Kampot is a sleepy but utterly charming small city located close to the south coast of Cambodia, within reach of the Vietnamese border. It sits on the banks of the Praek Tuek Chhu river. Once a French colonial town, it is only just starting to wake up to the benefits of a recent influx of tourists and expats. Most of the things to do in Kampot are based around the river and the beautiful, lush surrounding countryside.
We found that there were enough locals temples and history around Kampot to satisfy our love of culture and enough activities in Kampot to satiate our thirst for adventure. Finally, there are plenty of foodie experiences and restaurants in Kampot to keep our bellies full. Read on to find out what we discovered in this still-underrated gem of a Cambodian city!
- A day out in Bokor National Park
- Kayaking in Kampot – the Green Cathedral
- See how Kampot pepper is grown at La Plantation
- Eat fresh seafood and pepper crab at Kep Crab market
- Visit Phnom Chhngok Cave temple – older than Angkor!
- Visit the Secret Lake
- Walk in nature through Kep National Park
- See the fireflies on an evening river cruise
- Visit the Kampot Salt Fields
- Enjoy the sights of Kampot
- Restaurants in Kampot
- Where to stay in Kampot
- How to get to Kampot and how to get around
10 Things to do in Kampot and the surrounding area
Bokor National Park is located on Bokor Mountain, a short drive away from Kampot and worthy of a day out to visit. The original Bokor Hill Station was established by the French in the earlier part of the 20th century. Colonial officers used the station as a way to escape the stifling summer heat.
Bokor is pretty much a full day out to see the park with all the sights there. We hired a tuktuk for the day which costs around USD25-30. If you have a scooter or motorbike then you can do the journey yourself although beware that it gets quite windy up the mountain. Make sure you pack an extra layer of clothing too, as the temperature difference can be quite extreme compared to the bottom.
Lok Yeay Mao monument
One of the first things we saw as we approached the top of the mountain is the Lok Yeay Mao monument. At 29m high, this imposing yet somewhat kitschy monument is believed to be a protector spirit.
The main attraction of the mountain used to be the old casino, which has been twice abandoned and left as derelict. At the time of our visit (November 2017) the place was cordoned off for entry and crawling with construction workers. Apparently it is due be turned into a swanky new hotel. It was a shame that we arrived too late to roam around the derelict building as apparently it used to have a haunted atmosphere. However, there are still some stunning views over the coast.
Other sights of Bokor National Park are the Wat Samprov Pram temple, also with stunning views over the coast and out to Pho Quoc island in Vietnamese territory. Also, Popokvil waterfall is apparently a sight to behold particularly after the rainy season, when the falls are at their strongest and the mists swirl around (Popokvil literally means “swirling mists!). We probably visited too far after the end of the rainy season as there were no swirling mists to be seen, but nevertheless the waterfalls are still an impressive sight.
Eating and drinking
There is a new development up the mountain – the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort – offering a hotel and restaurants. From what we could see, a shopping mall was also under development. However, the place is such a ghastly, pseudo-modern architectural eyesore that we literally could not bring ourselves to enter. There is another canteen-style restaurant at Popokvil if you really get hungry. However, we can recommend taking your own picnic and eating it outside in the garden of the Popokvil canteen restaurant. Here, you can use the tables and chairs free of charge.
The Green Cathedral is a nickname for a kayaking route that is a kind of circular channel off the main river itself (see map below). It was very easy for us to find it as it is very close to Gecko Village, the beautiful guest house a few kilometres north up the river where we stayed for the whole time we were in Kampot.
We found kayaking in Kampot along this route to be enchanting. We really felt as if we were out in the jungle. There are sections that are almost completely shrouded by giant palm trees. We paddled past a number of local fishermen. As well as the few guest houses that line the riverbank, local homes are also overlooking some parts of the river. Some of the kids yelled an excited hello to us as we floated past. It was an awesome and very authentic experience, and ranks as one of our favourite things to do in Kampot.
We were told that kayaking this section at around 10pm during a full moon will bring spectacles of fireflies along the river too. We unfortunately missed the full moon, but we would definitely do this if we are back at the right time. The river is not more than waist deep so it is perfectly safe even for older kids.
One of the most unique things to do in Kampot is to discover it’s prized crop – Kampot pepper.
Why is Kampot pepper so special?
