Once an under-the-radar travel destination, word about the tranquil charm of Kampot has gotten around, and it’s starting to make its way on to the standard Cambodia itinerary. The town’s laidback vibe betrays the number of things to do in the area, which can easily fill a few action-packed or totally relaxed days.
Go up to Bokor Mountain
Just a few miles from Kampot, and easily visible from town, stands Bokor Mountain. It has quite a varied history, first as a hill station and vacation spot for French colonists, then as a military site during the Khmer Rouge.
With its fascinating abandoned buildings, sweeping views over the countryside, and slightly cooler temperatures, it’s more recently become a popular tourist attraction. Unfortunately, Chinese companies are buying up the area and have already opened a massive casino at the top, so it may eventually lose its appeal.
Popokvil waterfall (3 miles north of Bokor Hill Station)
But for now, a trip to Bokor remains one of the top things to do in Kampot. You can sign up for a group tour at most any hotel or tour agency in town, or you can rent a motorbike and go up independently. Bokor Palace, once the main attraction, has already been renovated, but you’ll still be able to visit the ruins of a church, temple, police station, and some other colonial-era buildings.
Tour a pepper plantation
Pepper has been grown around Kampot for hundreds of years, but it’s not your average table pepper – many chefs say Kampot pepper is the best in the world. Several of the working plantations in the area welcome visitors for tours and other activities. Farm Link is the most easily accessible from town, although La Plantation seems to be the most popular with travelers.
The farm offers free tours throughout the day in both English and French, and you’ll get to learn about the history of pepper farming in Kampot, see peppercorns being grown and processed, and sample several different types. La Plantation also has two restaurants, serving up Khmer and French dishes seasoned with Kampot pepper. And don’t miss the free salt-and-pepper-flavored banana chips at the main house!
Learn how to rock climb
A town that’s mostly known for its laid back charm might not seem like the obvious place to try out an adventurous activity like rock climbing, but a local company cleverly called Climbodia is changing that. They run a variety of rock climbing trips, the most popular being the Discovery Tour, which introduces newbies to four different climbing techniques. Via ferrata, one of the four, will be especially novel to American climbers, as it’s almost unheard of in the U.S. More experienced climbers can rent gear (or bring their own) and explore the routes without a guide, or take the company’s Lead Climbing course to further develop their skills.
Paddle the Preaek Tuek Chhu River
Part of Kampot’s charm is the river that flows through it. Though some travelers do jump right in, it’s really not the most inviting place for a swim. It does make for a nice day of paddling, though, whether you want to kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard.
Kayaks are available for rent on the river right in town, but a better option is to head north to one of the riverfront guesthouses – like Greenhouse, Meraki, or Ganesha – and rent a boat or board there. You can paddle on the main river, go up and back the tranquil channel that’s across from Greenhouse, or head to the famed Green Cathedral.
SUP Asia also runs stand-up paddleboarding lessons and tours every day.
Visit the Kampot Museum
Housed in what was once the residence of the French representative in Kampot, this is the best place to learn about the area. The main exhibit details the history and development of Kampot, complemented by some photos, student artwork, archaeological artefacts, and a model depicting recommendations for future development.
With just a couple rooms, it’d be hard to spend more than half an hour or so there, but it’s well worth the $2 admission. The museum is supposed to be open every day from 8-11am and 2-5pm, but it seems to close erratically; go in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon for the best chance.
Take a sunset cruise
Walk by the water in central Kampot, and you’ll notice boats docked one after another all along the riverbank, with signs (and sometimes touts) advertising nightly cruises. Firefly cruises as they’re called are one of the most popular things to do in Kampot. A $5 ticket will get you a two-hour river cruise and a free drink (or two!), although firefly sightings aren’t guaranteed.
Even if the trees don’t light up as promised, the cruises are still a fun and relaxing way to spend an evening in Kampot. Some of the boats offer dinner as well, but reviews of the food available are less than stellar, so you’re probably better off sticking with your free drink.
Eat your heart out
For a small and still relatively unknown town, Kampot has an incredible array of amazing restaurants and cafes. Simple Things, a vegetarian restaurant equally beloved by carnivores, and Epic Arts Café, a social enterprise that supports inclusivity and the arts, are long-standing favorites.
If you’ve been craving a specific cuisine, you can probably find it in Kampot, too. There’s Mexican at Stumble Inn, Mediterranean at Aroma House, and Indian at Simon’s, as well as L’Epi d’Or, an authentic French bakery (and one of the only places in Kampot with air-conditioning).
Take a bike ride
The relative lack of traffic and mostly flat roads make Kampot a great place to explore by bicycle. You can cycle around the center of town in just a few minutes, or easily bike over the bridge to Banteay Srey and Farm Link. The hotels upriver that rent kayaks can also be reached by bicycle, as can the Teuk Chhou Rapids, a popular swimming hole. Heading south of town, you’ll pass by some of the area’s famous salt fields, where piles of white salt punctuate the swampy land. Also in that direction is Fish Island, which is incredibly peaceful and has a small sandy beach at the tip.
