Despite being a sleepy riverside town, there’s plenty to keep visitors entertained in southern Cambodian Kampot. By Marissa Carruthers
We battled the temptation to turn around. When we jumped on the motorbike we’d hired at our guesthouse little more than an hour earlier, Cambodia’s relentless sun was beating down and as the beads of sweat seeped from our hairlines, it was hard to imagine ever being cold again.
But three quarters up the 1,100-metre climb to Bokor Mountain’s peak in Kampot, the cool micro-climate that made the misty plateau a draw to French colonialists, who built a small resort town there in the 1920s, was starting to kick in. The flimsy kramas we’d thrown in our backpacks before leaving were hardly doing the trick as the icy mist that hampered our view pricked our skin, but, shivering, we carried on through the cool clouds regardless.
As we wound our way up what is possibly one of Cambodia’s smoothest roads, the fog cleared and the views out across the kingdom’s sea of green was unveiled. At its peak sits Bokor Hill Station, which boasts a chequered history. Built as an escape from the oppressive heat and humidity that sits at ground level, in its heyday, Bokor boasted a hotel, casino, church, post once and water tower, among other buildings. In 1941, King Norodom Sihanouk added to Bokor’s appeal by building palaces and houses that stud the mountain’s slopes, with the Black Palace, that sits mid-way to the top, remaining intact even today.
Bokor was abandoned in the 1940s during the first Indochine war and the site was abandoned to be reclaimed by jungle. During the Khmer Rouge reign of 1975 to 1979, the canopy of jungle provided ideal cover for fighters and the perfect vantage spot, with an anti-aircraft gun stationed at the highest point. The decrepit buildings provided makeshift shelter and bunkers, and the area remained a Khmer Rouge stronghold until the late 1990s.
What remains today is a series of derelict buildings that pay testament to a bygone era. e abandoned Bokor Palace hotel and casino – much more attractive than the nearby garish casino and hotel built by the Chinese this decade – is where most visitors head to explore its cavernous rooms, climb the rickety stairs and look out across the sea to Cambodia’s islands and the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc from its grand balconies.
As a river town, Kampot is home to a hive of waterborne activity. From hiring kayaks to slender fishing boats, there is an abundance of ways to discover the meandering water- ways. However, stand-up paddle-boarding (SUP) was our preferred option, and as we balanced on our boards using a single oar to navigate our way through the spider’s web of tributaries, lined by thick tropical mangroves, it was definitely our favoured form.
As we wove our way through the slender waterways, the silence was broken by the soothing swish of the oar, the call to prayer from a mosque in a nearby Cham village and the chorus of birds. Gliding through untouched countryside, ducking and diving to avoid overhanging branches, it’s easy to forget civilisation sits just four kilometres away in Kampot town.
Despite not being the best at balancing, I found the board, which stands at more than nine feet long and resembles a giant surfboard, surprisingly stable. Even the process of wading knee-deep into the water before climbing on and rising to a standing position from kneeling was an easy task. For those, like me, who fail to keep on top of their fitness, the oar can take its strain on the arms after a while, but the tranquil scenery and novelty of the experience alleviates any nagging pain.
As the closest you’re going to get to walking on water, our two-hour trip with SUP Asia was an enjoyable and alternative way to get a glimpse into country life, as well as the flora and fauna that lines the banks.
While Kampot has retained its charm, quirky coffee shops, rooftop bars, wine bars and restaurants are opening up their doors seemingly monthly. On top of the ever-popular riverside restaurant Rikitikitavi, Ellen’s – the English muffin breakfast is a must – and Café Espresso, Tantrei opened up its rooftop bar in October, offering a relaxing place to chill with a cocktail or beer, or enjoy one of the many live acts it hosts.
But Kampot’s best almost-hidden secret is Ciao. Easy to miss, the Italian “restaurant” lurks on dimly lit Street 722 at the end of a row of local street eateries. A couple of battered wooden benches are placed under a giant tarpaulin, with a range of pasta and pizzas served from a small and simple “kitchen”. Looking at the set up, it’s hard to imagine that Italian owner Diego Sanelli is offering some of the best Italian dishes in Cambodia.
Using only fresh ingredients, the menu is made up of all the classics – think gnocchi, ravioli and tagliatelle and pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven – with no items costing more than $4 (pizzas are $3.50) and each order coming with complimentary bruschetta. Wine is also sold by the glass, along with beer and soft drinks, just make sure you get there early because when it’s gone, it’s gone, and by 9pm on our visit, pasta was already running low.
Stuffed, we headed to one of Kampot’s relatively new additions, Le Comptoir de Kampot. As the town’s sole dedicated wine bar, the intimate space is well worth a visit, serving up top tipples alongside tasty cheese boards. It was the perfect place to round off our evening, and trip to Kampot.