The far south of Cambodia holds a bounty of riches for travellers to the country. This coastal region bordering the Gulf of Thailand contains some of Southeast Asia’s most alluring beaches, national parks, mountainous forests rich with wildlife, and small towns known for their impressive architecture and history.
Until recently, the seaside resort of Sihanoukville (កំពង់សោម) was a booming destination, before an ill-fated attempt to re-imagine the city as a gamblers’ playground left the streets in a state of chronic disrepair, with half-finished building and infrastructure projects creating an eyesore. But the towns of Kampot (ក្រុងកំពត) and Kep (កែប) have largely managed to escape the clutches of modern redevelopment, allowing these delightful, village-y retreats to retain much of the charm of their early twentieth-century heyday, when they flourished as favoured holiday spots for both Cambodian and French travellers. Here’s a traveller’s guide to what to see and do in these idyllic coastal towns.
In the absence of any functioning airports outside of the main cities, it’s possible to travel by car to Kampot from Sihanoukville (two hours) or Phnom Penh (three-and-a-half hours). But if you’re not pushed for time, by far the most scenic way to reach the town is by train on the Royal Railway service, which passes through selected destinations on the south coast (or two hours from Sihanoukville if you’re travelling in the opposite direction).
The ride on this small, air-conditioned train repurposed from mid-century rolling stock starts at Phnom Penh’s grand 1932 Railway Station, which has counters where you can buy tickets, and costs just $7 for a four-and-a-half-hour journey. It’s a slow trundle, stopping at Takeo Railway Station (ស្ថានីយ៏រថភ្លើងរ៉ាតាកែវ) for snacks along the way, but the reward—once you’re outside the urban jungle—is some captivating scenery including rural homes, acres of sprawling rice fields studded with sugar palms, and outlying areas of the lush, protected rainforest of Bokor National Park (ឧទ្យានជាតិព្រះមុនីវង្ស បូកគោ).
Kampot Station is such an unassuming relic you might be forgiven for thinking that you’ve alighted at the wrong stop—it’s still a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from here to the main town. When you make the ride, the first landmark you’re likely to encounter is The Big Durian, in the centre of town—a public artwork set in a roundabout that commemorates the thorny and divisive fruit’s pivotal importance to the local economy in the years before the Khmer Rouge.
However, the region is far better known for its unmistakable condiment, the Kampot pepper—which graces dishes here and all around Cambodia—and makes appearances in speciality shops such as The Kampot Pepper Shop and La Plantation, both on Old Market Street. The latter is a smartly outfitted outlet for the nearby farm of the same name, and upstairs has a museum dedicated to antique pepper mills.
Although The Big Durian makes a handy navigating aid for useful shops, the market area, and coffee shops, by far the most attractive walk in town starts near the Entanou Bridge at the Kampot Fish Market, an Art Deco building from 1934 which now holds one of the town’s trendiest open-air seafood restaurants, and proceeds south alongside the Prek Tek Chhouu River along Norodom Quay, also known as The Front.
Among this charming promenade, with its rest areas and flowerbeds neatly landscaped around old-school street lamps, are a wealth of well-restored heritage buildings including the Provincial Hall and the Kampot Provincial Museum. You’ll also discover a lengthy row of bougainvillea-fringed, bohemian restaurants and bars to while away your evening, such as the upscale Atelier Kampot, which showcases the many culinary possibilities of the famed local pepper.
Follow the turning to the left at the Provincial Museum, where the road winds back upriver, past one of Kampot’s most characterful guesthouses, Mea Culpa, and a few hundred metres ahead (behind the National Bank of Cambodia building) is the Lotus Pond, a place of serene enchantment both in the late morning, as its eponymous flowers spread into full bloom, and at sunset, where the golden glow of late afternoon casts its most spellbinding light.
Coming back into the centre of town, Phsar Kronat (Old Market) has become the centre of gravity for Kampot in recent years—partly as a result of businesses closing down on The Front, and partly because of its own favourable geographical position on the boulevard just off the riverside. The market carries plenty of meat products, vegetables, and fruits, as well as hardware and moneychangers; but what’s changed is the diversity of outlets lying around it on the main square, such as tour operators, real-estate agents, clothes stores, and the town’s principal concentration of bars and restaurants.
The best of the new crop of upscale eateries in town is Tertùlia, a striking space on the corner of the square, where the Portuguese owners have devised a menu of seafood-rich fare from their home country—a space where it’s equally pleasurable to people-watch, drink Portuguese wine, and chat with the genial hosts.
