Discover Cambodia - - CONTENTS - By Holly Robert­son

An in­flux of cre­ative restau­rants and busi­nesses has trans­formed Kampot


IN the morn­ing hours, be­fore the city yawns awake, golden rays cast Ph­nom Penh in a dif­fer­ent light. It is softer, gen­tler and, some­how, from an­other era.

Nowhere is this more ap­par­ent than at the train sta­tion, built in 1932 at the height of the French ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cam­bo­dia. Beams of light stream into the white­washed art deco build­ing, which was re­stored in 2010, as a hand­ful of pas­sen­gers tot­ing shoul­der bags or wheel­ing suit­cases rush to­ward the plat­form.

There is no con­fu­sion over which plat­form to choose – just a sin­gle train, with a pair of bright car­riages em­bla­zoned with the logo of Royal Rail­ways, awaits.

For me, there is noth­ing to do but sit on a wooden bench and con­tem­plate an op­por­tu­nity lost. Hav­ing un­der­es­ti­mated the pop­u­lar­ity of the new rail ser­vice from Ph­nom Penh to the port of Si­hanoukville via the river­side town of Kampot – it recom­menced in 2016 after a 14-year hia­tus – I failed to buy tick­ets in ad­vance and

“Kampot has al­ways been a port that’s his­tor­i­cally be­yond the pale, all the way up un­til the 1920s”

the train, ac­cord­ing to the cashier, is full.

At the last mo­ment, after the horn sounds at 7am to sig­nal the train’s im­mi­nent de­par­ture, a benev­o­lent rail­way em­ployee ap­proaches. I ex­plain, in fal­ter­ing Kh­mer, my predica­ment. A brief ra­dio con­ver­sa­tion ensues, and he ges­tures to­ward the fur­thest car­riage, where I’m squeezed into a seat that I sus­pect is usu­ally re­served for bag­gage.

But the lim­ited space mat­ters lit­tle – it is sim­ply a plea­sure to be in­side the re­fur­bished train, with its retro doors and win­dows, the vin­tage de­sign up­dated with cush­ioned vinyl-cov­ered seat­ing and air con­di­tion­ing. A cheer goes up among the pas­sen­gers as the train lurches away from the sta­tion, their happy mur­murs

pro­vid­ing a back­ing track to the noise of the ma­chin­ery clack­ing along the tracks as we chug slowly out of the city.

After pass­ing by squat com­mer­cial build­ings, mo­tor­bike-clogged in­ter­sec­tions and rail-side slums, the ur­ban gives way to the ru­ral. From the wide train win­dows, a land­scape less vis­i­ble when trav­el­ling by road is in full panorama, with no con­crete fac­to­ries or stilted wooden homes to block the ex­pan­sive view.

Vivid green rice pad­dies flash by with Cam­bo­dia’s ubiq­ui­tous sugar palms dot­ting the hori­zon. Even­tu­ally, small treecov­ered moun­tains emerge, break­ing up the coun­try­side with their tow­er­ing beauty.

A stop at Takeo rail­way sta­tion, where ven­dors hawk frogs’ legs and whole bar­be­cued fish, marks the half­way point be­tween Ph­nom Penh and Kampot and pro­vides a re­ju­ve­nat­ing chance for pas­sen­gers to stretch their legs.

Be­fore long – 3.5 hours, to be pre­cise, which is only 30 min­utes longer than the stan­dard mini­van trip – we pull into the sta­tion at Kampot.

Through­out its his­tory, the har­bour­side town has at­tracted sailors and mer­chants com­ing from as far afield as Malaysia, Korea and China to trade. Many stayed around, giv­ing way to a multi-eth­nic com­mu­nity. “It’s al­ways been a port that’s his­tor­i­cally be­yond the pale – it’s been way be­yond the reach of the cen­tral ad­min­is­tra­tion in Ph­nom Penh – all the way up un­til the 1920s,” says Julien Poul­son, who is heav­ily in­volved in the cul­tural life of the town as a founder of the Kampot Arts and Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion (Kama) and di­rec­tor of the fledg­ling Kampot Writ­ers and Read­ers Fes­ti­val.

