Biking around Kampot and Kep

On 28th January 2018 we left our island paradise to head back to Sihanoukville and onto Kampot. The journey was easy. We had a rocky journey on a big speed boat to Sihanoukville that took around an hour and then we were instantly able to book a bus for $6 to take us 20 minutes later to Kampot which took 2 hours – easy.

We were staying at the Monkey Republic which was one of the cheaper hostels on offer (at US$4 a night) and had super cold air-conned rooms, good wifi and a really great bar that had a nice vibe, good food and good drinks deals. We had a lot of planning to get done for the next few legs of our trip so spent our first evening in Kampot eating good curries and drinking a $2 jug of beer whilst we planned.

Kampot is a city in southern Cambodia that is based around the Preaek Tuek Chhu River. It’s pepper plantations are what has put it on the map with Kampot pepper being rare due to the difficultly in harvesting it and considered by some to be the best pepper in the world. I particularly like that salt mining is also a massive industry here meaning that Kampot deals in both salt and pepper!

We decided to hire a bike for the two days we were here so that we could explore as much as possible. After a lazy morning and a giant french toast and pancakes breakfast we hired our bike which cost us $7 for two days – a steal really as some hostels charged $6 just for the day!

There had been incredibly heavy rainfall overnight and so we decided to spend our first day exploring the seaside town of Kep. Kep is a coastal town founded in 1908 for the French (who had colonised Cambodia) to come to get a slice of the sea away from Phnom Penh. It’s only beach is actually imported as they ship sand from Kampot and other surrounding areas by the truck load to maintain it. It looked in pretty good shape when we visited but sand is still the biggest export in the area – crazy! There are quite a few resorts dotted along the coastline that all offer their own alternatives to a beach and apparently this place can get really packed on weekends from city dwellers flocking for a seaside break.

The drive is only half an hour (if that) from Kampot so we just came here for a few hours in the afternoon to have a cruise around. We saw monkeys on the way down to the beach with one so low on a tree as we drove under it that it could have easily jumped on top of us (I’m very glad it didn’t)! As you drive you pass rice fields, palm trees and small villages. I came here in 2014 and the roads have all improved since then (from what I can remember) and they’re are now well laid, wide roads the entire way there.

The first stop you come to when you arrive in Kep is the crab market. Kep is a huge seafood hub particularly for crab but this is controversial due to concerns that the way they are farming the crabs isn’t sustainable. I understand where they’re coming from seeing as we saw loads of different vendors selling crab all with giant traps full of them. We did also see some vendors packing up these crabs into cool-boxes to presumably go to restaurants nearby.

There is also plenty of other seafood being sold here throughout the market and it’s a common place to get anything from squid, octopus or prawns all barbecued on sticks for you to have for your lunch. We were still full from our big breakfast so we didn’t buy anything but saw a lot of people sat around with a range of seafood.

By following the road along the coastline you arrive at the beach. At one end of the beach there is a statue of a naked lady in white stone called Sela Cham P’dey which depicts a fisherman’s wife waiting for her husband to return home from a voyage at sea. I was surprised at how maintained the statue was and how it hadn’t eroded in any way over the years, the detailing on the woman’s face in particular was very good.

After visiting the beach we drove around up into the hills near to the national park. Kep National Park has a walk that takes a couple of hour and brings you to waterfalls and viewpoints over the coast. Because of the heavy rainfall we had had the previous night, we didn’t fancy going through the jungle and getting muddy especially when we weren’t sure if it would start raining again. Instead we stuck to what we could see from our bike which we were happy to do.

We found a beautiful Pagoda which had colourful flags strung up from the perimeter to the centre of the pagoda. It was so pretty particularly as it was just on a quiet road with nothing else around.

There were a few abandoned buildings around here that had been marked by graffiti artists and looked really quirky particularly in the overgrown setting. We drove around trying to find more buildings and pagodas and stumbled across a very cute little puppy walking along the side of the road which played with us for a bit. I would have happily taken it back to the hostel with us!

