Our next destination in Cambodia after Battambang was Kampot. The city is located on the Praek Tuek Chhu river, just a few kilometres from the Gulf of Thailand. We’d read that it was a laidback and chilled place but had enough going on to keep backpackers happy. Since there were no direct buses from Battambang, we had to take a bus to Phnom Penh, stay overnight, then bus it to Kampot the next day.
The Big Durian
Coffs Harbour has the Big Banana. Kampot has the Big Durian. It’s located in the centre of the city’s biggest roundabout.
Here’s a close up of the Big Durian in all its spiky glory. Lucky it isn’t real because it would smell like a sweaty armpit.
Just like Battambang, the are plenty of French colonial buildings. The old part of town has a number of hotels and restaurants. The food in Kampot was quite varied. We had Mexican and had a really lovely meal at a Swiss restaurant with food cooked by a Cambodian lady who was trained by a European chef.
Our waitress who told us this also worked at the guesthouse we stayed at. She told us a bit of her life story, and the fact she was called a “tomboy” and not a lesbian simply because she had short hair and lesbians had long hair. She also told us her ethnicity was Khmer, Chinese and Thai.
We also came back a couple of times to a Khmer barbecue restaurant as Paul and Elina loved the way they did the squid and I loved the way they did simple garlic and oil spaghetti. There was a cafe we also went to a few times that had traditional Khmer food, but also had the best smoothies.
What was also very noticeable about Kampot, though, was the number of elderly Western men about town, quite a few with much younger Cambodian girlfriends or wives. Cambodia is particularly old-Western-bloke-friendly: draft beer is US50 cents a glass (cocktails are US$4, 2-for-1 during happy hour), cigarettes $1.60 a pack and young, poor women obviously see an old Western bloke as a way out of poverty.
There is still a lot of young backpackers in Kampot, but it is way quieter than the party towns of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, which is really noticeable of a night: everything shuts down about 10 o’clock.
The accomodation also catered to different budgets, from cheapo to high mid-range. We stayed at three different places and each one had a pool.
We found this nice surprise: an old Art Deco cinema. It wasn’t open because it was being converted into a hotel. Paul got talking to one of the French owners, who said it was opening later this year.
Just outside the old part of town is a big lotus pond. There were some nice buildings around and a Khmer temple.
There is a monument in the town honouring the friendship between Cambodia and Vietnam. I don’t know all that much about the relationship between the two countries, but I do know it’s complicated. And that the Vietnamese Army, when it invaded Cambodia in 1977, put a stop to Pol Pot’s genocide of the Cambodian people.
Just outside Kampot are its salt fields. From about December to April, water from the ocean is channelled into the fields, then allowed to evaporate, leaving the salt crystals. The raw salt is then collected, stored in nearby buildings and later cleaned and packaged.
France has been getting its pepper from Kampot since the late 1900s. The Cambodian civil war disrupted pepper farming, but the industry is now in full swing again. We visited La Plantation, run by a Belgian-French couple, about an hour by tuk tuk from Kampot. It was only about 20km, but the dirt road is very rough.
The expert eyes and hands of these women separate the peppercorns into green, red and in-between. Just like capsicum/pepper, they start green then turn red with age. The green ones are milder in taste than the red ones.
Elina wanted something “fun” to do, so Paul found out there was a zipline not far from Kampot. We hired a tuk tuk and drove out to find it. The zipline was riverside. Actually, you ziplined right across the river.
Kep and Kep Beach
Kep is a beachside town about 30 minutes by bus from Kampot. We spent the day there. There were families along the sidewalk by the beach sitting on big mats, eating and drinking, and enjoying the water. There were floaties and shaded beach chairs for rent.
The thing to do at Kep when you’re hungry is to go to the markets and eat chilli crab. (And yes, it was really good!) Other fare for sale at the markets included barbecued skewers of chicken and all sorts of fish.
So if you want crab, prawns, squid or octopus, you buy some, then get it cooked up for an extra cost. Then you buy some rice and bon appetite! We got the crab and it was excellent, albeit messy to eat.
We took a boat back to Kampot instead of the bus. It took two hours and the ride wasn’t very smooth for the first hour, so I took a travelcalm pill, which made me sleepy but at least I wasn’t sick. We finally came into the river mouth south of Kampot towards sunset and saw one or two fishing boats heading out for the night
But then we saw these … they’re boats lashed together. Paul said the woman who sold us the boat tickets had told him about how the local fisherman do this so they can save on fuel: only one boat has its engine on and it propels all the others down the river to the ocean. While one fisherman steers, all the others sit on the deck of one of the boats and play cards.