KAMPOT & KEP – TWO BIRDS, ONE STONE
Although KAMPOT and KEP are not always on the standard Angkor Wat/Siem Reap – Phnom Penh itinerary of most travelers cruising through Cambodia, they are certainly not entirely off the beaten track. I arrived in KAMPOT coming from Sihanoukville. It’s an easy cab ride of 2-3h (50USD) or a way cheaper bus ride. I know, I know: my research was a bit off. From Sihanoukville pier, there are about a dozen taxi drivers and a slew of bus companies to choose from. They offer trips to Kampot region, the capital of Phnom Penh and several other destinations. In conclusion: you might be better off with a bus ride if money is more tight than the bus seat you’ll have to squeeze in. And no, I’m not calling you fat.
Both KAMPOT and KEP are located in the southern region of Cambodia, and especially KAMPOT has that ‘colonial waterfront’ feel to it. KAMPOT is also the ‘busier’ (although busy might not be the correct phrasing in this case) of the two, but both of the towns fairly warrant a place on your itinerary in Cambodia. What KEP lacks in city centre, it makes up by its location. The great KEP NATIONAL PARK at its back, and the sea to its front. And of course, heaps and heaps of fresh seafood.
DAY 1 – WHAT’SUP KAMPOT?
On the first day, I suggest heading out to KAMPOT first, as it has a larger centre and more to offer in terms of bars, hotels, restaurants and activities. You can even use KAMPOT as a base for a day trip to KEP (which is only about 30 mins (7USD) down the road by tuktuk).
Arriving in KAMPOT, I suggest staying at MAKK HOTEL. Mr Jimmy is a great host, rooms are cheap and sleek. It’s on the ‘far’ end of the promenade. Far meaning a 5-minute walk or a 2-minute bike-ride on their free bikes. Get settled in, grab a bike and head out to RIKITIKITAVI, a (you’ve guessed it) tiki-inspired restaurant/bar with a great open air area upstairs overlooking the river. And yes, my thirsty friends: they have happy hour. After you’ve silenced your cocktail- and fingerfood-mongering demons, bike a bit further to SUP ASIA to make reservations for your afternoon/evening SUP session. (SUP is short for ‘stand up paddling’. It’s great fun and everyone with a bit of balance can do it. And if you don’t have said balance, well, you might get a bit wet, but who cares, right? It’s Asia.) A SUP session will set you back about 25USD a head, but believe me, it’s totally worth it. The owner Anne and her crew know what they are doing and are as friendly as they come. I also recommend the afternoon tour instead of the morning slot. More on that later. From SUP ASIA, just cross the central plaza to ECRAN where you can book a private ‘movie room’. I say ‘movie room’ because that’s literally what it is. A room with a huge (and I do mean huge) flatscreen, crazy audio system, a bunch of cosy pillows and aircon. They have a massive collection of (maybe not so legally obtained) movies (incl. subtitles), and a room only sets you back 7USD. A small room can hold about 4 people, but there are larger rooms available. So: book your private showing of Jurassic World (because it’s awesome) for the next morning so you are ready to head out to KEP by noon.
“Dude, all you have me do is make reservations! When is the fun part coming?”
Right about…now! Between now and the afternoon SUP session you’ll probably have a couple of hours to kill. Be sure to walk around the central plaza and its off-branching streets. The worn French colonial houses with eletrical wiring strewn across their facades is what makes KAMPOT…KAMPOT. Life moves slow, I’ll give you that. But it’s certainly anything but lifeless or boring. Sit down at any of the outside bars, have a beer and watch Cambodians and travelers alike pass by, and you’ll know what I mean.
Now it’s time for your SUP session. At around 3PM, you get a short instruction on the board and how to peddle, and then you basically just start doing it, right on the Kampot river. Groups are small (we were three) and as you move further from KAMPOT town, you encounter several fishing settlements on the riverbanks, mangroves, Cambodians working the fields,… It requires some effort, but anyone can do it really. The great thing with SUP ASIA is that they have a small fishing boat heading out to three drop-off zones, meaning that if you get too tired or you just feel like chilling, you can stop paddling, put your stuff in the boat and they’ll take you all the way to the finish line. And it’s quite a finish line: after two hours of paddling, we climbed aboard the little boat and it headed for the open sea and anchored at the smallest speck of an island imaginable. Think the size of your living room times four. There we sat on the mini-beach, watching the sun go down with a cold beer, in the middle of the sea. It was, well… stunning. Heading back, we took the boat again but disembarked about half an hour from KAMPOT town. By then it was dark, but our guide brought lights that were attached to the boards. So now you’ll be standing on your board, pitch black around you except for the aforementioned light and paddling on a river. In Cambodia. See where I’m going with this? That last part might have been the most fun: there were little fish jumping onto the board, you see the lights of the KAMPOT bridge in the distance,… All in all, it’s an activity that I can’t recommend highly enough if you have the time and ye ol’ wallet allows it.
