KAMPOT, 21 July 2016: Local expatriates supping their draft beer at the Brass Monkey, a riverside pub in Kampot, are hoping this small Cambodia town will remain a tourism backwater.
“Hope you are not going to write about Kampot,” one of them asked after learning we were on a media fam trip hosted by the organisers of the close of the Mekong Tourism Forum, earlier this month. “We are just fine as it is; all the tourists should visit the Snook.”
We quickly learn that the locals address Sihanoukville as the “Snook”, while Kampot is affectionately called the “Pot”
Sihanoukville happens to be home to 17 casinos located at nearby beach resorts and in the compact town centre that heaves with budget hotels, restaurants, duty-free shops, karaoke bas and popular fast-food outlets.
Beyond the town, there are 10 km of beaches, bars and barbecue spots.
In contrast, riverside Kampot has nostalgic French colonial architecture, mostly public buildings such as city hall, the governor’s residence, the post office and customs offices, dating back to the early 1900s. Experts point out that many of the two-storey shop houses in the narrow lanes at the heart of the town date back to mid-1950s and have a strong Chinese influence.
There are around 100 well-preserved houses in the town that are linked to the French-colonial period.
Its sleepy sidewalk cafes and uncluttered riverside promenade create an ambience that invites travellers to chill out. Once you have strolled through the town’s market and explored the orderly grid-like lanes that connect the riverside promenade there’s not much else to keep you busy in Kampot town.
Sunset watching on the town’s promenade is a popular exercise as is snapping photographs of people posing on the town’ old wooden bridge. Some sunset watchers shell out USD10 to board a cruise boat, propelled by twin long-tail engines. It chugs along at a gentle pace giving passengers ample time to down two large beers at the captain’s bar.
There are probably too many restaurants and bars and too few visitors for the owners to turn a profit, but that is probably preferred to hosting hoards of tourists. Hidden under the awnings of terraced shop houses you will find a couple of wine bars a bookstore and a few local handicraft boutiques. But by mid-afternoon you will probably just want to ease into a comfortable seat at a riverside restaurant where Cambodia’s famous Angkor beer flows to counter the tropical heat, while the kitchen serves fish amok, a Cambodian coconut curry considered a national dish to replenish energy.
It’s an easy place to spend a couple of days just touring the streets on a hired cycle, visiting the railway station built in the 1960s, the town’s museum, or the Muslim fishing village where the day’s catch is sold to restaurants.
The French built a road to the summit that opened to traffic in 1917 followed by Bokor Palace Hotel that flung open its doors in 1925 and shut them in 1940.
By 1962, a new casino resort appeared on the site of the old hotel, the first in Cambodia. It finally closed in 1972 during the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, Sokha Hotels and Resorts says it will develop three hotels on the hilltop, but so far just one hotel with a casino that draws gamblers from Vietnam has opened for business.
Kampot has ambitions to earn World Heritage status from UNESCO, a task that will require at least five years of intensive restoration funded by international agencies such as the World Bank.
The Asian Development bank is developing a port 5 km downstream at the estuary of Kampot’s river at a cost of USD8 million. Once the port is fully operational in 2018, an international ferry service will sail from Phu Quoc island in Vietnam to Sihanoukville with a stop at Kampot.
During Kampot’s term under French colonial administration in the 1900s, the province prospered as a major grower of pepper supplying annually 8,000 tons to world markets.
That was long before Sihanoukville opened its first hotel in 1963 to emerge as a resort town that today has over 5,000 rooms.
Kampot’s pepper growing came to an untimely halt during the brutal Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s and was not revived until 2000.
Kampot’s former fish market, built in 1932, stands over the river affording spectacular views of river life against the backdrop of Bokor Hill. It took four years to restore and transform the building into a restaurant that is run by expatriate residents, Jos and Hugh Munro. The town’s fish market moved across the street.
Jos and Hugh created a menu of Thai and Cambodian dishes as well as favourite nourishment for Europeans addicted to their fish and chips or pasta.
Across the street we are back at the Brass Monkey fortifying ourselves with a chilled draft beer after a hearty meal at the Fish Market.
“You really don’t want travel writers pontificating about your beautiful town after all,” I ask the friendly expatriate?
“I’ll let you into a little secret about Kampot,” he tells us. “We are only here for the ‘pot’ that’s how chilled out we are right now. You thought it was the beer?”
Perhaps that explains why travel writers from Conde Nast Traveller, Time Magazine, New York Times, The Telegraph, San Francisco Chronicle, Conde Nast and the Guardian all reported a fairy tale time when exploring Kampot in 2012 and why very little has been written on the province since. Could they have been so enchanted by the Pot they decided to say no more?
And I thought it was the world acclaimed pepper that made me laugh.