Charming, compact KAMPOT, on the north bank of the Teuk Chhou River (aka Kampong Bay River), enjoys one of the nicest settings in Cambodia, and has become a popular destination for weekending Khmer and expats from Phnom Penh, as well as for foreign tourists. Once a bustling trading port, Kampot still boasts a Chinese population, their single-storey houses, built without stilts, contrasting with the Khmer stilt-houses and colonial shophouses that grace the town’s streets behind the sun-kissed, tree-lined riverfront. The town makes an excellent base for exploring the many attractions in the surrounding province.
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. In towns such as Voen Sai and Kampot they are more visible by virtue of maintaining their own Chinese-language schools. And in Phnom Penh, although Chinese New Year is not an official holiday, it assumes a festive importance akin to the Khmer New Year, with energetic dragon dances performed in the streets.
There’s a pleasant selection of places to stay in Kampot, including some of the cheapest backpacker accommodation in the south. Some of the nicer options are found a few kilometres out of town, dotted along the banks of the Kampot River.
Kampot has plenty of eating options. In addition to restaurants, there are the usual rice and noodle shops around the market, by the transport stop and along the road from the roundabout to the old bridge (where you’ll find stalls selling fruit shakes and desserts in the evening). Metaheap supermarket is on the northern side of the Salt Workers roundabout. Nightlife in Kampot is low-key, with a couple of Western bars.
Kampot province is one of Cambodia’s most picturesque, its landscape ranging from the cloud-topped mountains of the Bokor National Park, an extraordinary deserted hill station that’s fallen into the hands of developers, to salt flats and misty, uninhabited offshore islands. Kampot town is ideally located for visiting a wealth of nature-based attractions, including wild rapids, a zoo and a smattering of temple caves as well as some of the region’s famed pepper plantations.
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, was once a huge tourist attraction, until, 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 $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 hotels (they’ve finished one already, as well as a neighbouring casino), numerous villas, golf courses, a cable car and water parks. Plans extend to the coast, where a major port is being built with a view to landing cruise ships before helicoptering guests to the plateau.
A new 32km toll road carving a thick ribbon of tarmac into the steep hillside has been finished and development across the mountain is gaining pace (though is usually easy to avoid). To explore the mountain’s old relics and two waterfalls, you could hire a moto (the road is too steep for tuk-tuks) or better still, go with a local tour operator. However, depending on the developer’s rate of progress and their attitude towards them, tours may soon be a thing of the past.