IN WITH THE NEW
An influx of creative restaurants and businesses has transformed Kampot
KAMPOT HAS LONG BUBBLED AWAY WITH THE POTENTIAL TO BE CAMBODIA'S NEXT BIG DESTINATION, AND AN INFLUX OF CREATIVE NEW BUSINESSES COULD BE JUST THE JUMPSTART IT NEEDS
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...