The talesofasia guide to Sihanoukville and the south coast
by Jack Stephens
Updated October 12, 2006
Things to do
There’s a hell of a lot more to see and do in the Kampot area than getting bounced up and down Bokor Mountain to check out the ‘spooky’ ruins up there. Unfortunately the ‘tour guides’ of Kampot don’t seem keen on broadening their services, having stuck to Plan A of ferrying backpackers up and down Bokor for the lowest price possible (and tagging on a boat trip, and ‘trekking’, and free lunch, and, and, and…). In effect they compete to limit each others margins whilst offering scant choice to the punter, and marketing the trip as a do-it-all in a day excursion – thus waving goodbye to further tourist income by packing them on their way the following day.
But there are heaps of things to see and do in the Kampot area, and a road trip in any direction turns up plenty of cool stop-off points.
Staying at sea level, there are some pleasant enough (if not picture perfect) and unpretentious bits of coast hidden away, lots of lush side trails to explore, lovely routes both sides of the river in either direction, boat trips, bamboo trains, numerous caves, hidden temples way older than Angkor, water skiing, wake boarding, mountain biking, canoes for rent, rock climbing. In fact, one friend reckons Kampot is blessed with the opportunity to become the ‘adventure tourism capital of Cambodia’. For those who just can’t get enough of them, there are of course numerous wats (pagodas) to stop by at.
Getting pretty deep into the jungle is eminently possible, with no park entrance fees and without a guide. Three trails (requiring varying degrees of fitness) are easy to follow and offer frequent sightings of giant hornbills, families of gibbons and birds of prey; there are a few tigers up there, monster pythons and herds of wild elephants too, but you’re unlikely to come across them. I’ve seen an otter, cobras, leopard prints, and it’s believed there may still be crocs way up the valley. Walking, motorbiking (with good skills) or mountain biking trips reap great rewards.
If you’re breaking a sweat and feeling muscles cramping just reading this, then put yourself at ease because Kampot is also a top-rated spot where doing nothing much of anything puts a smile on your face, recharges the batteries, rests the liver, and revives you with fresh breezes and a dappling of sunshine.
Quiet streets, the most impressive riverside promenade in Cambodia, and a cooler climate than Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Battambang (or anywhere inland) mean pottering around, taking siestas, sharing conversation and a few drinks all hit the spot, lower the pulse and blood pressure after hard weeks in the office, in the classroom, at the bar or on the road.
Kampot is an increasingly popular choice for Phnom Penh-based expats to spend the weekend or long holidays. With all the new eating and drinking establishments, as well as better sleeping options just about to open, Kampot’s appeal is on the up.
Going at your own pace allows you to fit in more or travel more leisurely and many spots can be simply integrated onto cool loops beginning and ending in Kampot, lending it more of a spirit of adventure, whereas from most Cambodian towns trips are usually out-and-back journeys.
Bokor Mountain and Casino ‘ghostly experience’
The ruins on the Bokor plateau are indeed worth seeing – and many rate it as one of the most memorable experiences in SE Asia, but the impression it has on some is barely recompense for the bone-jarring return trip from sea level to over a thousand metres. Over the years of continued usage by military, logging and tourist vehicles, the harsh elements and no repair have reduced the road to rubble and it is probably in its worst state ever.
The budget tours use beat-up old pick-ups (fancy sitting outside on the edge of the truckbed in the rain for hours…and then come back?) or even minivans (bald tyres n all). Breakdowns are very frequent, repairs are belt 'n' braces, and sometimes the front yard of the Bokor Palace Casino resembles an auto mechanic’s lot, with drivers busying themselves underneath their vehicles.
Scooby Doo moments increase in direct proportion to the presence of Bokor’s legendary eerie, swirling mists and tiny clouds scudding through the derelict villas, hotels, church and other buildings. In fact, on a clear sunny day, the plateau is about as haunting as a suburban park on an English summer’s day. Partial refunds are not available for tourists not experiencing the sufficient spookiness quota.
There are spartan ‘guesthouse’ facilities up there but it’s not the best value in SE Asia at $5 per dorm bed; try to snag the two-bed rooms in the old building if you value privacy. In actual fact, the basic accommodation offered is an extension of the ranger’s station.
Bring some food supplies if the idea of instant noodles for three straight meals does little to stimulate hunger. They do have beers and cokes up there, and sometimes they chill them too. You’re welcome to use their gas stoves and kitchen facilities.
