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Kampot – Riverside retreat – Travelguide

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Last update: November 2021


On my travels in Southeast Asia I stumbled across this small town and was almost immediately taken in by the laid back atmosphere. Back in the day it took an endless journey on a bumpy minivan ride from Phnom Penh and nowadays it hasn’t gotten much better. Well, I guess the drive is now reduced to about 3.5 to 4 hours (as advertised), but it’s still as bumpy as ever.

The reward at the end of the drive however is great and so worth it. Since that first visit many have followed and to this day I still get this inner smile when thinking of Kampot. The fact that more and more travelers are adding Kampot to their Banana Pancake Trail itinerary (pre Covid-19 of course) is not likely going to change that. You’re all more than welcome here to share the tranquility and beauty this dreamy town has to offer.


Kampot countryside
Kampot countryside




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Kampot General Info


During the French reign Kampot was favored by the French as one of their preferred getaways. The Elephant Mountains were an ideal escape from the brutal Cambodian heat. Also, the Preaek Tuek Chhu river proved to be the perfect playground for leisure activities like fishing, swimming and boating. Several crumbling remains of French architecture are still visible throughout the area. The former French visitors however, have since been replaced by holidaying NGO workers and English teacher expats. Furthermore, Kampot is subject to a steadily growing number of foreign and domestic tourists as well.

The area is famous for quality pepper and tropical fruit like mango, coconut and durian. This riverside town has the best of all worlds with a more than pleasant small town vibe and magnificent fertile rural lands surrounding it. Even more so, Kampot is bordered by the Elephant mountains in the West, as well as the Gulf of Thailand in the South. What’s not to love?


Kampot durian, world famous in Cambodia



Reasons (not) to visit Kampot


4 Reasons to visit Kampot

  • Amazing countryside: The surroundings of Kampot are wonderful to explore and has something for everyone. There’s Bokor mountain with a national park including forest and waterfalls, the Preaek Tuek Chhu river, the Gulf of Thailand, salt flats, rural and agricultural plains.

  • The people: Did you know that in 2021 the “Rough Guides” named Cambodia as the friendliest country in the world? And yes, I concur big time. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it was the friendliness of the Kampotians that tipped the scales.

  • Food: Did I say foodie heaven? Well, maybe not, but for sure you will not be deprived of a good meal here. There’s a large concentration of eateries in the riverside area of the town and honestly, most of them are very good. Make sure to read up on my Kampot restaurant recommendations in the “where to eat” chapter of this article.

  • The laid-back atmosphere: Kampot isn’t (yet) like Pai in Thailand or Ubud on Bali. Yes, yoga classes, smashed avocado lunches and kombucha tea are heavily sought after and thus on offer in Kampot. However, the look and feel here is very different from the aforementioned so called bohemian destinations. It doesn’t have the compulsive “coming to terms with my inner self” and “seeking spiritual awareness” kind of crowd and atmosphere that Pai and Ubud display (let’s be honest guys). It’s genuinely laid-back and nobody cares if you wear elephant pants with matching local artisan flip-flops or not.


Downtown Kampot


4 Reasons not to visit Kampot

  • The laid-back atmosphere: As they say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Kampot might be a little too laid-back for some. It’s certainly not a party destination and there isn’t much in the sense of night life. In fact, after 11 at night the streets are practically empty. The only parties going on after that hour are the karaoke blaring get-togethers of the Phnom Penh weekend trippers.

  • No luxury: Kampot is not a luxury destination. Of course there a few nice upscale accommodations, but there’s only one 5-star hotel and even that one is very modest compared to their peers in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. There is no shopping mall and no posh restaurants even though food options are plenty.

  • No temples: If you were expecting to find Angkor Wat style culture and temples, then you will definitely be disappointed. Somehow the Angkorian age temples seem to be (almost) non-existent in this part of Cambodia. Sure, you’ll find pagodas here and there, but they are modern day Buddha shrines. There is also an interesting cave temple at Phnom Chhngok, but nowhere near the Angkor Wat grandeur.

  • No beach: You’re in the South of Cambodia, relatively close to the sea, but there is no beach. You can visit the beach if you want to, but you will have to go to nearby Kep town. Although it’s not overly difficult to get to Kep, I personally find it a bit of a hassle just to go to the beach, also because the Kep beach is just soso. If you really need to swim, why not try the river?