Kampot pepper is a unique ingredient, recognised by culinary experts as having an especially floral accent. The region of Kampot first started producing pepper back in the 13th century. Under the French colonial rule, it underwent a boom and for a while, Kampot pepper was a de rigeur ingredient in the restaurant kitchens of Paris. Tragically, in later years, production all but ceased due to the Khmer Rouge policies of growing rice in favour of spice. Many of the pepper-growing farmers were forced off their land.
In more recent years, pepper farmers have started to reclaim the industry and Kampot pepper is once again an ingredient that can be enjoyed within and outside the Kampot pepper-growing region. Since 2010, it has enjoyed an appellation of control status, meaning only pepper grown in Kampot can legally claim to be Kampot pepper (in a similar way to French champagne or Italian chianti).
We paid a visit to La Plantation, a pepper farm owned by French couple Guy and Nathalie and located about 12 km outside of Kampot (by scooter or tuktuk). La Plantation has been up and running since 2014 and is more than just a pepper farm. Run also as a socially responsible initiative, we discovered that they only employ local people and also run a small school next to the farm itself. They offer free tours daily, in French, English or Khmer, where can learn about the business and how their pepper is grown. There is a restaurant with a pepper-themed menu. You can also purchase some of their certified organic pepper from the shop at La Plantation. We really enjoyed this experience and it gave us insight into a product that is a source of deep pride to the local people of the Kampot region.
We did not learn until after our visit to Kep Crab Market that overfishing of crabs in Kep is leading to depleted stocks and causing an unsustainable level of damage to the local marine ecosystems. Although therefore I must confess that we did eat fresh pepper crab at the Kep Crab market, I sadly cannot responsibly recommend that others do the same. And we definitely will not make this mistake again, despite that it tasted excellent.
However, this aside, a visit to the Kep Crab Market is still very much worthwhile and there are literally dozens of other different types of seafood to whet your fishy appetites. If you go down there for around lunchtime, this relatively small market has many, many stalls grilling and selling all different types of fish and seafood. Or, you can also choose as we did to eat in one of the restaurants overlooking the sea. There are plenty of options here in addition to the controversial Kep crab.
Kep is about 25km outside of Kampot, accessible by scooter or by tuktuk.
One of the more adventurous things to do in Kampot! Phnom Chhgok Cave is a very bumpy ride away about 10km outside of Kampot (anticipate longer than you think you will need due to the unpaved roads!). This is not a long activity, 60-90 minutes is all it takes to visit the caves however it is very much worthwhile. After we had climbed the 200-odd steps with our guide, who was half teenager, half mountain goat, we arrived at the cave entrance. Our guide pointed out the stalactites and stalagmites in the shape of animals, and then showed us the temple. It is a tiny affair, however it dates back to the 7th century in the pre-Angkorian times which by itself is impressive enough.
A word of warning here. Our guide had tried to show us the way to climb through the caves and out of the side. We are both reasonably fit however, wearing sandals and rucksacks and the cave itself being mostly pitch black, we chickened out and went back the way we had come in. Many people may be able to make this route especially if you have some experience caving/climbing but it is categorically not suitable for young children, pregnant or elderly people, or anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a little bit adventurous. The teen-guides are not certified for anything and your insurance may not cover you in case of any accident. So only make the route through if you are confident in your athletic prowess and ability to pay for any medical care in case of injury.
The Secret Lake is not one of the single activities to do in Kampot, but it is a beautiful stop on the rive between the pepper plantation and the Phnom Chhngok cave. It was created as an irrigation dam by local farmers who were used as slaves during the Khmer Rouge rule.
When we visited, the path across the lake was still flooded from the rains that had finished right before we arrived in Kampot. Our tuktuk could still drive across the road. But we did get out and put our feet into the water and took some photos!
Many people miss out on one of the lesser known activities in Kep which is the Kep National Park. Located close to the beach behind the Veranda resort, it only costs $1 per person to enter. We did not stay very long as we were short on time, however if you have the time then Kep National Park offers an 8km circular trek, great for walking. There are beautiful views out over the coast, and the chance to see local nature including birds and squirrels. Apparently there are also monkeys in the park, although we did not see any.