As you consider retiring for the night, one of the best options for a night’s rest is Hotel Old Cinema, which opened in September 2019 on the site of a 1930s theatre which was converted to a cinema in the 1950s. You’ll marvel at the period detail as you walk around the light, airy space with an inner garden and pool, such as specially sourced tiles, vintage movie-style signage, and lacquered headboards in the colourful bedrooms. The Dutch and French owners also make excellent guides to the highlights of the nearby streets, and have recently hosted a pop-up fashion sale and an art exhibition.
The next day, among the more unlikely pursuits on offer—aside from a pepper plantation tour—is an energising motorbike adventure up to Bokor Mountain Hill Station (ស្ថានីយភ្នំបូកគោ), once the venue of a small resort town but then, with the original buildings abandoned and ghostly, became a casino where local and Chinese gamblers come to find their fortune.
Overlooking the gambling pleasures therein, the most inspiring views from this lofty locale are of the surrounding scenery, split between Cambodia’s Southern Islands and Vietnam’s Phu Quoc, along with a waterfall, while the remaining edifices include a church, buildings for the former king, and a Buddhist temple. Many visitors, though, will stick to Kampot’s more familiar streetscapes and wallow in the history, cuisine, and architecture, and quite rightly, since there are few towns in Cambodia where ambling around at a leisurely pace yields quite such rich rewards within such a small area.
Also on the Royal Railway line, but easily reached by car in a 15-minute ride, the city of Kep to the southeast has a fascinating backstory which somewhat eclipses its modest modern-day incarnation, yet a day trip here still forms an absorbing time capsule of the mid-twentieth century when the coastal town was the country’s premier beach resort.
Arriving from Kampot, one of the first noteworthy stops is Knai Bang Chatt, whose basic structures were built by the late Vann Molyvann, leader of the New Khmer Architecture movement who was highly active in establishing “Kep-sur-Mer” as a flagship Cambodian destination. Its signature blue villa and red summer house once belonged to the Kep governor and head of customs respectively, and were both integral to plans to rebuild the complex as a luxury boutique resort. Next door’s The Sailing Club, a restored fisherman’s house, makes a fine lunch spot (even for non-hotel guests) just yards from the crashing waves of the Gulf of Thailand.
Continuing on the coastal road, your next stop is the crab market, Kep’s bustling confluence of the twin local economies of fishing and tourism. A long line of vendors are on hand to dispense fresh fish and many related products, but inside, along the pier, two spots in particular are worth checking out: restaurant La Mouette, which apart from its seafood offerings serves a superb chaa kdow (stir-fried beef) with Kampot pepper, and the colourful Arts Café, which aside from its food-and-drink offerings has a wide variety of craftware and clothing made by local artisans.
Just a short distance along the coast from here, past a bend on the left which sees a horde of monkeys scrabbling for tourist titbits, is that rare thing: Kep Beach, a stretch of sand in Cambodia frequented almost exclusively by locals. A local market completes the joyful picture at this seafront location, which when packed at weekends has an almost carnival-like atmosphere. Around here you’ll also find a string of flamboyant statues built along the wide pedestrian sidewalks, including the White Lady Statue (Sreysor) and the Crab Statue, a homage to the town’s local delicacy, the blue swimmer crab.
Up an incline from here, and heading into the more modern town with its many squares, you’ll come across the most visible vestiges of old-time Kep in the form of abandoned mansions once belonging to elite Cambodians from Phnom Penh and French colonialists, which—instead of being restored—have simply been left to nature in a scene whose faded grandeur conjures a nostalgic romance. It’s here that you can witness what remains of the work of Vann Molyvann and Lu Ban Hap as they forged ahead with their works of architectural modernism under the aegis of King Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum development project in the 1950s and 1960s.
Sihanouk himself used Kep as a base, not only keeping his own villa here but also presiding over a private island (Ile des Ambassadeurs), while the Queen Mother’s property is still easily visible on the main road leading back to Kampot, its overgrown garden now zealously guarded behind a wrought iron gate by a pack of vociferous dogs and a gaggle of geese. These homes were not, as commonly thought, raided by the infamously anti-bourgeois Khmer Rouge, but instead looted by locals who used the proceeds to buy food at the time of the Vietnamese occupation—a sad conclusion to the days of Kep’s pre-eminence as a glitzy European-style resort that, with its car races, regal connections, and whiff of seaside glamour, once attracted favourable comparisons to Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera.
A five-kilometre trip out to sea from here is arguably Kep’s best-known tourist attraction, Koh Tonsay (កោះទន្សាយ; Rabbit Island), which was once used to harbour and rehabilitate criminals, but is now populated by day-trippers on diving boats and guest houses. Though the island remains popular, the majority of Kep’s more upscale hotels are on terra firma, so it’s advisable to stay on land for a comfortable stayover at smarter seaside addresses nearer the beach.