No fans - don’t need ’em - and for once in SE Asia a blanket is likely essential at night. Nighttime strolls around the plateau with torches (flashlights) are discouraged; you could get lost in the mist, falling off the sheer clifftop is a possibility, plus the plateau may still have one or two landmines or the beaten paths (which are hard to see in daylight hours). Oh, and there are rumours of a tiger whose patch includes the vicinity.
Little Garden Bar has a couple of open-topped two-man canoes available. They’re great on the wide, flat main river and a paddle around gives a different perspective on the area. Ask Norm about tackling the rapids by canoe.
Hugh at the Bodhi Villa (across the river, about 1km up from the railway bridge) has a super-slick powerboat. He’ll zoom you up the river, or strap you to the back for a bit of water skiing or wake boarding if that’s your thing.
They have a couple of snorkel sets too and the water is often surprisingly clear. Or try a spot of fishing while sipping a cold drink from the deck.
No windsurfing or sail boating yet in Kampot, but the calm shallow river and consistent breeze might make it a good spot.
I’d be first one to say that most trips into caves in SE Asia are quite a let down. Despite locals’ insistence that ‘this one goes all the way to Thailand’, many go no further than a dozen metres. A couple of spots in Kampot province are a notch or two above that ‘shrine in the wall’ mediocrity though.
The caves at the hard to pronounce Phnom Chhngauk are the pick of the bunch nearer Kampot. These can be reached from two directions, meaning your visit can be but one stop-off on a loop circuit from Kampot town. You can also tag this on to a trip to or from Kep.
These days the turnoff is signposted (after the bridge on the Kampot-Kep road spectacularly snapped under the weight of an overloaded salt truck).
Take your choice: either head out north on the Phnom Penh-bound Route#3 for roughly 12km and make a right turn just after a small market area; or head east towards Kep (Route #33 – marked differently on older maps, but there’s only one road), cross the temporary bridge and the turnoff is on the left a little after the stout rhino in the middle of the road (it’s not real).
The rocky outcrop with the caves is midway between the junctions with the main roads – about 6 or 7km. This red laterite road took quite a beating when it was used as a diversion following the bridge collapse, but it’s in better shape now, certainly passable on two or four wheels but rutted in spots. Pretty views abound: small nearby hills, green fields everywhere, sugar palms, buffalo kids, the Bokor range in the distance.
The caves themselves are a short way off the trail. There’s a wooden archway for a pagoda and it’s signed in English too, but the lettering is kind of small. Often best to park up here as the going can get a little boggy at times and dragging a dirtbike through someone’s rice crop is bad manners. The prime attraction is the ancient Hindu temple within the cave to the right (this is where you’ll be directed to). It dates from the Funan period, perhaps 6th century AD, hundreds of years before the planning of Angkor. This temple butts up against the back to the cave and stalactites overhang – in all, a special place indeed. No entrance fee but a donation box is not there for looking at only; don’t be so mean.
If that don’t impress you much, then head for the cave entrance around the base of the outcrop to the left as you look from a distance (or turn right when leaving the temple cave). I visited these caves and was shown into the cave system quite far, until things got a little slippy for flip-flops. Candles never really quite work, but a light source definitely helps. The old layman there claimed it’d take two weeks to see all the various chambers. Surely an exaggeration unless your pace was impeded by a heavy dose of hallucinogens. Could be so, since he was convinced he’d just the previous day seen the legendary guardian spirit of the forests and hills – Ta Essai – wandering around the cave system (as always with a kettle in his hand) carrying on with his day-to-day existence.
Kompong Trach is the first real town down the road east of Kep. There are loads of limestone hills dotting the landscape, many with caves. Check out the vast ‘amphitheatre’ cave, formed when the roof fell in. Kompong Trach is about 40km from Kampot and is a straightforward trip on a sealed road. It’s a lovely area and well worth exploring. Currently no real guesthouse there though.
Opposite the pagoda on the main road is a good coffeeshop, and really dark when entering from the bright sun. Very good noodle soup at breakfast time and a good spot to check out a few mind-warped former Khmer Rouge hicks – they sit at their own table to one side.
Head for the hills and see what caves you find. Locals will often be around, or come to greet you, and can show you cool spots and help you avoid any danger. They may not be after a fee, but a bit of cash wouldn’t harm them; or if they have a stall/shop, then it’d be good to buy from there.
