Skirting the seaside in Kep and Kampot or: Two Stubborn Cows in Cambodia (Travels with my Godmother)
While hardly any one of us is able to travel, this may be a time to shamelessly wallow in memories – of travels past. This time, let me take to you Kep and Kampot. Who cares whether there’s any hard practical info that’s still relevant today, whether some places have fallen victim to overtourism now, are forgotten, or just as delightful as they were… back then?
Just in short: My godmother is really one of my best friends whom I met in the hospital library in 1999. She is, in fact, my godmother as well.
I’ll pick up the thread where I woke from a semi-coma from mysterious food poisoning. I blame the sunny-side up eggs at our last hotel or the not-so-nice fishy dish in that retro Phnom Penh restaurant, which led to me being wiped out for a day and a half. After gaining controls of my digestive system again by the time we had reached Kep, I spent the afternoon lolling around on the bed, ordering godmother to bring me a can of cola and snacking on emergency supply pretzel sticks from the depths of our backpacks.
Kep and Kampot
The next morning, having slept about 20 hours, still feeling a little rough, I joined my friend for a little explore. I would have happily spent another day relaxing at this nice small-scale resort, too.
I thought that maybe leaving out the crab shacks on the beach might be a good idea after just being able to eat solid food again. After all, Kep was the place where pre-war villas lie sleeping in jungled-over gardens. We came with no firm plans as to what we were going to do in Kep, other than knowing it is by the sea, and there were some notable abandoned villas.
We had vaguely planned a trip to Bokor Hill Station. It was once a nice ride in a 4×4, followed by a bit of walking around the abandoned hill station. Since being leased to an oil company in 2008, the formerly abandoned hill station has seen a lot of building activity, and I have been told is would be far from the wild, abandoned place it once was. Moreover, our host told us, there would be a strenuous 3km uphill walk, which was being sold as a “jungle trek”, then a ride in a pick-up truck, all to witness building activity on the once-abandoned casino. We passed, this time, and if we ever return, there would probably be an ugly new hotel, a casino, pylons and wires everywhere, and the peace and quiet gone forever.
Instead, we enjoyed a lazy morning in a really quiet seaside resort!
At first, we went to view another Molyvann masterpiece, just down the road, the Knai Bang Chatt Resort. Somewhat out of our league price-wise, we wandered cautiously through its gardens, having snuck in through its “yacht club”. . It looked pretty abandoned, too, and we sat on the pier, watching the birds and a few people doing T’ai Chi for a good half hour
The fabled abandoned villas of Kep were a bit of a letdown, to be honest. Built between the 1950s and 1970, often in modernist styles, they serve as reminders of Kep’s past as a prosperous seaside resort, which came to an abrupt end at the beginning of the civil war. I had seen some very impressive photographs online. Many are not easily visible form the road and were really derelict shells. Some were inhabited. And there is one thing climbing round abandoned German hospitals, but entering abandoned houses in a country where there may well be mines, trash, snakes, God-knows-what is another matter.
We found it a bit too intrusive and dangerous in the end and ambled to the public beach instead. We checked out the seafood restaurants on the way, as well as the famous crab market, but found most crabs here are sold on a plastic plate, in simple wooden restaurants by the seaside. I gave the famous Kep pepper crap a miss, opting for a safe plate of boiled rice and a full-fat cola and godmother being not that much more adventurous with her fried rice.
Having almost an entire day at our disposal, we found a tuk-tuk and had the driver take us to Kampot – which is almost a city compared to Kep. Our guesthouse was pretty perfect – a converted old grain store by the riverside with just five rooms and a cool little restaurant. For our 30 dollars, we got a four poster bed and a huge TV, then took a walk through Kampot which really has very few tourist attractions at all but is pleasant enough for a few lazy days, a wander, and good food. After a very good dinner at the guesthouse, we retreat to another movie in our room. And the next day, we wake up to a wonderful breakfast high in quality, juices made freshly… quite the luxury!
Pepper Plantation Tour in Kampot
We had by now decided to return to Bangkok a day early, having skipped Bokor, and booked a minibus to the border and picked up a private tour as well. Most importantly, we told the guy who sold us the tour, we must see a real Kampot pepper plantation. Our driver was really nice, one of the first not trying to sell us “extras” onto the trip. As requested, he would soon turn off the main road and take us through very pretty farmland to one of several pepper plantations. This one had barely any visitors, just lots and lots of pepper bushes cultivated with other species – mangos, durian and something resembling kiwis.
The pepper plants themselves were rather unremarkable-looking bushes with green berries – pepper berries that have yet to reach maturity. Of course, we were offered pepper to buy as well. As the owner advised us to buy genuine Kampot pepper on the farms and not in the market where the pepper may not actual be high-qiuality Kampot pepper, I bought a pound of rather good-smelling pepper. It served me well for a number of years.
As we returned, there was another pepper stall on the road, allegedly belonging to a different pepper farm, so we buy some more, nicely packaged int grass gift containers. Spicy Christmas gifts all around this year!
Shopping ticked off for the day, we headed towards the Phnom Chngok Cave Temple next. It was about 15km away from the main road, which wouldn’t the bother the 4x4s and motorbikes much, but for us, it make s a pretty bumpy hour. The scenery was stunning, though, almost picture-book idyllic villages, rice fields, karst rocks dotting the landscape. People were waving, even the cows and pigs looked fatter and happier here than elsewhere.
The caves are… well, caves, with a small brick shrine in the largest of them. The 200 steps have knocked my feeble body out, and it is hot again, so I am glad to be back in our guesthouse for another ice cold drink and a round of TV.