We drove down random roads that led to temples or parks with grand statues in them. Kep has a lot of straight, long roads which are fun to drive on and it’s all in very good condition. The sun had come out a bit on our return to Kampot too so we had a nice drive back to the hostel. We had fruitshakes at a place called Fun Pizza which which were $0.75 for my pineapple one and only $0.50 for Niall’s banana shake as it was on a constant happy hour the entire time we were in Kampot. That evening we found a place that did food for £1.50 and then went back to our hostel bar for the rest of the evening. We were having a chilled time in Kampot which we were really enjoying and really liked the atmosphere in the bar.

We left exploring Kampot to our last day there. The weather was beautiful and so we headed to the Preah Monivong National Park which is also known as Bokor National Park. When we had looked into the place it talked of an old, abandoned casino, church and other colonial buildings that you can explore as well as their also being good views so we were looking forward to the day ahead.

It was a nice drive to the top of Bokor Hill in the national park. The whole area has been bought under a 99 year lease by a Chinese company who have built a casino on the top of the hill and is doing a lot of redevelopment in the area. Although this was bad from the point of view of us as a tourist, it did mean that there was a well maintained road that snaked up Bokor Hill giving us easy access to the area.

Our first stop was to a giant statue of the Buddha that sits on top of the hill as you ascend into the national park. It’s very colourful with a bright blue base which is what gives the Buddha its height. In my opinion it’s not the nicest Buddha statue I’ve seen as I prefer the old fashioned stone ones but it’s still very big and so can’t be missed as you head to the top of the mountain. There were nice views from the top too.

Our next stop was to an abandoned church. This church is said to be one of the locations of a stand off that took place between the Vietnamese army and the Khmer Rouge regime. One party was held up in the church and the other was in the old casino whilst they shot at each other. We aren’t sure who was in which building but the church is a deserted shell today. You can go in which consists of a couple of rooms all covered in writing (I wonder if any abandoned buildings haven’t been written on?) and that’s about it. You can then walk up a small hill at the edge of the church which shows views over the national park out to sea. It was a bit hazy but still a nice view and the forest went on for miles, we hadn’t realised how big the national park actually was! We had read that there are still elephants as well as gibbons and other animals but they’re definitely staying hidden in all of that jungle!

We then carried on to try and find the casino which we had read was considerably bigger and that you can walk through it which I imagine would be cool especially if there were marks from the shoot out. Unfortunately, the old casino has been targeted for development and is now a very new looking building with landscaped gardens. It was still under construction but was very disappointing to not be able to see it abandoned and see the history of the place particularly as it had been a big draw for us to go up to Bokor Hill. We passed a lot of people looking for the old casino so I think it obviously hadn’t reached the travel sites that it was under development.

The old casino being renovated and the newly built casino as you reach the tip of the hill

There were a few more old buildings including Prince Sihanouk’s holiday residence and we were able to see more view points although by this point the clouds had started to roll in making the views less spectacular. In all honesty the place was underwhelming however driving around on the bike was fun and so, from that point of view, it wasn’t a waste of time.

One we headed back into town we found a place on the side of the road which served food for $1 and so stopped here for a late lunch. I had noodle soup and Niall had really good chicken and rice. The meal was so good and cheap that he decided to have the same thing for dinner but, unfortunately, when we went back the meal was very different serving plain chicken and plain rice as opposed to the chicken and sauce he had been served before. English was limited here and so there was nothing Niall could do which was disappointing. We wished we had found the road this place was on earlier as there was also a makeshift Italian restaurant on the street that was almost like a garage with a stove in ran by a man from Italy and it smelt so good!

As the weather was so nice and it was our last day in Kampot, we decided to use the bike for as long as possible and rode along the river. It was really nice to get a bit out of the city and the river looked very pretty with the sun low in the sky.

We had really enjoyed riding around Kep and Kampot for the past two days and had been lucky that the only rain we had was during the night particularly as the forecast for the entire time we were there was for rain and thunderstorms. If we had had an extra day here we would have gone into more of the countryside and seen some pepper plantations, the not so secret ‘secret lake’ and explored some of the little villages but we didn’t have the time. In hindsight we could have done what we did in one day and then have had a day exploring countryside but we still really enjoyed what we got up to.

Kampot is a really nice little town with colonial French buildings and lots of bars and restaurants. The river is calm and almost washes that calmness over the whole city. We had a great time. Next stop was Battambang, our penultimate destination in Cambodia and a long journey to get there from Kampot.

Sending Love x

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