t’s high season in Kampot, a riverine provincial seat world famous for its pepper. But talk to the expats who have made the town their home and it’s been high season for almost too long.
In fact, according to Neil Bullock, who runs O’Neils, a riverside watering hole popular with tourists and expats alike, business has been consistent for the past seven months, and he worries it might be getting worse.
“I don’t want nine people queued up at the bar ordering drinks,” he says. “I came to Kampot for the peace and quiet.”
Bullock, 60, who has lived in Cambodia for eight years, says he was lured to Kampot by its vibrant but niche-like scene, the pace of life and the ease of doing business – sentiments echoed by other resident foreigners.
According to Stefaan Lambrecht, the Belgian owner of Coastal, a local Kampot and Kep listings magazine, the changes he has seen over seven years have been “drastic”.
Originally based in Kep, and drawn to Kampot by what he describes as its “more attractive social scene”, Lambrecht says: “When I first arrived in Kep, there were six or seven foreigners, but now there are hundreds. The same is true of Kampot, except on a bigger scale”
That said, despite the influx of foreigners, in property terms, Kampot is at a nascent stage of development. Construction is small-scale, with local Cambodians throwing up new buildings and renting out studio apartments for less than $100 a month. Meanwhile, a handful of foreigners are buying crumbling – often derelict – French colonial-era buildings and either renovating them or rebuilding them.
Chris Connop, a 57-year-old New Zealander with a degree in engineering and a background in horticulture and construction, says he stumbled into his current occupation – restoring and rebuilding Kampot architecture – after building a house for himself on the other side of the river two years ago.
“More and more people dropped by, and then I started to get requests for help,” he says.
Connop is currently restoring an 80-year-old French building.
“The problems are usually to do with bathrooms on the upper floors,” he says. “Water leakages ruin the flooring. A lot of the buildings that are 100 years old or older have to be raised, because they’re structurally unsound.”
According to Connop, foreigners in Kampot are paying on average around $90,000 for a building in a state of disrepair.
“It’s going to cost you around $225 per square metre to rebuild in the style of the original structure, but you have to remember that’s about a 10th of the price of putting up something similar in the West,” he says.
That is the reason Connop believes the current flutter of interest in Kampot property is more than simply a speculative punt.
“Retiring baby-boomers are coming here because Kampot makes it possible to afford to live on your pension and enjoy life,” he says.
Keo Socheah, 33, manager of Blue Star Real Estate Service, agrees.
An English teacher by profession, Socheah went into business in 2009 after fielding a small flood of inquiries from foreigners about how to buy property.
“Today, I get about 10 serious inquiries a week, mostly from retired foreigners who say they’ve fallen in love with the riverside setting and the friendliness of the town.”
Socheah says that in the past most of his clients were looking for old villas and standalone or terraced houses downtown, but more recently there has been a surge of interest in buying land and building homes outside town.
At the same, he admits, it has been an uphill struggle. Leasing property is theoretically the easiest way for foreigners to acquire a soft title on property and land. But lease agreements are at the discretion of commune chiefs, who are more accustomed to the concept of short-term leases.
“I’m still working on providing 50- to -90-year leases for foreigners, but a lot of the commune chiefs prefer to deal with five-year leases,” he says.
It is a bottleneck that has prompted Socheah to become a property developer himself. His plots of land nudge at the edges of Bokor Mountain View Village, a small but growing community on the other side of the river – and down a rutted dirt road – which Socheah says will be paved by year-end.
So far, 26 foreigners have bought land and built properties, according to Pos Rey Ny, who is married to a local German homeowner in the village. She has built a bar and restaurant and a minimart to cater to the community.
“We have everything we need here, and the locals love it as well because it saves them a trip into town,” she says.
Kampot residents have mixed feelings about their indie act going mainstream.
“I love the size of Kampot, the small scene of expats who want Kampot to stay the way it is, and don’t want it invaded,” says 63-year-old Bob Couttie, a freelance writer from Britain, who stumbled upon Kampot in June of 2012.
“I spent a lot of time once in the south of France, and I remember I was sitting at a Kampot riverside cafe with a glass of pastis, and suddenly I was back there – in France – but with an Oriental flavour,” he says quietly, with a faint air of nostalgic foreboding, as if everything might one day change overnight.