View over the river
Preaek Tuek Chhu river



Best time to visit Kampot


Weather

Because Kampot is close to the sea the heat is more moderate than in some of the inland regions of Cambodia. That doesn’t mean it’s always pleasantly cool though. Median temperatures are pretty much even around 31 degrees Celsius for the whole year. Rain is also possible for each month of the year, but there is a distinct wet season that already starts in April and ends early December with September and October being the wettest months.


Events

The usual national holidays like New Year and Pchum Benh are also celebrated in Kampot. Workers from Phnom Penh will travel home to be with their families during the festivities. However, these events don’t really seem to affect Kampot in terms of congestion. Accommodation rates usually do see a sharp increase around these festivities, as foreign ngo workers and English teachers based in Phnom Penh flock the coastal areas for their holidays as well.


Making new friends


So, when to go?

Weather-wise, December and January are the best months to visit Kampot, because of less rain. However, with the exception of maybe September and October, the rain usually comes in short downpours, leaving the rest of the day sunny and dry.

There is no real high season in Kampot, but as said some of the holidays and also weekends can cause an increase of accommodation rates. So actually, any time is good to visit Kampot. Just bring an umbrella in September and October.



Things to see/do in Kampot


Need to visit Cambodia during Covid-19 times? Check the latest Cambodia visa requirements here!


Motorbike tour

My favorite activity in Kampot turned out to be just touring the surroundings on a rental motorbike. The whole area is a real treat for the eye with very little traffic. Even in the town itself the streets are not very busy. If you’re reluctant to go on your own try a motorbike tour. Either sit on the back or ride yourself. We went with local tour company “Scooter Trails” and were very pleased. They took us out to visit the salt flats, a pepper farm, the secret lake and some wonderful countryside with a very passionate guide. Unfortunately the company didn’t make it past Covid-19, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find a good substitute. Just ask around at your guesthouse or hotel.


Sorting the pepper at Kampot pepperfarm
Meticulously sorting the famous Kampot pepper

Boat tour

The boat tour from ‘Love the River’ was really, really good. 3 hours at $20 p/p on Bjorns boat cruising the river and its side arms was incredibly interesting and relaxing. Bjorn welcomes you with fresh fruit and has heaps of information about the river, Kampot itself and the people living there. We also visited several fruit orchards and saw where the famous Kampot durians are grown. Starting point is 8 km North of Kampot at the Greenhouse resort.

Bokor Hill Station

Towering over Kampot at 1000 m height is Bokor Hill Station. Built by the French elite in the 1920’s to escape the heat and left to crumble after they retreated in the 1950’s. The once so lively settlement is now reduced to a few ghost-like buildings. What remains is a decaying catholic church, an old casino now crumbled into a romantic ruin, the modest former post-office and a handful of other smaller structures.


Old church on Bokor Hill
Old Catholic church

Enjoy the fantastic views from the platforms all the way up to the Vietnamese Phu Quoc Island on clear days. Above all, the real attraction here is the eerie atmosphere. Especially when patches of mist come in. The surroundings and the desolate state of the buildings bring images to mind of days gone by. Romantic images of when the hill station was bustling with French excitement. But also harsh images of Vietnamese soldiers in a shoot out with the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge army in 1979. Apparently the Vietnamese took cover in the casino while the Khmer Rouge entrenched themselves in the church.

Drive up Bokor Hill

The best way by far to get to Bokor hill station is with your own (rental) motorbike. The new road winding its way up the hill is a real joy to drive. Make a stop to see the ‘Black Palace’, once the holiday residence of King Sihanouk. The very modest residence is now in a deteriorating state and covered in reddish/orange lichen. Just a few steps from the palace is the 29m high statue of mythical Yeay Mao (grandma mao) looking out over the sea for her long lost husband.


Yeay Mao statue near Bokor Hill station
29m high Grandma Mao

Continue your journey approximately 4 km past the casino to the Popokvil waterfall. The name means ‘swirling clouds’ and when you reach the 2nd tier of the waterfall you’ll understand why. Clouds of mist induced by the spray of the waterfall are swirling around in a magical dance. Skip the waterfall in dry season. No rain means there’s no feed for the waterfall. Consequently, it won’t be much more than a trickle.

I realize that motorbikes are not for everyone. As an alternative, strike a deal with one of the many tuk-tuks to take you up the hill or ask your guesthouse to hook you up with an air-conditioned minivan.

