What We Saw in Kampot

We managed to spend a month in Kampot! We really enjoyed this small Cambodian town, though it had little to do with the below activities and more to do with the relaxing atmosphere, delicious food, nice people, and overall vibe. That said, here are some things you can do in this town:

  • Sunset firefly cruise: There’s a sunset cruise from the center of town, which resembles a party boat: everyone gets a beer, the boat is pretty big, and it plays music and light shows. We didn’t go on that. Instead, we took a small motorized canoe from Les Manguiers, which fit four of us plus a driver. It was pitch black on the fifteen-minute ride out, and I was wondering where exactly we were headed. But as the driver cut the motor and we drifted toward the right shore, I saw a tree full of twinkling lights, all flashing in unison. It looked just like an all-white-lights Christmas display, going on and off. Except that these were fireflies! They all gather in one tree, as if they’re having a bug convention, and they fluoresce. It’s a really cool sight, with complete darkness all around and only the sound of the river. The driver caught a bug off the tree for us to hold in our hands: we crawled to the front of the boat and cupped our hands, one by one. Kampot Durian StatueAlso cool is that the water has plankton in it that also fluoresces. So, you can run your hand through the water and see small sparks in it. Definitely a cool experience, and certainly worth more than the $2 each we paid.
  • Monuments (Durian, Sea Gull, Workers, Oxen): These monuments are fun to photograph and use as landmarks, but the locals pay no more attention to them than they did in Kep. The Durian one is the center of town, and the others are at various traffic circles around town. While I find it entertaining to photograph them – especially since I don’t notice much while driving – they are likely not as amusing to others.
  • Climbodia (Phnom Kbal Romeas Cave): ClimbodiaThe idea is excellent: a cave exploration that includes climbing its outside, belaying down into it, and walking through it (to see an ancient temple inside). The guide (David) is quite skillful, making beginners feel comfortable and sharing the history of the area. He knows every crevice in the rock, so his guidance is spot-on, and he doesn’t pressure anyone to do anything. Unfortunately, inside the cave itself, I was frustrated because I felt rushed. I’m cautious by nature, so I tend to take my time, and the guide’s employees seemed to be trying to stick to a schedule. I completely over-reacted when, in what I heard as a sign of annoyance at having to bring up the rear after me, one of the guys asked if I had ever been climbing before. In fact, I’ve been climbing and caving and abseiling and bouldering at least a dozen times, and I’m not terrible at it. Feeling like I needed to go much faster than I was just made me feel unsafe. I should have handled the situation better, giving the (non-native-English-speaking) employee the benefit of the doubt and letting myself go at the pace I felt comfortable. Despite this, I think the activity is worth it. B’s experience was unilaterally positive, consistent with that of everyone with whom I’ve discussed it; I’m sure that I’m an outlier. We had actually been planning to return, before B got hurt.
  • Phnom ChhnorkPhnom ChhnorkWe came to this cave completely by accident, just driving around the countryside. We parked our motorbikes (for $1 each) and paid the $1 entrance fee. A boy with excellent English and historical knowledge served as our guide; B thought he was in his early 20s, and I thought he was 13, so let’s split the difference. There were a few statues to admire before a short climb to a pretty view of the countryside. When you walk in, you immediately see a small stone ‘house’ that features a small Hindu altar, still in use today. It’s Pre-Angkorian, which means that it actually predates the famous temples in Siem Reap! The rock formations inside the cave are even more pronounced than the ones at the Romeas Cave, some in shapes resembling elephants or crocodiles. [Mom, stop reading here!] Because it’s just the boy as your guide, there’s no equipment (except a flashlight/torch, if you remember) and no safety rules. So, when he asked if we wanted to climb up a bunch of rocks to get out, we said yes. (There is a less strenuous exit path as well). It was slightly exhilarating, and the boy didn’t rush us at all, despite my slower speed. In total, it’s about a half hour excursion, and well worth it – especially if you don’t want to spend half a day at Climbodia. (I didn’t see any independent guides at the Romeas Cave, but maybe I just missed them.) When we had first arrived, the level of enthusiasm the boy guides exhibited tripped my ‘rip-off’ instinct. Kampot PepperHowever, we tipped the boy as we saw fit, without pressure, and all the boys were funny and friendly.
  • Pepper PlantationThe sign and gates are fancy, but this just seemed like somebody’s farm. We walked through the rows of pepper growing on stacks of bricks and admired its greenness. This entire region is renowned for its pepper, with the kind of geographic naming restrictions limiting the production of ‘champagne’ or various European cheeses. The three colors of pepper – green, black, or white – are just the same plant at various ripeness levels. There is a store on-site where you can buy the stuff, for what looked similar to prices seen in the tourist stores in town. You can also have a drink in their air-conditioned dining room that looks out over the plantation.
  • Wats [Temples]: We saw about a dozen different temples in the country, generally painted in bright yellows and reds on the outside and colorful murals of buddhas on the inside. Cambodian Wat MuralThey tend to be part of a complex with memorial stupas, various statues, housing for the monks, open-air sitting areas, and sometimes a school. The insides tended to have altars featuring golden and stone buddhas, either standing with a hand raised to denote peace or laying down. Despite the similarities among them, I never tired of the temples. And when you see the price tag listed beneath each beautiful mural – $75 for art work that might run in the low thousands in the US, you start to want to help them decorate an entire temple. It’s not a religious impulse; they’re just that beautiful, in my opinion.
  • Secret Lake: Though guides call this ‘an irrigation dam with a picnic area,’ it’s certainly more of a body of water than the ‘Pond’ in Kampot – which is a swamp. A man selling things on the road to this lake told us that we couldn’t swim in it, though online guides mention bathing without problems. (Perhaps they had just dumped something weird in there?) There are small hammock bungalows along the shore and a nice temple on a hill on the way. We motoed around the lake and then in the countryside near it, which was a lot of fun.
  • Stand-Up PaddleboardingWhen I mentioned having done Climbodia in Kampot, someone asked if I had also done stand-up paddling. So, I signed us up for a two-day paddleboarding trip. I had gone once in Monterrey, but it was new for B. The boards are pretty wide and stable, so it wasn’t long before we were even doing yoga on them! (Any time your legs start to cramp up from standing, you can kneel or sit on your feet for a bit and paddle from there.) Our guide (Annie) took us through mangroves, which are small water paths of generally standing water, flowing off rivers, etc. – where the low-hanging branches and narrowness necessitated some Matrix-like moves on my part. The weather was beautiful, and as soon as we stopped trying to rush, we had a great, relaxing, sun-filled time. The locals on the shores all waved and yelled, ‘Hello!’ I got to stare at the water, the shores, the sunset, and anything else that caught my fancy. There was also the water buffalo incident and fresh, refrigerated (!) coconuts with pulp inside. We had lunch at a temple we had visited by bike, and we even got to paddle against some wind on the way into town. I thought the two-day trip, which included a night in a hut right on the water, and all meals was a good value too.
  • Main Market: This market sells everything under the sun, at the best prices in town. There is sit-down food inside too, if you want to eat. Fewer people here speak English than at the Night Market or any of the markets in Phnom Penh, but they try to help you out. Out of the half dozen times I was here, I don’t think I saw a single foreigner, other than the ones I came with. Kampot Night MarketKeep in mind that parking a bike or moto here costs 500 riel (about 12 cents); try not to be too alarmed.
  • Night Market: The night market is closer to the tourist part of town and has significantly fewer goods. It does have a moon bounce, a merry-go-round (of rocket ships), and an outdoor roller blading rink. The moon bounce was hopping, but the other areas weren’t as crowded. I wouldn’t prioritize coming here, but that may be me.
  • MassagesDo this!

