Cambodia’s Coast: Sihanoukville, Kampot, Kep

Leaving the intense heat of the past few days up north, I headed south to the coast for some beach bumming. Why was I not surprised, then, after a day’s journey on two buses, that providence brought heavy rains as I rolled into Sihanoukville, ending the drought of the last few weeks. No matter, I was determined to have a good time.

This coastal town was founded some forty years ago as Cambodia’s only deep-sea port, and quickly became a vacation spot until it was damaged during the Vietnam War and in more recent years remained largely unvisited due to poor security. The city itself sprawls across a strip a few kilometers long, connecting the three main beach areas.

I am told that the original backpacker area, Victory Hill, has been overrun in the past six months by French bar owners, opening girly bars, turning the otherwise charming strip into a Lamai (on Ko Samui) analogue. Indeed, the popular dirt road strip looked to be gearing up its sleaze as dusk approached. I did have pretty good Indian food there, though, so it was worth visiting for that 😉

Rather, I ended up spending five nights on the other side of town, up the road from Ochheuteal Beach (dubbed Serendipity Beach), at a fun guest house, with bar, restaurant and hammocks, perfect for enjoying rainy nights. You would think that torrential rains, power outages and my breaking of the sink in my bungalow (doing laundry, sending the whole barely-mounted unit shattering on the floor) would have soured my beach excursion. On the contrary, I found the rain super refreshing and discovered the joys of beer in a candlelit bar. Not to mention the thunderstorms, which were incredibly entertaining, lighting up the skies, brightening the beach for brief instants at a time.

The one day the skies remained clear I went SCUBA diving, with the hopes of seeing incredible coral life, like in Thailand. Sadly, most of the underwater population has been overfished (to wit, when asked about sea turtles, I am told a local laughed and replied “yeah, we had them about ten years ago; then we ate them all”), and much of the coral in the area dynamited (when not sold by the side of the road.) So, I explored what I could in the couple of diveable spots a couple hours off the coast; in the end, a few funky sea worms, hermit crabs, scorpion fish and very large angelfish made the excursion worthwhile.

After a leisurely five days in Sihanoukville, I took a share taxi to neighboring Kampot, capital of the eponymous province, and major producer of pepper and durian — surely a winning taste combination.

A dusty town with a French-colonial center and waterfront, it is a main trading post in this lush agricultural land. Wetter than Battambang, the surrounding areas are verdant, fresh rains pooling in rice fields stretching to the horizon.

The main attraction in the area is Bokor, Cambodia’s largest national park. Riding in the back of a pickup truck, the hour-and-a-half drive up the broken, bombed out road was painful, but the trip was worth every bruise on my butt. High up in the hills is Bokor Hill Station, the ruins of a French-built town from the 1920s, featuring a huge old hotel and casino. As is the case with most attractions in this country, the whole place is a dilapidated shell of what it once was, in this case an impressive, grand resort. The french even built a traditional European-style church in this hill-side town, no doubt hoping to carve out some religious or plainly bucolic connection to the old country. Though in tatters, the buildings give an incredible view of the foggy mountain, cloud formations changing quickly; one can even see the Vietnamese island if Phu Quoc just a few miles off shore.

After a couple of nights (and excellent Sri Lankan food) in Kampot, I was off to the small town of Kep. With a population of around 4000, it hugs the coastline, and was once a prime vacation destination; King Sihanouk even has a seaside villa there, which today goes unused. In fact, throughout the town are, surprise surprise, empty shells of old villas, ranging from colonial to modernist, their pockmarked concrete walls now home to squatters, bright laundry anachronistically drying in the doorways. Sitting amidst overgrowing plant life, they neighbor seaside shacks selling fresh seafood, a few boats, and the occasional cow grazing what it can find in the garbage strewn along the underused oceanview promenade.

Many people go to nearby Rabbit Island for the afternoon or to spend the night, but I was unable to find people to split the cost of the boat trip, which is quite expensive considering the distance. Instead, I made due with Kep’s inferior beaches, with once-imported sand now brown and unappealing. Not the best day at the beach, but I wasn’t one to complain.

Unpowered, hotels usually run their own generators at night, which adds to the charm of the area, not to mention the bill. This, plus the fact that just about everything is trucked in from neighboring Kampot, makes Kep a relatively expensive place to visit, which helps seal the sense of being a well-to-do visitor to a Cambodian riviera. Despite what it lacks, this rural town actually offers a lot of class and excellent food in a couple of choice locations. Undoubtedly this town will thrive again in the near future, as a romantic and probably elite destination. Much like the rest of the country, it has to catch up to what it once was before it was ravaged by revolution and war.

After a day of rolling around the town and surrounding farmland, it was time to head back to the capital before heading northeast.

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