Lazing around in Kampot
When it got a little cooler, we walked along the riverfront of Kampot, I ingested an ultra-cheap papaya salad from a street stall without much ill effect, we had dinner and then, to relax us for our twelve-hour trip tomorrow, a shiatsu massage at the “Seeing Hands” Massage Parlour next to the guesthouse. This was quite something – the masseur visually impaired and very grim looking, he gave my limbs a good squeeze,and at some point I thought he might be doing handstands on my spine. Certainly no new-agey spa philosophy like in the more touristy places here. No pain, no gain.Apart from my right arm feeling a bit numb afterwards, I felt quite good after my massage.
The pain just came two days later, when a potential cause could not be identified, after a couple more massages bookending a nine hour minibus trip curled up like a shrimp, two hours on a pickup truck and several miles of walking in Bangkok.
The ultimate stubbornity challenge and returning to Bangkok
Having seen what we wanted to see, we decided to return to Bangkok one day early in order to fit in our shopping and sightseeing itinerary. So, we just popped into the little travel agency next to our guesthouse and asked for tickets to the border at Koh Kong. From there, we figured, we would pick up some transport to Trat and then catch a nice comfy coach to Bangkok. Oh, no problem, direct to border, nine dollar – we were sold, purchased tickets and rightly, at the appointed time a minibus turned up, already nicely piled with luggage topped off with a motorcycle.
We had an interesting trip – curled up in insane positions that would have done Marie Kondo proud, but distracted by the beautiful scenery outside. We counted fourteen passengers, most of them male, who had cigarettes lit almost the entire journey
Things only got a bit more relaxed when we offloaded most passengers and cargo in central Koh Kong after about six hours, where someone motioned us into the direction of some motocycle taxis. We smiled then ignored them and let the driver take us on a scenic tour of some villages. An hour later, we were back in the centre and beckoned, a bit harder, to peruse the motorcycle taxis to the border. Which we didn’t fancy. A bit of waving mobile phones and threats around, we kept pur bottoms firmly planted on the seats and finally, were taken, without a word, the 5km to the border checkpoint and offloaded without a word.
It took a while to cross the border and be stamped into Thailand and did not seem as straightforward as leaving Thailand. A few rather nerve-wracking border crossings into the German Democratic Republic as a child aside, when my bum was guarding a few boxes of bathroom tiles or tins of pineapple, I never really had any unpleasant border experiences. This one was a bit of a borderline border experience, very bureaucratic, extremely slow, and above all the pressure trying to make it to Bangkok, another eight hours away.
Once over the border, we were told there would be no buses to Trat for the day and were offered a ride in the “last minibus” “direct to Khao San Road” for something crazy like 30 dollars. Having seen enough of minibuses for the day. Unfortunately, the last bus info was true. So together with some other die-hard backpackers, we hired a truck to take us the 90km to Trat and drop us off at the bus station.
We had a little hope that we catch a coach … and indeed, we got tickets for a coach and an hour later cosied ourselves in fragrant bus blankets and were served highly iced soft drinks by the coach attendant. We reached Bangkok around midnight, took a taxi from Ekamai to our hotel, had a bath and slept off our travel day.
We travelled from Phnom Penh to Kep and from Trat to Bangkok by public bus – there were plenty on offer, and it was fine to buy tickets just an hour or so before travel. We hired a tuk-tuk for local trip sin Kep and in Kampot, and took a public mini van from Kampot to the Thai border at Koh Kong. We hired a truck and driver to take us the 90km from the Thai border to Trat, which made for an uncomfortable ride, but worked out better than an overpriced stuffed minibus to Khao San Road in Bangkok.
In Kep, we stayed at the somewhat secluded Kep Bungalows. They were owned by French people and accordingly, mostly geared towards French tourists, with great standards hygiene, and we were glad we spoke a bit of French although some English was also spoken when we visited. Breakfast was a big letdown, unfortunately,and after the reheated stale baguette and floury “crepes” I would have not tried anything else in their cafe. . There are a peaceful garden and pool at the property, and it’s a ten-minute walk to the sea front, some of which is occupied by private resorts, and about 2km to the public beach.
A place I would certainly consider staying if I visit the south of Cambodia again would be the Knai Bang Chatt Resort, and were it only for its Vann Molvann designed buildings and sympathetic timeless interior. I actually insisted we visit for a little look, and I did like that decor very much – and still do. Unlike many boutique hotels in Southeast Sia, the place has aged really well.
In Kampot we stayed at a beautiful guesthouse called Rikitikitavi. Also owned by expats, this place is a beautifully run local style old house with tasteful bedrooms and super service.
We were prepared to spend the night in Trat, but caught a coach to Bangkok and booked a last-minute studio apartment at the Aspen Suites. It was cheap, we knew the location well (Soi Sukhumvit 2, same as my beloved Atlanta Hotel) and we were only going to spend one night there. All in all, I really liked this place. The decor may have been a bit interchangeable, the pool a bit small, but tons of comfort for 30 Euro? After one night, we moved to the Adelphi Grande Sukhumvit, an all-suite hotel we had booked previously. It was almost perfect: modern building, decent pool, lovely roomy suites with small kitchens and washing machines, very friendly. Add to that a quiet location in a residential side street yet just 5min walk from Phrom Phong BTS, and prices starting at 40 Euros, and we were sold.
The Small print
This trip happened in 2009, so some things may have changed a little. I did check all restaurants and hotels I linked and found them to be still open and active and getting good reviews. This post contains some affiliate links to Booking,com – if you make a purchase through these links I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.