After an almost all-day journey (including 3 hours getting Visas sorted), we arrive at the lovely riverside town of Kampot. We were here 4 years ago and I wanted to come back.
This mid-size town has an unassuming charm. Locals and foreigners mix easily and kids are happy. It’s not big enough to be intimidating but it’s hip enough to have incredible and interesting restaurants. There are no major attractions so the masses haven’t come yet. It’s an easy-going town and it’s easy to be here.
It has changed though, since we were last here. There are new fancy houses on the outskirts of town and a large lotus pond. There’s a lot of construction and more traffic than I’d like. There are shiny new shops and fancy new restaurants. A few of our old favourite places have moved out of town. Our host tells us the Chinese have been buying up nearby Sihanoukville and the Khmer people that sold their houses to them (at way-inflated prices) are moving to Kampot. Rents and property prices are going up - the same story we’ve heard in other places. A local tells me downtown commercial rents are $1000 a month, which is crazy considering the cost of things here.
US dollars is the currency, which makes prices a little easier for us to figure out. Cambodian Riel is used as well, especially for prices under $1. Breakfast costs around $2, lunch and dinner between $3 and $5 - unless you’re going to one of the stylish restaurants, in which case you’ll pay $8 and up.
Our hotel is by the lotus pond, a little out of town and blessedly air-conditioned. We are here at the hottest time of the year. It’s practically unbearable after 9 am unless there’s cloud cover. I take at least 4 showers a day - every time after I get back from being out. We spend a lot of the afternoon in our hotel chilling. At 4:30 pm the town begins to come alive, especially river-side. We get on our bicycles. The evening air is dreamy. The sun starts to set behind the mountains. Perfect bicycling weather.
We try a random local restaurant where we are the only foreigners and we have to point to a photo to order. We try to get a SIM card but no one speaks English. We go to the local market - a large, intense, alive cavernous hall with barely-there pathways, a lot of them wet and fishy smelling. There are flopping fish in buckets, piles of peppercorns, dried shrimp, housewares, clothing, jewelry, shoes, exotic fruit. Everyone stares at us. We end up staring quite a bit too.
Having come from Vietnam I can’t help but compare. Cambodia seems poorer, dirtier, dustier - a little less on its feet. The people are not as out-going - somewhat reserved compared to the Vietnamese. They’re not unfriendly though. If I smile, they offer a shy smile back. There’s not much English spoken here, making general communication difficult.
Kampot’s got some ex-pat freaks. We see them riding around on their scooters or socializing in coffee shops or bars. There’s some strange and wild people - the black sheeps of the world. If a bunch of people who don’t fit in are all in one place, does that make them fit in? I think yes, and it makes me comfortable to be here.
I bought a deck of cards in Phu Quoc so now we play Rummy 500 in restaurants while waiting for food to arrive. It passes the time and we don’t care if we have to wait. We have some great juices - like mango with coconut - what a treat. We have rooftop sunset cocktails - 2 for 1. We eat a lot of very good food. We cruise around on bicycles After a couple of days we rent a motorbike ($6) to go further afield.
We seek out Ciao, a restaurant we loved last time. It used to be a downtown Italian street-side stand but the dude has since moved it to his home, a 20-minute ride out of town. We find it down an unlit dirt road countryside, 4 cows munching away in his courtyard. Upstairs, open air, are 2 tables, one long seating 6 and another table for 2. Behind a bamboo screen, he (Italian) and his wife (Cambodian) prepare the dishes. We have homemade gnocchi with pesto and handmade pasta with beef ragu. We share 1/2 litre of wine and the sun sets - a bright pink lit-up sky. I beat Tim at cards. A perfect end to the evening.
For two nights we stay out of town in a cabin on the river. The jungle around us makes loud screeching sounds, like a million giant cicadas. Our ‘bungalow’ is marketed (and priced) as luxurious but it’s actually kind of rustic. We have a patio though, with a table, chairs and hammock. There are weird little bugs around but thankfully nothing major. Saturday evening the beat of a live Cambodian band projects across the river, flooding our cabin with dance music. At night the water supply gets shut off and the electricity goes out. Then there is thunder like I’ve never heard before - bone-rattling, crackling, pounding, jolting, roaring, deafening thunder with lightening visible around the door frame. It lasts about an hour, us wide awake and startled. In the morning there is still no water or electricity so we jump in the river.
That day we seek out Khmer Roots, another old favourite small-operation restaurant serving magnificent Cambodian food. It has moved half an hour outside of town near several pepper plantations. To get there, we ride down a dusty bumpy dirt road, passing local life - the small markets, the beautiful temple roofs, the fascinating Khmer-style stilt homes, the tethered cows in front yards, the chickens, the swinging hammocks, the hanging laundry. We find the restaurant in a serene spot overlooking the Secret Lake, 5 customers seated patiently. It takes almost an hour for our food to come. Khmer Roots is a two-man operation (like Ciao) and they make everything from scratch on the spot and off-grid(!). There seems to be zero advance preparation. They are pounding lemongrass and chillies together in their giant mortar and pestles, splitting the coconuts - making each curry paste and each meal one at a time. It’s worth the wait. We have a sublime flavour-full meal of banana-flower salad, a Massaman curry and lime shakes. Afterwards they point us in the direction of their favourite pepper plantation and we head off in search of it. At Bo Tree Farm we learn about pepper growing and harvesting. We see a local family (their family) sitting cross-legged in a shed picking and sorting, a cauldron boiling the peppercorns out back on an open fire. We taste some pepper-infused gin and some salted and fermented green peppercorns.
Pepper is a big deal here. To be labelled ‘Kampot pepper’ it has to be organically grown and A-grade only. Kampot is also known for its salt and on our motorbike explorations, we see salt fields - shallow oceanic pools reflecting the clouds, the long barn-like salt shacks nearby. The other thing we see a lot of is Durian - large spiky fruits that look like melons and stink like crazy - like dirty socks or rotten eggs. Apparently though, they taste sublime - like cheese, butterscotch pudding and onions. We tried it last time we were here and I don’t feel the need to again. Our hotel booklet warns that ‘bringing durian in the room results in a fine of a one-night stay’.
On the way back from our excursion it starts again, the rain - a crazy intense downpour like we experienced in rainy-season Bali. The streets are flooded. We are soaked through. We stop at a street-side shoe store to take cover under their awning. We try to set out again but the rain comes quick and hard. We stop to buy two ‘raincoats’ made of garbage bags. It beats down furiously all the way back to our riverside cabin. I never thought I’d be cold here but I get a chill. Once back, we get under covers to warm-up. We decide to stay in and have dinner at our hotel and it is exquisite. There’s a French chef there who makes vegetables sublime. We eat 3 exceptional meals that day (including breakfast at a cafe that employs deaf people where we had corn cakes with watercress, poached eggs, salsa and homemade feta). That’s Kampot for you. From Portugese petiscos and Spanish tapas to cardamom cocktails and Thai curries - they’ve got it all here and it’s all pretty good to amazing. Oh ya - and there’s scrumptious and super cheap street food too.
With the Visa fees, tedious border crossing and long distance travel, I wasn’t sure if it would be worth coming here. But I’m really glad we did. Kampot is as wonderful as I remembered and a nice place to end our trip - even though I don’t want it to end. Here birds sing in the morning. We drink fresh juice and seek shelter from the blazing sun. We don’t need to lock our bicycles. There is the beautiful Khmer architecture and the plethora of astounding food. There are evenings to indulge in. The people seem content. It’s the good life and I’m digging it and it’s time to go home. This trip has gifted me a treasure chest of memories and swelled my compassion for humans and our world. I’ll go with a full heart.