Sunsets, seafood and seclusion: Exploring the twin jewels of Kep and Kampot

From the laid-back charm of Kampot to solace and seafood in Kep, a few days in these two charming towns provide an unforgettable taste of the good life

A countryside scene in Kampot province

Words by Ellie Dyer Photography by Thomas Cristfoletti

As the heat dipped and another languid day drew to a close, the floating deck provided a front-row seat to watch the riverine world of Kampot drift by.

A battered fishing boat chugged downstream, making its daily odyssey to the sea; low-flying birds flapped unhurriedly, cutting through treacle-like humidity with pointed wing; and in the distance, a lone splash signalled another tourist plunging excitedly into the waterway’s refreshing depths.

As the sun sank further and swarms of cicadas struck up their siren song, pinks and yellows streaked the sky, reflected in mirror-like detail in the still river below. Later, ink-black heavens would be sprinkled with thousands of shimmering stars, as if the Milky Way was putting on a show just for me.

My exploration of Cambodia’s verdant south had started with a two-and-a-half-hour taxi journey from the hectic capital of Phnom Penh. Snaking our way toward the coast, the garment factories of the city’s outskirts gradually disappeared, giving way to emerald rice paddies, fat buffalo and stilted wooden houses – providing an inkling of the arcadia that was to come.

First stop was the sleepy port town of Kampot. With a gently flowing waterway, bountiful harvests and sprawling saltpans, it’s undoubtedly one of the best spots in Cambodia to immerse yourself in the Kingdom’s rich rural life.

Strolling through the compact town centre, dilapidated two-storey shophouses – a symphony of pale creams, rich yellows and pockets of dusky blue – combined with tranquil streets to create a charming old-world ambiance that was hard not to fall in love with.

Kampothead, a vintage store in the old Royal Theatre

But ultimately, everything in Kampot comes back to the Kampong Bay river – the gently meandering lifeblood of this bucolic community. I drank in my first sight of the estuary at the Fishmarket, an artfully restored 1930s art deco building turned eatery, which boasts a comfortable balcony with sweeping panoramic views.

From there, it’s easy to hop onto one of the many cruise boats that ply the waters each evening, passing throngs of fireflies, which light up trees like fairy lights, and the silhouetted Elephant mountains. Finish your night with dinner at one of the town’s excellent restaurants – Tertulia and Baraca are standouts – which have made Kampot a go-to weekend destination for Phnom Penh’s gastronomes.

But no trip to Cambodia’s durian capital is complete without a dose of the big chill. For true relaxation, spend a day unwinding to the soundtrack of birdsong, disturbed only by the gentle plop of kayak paddles parting glassy waters.

A 20-minute tuk tuk ride up Teuk Chhou Road, past low-slung huts and trees heavy with fruit, leads to a favoured retreat of many long-term expats: Greenhouse. The rustic teak lodge, once a popular bar in Phnom Penh that was painstakingly reassembled in Kampot, sits on a curve in the river and provides breathtaking vistas from its large veranda and floating pontoon.

A pontoon at Greenhouse

There’s no sweeter spot to while away a dreamy afternoon. Flop into a deck chair with a chilled beer or, for the more adventurous, rent a kayak or paddleboard to explore the tangled roots of the nearby mangroves.

And though it was hard to tear myself away from such utopia, there was one more local must-do to check off the list: Kampot pepper.

This ‘black gold’ has made the province famous in kitchens around the world, having been granted Geographical Indicator certification by the World Trade Organisation in 2010, much like French champagne or Darjeeling tea.

Getting up close to the fragrant crop was a must, and Sothy’s Pepper Farm was only too happy to oblige. Nestled among jungle-clad hills and accessible via a winding, rust-coloured track, the friendly facility hosts free tours of its terrain, alongside a wealth of knowledge about the age-old history of the aromatic spice in Cambodia.

The pepper itself fruits in finger-length clutches on spiralling, vertical vines. Protected from insects with clumps of pungent lemongrass, the farm produces red, white and black dried varieties – all of which visitors can sample on site.

Tastebuds tantalised, it was a short hop over to Kep, which was once Cambodia’s equivalent of St Tropez and a playground for the 1960s elite.

Today, the quiet hamlet is better known for its succulent crab and intoxicating resorts, but the skeletons of modernist villas that still dot its surroundings, broken down after years of war and unrest, are testament to a troubled history.

The sensational seascapes of luxury resorts such as Knai Bang Chatt will undoubtedly provide entertainment enough for many, but it would be a shame not to get out and about with a hike through the leaf-sprinkled trails of Kep National Park, which winds through the hillside behind town. It’s well worth breaking a sweat to be rewarded with lookout points offering dramatic views of the Gulf of Thailand.

The coastal town of Kep is famed for its seafood, particularly fresh crab

Another fascinating stroll comes in the form of the coastal promenade. A meandering path leads visitors from the hubbub of Psar Kdam – a lively market replete with wriggling crustaceans – past the ramshackle crab shacks, where steaming plates of fresh seafood are served to day-tripping locals and holidaying Westerners alike – be sure to sample at least one meal here during your stay. Holy Crab and Kimly restaurants gain many of the plaudits, but the truth is that most spots along this stretch will turn out a pretty fine squid or crab with Kampot pepper, two of the dishes that should be on any visitor’s itinerary.

After your seafood stop, continue past crumbling, graffitied villas and on to Kep’s popular, yet compact, beach. The somewhat rickety avenue is a favourite for Cambodian picnickers, as well as bold long-tailed monkeys who have been known to mob parked motorbikes, much to the chagrin of vehicle owners. With so many sights and smells to experience, the 20-minute walk from market to beach makes for an eye-opening insight into Cambodia’s seaside tableau.

But for the best of Kep, settle down for an evening at the Sailing Club, an upscale restaurant, bar and watersports hub dominated by a weather-beaten fisherman’s cottage, whitewashed and perched on the edge of the rocky shoreline.

Crack some crab (honestly, there’s no need to eat anything except seafood in Kep) before wandering down the long wooden jetty. From there, the distinctive hump of the windswept Bokor mountain – home to a colonial-era hill station in another vestige of hedonism past – looms dramatically in the distance, and the sunsets are renowned as some of the best in the country.

As waves lap the shoreline and the lights of the fishing fleet flicker on the horizon, this perfect storm of tranquillity and nature will leave you certain that nothing beats Cambodia’s beautiful south.

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