More avid cyclists can go all the way to La Plantation, the Secret Lake, the Phnom Chhngok Temple Caves, or all three (but be prepared for a bumpy ride). Or, just pedal through the countryside and take in the tranquility and scenery of rural Cambodia without any specific destination in mind. Many hotels and tour agencies in town rent bikes for $1-$2 per day, or if you’d rather go with a guide, WE Cycling offers daily bike tours.
Explore the caves
The karst landscapes around Kampot have many small caves, some of which are especially worth visiting. They’re easiest to visit if you have your own motorbike.
Phnom Sorsir [map] is just off the Road 33 north of Kep. The cave is part of a small Buddhist complex with a temple and stupa. The cave’s name comes from some of the stalagmites resembling the head of an elephant, but you’ll need a very active imagination to see this. You may find local guides willing to show you around the cave, specifically how to climb through the back of the cave and loop around through the forest. You don’t really need a guide, but if you use them, you can tip them a small amount (a dollar or two).
Note: there are two caves that claim to be the ‘elephant cave’. The other is Phnom Sorsia [map].
Phnom Chhnork Temple [map] is a little further off the road, about a 30-minute drive into the countryside on uneven dirt roads. It’s lovely to visit both for the cave itself and for the rural landscapes you’ll see on the way. There’s one large cavern with a shrine, but a very narrow passage also leads into a deeper set of chambers. Going down this passage may seem a little sketchy at first, but don’t worry (locals will be able to show you the way). It’s a fun adventure with lots of clambering and climbing.
Pamper yourself (for a good cause!)
In towns all over Southeast Asia, you’ll find spas on seemingly every corner. The region is famous for the rather forceful, no-frills massages that cost $5-$8 an hour, but the standards vary and the quality is unpredictable. Kampot has plenty of these nondescript spots, but for something a little more memorable, there’s Banteay Srey, located across the river from town.
This spa is a social enterprise that provides local women with extensive training and offers fair working conditions, and the proceeds also support a nearby school. The prices are a bit higher, but the quality is much better and more consistent. There’s also a vegan café on-site, and yoga classes take place twice a day. However, while men are welcome to eat in the café and take the morning yoga class, the spa (and afternoon class) is open to women only.
Go to Kep for the day
The nearby coastal town of Kep makes a great day trip from Kampot. Buses run back and forth for $3, but you can also rent a motorbike in Kampot and ride down on your own or take the daily crab shuttle, a scenic 2.5-hour boat trip that connects the two towns.
Kep’s seafood, especially the crab, is famous throughout Cambodia. Most tourist-oriented restaurants there emphasize crab and other seafood dishes, but you can also buy crab straight from the market and have it cooked at one of the stalls. Even if you’re not a seafood enthusiast, the market is still an interesting sight to see.
Another part of Kep’s appeal is the woefully under-visited national park that borders town. You can take an easy walk around the perimeter of the park or a more strenuous hike through the middle, and you’ll be treated to ocean views much of the way. There’s also a sandy beach right in town, where you can go for a swim or rent a lounge chair in the shade.
If a more tranquil beach is what you’re after, Rabbit Island is just a short boat ride from Kep. There’s not much do there besides swim, sunbathe, walk around, or lie in a hammock, so it’s the perfect place to relax.
Kampot or Kep: where to stay?
Kampot and Kep are close to each other and both have their own vibe. Some say Kampot is more for backpackers and Kep more for families, but it probably just depends on what you’re looking for.
Kep is mostly about the sea views. On a clear day, you can see the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, as well as the smaller Cambodian islands of Koh Po and Koh Tonsay (a.k.a. rabbit island). Crab fishers are often seen around the bay. The town hugs two hills that are about 200m tall, which you can climb for even better bay views and a chance to encounter some monkeys.
Kep was a luxury resort in the 1960s before the days of the Khmer Rouge. You can still see many abandoned villas from that era, some of them overgrown. As Kep gets rediscovered, the faded villas will surely be restored. But for now, these ghosts of the past give Kep a unique character.
The one downside of Kep is that it doesn’t have a real center. It’s quite stretched out along the bay. That gives it less ambiance than the more compact Kampot.
Kampot is a lively town next to a river. The downtown area has two markets, many cafes and restaurants (with both Khmer and international food), and a bar or two. While the town is quite buzzing, when you go further up the river on either side you’ll find many secluded and peaceful riverside bungalows, eco villages, and hostels.
If you’re lost on what to do in Kampot, you can always enjoy its peaceful riverside setting. It’s a perfect place to have a drink or a meal and watch the sunset over the river.
Original post by Jen Ambrose (updates by Marek).
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