Charming, compact KAMPOT TOWN enjoys one of the nicest settings in Cambodia, situated on the north bank of the Teuk Chhou River, with a panoramic view of the forested Bokor hill slopes. Once a bustling trading port, Kampot still boasts a large Chinese population, their single-storey houses, built without stilts, contrasting with the Khmer stilt-houses and colonial shophouses that grace the town’s streets.
Kampot, with its sunkissed riverfront lined with splendid trees and old colonial houses, is a pleasant little town to wander around, even though there are no sights as such. To the southwest of the central roundabout is the colourful French quarter, where shophouses line the streets through to the river and flowers planted in cans, pots and just about any other available container give the place an almost Mediterranean atmosphere. Getting to the riverfront with a camera for the sunset as the night fishermen head out to sea in their brightly coloured boats is a must. The elongated old market – abandoned some years ago when a new market building was constructed and stallholders forced to move – was being restored at the time of writing. An altruistic expat has designs on it as a community sports centre, but whether this gets the go-ahead or not remains to be seen. Further along are the government offices, imposing prison (said to house at least two Westerners at any one time), post office and, at the end of the road, the Governor’s Residence, which has been restored to its original opulent grandeur.
Another pleasant stroll is to follow the river from the old road bridge to the disused railway bridge in the north. At the railway bridge you can cross the river on the rusty, pockmarked walkway, and return to town along the other bank.
While in town you could drop in at Kampot Traditional Music School, where you can see students practising traditional dance and music. Alternatively, visit the Provincial Training Centre Kampot (PTC Kampot), in a compound behind the post office, which trains women from the province in weaving. The theory is that they can learn a trade, which will give them a sustainable income, but in practice once they leave, there simply isn’t enough demand for their products. You can help by buying a silk length, a cotton scarf or krama at the workshop, which comes complete with a label bearing the weaver’s name and photograph.
Kampot has become a popular destination for weekending Khmer and expats from Phnom Penh, as well as for foreign tourists: the surrounding province is one of Cambodia’s most picturesque, the landscape ranging from the cloud-topped mountains of the Bokor National Park, now sadly spoilt, to salt-flats and misty, uninhabited offshore islands. Kampot is ideally located for visiting a wealth of nature-based attractions in the area and is en route to the tiny seaside resort of Kep.Read More
Caves around Kampot
Caves around Kampot
East of Kampot, looming up from flat rice paddies, the rugged limestone outcrops of Phnom Chhnork and Phnom Sorseha have some caves to scramble through. Although you could visit both these sites in a morning, to give yourself time to travel between them and explore properly, you’d do as well to allow a couple of hours each. Note that there are no facilities in the caves and it is a good idea to wear stout shoes and take a torch.
Phnom Chhnork (foreigners’ fee of 4000 riel) is closest to Kampot; turn left off the road to Kep about 5km from town, signposted through a portico, and then head out along a well-made but unsurfaced road to the hill (about 4km in total). The entrance to the hill is through a wat, where you can leave your motorbike with a local boy for a few hundred riel. From here it’s a kilometre-or-so’s walk through fields of well-tended vegetable plots to the foot of the hill. Intrepid explorers can explore a couple of pokey holes at the foot of the hill before venturing up the rickety steps, passing a collection of pagoda buildings, to the main caves. If you look carefully, through the gloom you will see a brick-built pre-Angkor prasat; the rock seems to be trying to claim the ruin, which is slowly being coated with limestone as water drips from the roof. Child guides don’t have much information but for a dollar or so they are very helpful for negotiating the paths within the caves.
Back at the main road, the dirt-track turning for Phnom Sorseha is further on towards Kep, on the left about 14km out of Kampot and signposted in blue and white through another grand portico; the track stops after 1km at the foot of the hill; steps within the grounds of the pagoda here lead up to the caves. From the top it has a great view over the province to the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, and more caves to explore.
Turn left at the top of the steps and follow the rocky path for 50m to reach Ruhng Dhumrey Saw (White Elephant Cave). Just inside the entrance is a seated Buddha statue, from where rickety steps head down into the cave proper; here you can see the large cream-and-grey rock formation, vaguely resembling an elephant’s head, which gives the cave its name. Back at the main steps, take the path to the right, which leads after about 150m to the far side of the hill and Leahng Bpodjioh (Bat Cave), filled with the ear-splitting sound of squeaking bats. The stench of ammonia is overpowering, and watch you don’t get guano in the eye if you look up. The cave is smaller and darker than Ruhng Dhumrey Saw, although a few shafts of light penetrate the gloom, highlighting the tree roots that poke down spookily from the roof of the chamber. Back outside, you may be lucky enough to see the monkeys that live in the woods on the hillside, while from the top of the hill there’s a good view over the rice paddies along the coast.
The Chinese in Cambodia
The Chinese in Cambodia
There has been a Chinese presence in Cambodia since the very earliest times – indeed accounts written by Chinese traders and envoys from the third century onwards have played a major part in chronicling the country’s history – but it was only after the fifteenth century that the Chinese began to settle in significant numbers. Marrying into rich Khmer families and assuming positions as tax collectors, bankers, gold dealers and restaurateurs, ethnic Chinese soon established themselves as arguably the most influential minority in the country.
A flood of new immigrants arrived as a result of China’s economic crisis in the 1930s. In the main, the Chinese community continued to prosper until the 1970s, when they were persecuted first by the Lon Nol government – which resented their success – and then by the Khmer Rouge – who wanted them eliminated. Things became more complicated in 1979 when the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia was followed by a short-lived Chinese invasion of Vietnam. This resulted in many Cambodian Chinese fleeing to Thailand; those Chinese who remained were subsequently permitted to resume limited business activities, but it wasn’t until after the 1993 elections that they were properly able to reassert their influence on business – which they did wholeheartedly, capitalizing on their access to investment capital through their extensive overseas networks. Nowadays, the number of Chinese-owned businesses is clear to see from the Chinese signage on streets in any Cambodian town.
Cambodia’s Chinese have managed to retain their own culture and language (most are bilingual) while at the same time integrating very well into Cambodian society. It is not easy to pick them out, though in towns such as Voen Sai and Kampot they are more visible by virtue of maintaining their own Chinese-language schools. Indeed, although Chinese New Year is not an official holiday, it assumes a festive importance in Phnom Penh akin to the Khmer New Year, with energetic dragon dances performed in the streets.
Bokor National Park
Bokor National Park
The story of Bokor National Park is a fascinating but sad one. Wandering through the crumbling, chilling remnants of the 1920s French colonial hill station, often swathed in thick fog, has been the area’s most popular attraction for the past decade, but in 2007 Hun Sen’s government effectively sold the mountain in its entirety to the Sokimex Group (owner of the Sokha Resorts and Sokimex Oil among others) for US$100m. The Chinese conglomerate now owns a 99-year lease and has begun an extravagant development project that will see the refurbishment of the dilapidated hill station (which was also the scene of a dramatic showdown between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese in 1979) and the construction of a towering casino complex comprising hotels, golf courses and water parks. The plans extend to the coast, where a major port is being built with a view to landing cruise ships there then helicoptering guests to the plateau.
The first foundations have been laid and a new 32-kilometre road carving a thick ribbon of tarmac into the steep hillside is almost finished. The whole mountain was closed off to visitors while the road was being built and now there is a charge to use it. It is impossible to visit without going through local tour operators who have been forced to up their prices to accommodate the toll. At $20, the day out no longer offers value for money. Depending on the developer’s rate of progress and their attitude towards them, the tours may soon be a thing of the past anyway.