With the crum­bling French colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture that lines the river­front and the town’s charm­ingly lan­guid pace, Kampot has long been a draw for har­ried Ph­nom Penh-based ex­pats seek­ing quiet soli­tude but has yet to truly take off as a des­ti­na­tion for in­ter­na­tional tourists.

But there is a dis­tinct feel­ing of change in the air. Poul­son tells me that the town has “mor­phed”, and de­scribes it as cur­rently be­ing “in flux”. The most vis­i­ble change has been the num­ber of new

restau­rants and cafés that have sprung up in the past cou­ple of years – from a high-grade Por­tuguese seafood restau­rant, Tertúlia, to a street stall craft­ing hand­made Ital­ian pasta, Ciao Ciao, while a trio of Rus­sian hip­sters have even set up a veg­e­tar­ian café, Sim­ple Things.

“It’s gone from the Brit booze pubs that do bangers and mash to lots of in­ter­est­ing foodie kinds of things,” says Poul­son. “It’s a place known in­ter­na­tion­ally for its pep­per grow­ing, it’s a salt-pro­duc­ing place – it’s the food bowl of Cam­bo­dia. And what we’re see­ing more and more is tourism com­ing in be­cause of that.” Big-name vis­i­tors in re­cent years have in­cluded chefs Gor­don Ram­say and An­thony Bour­dain, while grow­ing num­bers of creatives and food­ies are choos­ing to set up shop here.

Among them is the hus­band-and-wife team be­hind Café Espresso, a land­mark eatery in the town, which in 2016 shifted from its long­stand­ing home in a cen­trally lo­cated Kh­mer shop­house to a for­mer salt stor­age ware­house. An­gus Whe­lan and Kiara No­taras, who have made Kampot their home, have also made Espresso one of the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions in town, largely thanks to its caf­feinated ex­cel­lence and ap­peal­ing menu of cre­ative café fare.

The new space has a min­i­mal­ist in­dus­trial feel with its hang­ing metal light­shades, ex­posed brick­work and soar­ing ceil­ings in­ter­sected by wooden beams. The café, and its in-house Rum­ble­fish cof­fee roast­ery, take up one half of the build­ing, while eth­i­cal fashion brand Dorsu op­er­ates from next door.

“Hope­fully this well help to cre­ate a sort of ‘made in Kampot’ hub,” Dorsu co-founder Hanna Guy tells me over cof­fee and a sticky choco­late brownie at Espresso. Es­tab­lished in 2014, Dorsu cre­ates clas­si­cally cut cloth­ing from gar­ment fac­tory rem­nant ma­te­ri­als, while pro­vid­ing staff with fair salaries and work­ing con­di­tions. Asked to pin­point the magic in­gre­di­ent that makes Kampot feel so spe­cial, she replies: “There’s a pri­or­ity of pos­i­tiv­ity around com­mu­nity, and that feeds off into tourism.”

In the late af­ter­noon, I wan­der down to the Fishmarket, a wa­ter­front restau­rant ideally placed for an evening cock­tail. Named in keep­ing with its orig­i­nal use, the eatery is housed in an art deco build­ing that has a strik­ing, pas­tel yel­low façade and an airy feel in­side the gen­er­ous space.

It has a mixed, and at times dark, his­tory, hav­ing been used as a ra­dio sta­tion, as an in­ter­ro­ga­tion cen­tre dur­ing the Kh­mer Rouge pe­riod, as the lo­cal cus­toms house and, most in­con­gru­ously, as a nightspot called Alaska Su­per Club. New owner Hugh Munro de­scribes the ren­o­va­tions as “a bit of ar­chi­tec­tural ar­chae­ol­ogy”. “As we knocked things down, we dis­cov­ered more clues as to what the build­ing looked like [orig­i­nally]. We were chip­ping away at his­tory,” he re­mem­bers.

