Kampot or Kep?
So you want to head to southern Cambodia and see a bit of the countryside, but which to choose? Kampot is a bigger town, feels a bit more alive. It’s still really chill though, with lots of artsy digs and good food on every street. It’s basically a low-key river town.Kep is smaller, more of a resort-y beach town. They have a really cool crabbing market worth checking out. The main draw of Kep is Rabbit Island - a deserted, lazy-day retreat. We chose Kampot, mostly because of the long list of food recommendations we’d been given. Plus, it’s easy to get to Kep for the day anyway.
Things to Do
Either way, whether you’re staying in Kampot or Kep, definitely try to make it out to the National Park for a day, and the countryside for a day. There are a handful of companies that run tours everyday. We went with Bison Tours and loved them. They’re a pretty basic company that shuttles you around for the day in a typical white sprinter van, but they include lunch and have a lot of activities packed into one day. Plus, it’s only $10-20 depending on which of their many options you choose.
You can also rent scooters, which is a cheaper, more self-led option. It will definitely take longer to drive on the roads, but hey, it’s cheaper. You can also hire a tuk-tuk all day, but it might be just as costly. Bison’s countryside tour operates out of tuk-tuks anyway.
Preah Monivong (Phnom Bokor) National Park
The windy mountain drive into the Dâmrei Mountains is exceptionally scenic. Plus, there are a bunch of unusual places to stop and explore scattered throughout the park, most notably the French Colonial Bokor Hill Station. Built in the 1920s as an escape from the sweltering Cambodian heat, the lofty settlement atop the regions highest peak was intended to replicate the cooler climate of France.
There have been a number of recent development initiatives to encourage tourism in the park, including the renovation of the not-spooky-anymore “abandoned” Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino. Still, a worthwhile trip into the mountains for a taste of one of Cambodia’s most prized ecological landscapes! Depending on the weather, you’ll either experience incredible views of the far-off sea, or you’ll be enveloped by cozy grey clouds in every direction.
This enormous Buddhist monument is impossible to miss on your way into the park. While there are various versions of the story of Yeay Mao, this particular statue represents her as the protector of travelers. If you know what’s good for you, make sure to pull over and pay her some respect…
She also acts as an obvious marker as to where you can find the Black Palace, just across the street.
This series of abandoned buildings just off the main road used to belong to King Sihanouk as his summer palace. You can just imagine what used to be an extravagant, mountain-view escape as you’re walking around the now eerie graffitied halls.
Walk towards the back and further into the jungle to find some truly sci-fi-y scenery…
Wat Sampov Pram, of the “Five Sailing Boats Monastery,” was built in 1924, at the same time as the Bokor Hill Station, by King Monivong (yes, it’s the same guy the National Park is named after).
The temple grounds will make you feel like you aparated into an episode of Avatar the Last Airbender. The gold accents of the embellished pagoda sitting among the craggy rocks creates a true image of a mountaintop wonderland.
Another eerie abandoned building tucked away in the misty grayness in the highlands of the park.
If you scramble up the path over the rocks on the left, you’ll get to an incredible viewpoint. On a grey day, you’ll have reached the edge of the world.
Walking Trails and Waterfalls
As a National Park, there’s also a network of walking trails ranging in length. Check out the local resort for information on where to explore. In the wet season, there are plenty of waterfalls to discover around the park!
There are loads of boats floating down the river at sunset. Hop on any boat for a picturesque evening under the bright pink sky as the sun falls behind the mountains.
As you head out, wave to the cheery fishermen heading back in from their day on the water.
A visit to Kampot would be pointless without venturing out to get a feel for the countryside. The passing scenes of rural Cambodia will fascinate and inspire as you zip down the dusty country roads by the sleeping cows and laughing children.
Bison Tours offers a morning visiting salt fields and pepper farms that you can combine with an afternoon on Rabbit Island, off of the beach in Kep. The only vehicle of true adventure is a tuk-tuk, so prepare for a bumpy ride.
Cambodia produces heaps of salt every year by bringing salt water from the coast to dry out under the sun in the quilted fields across the countryside. The network of dry and wet fields creates a checkerboard of dirt orange and sky blue, especially during the rich morning light.
Take a stroll along the edge of the fields or watch the workers shovel the sparkling white gems from the staggeringly enormous storage shed.
Have you ever had gourmet pepper? Well, Kampot is the place for it! The vibrant green vines weave in and out of brick columns of the pepper fields. Learn about the red, black, and white peppercorn varieties and how they’re grown. You can even pluck them off the vine and give them a flavorful chomp.
Our tour brought us to the Starling Ridge Plantation, which to our surprise, is also a luxury resort. Now we know where to stay if we find ourselves back in Kampot.
Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple
On the way out, we stopped at the Phnom Chhngok Cave. The 17th century temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, with a mystic brick shrine incorporated into the stalactites of the cave.
The hike to the entrance brings you to a great vantage point to look across the fields in the valley. Descend into the cave and through an inconspicuous tunnel to wander through the cave and out the other side (obviously don’t do this if you don’t have a guide… caves can be tricky).
Brateak Krola Lake
This beautiful countryside lake, also known as the Secret Lake, isn’t actually a lake but man-made reservoir. That’s the secret.
So you chose to stay in Kampot, but if you must satisfy your curiosity about Kep, it’s only a short 45 minute ride.
For a relaxing day, catch a ferry to Rabbit Island and laze about in the hammocks or enjoy a fruit shake on the sand. It’s rarely crowded, and all there is to do is eat, drink, and sleep in the sun. Island time, baby.
Before heading back to Kampot for the night, stop at the downtown Crabbing Market. Local fisherman (mostly women, actually) are busy weaving traps, untangling fish from nets, plucking crabs from basket, or wading in the glassy evening water for a last minute catch.
Even if you’re uninterested in a fishy snack, be sure to stop in and watch the goings-on of the local Cambodian coast lifestyle!
Epic Arts Cafe - a cafe staffed by deaf or disabled individuals - support the community by enjoying their delicious treats!
Ecran - rent-a-room movie theatre with loads of options for a lazy night “in.”
Mad Monkey - hostel with a pool.
Monkey Republic - hostel we thought had the pool. Still a great place.
Simple Things - vegetarian restaurant! UHMAZING options!
KAMA (Kampot Arts & Music Association) - another great restaurant that supports the local creative community, run by women!
Kampot Night Market - the small local market has a handful of food stalls with cheap, simple dinner options… and kids’ carnival rides. Right next to the massive durian sculpture in the main roundabout.