Wedding season in Kampot’s melting pot

Kampot, 15-19 January 2020

Following the example of the French elites in the 1900’s, to escape the heat of the Phnom Penh plains, it’s off to the countryside we go. On paper today’s an easy 150km ride to Cambodia’s west coast, but no matter how long or short the distance, travel in this country always seems to end up being a full day’s affair. When we drive past a giant durian statue in the late afternoon we know we’ve ultimately arrived in Kampot.

Famed for its pepper plantations and the trade of durian fruit, Kampot used to hold Cambodia’s main seaport, attracting an international crowd. The town itself used to be half Cambodian, half Chinese, and the surrounding area had both a Vietnamese and a Malay village. With the arrival of the French in the 19th century Kampot’ melting pot became an administrative centre for the coastal region as well as a resort area, which it still is today.

For our first night we stay at one of the resorts along the Prek Tuek Chhou river, which flows through Kampot into the Gulf of Thailand. We rent a kayak and explore the backwaters, which are completely quiet except for birds and gibbons.

From across the river at the resort you can just about see the outlines of nearby Bokor mountain.

After visiting the genocide museum and the killing fields, it looks like we’ve found ourselves the ideal place to unwind in Kampot. And then there’s a mosque..

Though Cambodia is almost entirely Buddhist, there are roughly 600.000 Muslim Chams also living in the country. Right now in the cooler, dry season it’s the most popular time to get married, and nothing screams “party!” more than having your local holy man rage against the microphone non-stop from 7pm until midnight. Very interesting how little sound a bamboo hut blocks. When the call to prayer wakes us up at 5 the next day we’ve heard enough. Time to pack our bags and head to the village for some peace and quiet.

Kampot proper is a provincial town of roughly 50.000 people. It has some of the best kept French indochina architecture in Cambodia. Even though the Khmer Rouge dominated (and wrecked) the area during (and after) the civil war, a lot of the old buildings have been left standing. Some of the architecture has been beautifully restored, while yellow paint is flaking off on others, giving it a different kind of charm.

After the ultimate defeat of Khmer Rouge, since the mid-90’s, expats from Western countries have settled in Kampot and become part of the community. Given its chilled-out vibe, it’s not hard to see why this town attracts a lot of backpackers too. It’s the kind of place where you end up staying.

One cool customer in town is Joe, a white-maned, Australian hippy with an impressive moustache, who is in the middle of skinning up a fat joint when we meet him in front of his hotel. Joe’s happy to help out a couple sleep-deprived travellers, and while we’re waiting to check-in he entertains us with a couple crazy stories. When Lauren jokingly asks if the old stoner might be her dad, the panicky look on his face is just priceless! So we found ourself a new hotel, but ironically a big tent is being set up right in front of it for yet another wedding. ‘Tis the season after all..

Luckily this one’s a Buddhist ceremony, which means singing and dancing rather than a four hour single player shouting match, a big mercy. Having an actual room this time also helps a lot, so after a pretty decent rest we’re ready to explore some of the area surrounding Kampot.

Salt fields just outside town. Water is let in from the ocean and left to evaporate, leaving crystals.

Bokor National Park

It’s a hot day, so to cool off a bit we drive up 40km to the old French hill station on Bokor mountain, which is part of Bokor National Park, a 1581-sq-km area of rainforest home to the Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear, clouded leopard and pig tailed macaque. Sadly the park is currently being threatened by poaching, illegal logging and development, so much so that in fact we’re probably lucky to see a lone macaque by the side of the freshly paved road leading up to the summit.

Once at the top it’s ten degrees cooler and we go check out the remains of the station the French built in the early 1900’s. Though most of it is no longer recognizable, the Old Palace was once re-used as a casino during the 50’s and 60’s. The old church is left mostly in one piece. While we’re there it’s being used as a backdrop in another wedding’s photoshoot.

Around the hill station there’s also a waterfall (mostly dry this time of year), some rice fields and an old temple complex on a cliff’s edge. On a clear day the views are supposed to be quite spectacular.

Between the old colonial ruins, a cliff-side temple, amazing wildlife and dramatic mist descending from the jungle on the side of the mountain, Bokor has a lot going for it, but sadly this may not last for much longer. In 2012 a 190-sq-km area within the national park was already granted to a Chinese investment group for a multi-million-dollar tourism development. Currently a gigantic casino and hotel have been completed, along with an entire ghost town of empty apartment buildings, and this is only the beginning. When you leave the park, a big sign reads: “Thank you for helping us maintain our national heritage.” Aye, right then.

During cocktail hour at RikiTikiTavi, the oldest bar in town, we meet Bjorn, an expat turned local boatman (though he prefers to call himself an immigrant), who is happy to answer a million questions we have about Cambodia, the country he fell in love with ten years ago. He has some great stories about what Kampot used to be like when he first arrived and how it’s changed over the years, and one very lively story about a former UN soldier he had on his boat, who came to Kampot to track down a former Khmer Rouge commander responsible for a massacre, gripping stuff. Together the three of us continue our way to a barbeque joint and end up at the market stalls for a few more beers afterwards.

Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple

The next day we head to Phnom Chhngok, to see a temple inside a cave complex set in limestone mountains. The ride alone is already worthwhile, when we cross rice fields, sleepy towns and a few giant temples appearing out of nowhere. Judging by how excited the local kids get when they see us my guess is not many people come out this way.

The main cave of Phnom Chhngok is home to a 7th century shrine to Shiva. Sheltered by the cave walls, the temple has been quite well-preserved. Local kids act as guides here and speak remarkably good English. They call it the elephant cave, because the rock formation next to the shrine resembles both an adult and baby elephant. Pretty dead on, isn’t it?

At the end of our time in Kampot we can say it turned out to be one of our favourite places in Cambodia. We found a welcoming community here, some good food, good vibes, nice people. Bye-bye Kampot, don’t ever change!