The talesofasia guide to Sihanoukville and the south coast
by Jack Stephens
Updated October 12, 2006
Rooms in Kampot have for years been a little below par. As is standard in most provincial capitals, it was a fixed rate of $5 for a fan room, and $10 for air-con. New or old, clean or shabby, cool or sweaty, the tariff did not vary. In the last five years, there’s been more variety with guesthouses catering to foreigners and budget travellers, and renovated rooms at a couple of Chinese-Khmer hotels.
Where to stay?
On the river! Except there’re currently only two options: sleeping rough in the stalls out front of the disused market, or the priciest joint in town – the Bokor Mountain Lodge, with two riverfront rooms at $25 a night (including breakfast). It’s a real shame there aren’t more hotels to enjoy the superb views from – and a balcony would be nice (in fact, it is nice, I’ve got one).
The Old Town is where most of the bars, eateries and funky old buildings are – and there are several staying options near the traffic circle. With the new bridge shifting heavy traffic up the other end of town, things look set to be even quieter on the traffic front.
The market area is charmless; it’s also a fair hike away, as is the guesthouse cluster centred around Blissful – enjoy the dogs on your dark walk home at night!
A range of popular places:
Moliden is right by the bridge, has the newest, cleanest rooms and thick, very comfortable mattresses. Friendly staff. And only $0.50 for eggs and bread in the morning. Passable pizzas and pasta too. You can keep yourself to yourself here.
Blissful has a relaxed feel and airy bar area, comfy chairs and some good music. It’s set in a nice villa with leafy gardens. More of a social vibe. Range of room rates.
Borey Bokor II is on the traffic circle, but isn’t noisy (this is Kampot, not Beijing or Saigon). I love the views from the top floor – green hills in every direction. Rooms have cable and a fridge, but they are a touch dated.
Little Garden is on the river but the rooms don’t have river views. Shame. Rates a little higher than usual, starting at $10 for fan, but they are furnished and pretty comfortable.
Bodhi Villa invites you to chill out at their joint. Basic rooms for $3 prove popular with laid back travellers. Out of town on the other side of the river – they can pick you up though. Plenty of greenery around and superb floating deck – ideal to watch the sunrise.
There are a couple of backpacker-oriented places that have some suitably cheap boxes in which to be locked inside for the night. M’mmm.
Other Khmer-Chinese places are much of a muchness. Sen Monorom has some regular expat guests, but some rooms have no ventilation and get very stuffy – choose wisely. Similarly named Monorom Guesthouse has a great location on the river on the town side; kind of distant, but new basic street lighting makes the trip home it less daunting.
Eating & Drinking
Eating out can be frustrating in Kampot. Despite having superb locally produced ingredients, the results churned up in most Khmer eateries are at best average. The range of establishments is poor too, and they are usually closed up by 9pm, even on a Saturday. Things are eerily subdued for a Cambodian provincial town; there are no restaurants with a live band, no beer gardens with free-flowing draft beer, no pitch-black nightclubs, not even many karaoke joints.
Looking on the bright side though, there are a few gems amongst the rough, and the western eating options are good and soon to added to with 4 or 5 new joints opening imminently.
What I rate to eat in Kampot – local ‘cuisine’
Bright spots amidst the void include: at breakfast time, House #7 (numbered but no sign) on ‘Bridge Street’ does the best noodle soup in town – but come before 9a.m. to get a fill.
Another sound breakfast joint is the 2000 ‘restaurant’ near the 2000 monument on the road out towards Kep. Steamed chicken with rice and soup is a staple for me. The pork rice is rubbish though. Hot coffee (with a tiny dollop of sweet milk) is the best roast in town I reckon.
One block south of 2000 is a grungy but friendly corner café that does a variety of reasonably priced breakfast dishes with a Vietnamese influence (seems to have gone a little downhill recently though).
Just to the right of the Canadia Bank (one block north of the traffic circle) is an unnamed fried noodle joint that turns out quick and very tasty plates of noodles with beef, pork or seafood for 3000 riel ($0.75). Several kinds of noodle to choose from. Opens after 3pm, sold out around 8pm.
In view of the bridge, a few stalls set up mid-afternoon. The one nearest the bridge does a good bowl of soft white curry noodles; it’s dead cheap too.
What about lunch? you may ask. To date, I’ve not found any decent local place to eat at midday, so I do lunch at home. A string of generic bread n ‘pâté’ eateries on ‘Bridge Street’ turn out the same old fatty, greasy, typhoid-filled baguettes, plus a few other dishes. Enjoy.
The street from the Canadia Bank towards the river has stalls selling grilled fish and meats and food in tin pots – stick your nose in to see if there’s anything appealing. These are real cheap eats if you can find something you like.
