The majority of visitors to Cambodia’s southern coast should not visit Kampot without visiting its twin sister, Kep. I have dubbed them as sisters because to me they are like ‘salt and pepper’ where the one can’t do without the other. Although I might think of them as twins, they certainly are not identical because they are quite different.
Kampot, with a population of about 50,000, is the capital of Kampot Province. It lies on the Preaek Tuek Chhu River, better known as simply the Kampot River. It’s got a laid back vibe which has led to a noticeable growth in ex-pats. There are those who have chosen to live there for humanitarian reasons offering services for disadvantaged Cambodian youngsters by providing education and training in the arts, hospitality, and entrepreneurship. Then, there are others wanting to escape from the high cost of living in their own countries, such as France and Australia, to this town where they can lead a more leisurely life fulfilling a dream they could never afford to do in their country. By taking advantage of the opportunities offered here, many of the younger couples are starting their own families which indicates they are here for the long haul.
Kampot continues to reflect the culture of the French colonials who took over Cambodia in the early 1900’s as one of their protectorates. Their architecture is still visible in many of the old shop houses and other public buildings bordering the tree-lined boulevard running through the centre of the city.
The recent influx of ex-pats, volunteers, and visitors to Kampot is creating a centre for those who want to ‘hang out’ in a place which offers everything that a larger city does but without the stress. It’s experiencing a noticeable boom in restaurants offering a variety of foods from around the world: French, Italian, German, Thai, Mid-Eastern, and, of course, Kymer. Healthy is definitely at the top of the list with vegetarian, vegan, and organic to be found on many menus. However, the real surprise is the newly opened restaurant, owned by a Canadian, which features such comfort foods as macaroni and cheese, and poutine! Apparently the place called Hurricane Brewski is a real hit.
Yes, Kampot is becoming a ‘foodie’ haven. New delis have opened up as well as more coffee cafes and bakeries. However, there is more than just food for foodies. There are lovely spas and yoga centres. Shops, showcasing beautiful clothing and jewellery made from local materials…often recycled… are cropping up, too. You will have no trouble finding comfortable and very affordable hotels and guest houses. And, for those wanting some culture there is a growing arts scene with a newly opened 3-story art gallery,* a small movie theatre, at least two book stores, and many venues for all kinds of music.
Kampot’s street layout makes it an easy town for walking. Its greatest asset is the scenic esplanade running along side the river flanked by a myriad of restaurants and hotels where visitors, locals, and ex-pats can wile away some precious time absorbing the local culture. All day breakfasts, sunsets, and night-time river cruises are there for the taking. Side streets leading up from this scene lead to the centre of town creating a round about with the Durian* Monument smack dab in the middle. Like the spokes of a wheel streets branch out from there to reach north, east, south and west to create smaller round a bouts where, more intimate cafes and eating spots can be found which are generally quieter than those on the riverfront.
*Durian is a large, green fruit grown in tropical countries. It has the reputation for being the smelliest fruit in the world. Some places, such as Singapore, have banned it. Cambodians love it for its savory, sweet taste, and Kampot has adopted it as its mascot.
* The Kampot Art Gallery is a recent addition housing the works of Cambodian artists with a strong message for the people and the opportunity to spread their ideas and talents to the south.
Kep is the smaller of the twins by about 10,000 people and like its sister has been greatly influenced by the French colonial culture. Established in 1908 its purpose was to provide the colonials from Kampot and other cities around Cambodia with access to the tropical beaches and islands for which this part of the country is famous. Resorts were the mainstay and still are even today. However, unlike Kampot, Kep doesn’t really have a centre resulting in a reputation for being rather soulless. It just seems to be spread out without any noticeable boundaries in the province of Kron Kaeh. This sprawl includes a small village-like centre with a bus stop, a mini mart, and a smattering of restaurants and shops. It’s main attraction is a white sand beach which attracts hoards of Cambodian families from as far away as Phnom Penh. Like Kampot, it has an attractive waterfront esplanade….great for cyclists and avid walkers. Proceed from the bus stop in the opposite direction, and you just might encounter some monkeys but will definitely find the famous Crab Market where the blue crab reigns as king. As soon as the crabs are trapped, they are delivered to a string of popular restaurants serving up delicious dishes of crab and other seafood delights for reasonable prices. They have become another huge draw for visitors and Cambodians alike. Looming over this scene is a large National Park (not sure if it has a name) located at the base of a small mountain with numerous trails offering spectacular views of the Gulf of Thailand.
Kampot and Kep are each the capital of two different provinces yet are only 23 kilometers a part. The trip via a tuk tuk will take about a half hour, or if you prefer to go at a more leisurely pace you can now take the newly formed Crab Shuttle along the Kampot river. This will take two and a half hours but is a wonderful way to relax and enjoy the scenery. It can also provide a cooling breeze on a hot day.
The area between and around both places is famous these days for its pepper plantations. More of these are cropping up every year to meet the demand from Europe and other parts of the world for the famous Kampot pepper. However, it’s not all about pepper. Salt flats can be found all around this area as well. Not as accessible as the numerous pepper farms, they are, nevertheless, worked hard by workers from both Kep and Kampot to produce a quality product.
Like salt and pepper which naturally go together to satisfy our taste for good quality seasonings, Kampot and Kep are two places all visitors to southern Cambodia should take the time to savour. They are different in what they have to offer their visitors, but they compliment each other beautifully.