If Phnom Penh was my least favorite place in Cambodia (it was), then lovely Kampot was by many measurements my favorite destination. Yes Siem Reap was amazing and fun, but Kampot is a place to which I can see myself returning many times.
Kampot is seriously chill. There are surprisingly several activities available nearby or you can do absolutely nothing and enjoy that immensely. There are cafes and restaurants of all types and some beautiful, if faded, French colonial architecture.
We stayed at Mea Culpa. People come here and some end up staying for weeks or even months. We booked in for a week and stayed for two before heading to Viet Nam. The rooms and grounds are lovely. The staff is super friendly and the wifi is the best I have seen in one month of traveling in Cambodia. As a result, I was able to easily edit and upload a couple of thousand high-resolution photographs and catch up on some writing.
Their restaurant makes great breakfasts (not included but at $25/night for deluxe accommodations who cares). The wood-fired pizzas were among other favorites. They even supply free bicycles and can arrange tours without adding a big commission. Kampot is mainly a place to chill and enjoy the river, architecture and friendly people. Mea Culpa serves that purpose very well.
Getting around: For those inclined this is a great area to rent a scooter to get around. For those like me, not so inclined, tuk tuks are a good alternative. We also made frequent use of Mia Culpa’s free bicycles.
We went to Green House on several occasions. It is a great spot about 7 miles from town along a beautiful bend in the river. It is the only other place I would consider staying at the next time I am in Kampot although Mea Culpa’s location and proximity to so many restaurants and cafes would probably win out.
Still, we would frequently spend the day there, swimming, eating, lounging, and stand up paddle-boarding. I found the large balcony overlooking the river a conducive place to write on my Macbook Pro. Mateo, the French owner and his Khmer partner are super friendly and have a great menu ranging from croissants to roast duck breast with confit.
Pepper farm: Considered by chefs the world over as the finest pepper, the Kampot Pepper industry is making a comeback after the crops were decimated by the Khmer Rouge. At one of the many pepper farms, we toured the plants, I had a great chat with the manager, and even tasted an Absolute Infused Pepper Shot. Put that in a Bloody Mary and you won’t need the Tabasco, seriously!
btw, to be certified as real Kampot Pepper, in addition to being grown in the region, it must be 100% organic and grown on wooden posts. Did you know that red, white, and black peppers all come from the same plant? The only difference is the maturity at which it is harvested, and whether or not the skin is removed.
Salt Flats: Salt is also a big industry in the area. The salt water is brought several kilometers from the ocean and allowed to evaporate in shallow ponds. The harvesting is back-breaking work and the pay is quite low. Whole families work together. The pay is about US$14 for each pond emptied and a family can typically harvest two ponds in a day.
Kep: Kep is a seaside town about 40 minutes by scooter or tuk tuk from Kampot. It is a great place to buy fresh crabs and fish in the local market. The beach was only so so, but we combined it with our salt flat, pepper farm and cave trip making a nice day’s outing. We hired a tuk tuk for about 18 USD for a six-hour day trip and they even threw in a sunset river cruise at the end..
We noticed a lot of gutted building shells pock-marked from bullets. Some looked to have once been nice homes within now crumbling walls. This town was also a popular beach trip for the French colonizers. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Kep and Bokor Mountain continued to be outposts of KR resistance as late as 1990.
Bokor Mountain and Hill Station:
If you want to escape the heat for a few hours, take a trip to Bokor Mountain. The road is too steep for tuk tuks but a scooter will work well or you can hire a driver. The Bokor Palace Hotel & Casino along with shops, a post office, a church and royal residences was constructed by the French in the early 1920’s. They abandoned it in the late 1940’s during the first Indochina War as it had a strong insurgent presence. The hotel or church remains are ghost-town-shells of their former glory. The entire mountain area is part of a National Park and there are several hiking trails. The area is frequently shrouded in fog. Unfortunately, a new mega resort and casino has recently completed and opened. We peeked inside and they do not seem to have attracted any customers yet. I am reasonably sure that will soon change.
Sihanoukville: For many, Sihanoukville or Snooky as it is known, is a destination onto itself. A beachside town, it actually has four distinct beaches. I had originally planned to spend several days there but we liked Kampot so much we just kept extending our time at Mia Culpa.
We did go for the day, the goal being to obtain our Vietnam visas from their consulate. As this is where visa applications are sent from Phnom Pehn to be processed it seemed like a no-brainer. A minivan from Kampot took 2.5 hours and cost $7. Mia Culpa booked it and they picked us up at the guesthouse.
You can read detailed instructions on how to get your Vietnam Visa in Sihanoukville here. One thing has changed since this article was written. You now have to return the next day (rather than wait 15 minutes) to pick up your passport. However, I very politely pleaded and they said I could return at 4:00 pm to get mine. Another tip: You do need a passport photo for your application. From where the minivan drops you, walk downhill about 4 shops. There you will find a sporting goods store. Walk to the back and there is a photo studio where you can have your photos made quickly and cheaply.
We met our friend Robert for lunch and the three of us took a little tour of town and the various beaches. He has lived there on and off and so made a great guide.
One can scuba dive but beware. Dive safety standards are notoriously lax in Cambodia. I have witnessed some blatantly dangerous diving practices around Sihanoukville that sicken me. I checked out many dive shops both before and while in town. I did not have time to dive this time, but the only operator I would recommend is Scuba Nation. Avoid Island Divers and any non-PADI dive shops in Cambodia!
We spent the night near the beach as it was actually cheaper for a room and a return on the scheduled 8 am mini van. Otherwise, we would have had to pay $40 for a private taxi to take us back that afternoon. Dinner on the sand rounded out a fun day.
Green House and Mia Culpa: See above. Both are worthy and received our repeat business!
Rusty Keyhole: Simply great ribs and very popular. You may have to wait a bit for a table.
Epic Arts Café: This NGO run cafe restaurant runs special education projects with an emphasis on the arts. Most of the staff are deaf. The food and coffee are very good. This was a nice alternative breakfast spot for us.
Cafe Espresso: I heard so many great things about this coffee shop and really wanted to go. Unfortunately they closed for the low season (when we were there). Oh well, next time.
There are many more restaurants and cafes worth checking out in this lovely town by the river. There is also live music in town several nights each week. We loved Kampot and are already talking about another visit next year.
Getting in and out:
We took the Giant Ibis bus (best and quickest) to reach Kampot from Phnom Penh. The trip took about four hours with a rest stop halfway.
From Kampot we took a mini van to the border, another mini van to Ha Tien, the city 5 km past the border, and transferred to a bus to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. This was a slower trip with a 30 minute wait at the border and a two-hour wait for the bus in Ha Tien. This trip took about 8-9 hours overall and cost $18 each, booked out of Kampot. We were told the trip would be much faster, but overall it worked out well as we did not have to deal with the crooked touts at the border.