Better late than never as I finally continue writing about our travels in Cambodia. Today I’m reminiscing about Kampot, a quirky, unhurried town that sits on the banks of Praek Tuek Chhu River in southern Cambodia. Other than some interesting excursions in the surrounding countryside, there’s not much to do in Kampot itself. And that was just perfect. After the intensity of Phnom Penh, it felt good to just be, and not to do. In this post, I describe some of my favourite things about Kampot. They may not sound very exciting, but they hold sweet memories and remind me that slow, easy days of simply absorbing a new place can be just as rewarding as visiting big name attractions.
(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay
It’s actually a promenade, not a dock, and a tidal river, not a bay. But there’s something about Kampot that had me humming Otis Redding’s soulful tune. Every afternoon, a parade of fishing boats leave the nearby Cham Muslim villages for their nightly fishing in the Gulf of Thailand. At 5:15 pm, like clockwork, upwards of 50 boats (I lost count) pass by Kampot. I was amazed by how captivated I was, sitting by the riverside watching the orange and green-painted boats rumble by. We were told this happens every single day. Early in the morning (long before we were up) they pass by Kampot again, returning to their villages before doing it all over again. It’s difficult to imagine what a tough life this must be.
On one of our excursions, I mentioned my fascination with the fishing boats to Jack our tuk tuk driver. He kindly made a small detour to a Cham village just outside Kampot town. It was very quiet and he told us that the fisherman were all sleeping and would wake up later in the afternoon for their nightly fishing ritual. During the day, women and older men tend to chores like mending the fishing nets.
The $5 sunset cruise
This may have been the best value activity of our trip. No need to pre-book, we just climbed aboard one of the aging but charming boats tied to the riverbank. There doesn’t appear to be a fixed schedule. When enough passengers show up, they shove off. There’s nothing fancy about this cruise, but there’s plenty of cold beer, serene landscapes and killer sunsets. We were lucky that our boat left early enough to be in the midst of the fishing boat parade. Sometimes there’s fireflies too, but not on our evening.
The durian roundabout
You have to love a town that has a stinky, lethal-looking fruit in the center of its main roundabout. Durian is one of the region’s primary crops, so it probably isn’t a big deal for locals to see the fruit gracing their town. It had me smiling and thinking maybe my town’s roundabout should have a statue of a salmon or a giant cedar tree or at least something more fun than shrubs.
Rikitikitavi: best value and friendliest staff
I don’t often do shout-outs to specific accommodations, but I’m making an exception for Kampot’s Rikitikitavi. In our month of travel through Cambodia and Laos, it takes the prize for best value and friendliest staff (that’s saying a lot in countries where we were met with nothing but warmth and kindness). We loved our beautiful, comfortable room (much better than places double the price). It was so nice that one hot afternoon we just lounged in our room’s cosy seating area, drinking beer and sobbing as we watched The Killing Fields (they have an extensive DVD library). The rooftop restaurant has a great view to the river and the food was so delicious that we were loath to try other places. But most of all, the staff was just the best. I cried when we left!
Although Mike found it more decaying than charming, I really enjoyed wandering around dusty Kampot with its hodgepodge of styles. There are graceful buildings left over from French colonial times, budget-backpacker places that look like they will crumble in the first wind storm, modern construction around the durian roundabout, and cleverly-designed shops on wheels.
Wat Traoy Koh
This pretty wat has an exquisitely peaceful setting on the banks of the river (across from Kampot). It’s a good thing too, because we were hot and cranky after biking on an ugly highway, in the wrong direction, for at least 30 minutes. It’s actually an easy and pleasant ride from Kampot if you do it right. Don’t be stupid like us. Ask for directions! I left Mike to chill (well…more to stew) in the lovely riverside pagoda while I explored the grounds. The serene atmosphere drove away any lingering funk (except for Mike’s sore butt from the crappy bike seat). Sadly, our stupidity for the day continued when we realized Mike’s camera needed charging and I had forgotten my phone. I managed to salvage one so-so photo, and lots of nice memories.
The riverside promenade and gym
The town has done a nice job on its riverside promenade. It’s abuzz with locals in the cool of the evening. During the day, it’s only crazy tourists like us who go for a mini-workout on the entertaining gym equipment.
Day excursion to Kampot pepper farm and Kep seafood market
Beyond the simple pleasures of hanging around town, I highly recommend a couple of excursions. We hired “Jack the tuk tuk driver” to take us to La Plantation Pepper Farm and to Kep’s crab and seafood market. Here’s one piece of advice: if you go via tuk tuk or motor bike, buy one of those cheap surgical masks to avoid breathing in all the dust on the dirt roads. I used to chuckle when I saw people wearing them, but not anymore.
Although La Planation is rather “touristy”, their excellent tours are run like a well-oiled machine and their guides provide lots of interesting information about the famous Kampot pepper and its production. At the end of the tour we got to sample different types of pepper, and of course, I ended up buying some. Often, I find, when I buy things like spices during our travels, I’m a little disappointed when I try them at home. This time was different. My little bag of La Plantation Kampot pepper was the best pepper I’ve tasted. I wish I’d bought more!
En route to the pepper farm, we passed Secret Lake. It’s not that secret and its serenity belies a disturbing past. The lake is actually a giant dam reservoir that was built by forced labour during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
Our timing for a late lunch was perfect at the Kep seafood market. Shrimp, crab, octopus, and fish are skewered on bamboo sticks and grilled up while you wait. There’s all kinds of dipping sauces ranging in spiciness from hot to hell.
We’re really happy we added Kampot to our Cambodia itinerary. It’s a wonderful place to slow down the pace and while away the time.