Imagine sitting in a cafe, with the sun streaming through the window, watching men sell baguettes out on the street-side. Behind them are European villas sitting silently in various states of repair along a tranquil river. You could forgive yourself for thinking that you were in the south of France.
Welcome to the Kep and Kampot regions of Cambodia, the former colonial retreat of the French administration here. While the French have long since gone, the town retains its colonial feel with grand villas, some abandoned and others in dis-repair, charming pubs and dining establishments. It’s sleepy quite area, but that is precisely what draws tourists and travelers here. It is what drew the French here years ago too. Kep and Kampot are actually two different regions, though to the average traveler, this means very little.
There are not many tourist “sites” here, this is not Angkor nor a Thai beach party, but there is tranquility, a sense of faded history and some of the nicest, most welcoming local people you will ever meet anywhere. As far as beaches, you can always check out Koh Tonsay and the other small islands in Kep. The waters are crystal clear, with pristine corals, and there is almost no development.
The nearby town of Kampot offers caves to explore, amazing views of the river and mountains and access to the eerie abandoned French hill station in Bokor National Park. There are old tea plantations, lots of decaying villas and many traces of the French left behind years ago. Sadly there is a huge casino being built in the national park, but the natural beauty is still there.
Dining anywhere in Kep or Kampot is an absolute pleasure. This is the home of the world-famous Kampot pepper, which for years was lauded as the finest pepper known to man. Not overly spicy, but with an amazing flavor, it is a treat waiting to be sampled. If you come here and don’t try the crab or fish with pepper, you are truly missing out. If you happen to be a fan of durian (a somewhat acquired taste), you will certainly find your fair share in Kampot.
Travel in this region is inexpensive, relaxing and fun. The people are awesome. Don’t be surprised if your tuk-tuk driver invites you for dinner with his family. If you ask around, you can discover amazing gems. just be careful buying. There is an old French railway station, salt farms, a secret lake, pepper farms and so many old colonial buildings that you’ll never get bored. You should definitely take a boat trip on the river at sunset and make sure you stock up on the local peppers. They are hard to find these days outside of Cambodia and if you do find them, you will pay ten times the real price.