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Making a great little Kep-away

Making a great little Kep-away

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."

As both

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.


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