Ta Ou restaurant sits over the river to the north of town right where the new bridge is under construction. This place long held the reputation as the best place in town to eat with fine seafood at fair prices. In an unusual change of direction though, they have consciously altered their business strategy to swiftly become renowned for lax service (orders not turning up anywhere but on the bill), questionable hygiene, hugely inflated seafood prices as well as customers belongings frequently going missing. It’s a shame because this indeed once was a nice spot for a meal – though they never ever got a handle on the concept of having pre-chilled beer. Come along if your mobile is insured, you like waiting too long for your overpriced seafood and a couple of warm beers. Expect to have to replace a few parts that have vanished from your transport too.
Plenty of choices and soon to be more with three, possibly four, new kids on the block all trying their hardest to remain unopened longest – hurry up guys. The riverfront in Kampot is indeed a lovely spot for a meal and a few drinks or to while away a few hours with a book or good conversation. The early birds saw the potential – tree-lined promenade, colonial buildings, fine views stretching over a big wide river to the impressive backdrop of the almost touchable Elephant Mountains, breezy and often with grand sunset finales to another lovely day. Very soon there will be eight offerings along the river, including four within eight doors of each other. Interesting to see how they will all cope unless tourist numbers somehow increase proportionately. Add to these two more joints within a block and things may get tough.
Personally, I don’t eat out much (aside from breakfast) as I’m keen on cooking at home. For an occasional treat though, or when friends are in town, there are a few pleasures on plates to be had.
Monster portions of well-made British classics will feed hungry souls at the Rusty Keyhole. The fish 'n' chips are brilliant, as are the house specialty ribs (feed a small family) and giant cheeseburgers. No calorie count is available, so don’t ask.
The other riverside joints offer western and some Asian dishes. More food reports to come with the much-anticipated openings of several slightly upscale riverfront restaurants.
Of the guesthouses that serve food, Blissful has the most interesting menu. At the cheap places, don’t expect much for those small prices. Moliden however (by the bridge) does an unbeatable 50 cents eggs n bread breakfast (free water too if you’re really lucky) – load em up with Tabasco, parmesan and Kampot black pepper. They serve (to date) the best pizzas in town – elsewhere it’s best not to bother.
For cheapskates there are budget slop options at two guesthouses –anyone who actually relishes eating here and rates the food highly must be incredibly hungry and/or homesick and/or in denial.
The Sub-Continent is represented by two Sri Lankan restaurants. Few noticed recently when Raani Curry Leaf closed its doors for the last time. Indian food seems to do inordinately well supplied in Cambodia, even though all are by no means superb.
Tea, coffee and freshly baked cakes for tiny prices can be snagged at Epic Arts Café… in fact, I’m just off there now before they close. Cake selections change daily to keep things fresh. See what tickles your fancy. Two blocks off the river along the green strip running from the disused market to the taxi stand.
Yes, please. Again, the scene in Kampot is about to get significantly broader and it’s all centred around the riverside, in particular the end south of the bridge. Understandably so, as here are to be found the sleepy, old town back streets, cooling breeze and lovely vistas. To date, nowhere is open super-late (though one imminent bar intends to alter that). I know some expats enjoy Kampot for this very reason: a weekend away or five-day national holiday in Kampot gives the liver as much of a respite (in theory at least) as it might get on holiday. The fresh air, sunshine, breeze, and sense of nature lend themselves to a healthier break than nights out in say Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville.
Kampot, however, is a great place for afternoon drinkies, and that way you can still totter off to bed early enough that the next morning is not a write-off. Take your pick from the bars along the riverside – and take note of happy hour specials if that’s your kind of thing. There are soon to be a couple more places just off the riverfront too.
For late-late beers, head to ‘Bridge Street’, which is the only strip in town at night. Some, but not all, of the fruit shake stalls serve beer – unchilled, but with ice, of course.
A certain dreaded Dutchman can though vouch for the fact that at Saysabok restaurant once, the young barman was kept on his toes, ferrying out icy cold beers, until well after 3a.m. Through the distortions of a fine hangover, the poor lad looked shattered the next day.
Check the Sihanoukville guide for a run down on common drinks served in Cambodia)
Other things – net, phone, banking
Internet in Kampot is usually pretty good (by Cambodian standards, I add). Quicker than Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville, and these days 3000 riel ($0.75) an hour is the standard rate. On ‘Bridge Street’ in the old part of town, Kampot Network and Bokor Web (directly opposite) are the most clued up, friendly and helpful; other places have no download, no USB, no attaching files – hey, why bother with a mouse n keyboard? Vatey Internet retains its title as worst net shop in southern Cambodia, and is looking for the gold medal at the upcoming national championships.
