As with most Asian bus travel, our trip from Phnom Penh to Kep took considerably longer than advertised and we pulled in to the beachside town after 5 hours on the road. We say town, but village is probably more appropriate to its size and we found little by way of a cohesive community feel. This is unsurprising given that a large number of the properties lie unoccupied and abandoned. Nevertheless, there is a charm to Kept that we enjoyed. We had booked to stay at the Boat House, a place which, like the rest of the town, had seen better days. It was run by a crazy Frenchman and his Cambodian partner. At first glance, it appeared that we were the only guests, save for the four-legged feline version, and the whole place was in need of a good clean and an upgrade. We were a bit dubious at first but by the time we left the following day we had decided that it was glorious.
Kep is famous for its crab and we made sampling the local fare top of our agenda that evening. It took us about 15 minutes to walk to the Crab Market, which is also one of the must-see spots in Kep. The market itself was pretty grimy, not the sort of place where we felt any desire to linger but we did a cursory tour before selecting a restaurant from the many that line the waterfront offering all manner of seafood. It was quite pleasant sitting on on the water’s edge but our tip is look out to the horizon and not at the immediate shoreline below you. Where we sat it was covered in litter. We were beginning to notice that the Cambodian’s attitude to litter is pretty lax and it lines nearly every road we have been on. On the upside, the crab cooked in a Kampot green pepper sauce was pretty dam good. It was so good that we forgot to take a picture and delved straight in to eating it.
The next day we set out to see Kep’s limited but pretty sights. First we tackled the loop walk in Kep National Park, which is a convenient two minute walk from the main town. We attempted to pay the nominal fee at the hut by the entrance gate, but there was no one in sight and even the compulsory hammock was unoccupied.
The loop is really well signed and the track easy going. There is a climb but it is a long and gentle one. There are tracks that you can take other than the loop, but we were advised by the guesthouse that at the time we visited it was likely to be really overgrown and need cutting back. In any case, the 8km loop seemed enough for us in the heat. The jungle offered shade from the main heat of the day and the sea breeze was very welcome.
There are some nice viewpoints along the route, all equipped with benches sponsored by restaurants and guesthouses in town. We saw very few other people but did spot the odd red squirrel and monkey as we walked.
At the end of the walk we cut back down towards the coast past some crumbling French villas and bucolic Cambodian scenes.
Kep is home to an array of bizarre and not particularly attractive statues including a strange depiction of a woman holding a dolphin aloft and the large ‘Welcome to Kep’ crab out in the sea.
Kep beach is quite nice with a sizeable crescent of golden sand. There is a bit of a litter problem and we aren’t sure how much you would actually want to use the beach; the locals don’t seem to, they prefer to rent shaded deck chairs on the pavement that runs behind the beach. We think we probably would have felt a bit uncomfortable sat out in swimsuits but it’s nice enough for a walk.
The walk, though not strenuous enough to be described as a hike, was a great way to fill a morning and we felt that we had done Kep. We filled our afternoon with chilling in the shade, reading and doing some blog. It turns out that the crazy guesthouse was an excellent place to relax and if it had a pool there’s a good chance that we would still be there now. The food wasn’t half bad either.
The next morning we bundled into a tuk tuk for the 30 minute journey to Kampot. The drive is fairly unremarkable and the outskirts of Kampot are not particularly pretty, but it improves quickly. We dumped our bags at our hotel and went in search of any vegetables that we could find that weren’t fried. Simple Things was our haven and as soon as we read the menu we knew that we would be back for multiple visits. It’s a vegetarian restaurant but a majority of the menu is actually vegan and the place was full of the sorts of people who look like they spend a lot of time in vegan restaurants: very thin, tattoos, piercings and a lot of hair, preferably in dreadlocks. They travel, man. Although they were all French so more likely: ils voyagent…homme. The French backpacker is a novelty for us, a different beast entirely; it isn’t every day that you see a backpacker tucking in to a crudité plate with a glass of white.
Kampot is small and absolutely lovely. Old colonial buildings sit shoulder to shoulder with well-loved, slightly shabby pastel coloured Chinese shop houses. The streets are clean and quiet with tree-shaded pavements and the promenade along the waterfront is a lovely place to walk or for (ill-advised) runs.
That evening we had signed up to do a sunset and firefly boat trip. It was 5 dollars each and they threw in a free drink, so we figured we may as well. We were collected by tuk tuk, which was completely unnecessary as everything in Kampot is reachable within about 5 minutes walk. We were dropped by the river next to a number of fairly sleek and seaworthy looking vessels and directed to board a shabby looking dingy that didn’t look 100% watertight. We told ourselves that we were having the authentic experience.
