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What to see and do in Kep and Kampot

Our favourite things to see and do in Cambodia's coastal provinces of Kep and Kampot

Note that these are very much our personal suggestions for what to see and do in Kep and Kampot and not everyone will agree with our inclusions and omissions. While we have been visiting both these Cambodian coastal provinces regularly for some 20 years now, places change – often quickly, sometimes for the better, other times regrettably not – and, of course, what we’re looking for in a destination has also changed over time.

Before compiling our list of what to see and do in Kep and Kampot, a brief rundown on the two South Cambodian provinces.

Kep

Tiny Kep is the country’s smallest province, consisting of a cluster of forested hills – today’s Kep National Park – plus a narrow strip of surrounding flat land and a short stretch of coast bordering it to the south. Vietnam lies to the east, Takeo Province to the north and Kampot a short distance to the west. When visitors arrive a frequent reaction is ‘…so where is Kep?’ and, unusually, there’s no obvious town as such with Kep consisting of a string of municipal buildings, temples, shops, cafes and resorts strung out along several kilometres of coastline.

Fishing boats in Kep with Kampot Bay and Bokor Mountain in the distance
Fishing boats in Kep with Kampot Bay and Bokor Mountain in the distance

The town was a popular resort during the French administration when it was known as Kep-sur-mer, as well as being frequented by the Phnom Penh hoi-polloi during the post-independence period. Interspersed between the government offices, hotels and cafes is an astonishing collection of abandoned villas, originally constructed by well-heeled expats and hi-so Khmers but which were all destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era.

Kampot

Larger than Kep, albeit still small compared to most Cambodian Provinces, Kampot begins a short distance west of Kep and extends westwards along the coast to reach Sihanoukville – or Kampong Som to the locals. To the north the province is bordered by Takeo.

Set at the head of a sheltered bay, the small provincial capital functioned as a port during the colonial era and today the old town features an impressive stock of period buildings. In recent years the town has become popular as a hang-out for younger travellers while the massive development of Sihanoukville – due mainly to Chinese investment – has seen some of the Western-orientated bar scene migrate along the coast to Kampot.

Sunset from the Old Bokor Mountain Lodge on Kampot's waterfront
Sunset from the Old Bokor Mountain Lodge on Kampot’s waterfront

The old hill station of Bokor lies west of town, the world-famous pepper plantations sprawl across foothills to the east while much of the province’s hinterland is picturesque with sugar palm-lined paddy fields broken up by spectacular karst limestone outcrops.

We confess to a preference for the smaller of the two provinces so we’ll begin our see and do in Kep and Kampot with the former.

The Crab Market

The Crab Market, or Phsa Kdam to the locals, is the town’s best-known site and not only our favourite spot in Kep but, we’d go so far as to say, one of our favourites in Cambodia. The northern half of the shoreline market is the business end with small fishing boats unloading fish, squid, prawns and of course crabs to quayside stalls while the southern section today consists of a series of small cafes and restaurants with stilt terraces perched above the rippling waves of the South China Sea. (Overfishing for the famous Kep crabs is causing serious issues but the market remains for now, bustling and photogenic.)

Cambodia, the Crab Market, Kep
Sunset at the Crab Market, Kep

The cafes naturally serve up a variety of seafood dishes – local and Western – of varying quality, (chefs come and go), but with waves lapping under west-facing wooden decks, there are few finer places in the country to sup a cold beer or cocktail and watch the sun set over Phu Quoc, (due to a geopolitical anomaly which is best not mentioned to Khmers, the Vietnamese island lies directly off-shore), and Bokor Mountain beyond Kampot Bay. Drinks and food are good value, staff friendly and we never get bored of the views from the chilled-out cafes.

Rabbit Island

We’ve been to Rabbit Island, Koh Tonsai in Khmer, numerous times; looked at it from all angles and quizzed various locals but we still have no idea how the name originated. Nonetheless, this picturesque and easily accessible island – it’s a mere 30-40 minute boat ride from Kep – has been popular with local and foreign visitors for some time now.

The island’s prettiest beach, and the best for swimming, is lined with a collection of simple cafes serving food and drinks; deckchairs are out front and there are basic wooden chalets behind for those who wish to stay the night. Rabbit Island is popular with local families and Western backpackers so prices are cheap and if you haven’t tried the town’s signature dish of Kep crab in Kampot pepper yet, then this is probably the best value around.

All Points East Rabbit Island Kep
Rabbit Island Kep, on the Beyond Angkor tour

Miraculously, the island has so far escaped the large-scale development of certain others and, while a new resort was under construction during our most recent visit, it is relatively tucked away beyond a headland at the southern end of the island. As we mentioned, you can stay the night, although for us, a morning on Koh Tonsai is probably sufficient. The island is pretty without being spectacular, the sea is shallow and warm and ideal for swimming although there’s no point in taking a mask and snorkel so, great for a dip, a stroll up and down the beach to grab a few pics and sit back in a deckchair with a freshly made fruit shake then head back to town.

The short boat trip affords some attractive views and, if you’ve been around the sites and museums of Phnom Penh, explored the temples of Angkor and ventured up the backroads to remote Preah Vihear then it’s just a very pleasant change to be out at sea.

A walk around Kep

Had a swim in the South China Sea, unwound for a bit in a deckchair and been on a boat trip then head back to what passes for Kep Town for something a bit different. Derelict buildings may sound like an unlikely highlight but all these crumbling, art-nouveau-style, abandoned villas are fascinating. The roots and creepers encroach on the terraces where once French expats supped their aperitifs before heading to the casino while the jungle and screeching macaques reclaim formerly well-tended gardens where minor Khmer royalty took pre-dinner strolls. A perfect and ironic reflection of the jungle-clad ruined cities you’ve already seen at Angkor.

