Cambodia Part I: All You Need Is Kampot

Before I tell you that we spent one full day in Phnom Penh and it was one too many, let me defend this city a bit: Cambodia’s capital used to be a very lovely place, very happening and cosmopolitan, the ‘Paris of the East’ up until the beginning of 1975 when the war between the infamous Khmer Rouge and the then U.S.-backed government pushed about 2 million desperate refugees into the city. Later in the year, the city fell to the Khmer Rouge, who completely emptied it of civilians (they were forced into agricultural labor in the Cambodian countryside) and let Phnom Penh crumble, a strange parallel to the fate of many of Cambodia’s great temple ruins. Today’s Phnom Penh is dusty and pedestrian-unfriendly. Parking lots and market stalls catering to the tourists and ex-pats have taken over the wide streets and leafy boulevards of yonder.

View of Psar Thmei market courtesy of the Khmer govt.

View of Psar Thmei market courtesy of the Khmer govt.

Case in point: one of the most architecturally lauded buildings is the newly renovated art deco Psar Thmei – the Central Market… But Phnom Penh was our launchpad into a verdant kingdom of pristine villages, milk-white beaches and majestic temples.

After a three hour bus ride, we hit Cambodia’s south. We arrived at Kampot, a town like no other, not quite a beach town, since it has no direct access to the sea, but with that indelible vibe of a vacation spot minus the hordes of flip-flopped tourists clamoring for cheap beer.

It's hard to describe Kampot's chilled and relaxed vibe. Guidebooks describe its architecture as French colonial while the locals swear it's old Chinese shopfront-style; either way it's lovely especially in the evening

It’s hard to describe Kampot’s chilled and relaxed vibe. Guidebooks describe its architecture as French colonial while the locals swear it’s old Chinese shopfront-style; either way it’s lovely especially in the evening

Kampot will forever have a special place in our hearts for a few different reasons: it was our first respite from the incessant go-go-go of Vietnam, it was highly pedestrian, it was the first place where we managed to get back on our running schedule and offered us some incredibly good coffee and food.

One thing we noticed on the first day was that birds seemed to be unusually loud -and invisible - in this town. Locals filled us in soon: windowless houses broadcast chirping sounds all day long to attract the swallow cousins of birds nest soup fame. Kampot boasts several of these shapeless constructions. And this caption is irrelevant to the photo. You're welcome!

One thing we noticed on the first day was that birds seemed to be unusually loud -and invisible – in this town. Locals filled us in soon: windowless houses broadcast chirping sounds all day long to attract the swallow cousins of birds nest soup fame. Kampot boasts several of these shapeless constructions. And this caption is irrelevant to the photo. You’re welcome!

How to describe its vibe? Here’s one possible way: imagine San Francisco about 150 years ago, in a warmer climate and landlocked. The same love of funky fusion cuisine, gourmet coffee at every corner, a sense of humor that pervades every menu and poster, an inclination towards the ‘green and healthy’ and some awesome entrepreneurial and non-profit shops and restaurants where you can truly feel good about eating well… If that doesn’t do it for you, then simply imagine a small town in Mediterranean Europe, scratch out public transportation and cobblestone streets, add exotic fruits and spicy dishes, sprinkle dust over it liberally – and there you have it, DOLCE VITA, a tiny paradise on a river. Speaking of exotic fruit, Kampot has a love-hate relationship with durian, whom they dub “King of Fruit” and raise it a statue in centerville only to plaster walls and windows with posters like the one below:

It's not just the enormous statue - and notice that all other fruit is dwarfed beyond proportion - this whole place is called Durian Plaza.

It’s not just the enormous statue – and notice that all other fruit is dwarfed beyond proportion – this whole place is called Durian Plaza.

... but when it comes to Durian's social mobility, this is the sad reality: there's a very clear ceiling to where it can or cannot go. Back of the bus for you Durian!

… but when it comes to Durian’s social mobility, this is the sad reality: there’s a very clear ceiling to where it can or cannot go. Back of the bus for you Durian! No fruit equality here.

