Away from the action of Sihanoukville, but still blessed with some of the most pristine coastline in Asia, the twin towns of Kampot and Kep laze along beaches and rivers that are once again enticing travellers searching for a quiet break, but one with plenty of activities. Kampot is a quaint yet crumbling colonial port, all but abandoned in the 1960s as the new port of Sihanoukville and eventually civil war caused a widespread evacuation.
Today, it remains very much in a time warp, its wide streets showcasing an affluent past but also a raw beauty unlike anything else found in Cambodia. The geographical location means a dizzying array of tourist-friendly attractions in Kampot and Kep, from mountain hikes to deserted beaches, caves and waterfalls to unspoilt countryside and some of the finest fresh food in the land.
Brief guide to Kampot and Kep
Many travellers head to Kampot to visit Bokor National Park, and the once-glamorous resort town perched on top of Bokor Mountain. Here, the French sought to build a retreat to escape from the oppressive Asian heat and they succeeded in constructing a hotel, church, casino and even classrooms in their own slice of heaven, one with unrivalled views from a sheer cliff face that look down on Vietnam.
The national park is home to several endangered wildlife species, and the trekking is gruelling but rewarding, with gibbons and rare birds serenading you on your journey. An incredible, haunting atmosphere still exists, with the scenery a photographer’s paradise – a visit up ‘the hill’ is not to be missed.
Kep was once the playground of the Cambodian elite, and during the 1950s many well-heeled Khmers vacationed in the mansions overlooking the main beach. The Khmer Rouge swept through the town, and a walk through the former residences is an eerie evocation of past glamour and gore.
Now establishing itself once again as the upmarket resort destination in Cambodia, Kep is enjoying its own renaissance, with the nearby pepper plantations and salt fields a must see. Kampot pepper is world famous, and there was a time when no French restaurant would serve anything else. Wide plantations can be explored on foot, while the salt flats and sleepy fishing villages along the coast make for a fascinating adventure.
Another highlight of the area is the seafood, with Kampot and Kep in an ideal position to enjoy the abundant fare offered up by the many tributaries and silted flats in addition to the generous ocean and rivers. When it comes to dining in Kampot and Kep there is everything from BBQ stalls and fruit shake vendors to fine dining, with a host of staples in between.
The town is blessed with an abundance of gentrified expats who ensure that the bar scene is always humming, if lowly, and a surprising range of European wines and spirits can be found. No visit to Kep is complete without a stopover at the fabled crab market, and Kampot pepper is the perfect accompaniment. Offshore from Kep is Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island), where the local fishermen boast of the whitest sands in Cambodia.
There is an excellent range of accommodation in Kampot and Kep. The former has over a dozen guesthouses with a fine range of budget rooms, while flashpackers can find boutique bungalows with WiFi. Along the riverfront in town sit another handful of charming colonial buildings that have grown into hotels, while upstream there are several chill-out type places that really are a getaway from it all. In Kep, the accommodation is generally more resort-style, mostly clustered onto the small hill where a range of properties offer bungalows, tee-pees and rooms across a range of budgets.
Getting there and away is easy thanks to the improved road connections with the capital, and transport in Kampot and Kep ranges from motos and tuk-tuks on short trips, to taxis and buses on the longer. Just two hours away from Sihanoukville, and only three hours from Phnom Penh, Kampot and Kep are still thankfully untouched by mass market tourism and development.
This won’t last – the port is being developed for cruise ships and the Bokor Hill site is being turned into a new casino by the same group that operates Angkor. For now, however, there is no better place in Cambodia to unwind for a few days and enjoy its stunning natural beauty.