You’ve made it back to shore! Hooray! And you’ve burned some calories, which of course has to be compensated with scrumpteous pizza from MEA CULPA. They’re wood-oven fresh, and the bruschetta is also a big hit. Once again, this place is entirely in open air so you can enjoy the temperatures dropping slightly as night time falls. And if you have one too many Angkor beers, MAKK HOTEL is just around the corner. Sleep tight!
DAY 2 – KAMPOT to KEP: PHNOM CHHNORK CAVE and THE REAL CAMBODIA
After a hearty breakfast at the upstairs terrace at MAKK HOTEL, let them arrange a tuktuk for you to take you to the cave of PHNOM CHHNORK and afterwards to KEP. It’ll set you back about 12USD. It’s a bumpy ride, but great fun. But don’t jump on that tuktuk just yet, you first have to start your day with a movie screening and dumplings at ECRAN (the dumplings are OK, nothing to rave about). Jurassic World was great, wasn’t it? Told you I didn’t exaggerate. Bike back to the hotel, get on that tuktuk and off you go. The ride to PHNOM CHHNORK takes about 45 minutes, and the last half is really bumpy. But, you also get to drive along unpaved roads, see the ‘real’ Cambodia outside of town centres: lush, green land with rolling hills in the distance. Kids are waving at you, dogs running along, big smiles all the way. At the cave, there will be some kids posing as guides. They’ll ask for five bucks, you can give ’em two. Or five. Or nothing and go in yourself. (They speak surprisingly good English, but don’t expect to learn about who or why or what the shrine in the cave is about.) The way up to the cave you’ll see a lot of monkeys climbing the vines and scavenging for food. At the top is a superb view of the region you just drove through. The cave itself is huge and beautiful, but is it worth it? I would say ‘yes’ for sure, but not only for the cave but also thanks to the experience of getting there. (And for you over-planners, there is a stall selling cold drinks at the cave and there are bathrooms).
From PHNOM CHNNROK, it’s another 30 minutes to KEP. Again the first half is bumpy, but so worth it. Once you arrive at KEP, check in at your hotel. I stayed at the LE PONTON HOTEL, and although it was nice enough with a great pool area, gardens and modern rooms, I found it a bit overpriced. Be sure to stay in a hotel around the crab market, or you can stay somewhere further down the road and get a tuktuk. There are plenty. I’d suggest for the remainder of the day to take a swim at your hotel or maybe at KEP beach (it’s small but it’ll do) and after freshening up, go to the SAILING CLUB at the far end of the crab market. It sounds fancy, and it kinda is, but prices are very reasonable, the food is divers and tasty, there is a happy hour and the sunset is free of charge.
DAY 3 – HIKING in KEP NATIONAL PARK & SEAFOOD BONANZA
Instead of only munching on crab legs, it might be a good idea to stretch your own legs today. KEP NATIONAL PARK, which is a 15 minute walk from crab market to the start of the trail, is very well signposted, has clear trails winding up and down the hills and has excellent view points around each corner for those Instagram-worthy shots. Calculate about three to four hours to complete the circuit. The entrance is next to La Veranda resort, admission is about 1-2USD. The hike is streneous at times, but nothing someone with average fitness can’t handle. The trail also provides a lot of shade, but some parts will leave you out in the open sun, so be sure to bring that factor 5000+ and a couple bottles of water. There are no stalls selling drinks on the trail, except for the GIBBON VALLEY RETREAT, which is a steep downhill side-step from the regular trail. If you really want to go off-line, under the radar or whatever you want to call it, this might be a good place to hang out for a couple of days. Maybe even make friends with the rescued house monkey, who knows? The world’s your oyster. But I digress. At the end of the ‘nature’ trail there’s a short part that runs along a paved road and then back into a very very steep uphill climb (make a right at the beautiful red and gold temple complex). From the top there, you can take a very narrow and winding one-person path back down to the finish. You’ll end up between the ‘famous’ Kep crab statue and the actual crab market. I was totally beat at the end of that hike, so I took a quick tuktuk to see the Kep crab statue (yeah, yeah, call me a tourist all you want but if there’s a giant crab statue on a ponton I just have to see it) and back to the crab market.
There are other tracks you can follow by the way: there are steep shortcut climbs midway on the trail, you can just walk the paved road back to civilization or take the way I did. Everything is very clearly signposted, and if you want to make sure, take a picture of the trail map at the entrance or download MAPS.ME and the Cambodia map; a lot of trails are on there as well.
When in KEP, you HAVE to try the seafood (I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but I am). I visited KIMLY RESTAURANT after the recommendation of my tuktuk driver. I went for the mixed seafood with fried rice and made the mistake of taking the large rather than the normal portion. A small family of four could’ve eaten what they put in front of me. But man oh man, it. was. delicious. And cheap. The atmosphere was pretty good as well. Don’t expect a clear ocean-view however unless you are sitting at the farthest tables.
After filling up on crab meat and seafood, my journey continued toward the end of my trip: Phnom Penh.
I totally failed at keeping this short, didn’t I?