kampot and Kep experience an increased number of foreign tourists, there will be
a greater availability of services and facilities to please a wider range of
However, if you'd like to experience these places before that
happens, while the local inhabitants are still authentically pleased to meet you
and to have you as a guest in their town, go now.