Kampot also stands out thanks to a crowd of enthusiastic ex-pats who publish The Kampot Survival Guide, a leaflet brimming with humor and mostly useful information, from which I extracted a few pearls for your enjoyment:

“What most people miss is [when visiting the caves] is that the approaches to the caves are dotted with round American-type ponds dropped in from above by B52’s in 1973;”

and

“Potholes were invented in Kampot and are still Kampot’s greatest export – initially devised for traffic control it’s popularity recently soared with Cambodia’s adoption of free range golf; a game where you hit golf ball in any direction with the intent to end its travel in a pot hole”

The Legend of Kampot Terms reads:

  • Pot-pat=xpat living in Kampot
  • Snook = Sihanoukville or where pot-pats go to die
  • Snail = backpacker;
  • Pregnant snail = backpacker with a n additional front backpack
  • Repeat offender = expat that keeps returning to Kampot;

The guide also offers a hit-list of sorts, a soundtrack of the town experience, performed by the Kampot Pepperettes. Among them:

  • I left my heart in Kampot
  • You’ve lost that Kampot feeling
  • All you need is Kampot
  • What’s Kep got to do with it

What DOES Kep got to do with it, you may wonder. Well, Kep is a nearby sea resort that was built during the French colonial period, which, with its quiet little beach, lack of social scene and expensive accommodations has somehow become the butt of pot-pat jokes whenever they tire of taking potshots at ‘the Snook’… One more thing must be said about Kampot: its atmosphere and the camaraderie among its ex-pat denizens (many French and hilarious to boot) has inspired a fierce loyalty that we didn’t encounter anywhere else on Cambodia’s seaside. However, in poor old Kep’ s defense, it does boast an amazing little crab market where Ed and I stopped on our way to the beach and feasted on some local specialties…

This is about as fresh as it gets, ocean-to-table if you will, and possibly the most delicious seafood we've ever had. Also worth mentioning that the locals fishing and frying these goodies were wering PARKAS! What were we wearing? Swimsuits and sweat. Apparently it was an unusually cold winter in Cambodia...

This is about as fresh as it gets, ocean-to-table if you will, and possibly the most delicious seafood we’ve ever had. Also worth mentioning that the locals fishing and frying these goodies were wering PARKAS! What were we wearing? Swimsuits and sweat. Apparently it was an unusually cold winter in Cambodia…

Now THIS is my kind of lollipop. Squid-on-a-stick any day!

Now THIS is my kind of lollipop. Squid-on-a-stick any day!

We also sampled crunchier fare; crickets are fairly high in protein and plentiful.

We also sampled crunchier fare; crickets are fairly high in protein and plentiful.

Just because you were dying to see a close-up of that scrumptious last dish :-))

Just because you were dying to see a close-up of that scrumptious last dish :-))

While in Kampot, we took a few day trips, including one to the abandoned Bokor Hill station, formerly one of the world’s most beautiful abandoned places – Atlas Obscura has a pretty good article about it.

Sadly, the beautifully decayed casino from their photos had been taken over by the Sokha chain of resorts by the time we visited and scrubbed of moss and mystery, bare gray cement bones showing, a blank canvas that will sadly soon become an overly-lit sterile resort for insipid business team-building exercises… Money trumps beauty sadly and the locals need every bit of the former, so I really hope this turns out well for them.

Cambodia’s countryside charmed us and broke our hearts with its beauty and the obvious poverty of its denizens, but lest we forget, this is a country of contrasts: just because they were poor, the villagers did not look unhappy and their children were the most beautiful, friendly and carefree we’ve ever met.

Flodded rice paddies stretch out seemingly into infinity

Flodded rice paddies stretch out seemingly into infinity

Abundantly verdant, every stilt house in Cambodia's south has its own little pond, presumably because of the high water level.

Abundantly verdant, every stilt house in Cambodia’s south has its own little pond, presumably because of the high water level.

Cows in Cambodia - and I beg you, bear with this city girl's ode to the Khmer bovine, it is a sincere one - they are white as milk, slim without being skinny, with bones jutting out at soft angles that make them look like marble statues etched against golden sunsets. They are uniquely serene and  beautiful.

Cows in Cambodia – and I beg you, bear with this city girl’s ode to the Khmer bovine, it is a sincere one – they are white as milk, slim without being skinny, with bones jutting out at soft angles that make them look like marble statues etched against golden sunsets. They are uniquely serene and beautiful.

We experienced golden storybook sunsets suspended outside of time, we wandered among reflecting pools dotting the landscape like windows into other realms, we watched children playing hide-and-seek among haystacks. We felt love, awe and fear; fear that this garden of Eden might someday vanish to make way for high-rise hotels and 7-elevens…

We eventually moved on to “the Snook,” or “Russianville,” occasionally also referred to as Sihanoukville, the ultimate seaside resort for those thirsting, in equal measure, for cheap cocktails and people-watching. On the beach we watched in amazement heavy-set middle aged men the color of boiled leather strutting their stuff in tiny speedos and getting their chests threaded. We also pondered the seemingly infinite range of services offered on the beach: peeling and artfully cutting every fruit known to man into bite-sized pieces, mani-pedis, full body threading and massages, juicing, frying, grilling, scooping, shelling, slathering and rolling food, and, of course, brutal hacking of young coconuts for the purpose of juicy hydration.

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