One hundred and forty-three kilometres of freshly laid highway connects Phnom Penh with Kampot, a small town just shy of Cambodia’s coastline and the most convenient retreat for those seeking a quick escape from the city. After the frenetic pace of the Kingdom’s capital, Kampot feels positively languid. But don’t let its acquired reputation for being a ‘sleepy little town’ lull you into a false sense of relaxation. If you’re only planning to spend a few days in Kampot, you’ll need to pack your schedule pretty tight to experience everything the area has to offer (and when it comes to outdoor activities, I barely rubbed the surface…)
Kampot is built up around the life-giving Praek Tuek Chhu river, which is the centrepiece of Kampot town. Compared with the Mekong or Tonle Sap, it’s a relatively clean waterway that’s apparently safe to swim in (the further you get out of town, the better the water quality gets). A wide, flower-lined promenade traces the river’s east bank along the edge of town, framing almost-picturesque vistas of a distant Bokor National Park and flanking Kampot’s crop of riverside bars, hotels and boutiques.
Push just a few streets deeper than the riverfront and you’ll discover Kampot town proper, with its charming shop houses, old colonial villas and open boulevards. Crowded with beautiful facades and leafy nooks, Kampot is best explored on foot or by bicycle – but if you’re staying at one of the popular resorts nestled in the jungle north of town (like Greenhouse or Champa), you will need to hire a scooter or find a tuk-tuk to take you around.
Here are some of my favourite things to do in Kampot…
Explore Old Market Street
Old Market Street bisects downtown Kampot into two halves, with the infamous (and bizarre) durian roundabout to the north, and the slightly-less-naff salt mine workers roundabout to the south. Although the Old Market itself is derelict, the street serves as Kampot’s main drag and is home to a handful of popular cafes and shops.
Chinese shophouses (with a spattering of 19th-century French architecture thrown in) dominate the skyline in Kampot, once a regional administrative capital and formerly Cambodia’s most important sea port. Many original buildings still line the streets – made all the more interesting by decades of ad hoc additions and half-finished renovations. The Old Market area is a great place to explore if you’re interested in old colonial designs.
A few buildings have been resurrected with a lick of brightly coloured paint, and the old fish market on Kampot’s waterfront has been completely restored (it now houses a swanky restaurant). The rest of the town’s street-facing facades – including the old cinema – sit in various states of disrepair and decay.
Eat Brunch at Cafe Espresso
I’ve little doubt that Australian-owned Cafe Espresso is Kampot’s trendiest eatery. Bright, airy and filled with gorgeous artwork, this cafe is all about the coffee: espresso, pour-overs, Aeropress, siphons and for simpletons like me, on-point flat whites. Locally grown coffee beans are roasted in-house daily (under the label Rumble Fish), and if you love it as much as I did, you can take a packet home with you.
Oh, and then there’s the food. Cafe Espresso does a great job of highlighting local ingredients, including Kampot sea salt which is added to their house-made caramel. Try it stirred through an old-fashioned milkshake or doused liberally over fluffy pancakes. Cafe-style savory meals also come with Kampot salt and pepper on the side.
Stock up on Ethical Basics at Dorsu
Lightweight fabrics, flouncy cuts and relaxed fits – Dorsu has found a way to encapsulate Kampot’s laid-back style in the form you can wear. The ethical women’s and menswear label was founded by Australian Hanna Guy and local entrepreneurs Pharith Yin (pictured below) and Kunthear Mov back in 2008. Dorsu started as a project to raise funds for the nearby Chumkriel Language School, and has since grown into a successful sewing workshop that offers fair wages and upskilling opportunities to Cambodian women and men. All the materials used in Dorsu’s upstairs workshop are fabric remnants sourced from the big garment factories outside of Phnom Penh.
Kick Back at a Riverside Resort
Venture further north along the river via one of Kampot’s red-dirt roads and you’ll find a collection of idyllic riverside resorts nestled in dense greenery. Even if you’re staying in town, you can still spend an afternoon at Champa Lodge or Greenhouse; both are open to the public and feature restaurant/bars and for-hire leisure equipment. Champa Lodge is an ideal place to hire a kayak or SUP (stand up paddle board), with prices starting at $3 per hour. (Both kayaks and SUPs are in short supply, so make sure you phone ahead to secure one before you make the 5km trek out of town.)
Conquer the Winding Rivers by Kayak
Ask the staff at Champa Lodge to point out the entryway to the river loop before you set off in a kayak. It’s an easy paddle down gentle currents that takes about 1.5 hours to complete. The corridor of palm trees that lines the riverbank widens and contracts with each bend, and shallow rivulets trail off in every direction, leading to crab pots, lone fishermen and sinking shacks. The backwaters are mostly shaded but Kampot is hot, so remember to dress sensibly if you’re out during the day.
Drink Cider at One of Kampot’s Bars
Kampot’s own brew of cider is fizzy and mellow, and it’s best served over ice. The Rusty Keyhole is one of the more popular drinking holes in town, with good views over the river and a pleasant afternoon breeze.
Treat Yourself to Authentic Italian at Ciao
It’s an unlikely contender, but Ciao might just be my favourite restaurant in Cambodia. Run by chef Diego, an expatriate from Pescara, Ciao is a low-key Italian trattoria erected in true Southeast-Asian street style (note the tarpaulin roof). Plastic chairs and a dirt floor add exponentially to the restaurant’s rustic charm, and the tumbledown look of the place makes the standard of Diego’s food seem all the more impressive. Paper-thin pizzas (fired off in a tiny wood oven), tagliatelle (made from scratch using a WWI-era pasta machine) and gnocchi all come sparingly dressed with fresh, local ingredients. The homemade meatballs are the best I’ve ever tasted, and the two-cheese pasta with Kampot pepper is otherworldly.
Ciao doesn’t have a website, but you can find it on the left-hand side of Street 277, which runs parallel to Old Market Street close to the old bridge. The kitchen is open from 6pm, Monday through Saturday. Diego often runs out of pizza dough or pasta (or both) mid-service, so plan to arrive early. Ciao is both tiny and very popular with expats (especially on Saturdays), so expect to wait a while for your meal.
Soak up An Unmissable Kampot Sunset
As the gently serrated horizon swallows up the afternoon sun, distant palm trees turn into shards of shadow and the rippling river carries glittering rays across its surface. Yes, Kampot at dusk really is that good. The jungle-clad part of the river north of Kampot town is by far the best place to watch the sun go down, and this is where most tourists flock come 6pm. From Champa Lodge, an ideal sunset vantage point can be easily reached by following the river to the right. (This is the same exact spot where one of the sunset cruise boats stops every evening.) Plan to hit the water in a kayak at around 5pm – if you don’t have a watch, you can tell the time by the fishing trawlers that set off every night like clockwork. Once you’ve paddled the river loop, you should be perfectly timed to float back into the main lagoon for a textbook sunset.
Plan to stay… two or three days. Visit during… dry season. Get there… from Phnom Penh via minivan (2.5 hour journey; $10 one-way with Giant Ibis). Have you spent time in Kampot? What was the highlight of your visit?