The provincial town of Kampot in southern Cambodia doesn’t look like much on first sight. It’s small and sleepy with wide dusty streets and dilapidated buildings. Yet it’s the place we stayed the longest in Cambodia—a few days turned into a week which turned into 12 days and it was only our expiring visa that forced us to leave this town we’d fallen for.
What is it that we loved about this small town that most visitors bypass in favour of the Angkor temples at Siem Reap or the beaches in Sihanoukville?
The Slow Life
Kampot’s sleepiness is part of its charm. Traffic is minimal and it’s easy to get around the wide streets on foot, bicycle or motorbike. Life feels slow here, unrushed, with hot afternoons meant for lazing in hammocks or swimming in the river.
The crumbling architecture isn’t beautiful but it is charming—a mix of French colonial and Chinese style shop houses with fading blue and green wooden shutters and peeling yellow paint. Kampot isn’t pristine but on certain streets where pink bougainvillaea blossoms on trees it feels lovely.
The riverside location at the foot of the Elephant Mountains is a huge part of Kampot’s attraction. The river promenade attracts tourists and locals at sunset for strolls and happy hour cocktails.
Many people stay a few kilometres out of town at one of the guesthouses in peaceful locations on the river. We stayed in town but loved spending afternoons at the beautiful, serene GreenHouse Guesthouse for lunch, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, and swimming off their beach.
An Easy Place to Live
Kampot is an easy, liveable town. It feels like a real Cambodian city that doesn’t exist for tourism but there are a number of expats—many working for the NGOs that are so common in Cambodia—so you can find good restaurants, cool cafes, and some comforts of home.
You can find everything from delicious pizza, veggie burgers and apple pie to street stands selling baguettes, freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, sweet potato cakes, and steamed corn on the cob.
A highlight of my stay in Kampot was cycling down the river to yoga classes at the women’s only spa Banteay Srey, which is a refuge and training centre for young women from difficult backgrounds to help them improve their lives. It’s the perfect location for yoga—an open sided upper level of a wooden house with views of the garden and river. At $5 per class (or $30 for 10 classes) it’s great value. Classes currently take place at 11am and 5pm everyday except Tuesdays—the morning classes are more energetic. The spa feels like an oasis and is a lovely place to get a massage or treatment, have lunch in the vegetarian cafe, and relax on their comfortable riverside deck.
The Surrounding Countryside
There’s not much to do in Kampot itself but there’s plenty to do in the surrounding countryside. To explore you can take a tour or hire a tuk tuk but we preferred to travel independently by motorbike. The countryside starts just minutes outside town. Potholed tarmac turns to orange dirt and concrete houses become bamboo shacks or wooden stilted huts. It’s a land of rice paddies and palm trees, water buffalo and humped white cows, waving children and salt field workers.
Salt and Pepper
Kampot is the land of salt and pepper. The salt fields are just outside of town. Salt water is brought from the sea 5km away into prepared clay fields and left to evaporate until salt crystals form. On my morning run I watched the workers raking the salt and carrying it off in heavy baskets. At sunrise it was a stunning place.
Further afield towards the beach town Kep are pepper plantations that produce some of the best pepper in the world. The green berries are sun-dried to make black pepper, while the riper red peppercorns are boiled to remove the skin leaving the white pepper seed inside.
We spent the day at the Vine Retreat, a hotel and restaurant on a pepper plantation. Although the free pepper tour was brief it was a beautiful place to have a delicious organic lunch with produce from their farm and relax by the pool. There are some other plantations in the area that might have more detailed tours but we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the pool to find out.
Day Trip to Rabbit Island
Kep (30 minutes from Kampot) is also the place to take a 30 minute boat ride ($25 for the whole boat) to Rabbit Island, a tranquil place to spend the day, which we did with our friends and fellow app developers Jenny and Tom. We swam in the warm clear green sea, lazed on the free sunbeds and hammocks, and drank $0.75 beers and fresh coconuts.
Where to Stay in Kampot
Kampot is excellent value compared to other places in Cambodia. You have the choice of staying in town or a few kilometres away along the river, mostly in simple bungalows in a beautiful location.
We stayed in town at Mea Culpa and it was the only hotel in Cambodia that we absolutely loved. At $25 a night it was around the same price as other hotels we stayed in but was far nicer. Our room (#11) was huge with lovely decor, A/C, a small desk, a seating area with a couch, armchairs and table, a comfortable bed, and a large balcony with river view.
It also had the best WiFi we experienced in Cambodia, free bicycles, free water and tea/coffee, a garden, and even a wood-fired pizza oven in the restaurant. The staff were helpful and could arrange motorbike rental for us in five minutes ($5 a day)—no paperwork or deposit and they just added it to your bill. Highly recommended.
Where to Eat in Kampot
- Cafe Espresso—A small, funky coffee shop that not only does great coffee (Simon liked the AeroPress) but excellent food. There’s a big breakfast menu and a few vegetarian lunch options including the best veggie burger we’ve had in Asia—a delicious spicy mix of lentils, beans and vegetables. Don’t miss the homemade pasta if they have it on special—the pumpkin and blue cheese tortellini were amazing.
- Epic Arts Cafe—Run by a community arts organisation to provide employment opportunities for deaf and disabled people. The western menu includes cakes, breakfasts, sandwiches, and some interesting options like eggplant rolls with couscous salad, and feta and spinach tart with mango chutney.
- Mea Culpa—Our guesthouse has great pizzas from the wood-fired oven. The side salad and garlic bread are excellent additions.
- Divino—A new Italian restaurant run by Italians. The bruschetta, pesto tagliatelle, and pizzas were all good.
- Ecran Noodle Shop—In the cinema is this simple place that makes hand pulled noodles in front of you. They offer vegetarian options and we had the fried noodles with vegetables and vegetarian dumplings for $2 each.
- Rikitikitavi—A good place for 2 for 1 sunset cocktails (5-7pm) overlooking the river. The food is a bit pricier than elsewhere but quite good with a few vegetarian options including vegetable red curry, vegetarian burritos, and a vegetable crepe with pepper sauce.
- Sisters II Bakery—Decadent chocolate or pumpkin spice pancakes and some good baked goods.
How to Get to Kampot
Kampot is 3-5 hours by bus from Phnom Penh (Giant Ibis is quickest and costs $8). A minivan from Otres Beach, Sihanoukville to Kampot took 2.5 hours and cost $7.
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