Update: April 2019

We re-visited Kampot and on Bokor mountain a lot has changed. First of all, the old casino is renovated and now serves as a hotel. The renovation is done nicely, but the eerie romantic charm of the decaying building is no more. Second, there’s a huge new hotel/casino mainly serving Chinese clientele. Finally, there’s a lot of other development going on. We saw a newly built string of shop houses that were not yet occupied, several humongous hangars and on two locations they were laying enormous concrete foundations…for, I have no idea what for, but it’s going to be big.


The old casino “Bokor Palace”
Renovated old casino
New Chinese casino

The old church and some smaller old houses are still there, as are the fantastic views. Well, I guess that’s progress, but part of the charm is gone. Just come here for the neat ride up the mountain and to enjoy the views.

Kep

Beach town Kep, another favorite weekend retreat, is very close to Kampot. The distance between the two towns is a mere 25 km. Thus , it’s easy to travel by tuk-tuk, motorbike or even bicycle for a half day visit to the crab marke t or a whole day if you add some beach time to it.

Caves

There are many interesting caves in the limestone rocks surrounding Kampot. First of all, on road 33 towards Kep take a left onto road 139 and continue until you see the sign for Phnom Kbal Romeas. Admission for this interesting cave is $1. Climbodia also has an excellent (but a tad expensive) rock climbing operation here.


Up-skirt photo of me


Second, continue on road 139 and just past the Angsdok pagoda take a right (look for signs). To your left you will see a hill which has the Phnom Chhngok cave. Inside is an elephant shaped rock that is used as a shrine and there’s even a small ancient temple inside. There are many small passages inside the cave so maybe you should consider taking one of the kids with you that offer themselves as guides. You will have to pay them afterwards of course (whatever you feel to be appropriate), but they know the caves inside out.

Finally, after about 10km on the same road get back on road 33 towards Kep. 1.5km out is Phnom Sorsia with another cave. Actually this cave isn’t that interesting, but there’s a pagoda on top of the hill offering fantastic views over the rice fields and flamboyant trees.


View from Phnom Sorsia over the Kampot rice fields
View from Phnom Sorsia


Motorized Adventure Sports

There are plenty of motorized adventure sport activities possible around Kampot. To be honest, I don’t like it since they mess up the tranquil, relaxing vibe of Kampot. But hey, that’s just one man’s opinion and you should feel free to join in these activities if you want. There are ATV’s, dirt bikes, quads and water jet boats for rent.

Or can I interest you in some kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, kite boarding maybe? Just as adventurous and a lot less disturbing (admittedly not completely in-disturbing) to the environment.


Travel Insurance

If you like to indulge in adventurous activities, then always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that also covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. Also make sure you are covered for adventure sports and activities like scuba diving, hiking and perhaps even your motor bike rental adventures. Some insurers offer to buy cover online, even if you’re already in the middle of traveling.

Read more about travel insurance here, or get an instant quote right now!



Where to stay in Kampot


Stay in town if you enjoy a more lively (but still moderate) evening atmosphere. There are plenty of restaurants and drinking establishments, just don’t expect a big city night life scene. Beware though that rates for most guesthouses facing the river front tend to be slightly higher then elsewhere. Interesting deals can be found 1 or 2 blocks away from the riverside. If it’s relaxation you seek and you would like to wake up surrounded by nature then there are ample options outside of town along the river.


Bamboo Bungalow
Budget = from $10 to $30
If you have your own transport or you don’t mind the 20 minute walk to the town center then this is where your weekend retreat becomes a true holiday. Bungalows in a garden setting and bungalows over the river.


Sabay Beach
Budget = from $10 to $30
8 km North from the town in a tranquil setting. Beautiful views, excellent service, relaxing atmosphere. There’s something special about staying in the jungle on the riverside. Together with the delicious food they serve, it makes you want to stay forever.


Rikitikitavi
Midrange = from $30 to $75
Centrally located at the riverside with comfortable rooms. The staff here is excellent and very friendly. Upgrade your weekend retreat by staying at this upscale accommodation without breaking the bank. Breakfast included.


Hotel Five.S
Mid Range = from $30 to $75
Very nice boutique hotel with spacious and beautifully decorated rooms. There is a small swimming pool with a cozy outside area. We spent a great and relaxing week in one of the rooms with a good sized balcony. The included breakfast was tasty and plentiful.