Evening river cruises in Kampot are offered by a few different operators, but one of the most popular is Captain Chims guest house in the centre of town. Operating every evening, you will get a two-hour cruise plus a free beer for the princely sum of $5. Seeing the fireflies n a Kampot river cruise is not guaranteed, but given that the tour is so inexpensive, it is a worthwhile investment in any case.
Kampot Salt Fields are the only producer of salt in Cambodia, and it is extracted directly from the ocean during the production season of November to May. Each morning, the salt fields are flooded by the tides. During the day the water evaporates and leaves behind salt crystals, which are harvested. They are then shipped to a plant for cleaning and packaging for sale.
There is a small exhibition centre at the Kampot Salt Fields, located around 15 minutes drive outside of Kampot towards Kep. There, tourists can visit and purchase a bag of salt.
Kampot itself doesn’t have a huge number of sights, but it is a pretty town to walk around for an hour or two.
There is a small triangle that forms the centre of the town, with three landmarks on each corner. The old French bridge across the river looks like a kind of Frankensteins monster of bridges, cobbled together from different parts and styles. It was closed for years but you can now walk or bike across.
The Durian roundabout pays homage to the stinkiest fruit in the world, beloved of south-east Asians including the good people of Kampot.
The Lotus pond close to the old French Governers mansion (now Kampot Museum) is actually a really pretty spot. When we visited, there were some kids jumping into the water to swim and cool off. Once they saw us taking pictures, they took great delight in throwing a few poses for the camera!
Although Kampot doesn’t have a never-ending maze of street food like for example Hanoi, some of the best things to do in Kampot itself do involve food! In response to the demands of the local expat population and the ever-increasing line of tourists shuffling through, Kampot has developed a nice little restaurant scene with some diverse offerings. All of these restaurants are located right in the centre of town.
5 great places to eat in Kampot
- Baraca – run as a guest house as well as a restaurant. We had amazingly good tapas and even more amazingly good gin cocktails, (which are on happy hour until 7pm)
- Epic Arts Cafe – run as a social initiative employing local deaf people, Epic Arts has an absolutely mouthwatering menu. I had corn fritters topped with a perfectly poached egg, and Tom had a Thai salad, both of which were fabulous. Ordering is via a tick sheet, and beware that Epic Arts has a closing time of 4pm.
- Aroma House – specialising in delicious and freshly prepared Middle Eastern kebabs and falafel. The owner, James, is a super-friendly guy who takes excellent care of his customers and staff.
- The Rusty Keyhole – located across the road from the river promenade, this is a Kampot institution. It has an extensive menu offering local dishes such as lok lak, but is most famous for its ribs. Eating the biggest portion will earn you a spot on their wall of fame!
- Captain Chims is another Kampot institution. They serve up freshly prepared and cheap-as-chips local and Western dishes all day long.
Our stay in Kampot was made infinitely more enjoyable and lengthened by five additional days due to the awesome accommodation that we stumbled across at the last minute. Gecko Village is a newly opened guest house located about 4km north of Kampot on the river. It features 10 very reasonably priced, spotlessly clean and well-equipped bungalows, a pool and a small bar/restaurant. We were hosted by French couple Francois and Valerie. These guys are two of the loveliest, friendliest and most hospitable people we have met whilst travelling.
If you want to stay in Kampot town itself, then there are a number of hostels and guest houses located in Kampot itself. Check out our deals finder below to find the best rates for your stay.
Kampot does not have an airport and the trains only run a few times each week. Therefore the most practical way to get to and from Kampot is by bus. Giant Ibis is the most reputable and reliable bus company in Cambodia. They run a daily bus service between their offices in Kampot (right next to the Durian roundabout) and Phnom Penh (next to the night market). The journey takes 3-4 hours including one rest stop, and costs $9 per person.
When you are in Kampot, there are three ways to get around:
- Motor scooters – available to rent from various places for around $5 per day
- Bicycle – available either free or for a small charge via many hostels and guest houses
- Tuktuks – literally all over town, you will hear a chorus of “tuktuk?” outside every restaurant and on every street corner. We learned that you should never pay more than a dollar per kilometre. Regardless what sob stories you may hear!
Kampot may not be a big city or yet particularly cosmopolitan, but it has a unique charm. With the boom of development knocking on the door of Cambodia, it may not keep this charm for much longer. If you want to experience it before it loses its dreamy haze, then get there soon before everyone else does.