The languid feel of the south coast is embodied in Kampot and Kep, which showcase a number of superb natural attractions to compliment the beaches of Sihanoukville. The region’s major draw card is Bokor National Park, overlooking Kampot and encompassing the Elephant Mountains and several waterfalls, this otherworldly hilltop attraction is one of the top sights in the country.
The riverine setting of Kampot means sunset cruises, kayak tours and general water-based lounging are the main attractions, while the fishing villages, salt marshes and iconic Kampot pepper farms found along the road to Kep are regional industries that make for great outings.
There is even a name – Kampot Dar Laing – given to the pastime of meandering along the riverside at sunset. Kep is famed for its beach and crab market, along with the battered former villas of the Cambodian elite that have remained untouched since being ravaged by civil war. The caves of Kompong Trach are nearby, while Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) is said to have the finest sands in the region.
The real joy in Kampot is strolling around the wide, empty streets where crumbling colonial villas and charming locals create a unique and peaceful atmosphere which keeps many longer than expected.
Kampot sightseeing attractions
Tek Chhou Falls: Massively popular with locals as a bathing and picnic spot, the falls are more a set of slow moving rapids (likely to become slower with a dam being built upstream) that nonetheless make a pleasant stopover spot after a hard day up the hill or trekking. Plenty of food stalls and picnic platforms to choose from, along with a couple of decent strips of sand, the drive here through the durian fields in picturesque, if hard on the nose. Tek Chhou Road, 9kms north of town, Moto US$5 return.
Bokor National Park: The main reason for a Kampot visit is a day-trip up the hill to the mysterious yet still unfathomably glorious Bokor Mountain, one of the most spectacular Cambodian sights. Once a colonial resort town built by the French to escape the lowland heat, the complex was battered by the Khmer Rouge, and the inevitable development of the park has seen new modernity encroach but wandering around the old bullet-ridden church or the moss-clad shell of the former casino hotel is still breathtaking, as are the views down to Phu Quoc Island and Vietnam.
The resort sits within the National Park, home to a huge variety of wildlife that makes for some great adventure trekking. Access is notoriously fickle owing to the developers, but the 32kms winding road is slowly being upgraded. Latest reports indicate that visits must be done through and agent, so it is essential to check the status of the hill before making any plans. Tour prices start at around US$10 per person and can be combined with a visit to the Tek Chhou falls and a sunset cruise on the way back to town for a few dollars extra.
Zoo: It may seem a strange location for a zoo, but the Kampot version does exist, although not really worth a visit in its own right. Better to visit in conjunction with an outing to the Tek Chhouu rapids just upstream. For a small fee you can drive around the enclosure on your moto.
Caves: There are a number of caves dotted around Kampot that can be reached by bicycle or motorbike, most notably at Phnom Chhnok, where ancient ruins and eager children with flashlights will welcome you. A little further on is Phnom Sorsia, known for its formation that (allegedly) resembles an elephant and sweeping views of the surrounding paddies.
Epic Arts Cafe: If you time it right, you can be treated to a performance from disabled students that are cared for at this well-run cafe and vocational training centre (rehearsals take place every Tuesday and Thursday afternoons). The kids, many of whom are deaf or mentally handicapped, are a delight. This worthy institution also offers decent meals and even homemade cakes, the apple bagels with cream cheese are highly recommended.
Kep sightseeing attractions
Ko Tonsay: Most visitors to Kep will take a trip out to Ko Tonsay (Rabbit Island). The pristine beaches are probably the best in all of Cambodia, thankfully free of crowds and litter. The island itself can be walked around in just three hours, a splendidly scenic walk through fishing families and rare wildlife. Overnight accommodation is available on the main beach for US$5-$7 in rustic little bungalows with mosquito nets and no reliable electricity. The food on offer is superb. Boats depart pier 1km east of Kep beach when full till 17:00, one hour, Call Sophat (tel: +855 12 374 736) for tickets or book at your accommodation.
Abandoned Mansions: Behind the cluster of guesthouses, up the wooded road to the side of the bus station, is a track heading up to three former mansions of Kep’s rich and famous, designed by the famous Cambodia architect Vann Molyvann. The old, crumbling colonial buildings still retain a sense of majesty, while the damage on display from bullets and mortars when the region was once a Khmer Rouge battleground are a reminder of past tensions, now a world away.
Kompong Trach: Once a stronghold of Pol Pot’s forces, the district of Kompong Trach grew to fame in 1994 when three Western travellers were kidnapped and murdered by remnants of the Khmer Rouge. Today, the only ambush will be from children keen to show you around the small set of caves (for a small fee) in the limestone karsts, which are dotted with shrines and pagodas – Best visited in combination with a trip to any of the local pepper fields. 23kms north of Kep, moto: US$5-$8 return.