Kampot has a large number of small scale and boutique resorts with more opening each year. To compare rates and read reviews check out Agoda.com.



Where to eat in Kampot


Kampot has quite a reputation as a good place to satisfy your culinary cravings. Maybe not excellent, but the choice of restaurants is enormous. Next to good and authentic Khmer restaurants there is a large number of decent Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food options. Also, as of late there has been an influx of expat restaurant pioneers. As a result, Western palates are sure to be satisfied.



Update October 2021

Unfortunately I had to delete some of my restaurant recommendations here since the economical effects of Covid-19 hit Kampot really hard. More than a few restaurants did not survive the almost complete tourism halt in Cambodia. With the country opening up in November I’m positive though that there are plenty of good quality options left to continue Kampot’s excellent foodie reputation. The eateries below are definitely open and ready for your visit.


Heng Heng Night, Street 700. Locals just love the barbecue and “hotpot” here. While the barbecue is all about kroeung (khmer curry) spiced meats, the hotpot is served with loads of fresh seafood and veggies for $10. A small fortune compared to other Khmer food outlets, but with one dollar beers who’s complaining?

Heng Heng hotpot ingredients

Simple Things Restaurant. #54, Old Market street. Good to know that Kampot also has a decent vegetarian and vegan option. Veggie burgers, pizza, creative salads, Mediterranean falafel, humus, delicious shakes, smoothies and yoga classes.

Life can be simple, life can be good

Yean Long, Road 33, Delicious, authentic, cheap, clean and fast are what sums up this roadside Khmer restaurant. Simple, but wonderful flavors. They also feature seafood options like crab with Kampot green pepper. Rub shoulders with the locals, that by the way are very welcoming and love seeing you there.

Iconic dish of Crab with kampot pepper


And the winners are!

bARACA, #7, Street 726. Could this be the most creative restaurant in Kampot? Well, opinions vary, but they have my vote. They specialize in mostly, but not only, Mediterranean tapas. Tapas is a good way to try a lot of flavors and to test the chef’s capabilities. I’ve spent loads of time in Spain so I do know my tapas. I’m just saying, if your grandmother was Spanish, this is how she would have prepared the albondigas. The chef here shows great creativity and on top of that they serve excellent wines.

Twenty three Bistro, #23, Street 726. Oh My God, if you’ve found this place you’re a lucky person indeed. Our meal here might not have been the healthiest, but we sure enjoyed the freshness of ingredients, the delicate flavors, the professional touch of the chef and the outstanding service. We went from home made duck liver pate to pork belly on sweet potato mash and ended with chocolate ganache topped with salted caramel. The setting is very informal and prices are friendly.


L’Osteria, Street 703. We can never go for long periods without craving good Italian food. Italian restaurants are everywhere in Asia, but unfortunately most of them are disappointing unless you pay top dollar (I’m not talking pizza). I understand that imported ingredients are expensive and difficult to source fresh, but l’Osteria proves that it is possible. Who would have thought that we would have our best Italian meal in 10 years of South East Asia at this tiny little restaurant in Kampot. All for a reasonable price I might add so come and taste for yourself. The always friendly and accommodating owner Francesco will welcome you with open arms.


It seems that my favorite choices in Kampot turn out to be Western style food restaurants. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally into Khmer food and I only seek out Western food every now and then. I mean, we all need some variety in our diet, right? More often than not you end up paying premium with the quality way beyond par, but not in Kampot. My theory, based on nothing more than positive attitude, is that the expatriate chefs in Kampot are so happy to live here, they can’t help but shine.



How to get to Kampot

Multiple minivans and buses leave from Phnom Penh to Kampot every day with tickets as low as $5.

Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). The transport planner below is very easy to use. Just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.



There’s also a train between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville with a stopover in Kampot. Until further notice it only runs in weekends and on public holidays. Tickets from Phnom Penh to Kampot are $7. Check the train schedule here.



Getting around in Kampot


The town center has everything you need within walking distance, but tuk-tuks are abundant if you don’t feel like walking. Short fares in town should not be over $2, bargain hard though. If your accommodation is out of town or you plan to venture the surroundings of Kampot it’s advisable to rent a motorbike scooter for $6 p/d or hire a tuk-tuk for the day.

Tuk-tuk rides from Kampot to Kep are between $10-$15 one way and $15-$20 for return trips depending on your negotiation skills. Use the popular transport apps Grab or PassApp if price haggling isn’t your strong point.



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