Cambodia can hit you hard. It is a place of beauty and pain, a reality that slaps you in the face. To this day, the scent of rotting fruit and exhaust reminds me of Phnom Penh, where children run naked on the streets and skip school to sell bracelets to tourists. This isn’t the whole country, nor the whole city, but it is the first taste of Cambodia that many travelers will come to know.
My own experience in Cambodia was slightly confused. It is something that is overwhelming and at the same time can’t be explained in a reasonable amount of words. There is sadness and joy, separate and together.
The usual traveler haunts of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville all have their unique pull: from urban city to tourists and temple ruins to beaches and backpackers. Sometimes all the activity and push-and-pull can get overwhelming: enter Kampot.
The sleepy city with a population of 40,000 is the capital of the Kampot province in southern Cambodia. This city is dense and easily explored by foot or bicycle. It spreads outward radially from a giant durian statue. Kampot River runs along its edge, with the mountainous Bokor National Park as a backdrop.
Kampot is known for its Kampot pepper, which you can find anywhere in the country. It’s said that in the days of French colonization, no Parisian table was complete without Kampot pepper (I don’t remember where I heard that, but I believe that’s how it goes). While visiting Kampot, you can take a tour of the pepper farms, or just go to any local restaurant that will have dishes based around it (Kampot pepper chicken, anyone?). Along the same vein, Kampot has plenty of places to eat, drink, and generally hang out. Along the river is where you’ll find some bars and restaurants run by foreigners. These places fill up fairly early, as they offer the best sunset views along the river. My favorite Vietnamese coffee can be found at Café Malay, deeper within the city.
My own trip to Kampot took me to Bokor National Park. The air cools dramatically as you meander up the mountain, but the view is worth it–on a clear day you can see all the way to Vietnam (though a clear day is a rare treasure up here). But, the true reason to visit Bokor is to explore the abandoned French village, casino, and church, Bokor Hill Station, built in the 1920s.
When I visited, the casino was undergoing restoration, so today it may not have the same ruinous charm as years ago. But, the church is still very much a perfect setting for your darkest nightmares. Remember, no sleeping is allowed here, however tempting the prospect may be.
Recently constructed, the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort sits atop Bokor mountain. This, combined with restoration of the old casino, are signs of the coming changes in the region as tourism reigns supreme. Soon enough, Kampot may go the way of other Cambodian cities, though for now I’ll still remember it fondly as the sleepy town that it is.
I paid about $25 USD to get a private taxi (about an hour-and-a-half drive) from Sihanoukville. For more information on how to get there, visit: