What to do in Kep and Kampot
The magnificent temples of Angkor are a must see on a tour of Cambodia, but they are not the only historic highlights the country has to offer. Cambodia was a French protectorate from 1863 until gaining independence in 1953, leaving a Gallic influence in much of the country’s architecture and cuisine. The towns of Kep and Kampot are rich in colonial heritage and two of the finest examples of the French Indochina era but most people will visit Cambodia without heading to the country’s southern coast to see these atmospheric gems.
In this blog we aim to showcase the best things to do in Kep and Kampot, with the hope that more people will visit these overlooked towns, by answering the simple question: What is there to do in Kep and Kampot?
The best things to do in Kep
Kep, also known as Kep-sur-Mer, was founded by French colonialists in 1908 as Cambodia’s first seaside resort. While not a natural beach destination, Kep beach was created using imported sand, the beautiful coastal area quickly became the favourite retreat for expats and the Cambodian elite with around 1200 luxurious villas being built in the area during the French colonial period. Things came to a crashing halt when the Khmer Rouge swept into power and most of the villas were abandoned, but thankfully today the town is once again on the rise.
Kep lacks a true centre and has a slightly sleepy feel, but some of the original villas have been restored and converted into charming boutique hotels making it a great alternative to the busier beaches of Sihanoukville and Koh Rong.
Here are what we consider the three best things to do during a visit to Kep:
Sample the local crab:
A stop at Kep’s crab market is the best way to sample the local delicacy - crabs fried with Kampot pepper. A collection of wooden waterfront restaurants by the market serves up some of the freshest seafood in the whole of Cambodia, but if we had to recommend one it would be the Holy Crab restaurant. This is a must do for keen foodies and seafood lovers!
Hiking in Kep National Park:
Towering over Kep is the Kep National Park, a protected national forest with a well-marked 8km circuit navigable by foot, mountain bike, or motorbike. The trail includes several lookout points boasting incredible views of Phu Quoc and the Bokor Ranges to the south and west.
It takes around 3 hours to complete the circuit, terrain can be rugged and covers an area of lush jungle-clad hills, so appropriate footwear is needed. Those looking for a challenge should try the 'Stairway to Heaven' trail, an uphill route which passes a pagoda, a nunnery and culminates with impressive views from the Sunset Rock viewpoint. We recommend doing the hike with a local guide who can suggest a suitable route to match your experience and level of fitness, but the trails are well sign-posted in English so it is possible to do the circuit independently.
Spot the sarus crane:
Close to the Vietnamese border around an hour’s drive from Kep is the Anlong Pring Bird Sanctuary. This is a globally important sanctuary for the sarus crane, one of the world’s most striking cranes with its bright red head in stark contrast to its grey plumage. Home to around 30% of the global population, the sanctuary is a must visit for birdwatchers as the wet grasslands provide a natural habitat for these magnificent birds. The best time to spot the cranes in the sanctuary is between mid-November until early May.
The best things to do in Kampot
The quiet riverside town of Kampot was Cambodia’s most important seaport during French rule and its riverside location, coupled with the faded glory of the French colonial architecture, make it a lovely place to spend a couple of days. Kampot locals insist they enjoy one of the best sunsets in the whole of Cambodia and a cold beer with sunset view at one of the riverside restaurants or bars is popular with locals and visitors alike. Kampot at night is a town transformed, bridges and the riverside promenade are lit up with fluorescent lights while boats decked out with neon lights cruise up and down the Praek Tuek Chhu River.
Besides a cold beer with sunset view these are what we consider the three best things to do during a visit to Kampot:
Kayaking in Kampot:
Kayaking in Kampot is a must for water sport enthusiasts as the Tuek Chhou River is considered one of the most picturesque in all Cambodia. There are several routes of varying length which can be explored depending on your level of proficiency, but our favourite is an offshoot of water 5km upstream from the centre of town. Known as the Green Cathedral, due to the dense foliage stretching from bank to bank, it is manageable for kayakers of all ability and only takes between one and two hours to complete. Keen kayakers or those looking to head out in the early morning to try and catch a glimpse of the wildlife along the river should consider staying at our recommended rural retreat just outside town.
Visit a local pepper farm:
Kampot boomed under French colonial rule largely thanks to the French love for the pepper which had been grown in the region for over 1,000 years. French chefs declared Kampot pepper the finest in the world and the colonial rulers quickly ramped up production during the late 19th century. Like most things in Cambodia, the devastating civil war and misrule of the Khmer Rouge brought production to a crashing halt – only four tonnes a year were harvested at the end of the 90s, compared to around 3,000 tonnes in the 60s. Thankfully, local farmers are once again growing this famous crop and many have opened their farms to visitors. This is a great way to learn how the pepper is cultivated and try your hand at some traditional Cambodian specialties with a cooking lesson. Our recommended pepper farm is La Plantation, a family run farm with impeccable social and sustainable-tourism credentials.
Explore Bokor Hill Station:
A short drive from central Kampot lies the formerly abandoned hill station of Bokor. Accessible by a scenic road winding through the dense jungle of Bokor National Park the hill station was a luxury resort and retreat for Cambodia’s colonial residents in the early 1920s and 30s. Walking amongst the decaying buildings, including the old Catholic church and the Bokor Palace Hotel, once the most salubrious address in town, and enjoying the incredible views from atop the plateau is an unforgettable, if slightly spooky, experience. While there has been some recent development in the area, other sites in the National Park, such as the remains of the Black Palace, one of King Sihanouk's former residences, and the Popokvil Falls make a day trip here worthwhile.
Kep and Kampot work well as a combination and have plenty on offer to justify their inclusion on a tour of Cambodia. Those with an interest in visiting Kep and Kampot or wish to learn more about the French influence on Cambodia should check out our Colonial Cambodia tour. If you are looking for a more bespoke itinerary, don’t hesitate to give us a call or drop us an email.