One of Kep's many abandoned, former luxury holiday villas
One of Kep’s many abandoned, former luxury holiday villas
Kep National Park

A conveniently flat, circular track leads around the slopes of the forest-covered hills behind Kep Town and affords some great views and bird-watching opportunities. We’d say its charm has been somewhat diminished since the track was concreted over, so now Khmer kids, (and foreign visitors) – too lazy to walk – whizz around on scooters, but it still makes for a pleasant stroll if you have a couple of hours to kill. The 2-hour hike begins at the interestingly named and beautifully situated Led Zep Cafe whose well-placed terrace is almost worth a trip in its own right.

A half-day on Rabbit Island, some ‘urban exploring’ in Kep Town and evenings taking in the Crab Market vistas comfortably fill a couple of relaxing albeit interesting days. In our opinion, you wouldn’t want to stay a week but this is a delightful spot to unwind after some busy days at Cambodia’s better-known destinations. Just 20 kilometres along the coast lies Kampot. Fortuitous as this provides another excellent day trip but also means you don’t have to stay there.

See and do in Kep and Kampot
French era shop houses in Kampot’s old town
Kampot

As we mentioned in the intro, formerly, sleepy little Kampot has become very popular in recent times. Foreign-owned establishments have relocated from Sihanoukville while others have fled rising rents in Siem Reap. The town is pretty and with upgraded roads now has relatively easy access to Phnom Penh thus making for an attractive proposition for expats and visitors seeking a chilled-out refuge.

On the plus side, many of the old French townhouses have been restored – on the downside it seems half of them are now boutique coffee shops or pizzerias. Time was when we could have spent a while wandering the quiet and scenic town with a stroll along the waterfront and sundowner at the old Bokor Mountain Lodge but these days we’d say, spend a couple of hours exploring the streets of the old town, grab an iced latte and head back to the Crab Market for sunset before Kampot’s evening bar action kicks in.

Pepper Plantation Tour

Kampot’s world-famous pepper plantations are concentrated in the foothills east of town, so ideally situated between Kep and Kampot. If you’ve travelled in Southeast Asia before you may well have visited tea and/or coffee plantations but have you seen a pepper one yet? (And…this is reputed to be the world’s finest.)

Kampot, 'The Secret Lake'
The scenic ‘Secret lake’ makes a good photo stop on the way to the plantation

A visit to a plantation – our choice is the small, family-run Bo Tree – also provides an excuse for a tuk-tuk ride into the country. Some of the country lanes can be a bit rough – you’ve been warned – but it’s great to see some village and rural life and the picturesque ‘Secret Lake’ provides a photo opp on the way. Once there, you’ll receive an explanation and sampling, a guided tour of the plantation and a chance to taste some pepper-themed dishes so a morning well spent before continuing to Kampot Town for an afternoon stroll.

Kampong Trach

Kampot’s hinterland offers some scenic limestone formations and numerous caves with Kampong Trach providing what are probably the easiest to access. The jagged karst outcrop set amid paddy fields features a walk-through cave temple and, time permitting, is worth a stop.

Bokor Mountain

The abrupt outline of Bokor Mountain towers over Kampot from the west; offers spectacular views and cool weather and previously provided the location for Cambodia’s most prestigious hill station. Initially created by French expats, the town came with a hotel, casino, church and even a post office and continued to be popular post-independence with King Monivong commissioning a palace atop the mountain. During the Khmer Rouge era, the site was not surprisingly abandoned and even subsequently became a battleground between the KR and liberating Vietnamese forces. (Khmer Rouge forces managed to hang on to their mountaintop refuge until well into the 90s.)

With peace restored, the location became a ghost town. The huge, clifftop casino/hotel was eerily abandoned to the mist and moss while bullet holes in the church walls provided visitors with highly original ‘holiday snaps’. It was one of the country’s most unusual and atmospheric destinations and a shoo-in on earlier versions of our Beyond Angkor tour. Also one of its most adventurous and it took at least 2 hours to drive the 20-kilometre track to the summit, passing by blown-up trucks at the side of the road and with great hornbills flying overhead. (The finale of City of Ghosts was filmed in and around the former Bokor Palace Hotel.) The reputedly haunted casino was absurdly located on the edge of a cliff so tales tell of unlucky punters heading straight from the roulette wheel and over the cliff edge.

Anyway, all this is to say, that it no longer features on our itinerary. In 2008 the site was leased to a Khmer-Vietnamese corporation, (Sokimex), and an estimated billion dollars was invested to rebuild the haunted palace and build a new casino and 4-lane highway. It may conceivably have been good for the local economy but it certainly took all the charm out of a visit and scared off the hornbills.

Bokor
The Bokor Palace Hotel and ‘haunted casino’, prior to renovation

Elsewhere, Kampot possesses some moderately scenic waterfalls and several caves – with the most interesting being Phnom Chnork whose interior houses an intact and very early brick temple. There are a few additional activities and sites of relatively minor interest but with Bokor off the menu, our current Kampot tour is a one-day affair.

Unless you’re planning a week down there, we’d say that’s enough for our see and do in Kep and Kampot list. Our South Cambodia itinerary – featured as a separate Kep, Kampot and Takeo extension or mini-tour as well as part of our off-the-beaten-trcak Cambodia tourĀ  Beyond Angkor – features what we consider the region’s highlights and includes the above day tour of Kampot, 2 days in Kep plus stops at Takeo’s various sites on the way there and back.