Note: due to ISP’s going crazy on billing their clients, things were bad mid-September, but ok again now (23rd Sep). Price at Kampot Network currently $1/hr, but could well drop in the near future.
Phone calls to western countries are incredibly cheap too. 10 or 20 cents a minute; a little less to the US even.
Banking is simple enough. Canadia Bank is your one option for Visa and MasterCard cash advances – and there’s no commission charged. Passport required. They’re open 8-3:30 Mon-Fri; close at midday on Saturdays, shut for every national holiday – try not to get caught high 'n' dry. They also do Moneygram transfers. Canadia is behind the Sen Monorom guesthouse, one block north of the traffic circle.
Western Union’s representative is the Acleda Bank near Blissful guesthouse. They don’t touch credit cards though. Both banks cash traveller's cheques at the usual rates.
There are no ATMs in Kampot or Kep or anywhere except Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and their respective international airports.
Currency exchange is not handled by banks. Stalls in Kampot market don’t display the rate and often don’t give a great conversion; avoid them. Both the pharmacy and the convenience store (Heng Dy) at the traffic circle give the best current rates (at the moment a little over 4100 riel to the dollar).
Books are now in more plentiful supply at the newly opened Kepler’s Books, opposite the grotty derelict market, about half a block from the riverfront. They have a range of novels, travel guides and a good selection of Cambodia-related titles.
Some guesthouses have books for sale too, though the term ‘library’ at one place seems overkill.
French speakers may wish to shell out $20 on a paperback with a few black 'n' white pictures with a pastiched history/economics/tourism of Kampot written by a professor no less.
The Coast of Cambodia (Philpotts) is worth seeking especially for interesting historical tidbits. Adventure Cambodia doesn’t really do the Kampot area justice (and the maps are suspect) – it is superb for trips in northern and western Cambodia though.
Tourist offices in Cambodia used to be quiet, unlit and often locked up. Things have changed these days, staff come to work, there is the buzz of humming motorbikes – all thanks to the introduction of TVs. Whether any (more) work is done or if they have any useful info for tourists is a separate matter. Kampot’s tourist office is in a stylish building, and is particularly appealing when closed up at weekends and holidays, coinciding neatly with the greatest potential tourist numbers.
Having said that, some tourist offices have some good photos of local sights of interest, the staff are keen to practice (show off) their English or French, and it breaks the monotony for them. Kampot’s tourist office is a little past the 2000 monument on the Kep road.
Police are unlikely to be of concern to you during your time in Kampot. There are remotely scary when only trying to corner you into an afternoon drinking session with some nasty infused spirits.
Health and medical treatment is most likely a DIY matter, as in most places in Cambodia and the ‘Third World’. The pharmacy at the traffic circle is pretty well stocked and the older guy with a few gold teeth has a fair idea of what’s what. Kampot’s doctors are on a par with the rest of the country – dreadful.
The American Medical Center in Phnom Penh (clinic at the Cambodiana Hotel) offers probably the best care in the country; they can arrange for your transfer to the first class facilities available in Bangkok or Singapore should the need arise. Travellers really should invest in medical insurance cover.
Comfort snacks, toiletries and booze supplies of a surprisingly wide selection can be picked up at Heng Dy convenience store on the traffic circle. Open from 7a.m. to just before 10 in the evening. Hordes of wines, cheap bottles of spirits; beers and lots of soft drinks (Vanilla Coke! Ginger Ale) in the fridge; Mars bars etc too. Several cheeses, crisps and other picnic supplies as well for a jolly jaunt into the countryside – don’t forget the tonics and limes though. (Plenty of ice in that glass, please).
Comfort snacks (Part Two) - to eat in can be had for tiny prices at the Epic Arts Café. A daily selection of cakes, scones and brownies will fill a whole, put a smile on your face and not hurt the wallet at all. At 2000 riel a portion, and with proceeds going directly to projects for the friendly deaf and disabled staff, it’s a winner with me.
Open 8a.m. until 6pm. It’s on the corner (#67), two blocks from the river along the grassy strip/park. On the river, turn off at the shabby disused market. The café is on the left. Books in several languages for sao.
Market life in Kampot is odd for Cambodia. A couple of decades back, the local neighbourhood markets were shut down and everything shifted to the big centralised market to the north of town. Check it out if you haven’t been to a Khmer market before.
The new bridge and re-routed Route #3 places the main highway zooming right alongside the market, which is a pedestrian affair. I question the logic here.
Also, while the market is under refurbishment, no work is being made to address it’s flooding potential. Situating the only market in town in one of the lowest-lying basins is ridiculous; this was highlighted in the August 2006 floods, when it became chest deep and resembled the touristy floating markets outside Bangkok, with vendors and punters trading from boats.
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.