KAMPOT ON THE CUSP

AS CAM­BO­DIA’S SLEEPY SOUTH­ERN COAST MOVES INTO THE SPOT­LIGHT, CAN THE LAN­GUID CHARMS OF THIS OLD PORT TOWN SUR­VIVE THE PULL OF PROGRESS?

DestinAsian - - FLASHBACK - BY SAN­JAY SU­RANA PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY JA­SON MICHAEL LANG

NA­TIONAL ROAD 3 from Veal Renh to the river­side town of Kampot, the Dam­rei Moun­tains ap­pear as an im­pen­e­tra­ble, forested wall. A branch of the Car­damom range that ex­tends across 110 kilo­me­ters of south­west Cam­bo­dia, they top out at the misty plateau of Mount Bokor, a once-aban­doned French hill sta­tion that on clear days of­fers views across the Gulf of Thai­land to the Viet­namese is­land of Phu Quoc. On this Sun­day morn­ing, a troop of leather-clad mo­tor­cy­clists from Phnom Penh has con­gre­gated at the en­trance to Preah Monivong Na­tional Park to charge up the 37 kilo­me­ters of twist­ing as­phalt to Bokor’s sum­mit, along a road that, thanks to a 2008 up­grade, is ar­guably the best in the coun­try.

Laced with good hik­ing trails, Bokor is a defin­ing pres­ence on the Kampot sky­line. But it’s not the only rea­son to make the three­hour drive from Phnom Penh (or, as I have done, the two-hour drive from Si­hanoukville to the west). Some peo­ple come for the nearby sea­side, or to eat at the in­creas­ingly eclec­tic mix of restau­rants— Nola for Ca­jun cui­sine; Tertúlia for Por­tuguese; Baraca for ta­pas— that have sprung up on the east bank of the Tuek Chhu River amid the old town’s French-de­signed grid of faded shop­houses and govern­ment build­ings. Oth­ers (my­self in­cluded) are sim­ply drawn to Kampot’s irresistibly lan­guid am­biance and the joys that come with tak­ing in the cool breeze as it sweeps across the river, or watch­ing swifts swirl above the main park at sun­set as chil­dren play foot­ball. It re­minds me of an­other sleepy South­east Asian back­wa­ter, Luang Prabang. “Lazy Town” is what Joel Fry calls the place.

A goa­teed Amer­i­can for­mer chef, Fry has lived in Cam­bo­dia for 10 years and is cur­rently based in Kampot, from where he over­sees two rus­tic re­sorts on is­lands off Si­hanoukville. “Peo­ple walk slower here. It’s a re­fresh­ing break from the big cities,” he tells me. “Also, the govern­ment works well, the roads are good, the place is clean, and the sur­round­ing na­ture is fan­tas­tic.” Though off-lim­its for much of the 1980s and ’90s due to the pres­ence of the Kh­mer Rouge (Bokor was a last strong­hold for the in­sur­gents), the town has since se­duced scores of ex­pats to set up restau­rants, cafés, guest­houses, and other busi­nesses here, not to men­tion the many Cam­bo­di­ans who have re­lo­cated from other parts of the coun­try. It’s per­haps not as cos­mopoli­tan as it once was—prior to the emer­gence of Si­hanoukville in the 1950s, this was Cam­bo­dia’s pri­mary port—but it seems to be head­ing in that di­rec­tion. And therein lies the dilemma. “The Chi­nese haven’t started com­ing yet, but it’s only a mat­ter of time,” Fry says, ref­er­enc­ing the wave of Chi­nese in­vest­ment that has in re­cent years trans­formed Si­hanoukville be­yond recog­ni­tion. “The money, the new roads, the apart­ments, they will all come. Ex­pats and Kh­mers are scared that Kampot will lose its charm.”

The sen­ti­ment is not un­war­ranted. As high-rise build­ings make

their ap­pear­ance on the oth­er­wise low-slung sky­line—I spot one steel-gird­ered mon­ster ris­ing from a plot across from the Cen­tral Mar­ket—other ma­jor projects are tak­ing shape out­side town, in­clud­ing a new sea­port and an oil re­fin­ery. There is also talk of a US$23 bil­lion ma­rina de­vel­op­ment to be built be­tween Kampot and Kep on the erst­while Cam­bo­dian Riviera, while a new cruise/ferry ter­mi­nal is set to be­gin con­struc­tion by the new year. When com­pleted in 2021, it will wel­come ships from Si­hanoukville, Thai­land, and Viet­nam, po­ten­tially adding about 400,000 an­nual tourists to Kampot—an in­crease of 25 per­cent.

