Many people who travel through Cambodia make the terrible mistake of going from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and then crossing over into either Thailand or Vietnam. Let me tell you guys something: YOU MESSED UP!
Whenever I asked travellers about their plans in Cambodia, they’d shrug and tell me that they’d skipped over everything except for Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields and the Angkor temples because everyone that had traveled through before had told them “nothing else is worth seeing.”
Some of the country’s most interesting landscapes are to the south, close to or bordering the ocean.
Kampot, for example, is a must-see for backpackers looking for a change of pace.
I spent nearly four months of my time away based in Kampot, a sleepy riverside town with a large expat community and a tranquil environment. When I wasn’t working, my days were spent riding along the river on a motorbike, eating fresh fruit or walking down the promenade while the sun set between the mountains.
What to do
When you finally manage to peel yourself from a hammock by the river, rent a motorbike and drive up the mountain to Bokor Hill Station.
Built around the 1920’s, this “ghost town” is a major attraction because of its eerie history. Over 900 lives were lost during the construction of the site, which was meant to serve as a getaway from Phnom Penh for French settlers living in the country. It was first abandoned in 1940, during the First Indochina War, and again in 1972 when the Khmer Rouge took over the area. Until the early 90’s, Bokor Hill was one of the last strongholds of the dictatorial regime.
Drive up the mountain (it swerves a lot, so make sure you’re comfortable with the bike beforehand) and enjoy the scenery while you go up, also keep an eye out for the monkeys and birds hidden amongst the trees. Also noteworthy: the statue of Lok Yeay Mao, a female Buddhist divinity, that’s worth a quick stop and photo op.
The top has quite a few more landmarks to see: the abandoned Catholic church (creepy), the abandoned casino (creepy), the new casino (empty) and the cliff that overlooks Phú Quốc (terrifying). There’s also a waterfall and a couple of treks you can make that overlook the densely forested area. Do yourself a favor and go check out the flower fields – these flowers have a very particular “shape”, but I won’t spoil the surprise.
When you’ve explored the outskirts, give yourself some time to walk around the actual town. It’s very manageable and easy to get around since most streets are intertwined and they all lead up to the main river road. Keep an eye out for the “Giant Durian” roundabout they’ve built to commemorate the stinky fruit; it seems out of place but deeply local at the same time.
The night market isn’t much to see if you’re looking for your typical Asian souvenir shop. Most of the things they sell are actual goods the locals need (fruit, vegetables, meats, cleaning/cooking products and very tiny clothing), so you won’t really find a lot of shops selling elephant pants. Leave that for Siem Reap.
Where to eat
Overall, Kampot has a particular way of looping you in and keeping you there for extended periods of time. Whether it’s for the $1 a piece cinnamon rolls they sell at the Kampot Pie and Ice Cream Palace or the delicious Sunday roast at The Rusty Keyhole 2, your stomach will feel right at home.
I like to eat. Like, really like to eat. So being in Kampot was a great experience. Considering how small the town might seem, expats who live here have tried their best to make it feel like home, so Western food is abundant and mouthwatering.
Epic Arts Café
For a healthy option, stop by Epic Arts Café for lunch (they shut early, so make sure you’re there around noon). This initiative, started in 2006, is part of the Epic Arts Foundation, which wishes to empower Cambodians with disabilities through the arts. The café only hires locals with disabilities and 60% of the proceeds go towards funding their initiatives. This place is great if you’re looking for a fresh, nourishing meal – their bagels are to die for! If you’re into your sweets like I am, make sure you try one of their freshly baked cakes. You’ll definitely be back for more!
Ecran Noodle Shop
If you’re in the mood for local flavours, visit Ecran Noodle Shop for a delicious bowl of dumpling soup and fresh hand-pulled noodles. The best part? It’s only $2.50! The guys at the shop will literally pull and cook the noodles right before your eyes, so you can rest assured they’re fresh and even more delicious.
For a quick bite, stop by Kampot’s version of Subway: Subworks. These guys really know their subs, and they’re a great late night alternative when every other restaurant around has closed its doors. My personal favorite is the steak and horseradish sub, but feel free to explore all the different varieties they offer. Make sure you grab a bag of Kampot Crisps seasoned with Kampot’s famous black pepper as a side snack.
The Rusty Keyhole
No visit to Kampot would be complete without trying the world-famous (just ask Lonely Planet) ribs at The Rusty Keyhole. For $6 you can order a half-rack of ribs with a side…and you’ll feel very fulfilled after eating it whole whilst the sun sets along the river. Kind of romantic if you ask me.
Honourable mention: Kep
Nearly 40 minutes away from Kampot on a motorbike, Kep is best known for its seafood market. Savoury fresh-caught crabs, grilled prawns and fish, homemade chili and a cold beer are the perfect meal combination when you feel like indulging yourself. The best part is a meal like this will only set you back about $12 (if you feel like “splurging”). Talk about a bargain!
The beach is what attracts the most tourists, but don’t go there expecting the same things you find in Thailand. While the area is clean and quiet, the ocean leaves much to be desired. Sunsets are always beautiful, though, so stay for a bit longer and enjoy the view.
Kep is also the main gateway to an even more relaxed beachfront experience. Jump on the ferry that will take you to Rabbit Island and hammock your days away from tuk tuks. Quiet, serene and with little to no Wi-Fi connection, most travelers stop by this island to unwind and put their feet up before continuing their adventures.