Known for its salt pans and pepper plantations, Kampot is a laid back Cambodian city with a small town feel. My travel buddy, Salomie, and I arrived via a bus from shitty Sihanoukville and the process was pretty painless. We simply booked tickets via our hotel in Snooky and, if I remember correctly, the two-hour trip was about $6 a pop and included a collection from our hotel and a drop off in the centre of town.
Prior to arriving, we’d booked a single night’s accommodation to get the ‘lay of the land’ , a good thing because our hotel turned out to be a long distance away from the centre of town. Unlike Chiang Mai, which has an epicentre yet loads going on around it, Kampot is a big place with a very small ‘lekker zone’ – a few streets that kind of run parallel to each other that are filled with restaurants, bars and cutesy little shops.
The yummiest thing I ate was the famous red soup at Captain Chim’s. It tastes a bit like a rich South African stew. Don’t miss it!
They do a brilliant dragonfruit shake too!
Running perpendicular to the ‘restaurant streets’ is a river where you can take in amazing sunsets. Anything outside of that zone is completely and utterly meh.
After our stay at the initial spot, which was rubbish, we were happy to check into White Pigeon, a lovely, super clean little guesthouse two minutes from where you want to be. One thing we learned the hard way was that, in Cambodia, the piccies of your hotel online more often than not do not match up to what you see online so we made a point of personally vetting all the available suitably situated guest houses we found on Booking.com.
Thank God, we did because one of them was so awful it was a joke and I’m sorry I can’t remember its name. It had a bar downstairs that was full of drunken old dudes and, when we asked if we could view the room (which was currently occupied) the guy who was in it happened to be there. He made some leery comment along the lines of ‘Hey, I don’t mind two ladies in my room…’ before throwing his key at the barmaid. We only had to stick our head in for two seconds before running away. The room was a windowless, teeny tiny hole (the bed took up the entire space) that reminded me of a cabin on a ship and was strewn with at least two dozen cigarette boxes. Inexplicably, this was the same price as lovely White Pigeon so I can’t stress the importance of personally viewing or going on the recommendation of someone you trust.
All that aside, I really liked Kampot but you’d probably go mad after two to three days, depending on your attention span, as there’s not much to do other than eat out, dop and chill on a very small-scale. In a way, it kind of reminded me a bit of Graaff-Reinet. A main road with some cool places to eat and drink surrounded by a dusty, boring town before you get to the farms.
Speaking of farms, this is the best thing about Kampot and what made the trip worthwhile because, without them, the city doesn’t offer anything you couldn’t find in Siem Reap. I booked a day tour for just $13 (R166) that included a trip to the salt pans, a pepper farm, a bat cave/temple and Kep, a nearby seaside town. (Due to a work situation, Salomie had returned to Chiang Mai so at this point it was just me and I’m sorry for that ‘cos this daytrip was one of the highlights of my entire trip to Cambodia.)
My friendly guide picked me up in a minivan and we stopped at a few other spots to pick up other tourists before setting off. (I had a good laugh because four of the others were all wearing striped tops and looked like the kind of thing stupid tourists wear on a trip to Paris. My flu was at its peak at this point so I was sky-high on a cocktail of meds and I rudely said as much before asking where they were from. ‘France’, they grumbled. ‘And we didn’t plan this’. #Awkward.)
The moment we left Kampot’s ‘city area’ it revealed itself to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in ages. The lush, green landscape that unfurled via the window of the van included a village on stilts fully shaded by palm trees. The huts were connected via walk ways spanning lily ponds and rice paddies dotted with waving, naked children; workers in pointed hats and big, white cows. I wish I had a picture of this but I don’t. My camera can’t focus in a moving vehicle and, sadly, we didn’t stop.
The salt pan stop was a slight let down as rain had washed away the salt exposing what might as well have been a giant clay tennis court.
We were even less impressed when asked if we wanted to watch a short video about the farm for a couple of dollars. (‘No, thanks!’ / ‘Non, merci!’) We did, however, get to taste different types of salt and watch women sort it out by hand.
Fortunately, the pepper farm, French and Belgian-owned La Plantation, was faaabulous and I felt like I was visiting an Asian Franschhoek or Constantia.
I really enjoyed the super interesting tasting where we got to learn more about pepper. I had no clue that red, black, green and white all come from the same plant and it’s just the maturation stage and the way it’s harvested that dictates which type you end up with.
Our next stop was a cave where Cambodians used to hide from the Khmer Rouge back in the day. It involved a climb up ten million stairs that nearly killed me and don’t remember too much of it. It’s only in retrospect that I realise how ill I was and I probably should’ve been in bed rather than out and about but fuck it. It’s not every day you’re in Kampot.
After a brief
spell of unconsciousness nap in the van, I woke up in our last stop, Kep. Back in its glory days, Kep was considered the Saint Tropez of Cambodia, an ultra glamorous spot where the local elite – and even royalty – would live it up by the sea. By the 70s, it was an abandoned ghost town thanks to the Khmer Rouge which is so fucking evil I can’t even begin to describe how I feel about it. I knew so little about it before coming here but walking around with people still suffering from its effects is hella intense.
Today, Kep is a sleepy seaside town known for its killer good seafood and once glorious but now spooky and crumbling abandoned colonial-style mansions.
Our guide suggested a particular seafood restaurant and stopped right outside of it but I ignored the suggested and walked off to Holy Crab, a few doors down, as it had gotten great reviews on TripAdvisor and it didn’t disappoint. I got so into my crab that I managed to rip my thumb open on its shell and bled like a mofo thanks to all the aspirin flowing through my veins and I didn’t even care. That lunch was #worthit.
The next day I said goodbye to Cambodia, climbing onto a bus that would take me to Phnom Penh so I could fly out to my next stop, Yangon in Myanmar. When I slipped into my seat on the plane I felt a sense of relief that’s difficult to explain. Cambodia is one hell of complex country to visit. If you’re not sensitive to everything around you, you can drink your cocktail and suck up all the ‘cream’ without being too affected. But if you’re not, you’ll really feel the shadow of Pol Pot that still looms across the country, making it an incredible yet haunting place to be. As the plane took off, I watched the lights of the city zoom away and then, finally, I cried and cried and cried.