By Spenser Peterson
Kampot is a small city in southern Cambodia – to the northeast of Sihanoukville and relatively close to the Vietnamese border. A perfect place to relax, meet some people, and enjoy some delicious seafood before you head over the border into Vietnam.
While in Kampot, we stayed with an Alaskan ex-pat named William at his hostel, the Magic Sponge. The Sponge was a terrific hangout. Back on our family-style living-grind, the four of us shared a room on the second floor complete with balcony. Not only did this hostel have a full bar, delicious food, pool table, mini-golf, and a sprawling patio, it came complete with not one, but TWO, yes two spiral staircases. Both a blessing and a curse, we were there at a point in which there was an all-time high number of Americans. It was the perfect summation to our stay in Cambodia and we loved every minute of it.
Our stay in Kampot was marked with a couple of big motorbike trips. The first was to the Preah Monivong National Park, or the Bokor Mountain. Now, while there are a few old sights to see at Bokor (an abandoned French hotel, enormous Buddha statue, and beautiful sprawling landscapes), what is most fascinating about this area is a more recent development. Originally, the area was developed as a French resort and casino and subsequently abandoned by the French during the French-Indochina War and then the Khmer Rouge era. Recently, the government has reopened the area to foreign investment, allowing the natural beauty to be shaped into a cookie-cutter resort town. The casino and hotel reopened in 2008 and there are massive amounts of construction estimated to cost $1 bn USD. It was an absolutely beautiful drive, but seeing a model of the development will catch your breath in your throat. It’s a perfect symbolization of what’s happening to the Southeast Asia region as a whole: a beautiful, untouched area being marred by foreign investment in attempts to draw more and more tourists to the area. It makes perfect economic sense, but it’s still sad to see it happen.
Another trip that we embarked on from our homebase in Kampot was to a local cave, the pepper farms and fish markets of Kep, a small neighboring village. Kampot and Kep are famous for their delicious peppercorns. We took a “tour” (tour is a generous term), of one such pepper farm. The farmer there explained to us about the methods that the farmers use to grow the pepper – cutting branches off of existing plants, digging holes deep into the ground, and then waiting for the 4 week growth period. If you bury 3 feet of plant, it will grow 3 feet high. 5 feet buried, 5 feet high, etc. It was very interesting, albeit short, and we got to try some of the pepper!
Kep was just a bit further down the road and is known for its delicious seafood. As more travelers visit the area, the town trucks in more and more sand to prepare the beach for higher traffic. We visited the fish market, and while we enjoyed our fresh prawns, fish, and squid, we were able to see little bobcats combing the beach.
Kampot is full of ex-patriates and it’s easy to see why. The area is beautiful and serene. It’s situated right on the river and to enjoy a beer and local meal while the sun sets over the national park, you’d think that time was standing still. Signs of increased tourism is everywhere both in and around the city, but right now it’s still sitting in that perfect period of potato. Sorry, I was going for the alliteration there, perfect period of relaxation? Chillness? Chaka brah? You get the jist.
If you have a chance, visit. It’s worth the trip.