Among the big-name vis­i­tors in re­cent years have been Gor­don Ram­say and An­thony Bour­dain, while grow­ing num­bers of creatives are set­ting up shop here

Later, on­board a sun­set cruise along the river, soft or­anges and pinks fill the sky and wash over the ves­sel’s laid­back pas­sen­gers, who lean against rail­ings while sip­ping cold drinks and tak­ing in the tran­quil vista. It is the quin­tes­sen­tial Kampot ex­pe­ri­ence and caps off a plea­sur­able day.

The next morn­ing, brunch is served at El­lie’s Café, a quaint cen­tral bistro with a Mediter­ranean-in­flu­enced menu. A hum­mus, baba ganoush and tzatziki plat­ter with home­made flatbread and veg­eta­bles is topped off nicely with a fresh fruit smoothie. But there is lit­tle time to linger, as I have plans to track down a farm pro­duc­ing Kampot’s most fa­mous ex­port: pep­per.

In 2010, the product was awarded the cov­eted Pro­tected Ge­o­graph­i­cal In­di­ca­tion sta­tus, which means that only cer­ti­fied grow­ers from the re­gion may mar­ket their goods as ‘Kampot pep­per’. Across Kampot and Kep, there are now sev­eral hun­dred pep­per farms, from small fam­ily-run op­er­a­tions to sweep­ing plan­ta­tions span­ning more than 20 hectares.

At the height of the wet sea­son, in Oc­to­ber, it is an ex­tremely bumpy tuk tuk ride on un­sealed roads out to La Plan­ta­tion. On ar­rival, I’m faced with row upon row of young pep­per vines pro­tected from the sun by palm leaves. Guided by Chhy, an em­ployee of the or­ganic op­er­a­tion, a brief tour of the grow­ing area pro­vides in­sights into this spicy sea­son­ing, which can come in green, white, red and black va­ri­eties. “Do you know why Kampot pep­per is the best in the world? It’s the ground [soil], the cli­mate and be­cause it’s near the sea,” Chhy tells the group.

Chhy may be some­what bi­ased, but he may also have a point. On re­turn­ing to Kampot, I pop into Kama, which is housed in an­other build­ing with a cu­ri­ous his­tory – at one point be­fore the Kh­mer Rouge pe­riod it was a Viet­namese bor­dello – where Kek Soon has set up a sim­ple eatery. She de­scribes the pro­duce from Kampot as be­ing “the best in Cam­bo­dia”, with fruits from the re­gion highly sought after at mar­kets across the coun­try. Soon is con­stantly ex­per­i­ment­ing with cui­sine, cre­at­ing ev­ery­thing from restora­tive gin­ger and co­conut teas to a “Cam­bo­dian fu­sion” pineap­ple and co­conut cream latte in her kitchen.

“You’ve got to set your­self apart,” says the en­gag­ing en­tre­pre­neur who, at the time of writ­ing, was also in the process of start­ing food tours and putting to­gether a Kh­mer food cook­book in­spired by the lo­cal area and its sto­ries.

While Soon is find­ing ways to stand out from the crowd, Kampot is too. With its grow­ing cre­ative com­mu­nity and fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, the town is in­creas­ingly find­ing ways to en­tice vis­i­tors to this vi­brant lit­tle ham­let in Cam­bo­dia’s south.

Travel tales: a typ­i­cal ru­ral Cam­bo­dian scene, shot in Kampot, fea­tur­ing ver­dant rice fields and tow­er­ing sugar palm trees (top); chil­dren play next to the train dur­ing a stop at Takeo sta­tion – a pas­sen­ger ser­vice re­sumed in 2016 for the first time in...

Oh, so hip: Kam­pot­head, a vin­tage store housed in Kampot's old Royal Theatre, is emblematic of the town's in­creas­ingly cre­ative at­mos­phere

New be­gin­nings: the Fishmarket bar and restau­rant has been lov­ingly re­stored (far left); Kek Soon, who has opened a restau­rant in­side the Kampot Arts and Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion (top); cof­fee at Espresso Café, which brings a touch of high-grade Aus­tralian...

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