The sunset was pretty as we cruised along and it was nice to just sit and watch the riverbanks as the town fell behind us and we glided into the forest.
We were delighted to see that the waterway was almost completely clear of litter. We cruised for an hour and then turned around to sail back, stopping when our captain found a patch of fireflies. We sat and watched them twinkling away at us before heading back to the town which was now lit up like a Christmas tree. They really like neon in Kampot.
We disembarked and made a beeline for a bar we had spotted on the waterfront earlier in the day. It had the look as though it could be open every night, or could have been shut for several months.
Fortunately, it was open and it was one of our favourite Irish bars yet. It was full of men, none of whom were talking to one another but all of whom the girl behind the bar knew by name. Perfect. It was also, apparently, the kind of place where you can light up a spliff without concern, which was interesting. Kampot is very unusual in that is has a local cider and Caro was happy to do the tasting honours. It only tasted ok, but what it lacked in flavour it made up for in sheer bizarreness at having been brewed in a tiny sleepy town in Cambodia.
We went back to Simple Things for dinner because the vegetable craving had not yet been met. We went back for breakfast the next morning because they had porridge, and that is like breakfast crack to us.
Kampot is famous for its pepper so the next day we made the 45 minute tuk tuk journey to La Plantation, perhaps the best-known plantation in the area. The journey there is interesting as most of it is along a red dirt track which is far from gentle on the suspension.
That being said, the countryside that we passed through was just marvellous and touring around the Secret Lake made for a delightful journey.
La Plantation was set up by a Belgian and French couple and they have really done a superb job at making it an appealing place to visit. The site itself is beautiful, they run free tours and tastings, cooking classes are on offer and the products on sale are organic and reasonably priced. We would definitely recommend a visit whilst in Kampot.
The plantation employs 100 people year-round and nearly double that during the harvest period, as well as providing funding for the local school. The tour takes you through the fields and gives a great insight in to the pepper growing and production process.
We left with a greatly improved knowledge of pepper production and the different types. After the tour you get to taste the different pepper and mixes they produce. Our guide was great and gave us advice on how the different peppers are used in Cambodian cooking.
They also offer cooking classes and a buffalo tour through the lake and surrounding area. We gave that a miss, but we did finish our visit off with some excellent lime and pepper ice cream.
We spent the afternoon at Simple Things doing admin with their excellent WiFi. For dinner we decided that it was about time to try somewhere different and we went to Lemongrass Bistro, as it was highly rated for its Khmer food. It was one of the cheapest meals that we have eaten in Cambodia and it was definitely tasty. The green mango salad remains a firm favourite.
On our last day in Kampot we rented bikes and had a cycle around town. It’s pretty compact and there are only a few specific things to actually see but it is a pleasant way to spend an hour. The durian roundabout is a heinous must-see.
Sadly the Lotus Pond wasn’t in blossom, we imagine it is spectacular at the right time.
Having seen the sights we set out for Greenhouse, a restaurant on the far side of the river, about 8km north of town. The cycle wasn’t quite as we had envisioned. We were on a busy, badly paved road with lorries throwing dust up all around. So, it wasn’t the nicest cycle, there were some pretty views, but it was mostly a functional getting of one place to another. Once we turned off the main road things improved dramatically on a red earth track that wound down to the river’s edge.
We sat in the restaurant first and had a yummy meal which, though expensive by Cambodian standards, was very tasty. After lunch we settled down on their floating deck to soak up the sun, read and go for a quick dip in the river floating of inner tubes.
James had had a slight mishap with his bike on the way out, he’d gone over a bump and the seat had bent back on quite an angle. Despite our efforts to straighten the pole, the seat remained unusuable and James had to cycle the whole way back standing up on the peddles. The chap at Tree Travel Tours was very sweet about it and didn’t try and charge us to fix it, so we wholeheartedly recommend his company for your two-wheeled needs.
We had originally planned to visit some of Cambodia’s islands and southern beaches but the more we read the more put off we became. Reports of sandflies were bad enough but it was the mountains of litter that really put us off. It would seem that the Chinese takeover of nearby Sihanoukville is slowly destroying all of the surrounding area and that the beaches are just not worth visiting. We gave some serious consideration to staying longer in Kampot and spending our days lazing by the river but decided to spend a couple of days in Bangkok on the way home instead. If you were looking for a place to relax with good food, Kampot is definitely the place to do it.