Several rewarding forest trails head up into the hills from just past Tuk Chhu ‘resort’ (8km from Kampot town; cross the bridge and a sign instructs you to turn right at the dusty crossroads). Of the three longer trails, the route hugging the river is the easiest to follow (and goes over 12km until it peters out into dense bamboo). It offers great views and is firm under foot year round. During times of heavy rain, the other two trails can get slippy in places due to water run-off on steep sections (wear deep-tread flip-flops) but though less travelled, you’re unlikely to lose your way. As ever in Cambodia, stick to the worn trail and you’re safe enough; the area was never heavily mined but a sortie into the thicket to check out some animal dung or bare-breasted natives could just ruin your day/life.
Take sufficient water (as not everyone feels comfortable drinking from streams and there are no stalls en route), food in the belly and some snacks perhaps, a hat and sunnies. Taking a moto or bicycle (best to lock ’em) to the trail head gives you more hiking time. Try not to get stuck in the woods after dark – malarial mozzies are ever present in these forests, and as such are a bigger threat than panthers or tigers.
Less strenuous strolls can be had by following your nose and seeing where you get to.
This activity is on standby until the completion of hydrodams (including one enormous barrage) that will submerge the spectacular Tuk Chhu River valley – and the trail up the valley (one of my favourites) will be scuba only. Despite being on the protected ground of Bokor National Park, this vast Chinese-funded project has been given the green light. Currently no suppliers in town for the famous Barnes-Wallace bouncing bombs of yesteryear; expect the market to be corned as the completion of the dam nears around 2009.
Blind massage has been on offer in Kampot for nearly a decade. There are now two operations: one in the original location on the riverside (at #9), whilst the original practitioners moved to a rather obscure site half a block from the traffic circle on the Kep road. Confused?
The renowned ‘Seeing Hands’ crew had become widely known more for the, er, unsolicited no-cost extras rather than their famed Shiatsu technique, prompting gags like ‘Wandering Hands’ and ‘Touching Hands’. If you swear by this set-up (and they also have long-established branches in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap), then go ahead, but don’t say no one warned you if you get a groping.
No reports to my knowledge of funny goings on by the present masseurs on site at the handy riverside spot. Both are properly trained in the Shiatsu style. $4 gets you a full hour in their experienced hands.
The oddly named ‘Khmer Lady Massage’ just a few doors away (#2 Riverside) charges more and the girls had a crash course of just a few days, in which time we are supposed to believe they were ‘trained’ in body massage, foot massage and acupressure.
Khmer Traditional Music and Dance School
This school trains disabled and orphaned kids to high levels in various disciplines in the performing arts. Successful students go on to support themselves well and these skilled musicians are in increasing demand at weddings, celebrations and functions – certainly a lot more special than canned music.
The school is on the field/park strip between the taxi stand and the river. It is open to visitors at various times during weekdays (see the notice board outside for details). Regular performances are usually on the 1st Thursday evening of the month – donations welcome. Worth a look.
Though there are lots of back roads with little traffic, and some more technical riding to be had in the boonies to the north as well as up in the hills, many dirtbikers overlook these opportunities and zoom off down the highway (tarmac) to Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh.
Kristian at the Rusty Keyhole bar keeps an ear to the ground for the latest biking travel info.
The ever-smiley Sean Ly mechanic’s between the traffic circle and the 2000 monument is probably your best choice for running repairs, but the stock of parts is not a patch on the specialist dirtbike shops in Phnom Penh.
There’s a pretty good chance of seeing one of these homemade micro trains zipping up and down the track. If you are out on a trip and come across one, an impromptu bamboo train ride can be not only fun but get you out of a dead-end area that you may have been going round in circles to get out from. They’ll load a couple of motorbikes and passengers no problem. Negotiate a fair price and enjoy the wind in your hair as these bed-sized carts whizz along. As well as motorized trains, there are some that are propelled with poles, somewhat like punting on the canals of Oxford or Cambridge – Pimm’s, boaters at rakish angles, linen jackets, cucumber sandwiches, comments of “oh, I say!” and “how marvellous!” must all be provided yourselves.
It’s bring your own hostesses these days. Many expats see Kampot as place to get away from (for some) the old routine, and travellers are rarely into that sort of thing.
No nightclubs, discos or pick-up joints.
Sihanoukville/Kampot Guide index page
Getting There and Getting Around
Things to See and Do
restaurants, tours and more
The text appearing on this page is © 2006 Jack Stephens. For the rest of the website, unless otherwise noted, all text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder(s) is prohibited.