What We Skipped:

  • Bokor Hill Summit: Though the view from here was reputed to be excellent, the only way to get up there is with a tour group. We didn’t mind being overcharged so much as we minded losing half a day on a site our friends said was otherwise pretty bad. The buildings up there were abandoned in squalor, and the packaged tours make you pay for bad tourist sandwiches. Pass.
  • Rabbit IslandB was pretty excited to do this, but I figured we’d hopefully visit islands while in Sihanoukville. We never quite made it out.
  • Yoga at Banteay SreyMy only excuse for not visiting this yoga place and juice bar is that I am lazy. Lots of bloggers had such good things to say about it, and it supports a good cause. We tried to go when we first arrived, just to get shakes, but there was a big sign at the front of the property that said some version of ‘No men allowed on premises!’ so we abandoned ship.
  • Teuk Chhou Zoo: I am not a zoo supporter, and B didn’t feel the need to go on his own. Reading the reviews for this one is particularly depressing.
  • Teuk Chhou Rapids: Though a few different listings mentioned these rapids, no one seemed to advertise actually kayaking/boating them.
  • Wake Boarding/Water Skiing [at Bodhi Villa]: We left this for the last day, but then it seemed like a bad idea after B had to get stitches. Hopefully, in Sihanoukville!
  • Salt Fields: We explored on the inland side of the big road, not on the side with the salt fields. Next time!
  • Mini Golf [at Magic Sponge Guesthouse]: We didn’t want to go out of our way to do something so rampant at home, though if we had been working less and/or more energetic, this probably would have been fun.
  • Film [at Ecran]: There is a café in town with a theatre for public viewings and private rooms at affordable prices; the movie catalog to choose from is extensive. However, I am the worst about movies. How bad? This was the one thing B asked me for as he was getting stitches, and we still didn’t go. I am a bad person.
  • Karaoke: This was one of the most prominent things to do in town, based on the caterwauling we heard from the other side of the river most nights.
  • Durian Plantation: I’m not sure if we actually passed one of these, or if it just smelled like it to me: overly-sweet and a bit rotten. We did see a motorbike with a mutantly-huge durian on it; I wondered how the guy would fit on there with it. We also tried durian ice cream, which tasted like meat ravioli to me. It may be a one-of-a-kind experience, but it was not my cup of tea.
  • Palm Sugar: Instead of seeing it made, we ate palm sugar “fudge”: does that count?
  • Hike to Waterfall: The girls we met at Les Manguiers went on this private guided hike to waterfalls. The waterfall at the end was deserted, but freezing, and the girls felt like their male guide was pressuring them to strip to their bathing suits. This story unfortunately put a bad taste in my mouth for this activity, so we skipped it.

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