“Bring it on,” says Hugh Munro, an Aus­tralian ex­pat. “The cruise ships will bring in peo­ple aged 50-plus with big wal­lets, which is the kind of tourism Kampot needs. Kh­mer busi­nesses here are thriv­ing and want to grow.”

Munro has been in Kampot for over a decade and cur­rently owns The Fish Mar­ket, a seafood-cen­tric restau­rant—try the pep­per crab—that re­sides in the town’s for­mer fish mar­ket, a 1930s art deco land­mark that served briefly as a disco in the augh­ties. “Lots of peo­ple from Si­hanoukville have bought land here,” he adds. “Maybe they’re bet­ting the Chi­nese will come [and drive up prices]. There’s even talk of a prop­erty bub­ble—it’s the first time I’ve heard that!”

None of this comes as a sur­prise to Sok Ken, the young founder of three-year-old real es­tate agency Kampot Prop­erty. “Peo­ple are go­ing crazy for land along the river and coast,” he says, not­ing that many of his clients are Cam­bo­di­ans mov­ing from over­priced Si­hanoukville or Phnom Pen­hites look­ing to build a se­cond home. “Last year, about one kilo­me­ter from Kampot cen­ter you could find land for [US]$60 to $100 per square foot. Now, it’s $400!”

The up­side to Kampot’s surge in pop­u­lar­ity—at least from a vis­i­tor’s point of view—is that there are now some de­cent ho­tels in town. These in­clude such moder­ately priced es­tab­lish­ments as The Col­umns, which oc­cu­pies four beau­ti­fully re­stored shop­houses with a colon­naded fa­cade and wooden shut­ters; and the Kampot View Bou­tique, which opened in 2017 next to the New Bridge on the west side of the river.

But for lux­ury of the US$200-plus a night va­ri­ety, you have to head to the hills. Last spring, on the sum­mit of Mount Bokor, Cam­bo­dia’s big­gest hote­lier, Sokha Ho­tels & Re­sorts, opened Le Bokor Palace around the skele­ton of a lav­ish ho­tel first built by the French in the 1920s. Ran­sacked by the Kh­mer Rouge, the build­ing had been a bul­let-scarred shell for decades—its haunt­ing ru­ins make an ap­pear­ance in the 2002 Matt Dil­lon film City of Ghosts— un­til Sokha em­barked on a restora­tion two years ago, one that added gilt ac­cents ga­lore, old-style tele­phones, cop­per light fix­tures, and Span­ish floor tiles, while re­tain­ing the orig­i­nal fire­places and wind­ing stair­cases. The pro­fu­sion of gold tones not­with­stand­ing, it’s all taste­fully dec­o­rated and ap­pointed, with slen­der pas­sage­ways and dif­fer­ently con­fig­ured rooms that at­test to the build­ing’s her­itage. The gray plas­ter ex­te­ri­ors “are a good match for the weather,” gen­eral man­ager Bun Meng, a slen­der man with glossy hair swept across his head, tells me as we look down at the Gulf of Thai­land be­tween breaks in the mist. Dur­ing lunch in the ho­tel’s cof­fer-ceilinged din­ing room, a pro­ces­sion of servers brings us fine French dishes cooked by a Swiss chef, much of it us­ing or­ganic pro­duce from on­site veg­etable gar­dens.

Le Bokor Palace is not alone on the plateau. Be­yond the ru­ins of Bokor Church and a cen­tury-old Bud­dhist pagoda stands Thansur Sokha, a 564-room lime-green casino-re­sort that is the cen­ter­piece of a mas­sive re­de­vel­op­ment project that will in­clude vil­las, condo

tow­ers, and a wa­ter park. For now, though, the area re­mains eerily quiet, which suits me just fine. Be­sides, there are other more downto-earth am­bi­tions that I wish to ex­plore.

A bone-rat­tling, 50-minute drive east of down­town Kampot sits La Plan­ta­tion, a pep­per farm and agri­tourism ven­ture in the coun­try­side next to Brateak Krola Lake. The own­ers, Bel­gian-French cou­ple Guy Porré and Nathalie Chaboche, made their money sell­ing soft­ware com­pa­nies be­fore mov­ing here in 2013. “We wanted to live in Asia and al­ways liked Cam­bo­dia,” Guy ex­plains on a cloudy morn­ing as we stand amid thick pep­per vines that stretch down to the wa­ter. La Plan­ta­tion pro­duced its first of­fi­cial har­vest in 2017.

Pep­per has been grown in these parts since the 13th cen­tury, ben­e­fit­ing from a rich, fer­tile ter­roir for­ti­fied by its prox­im­ity to the sea. Pro­duc­tion ac­cel­er­ated dur­ing the colo­nial pe­riod, when hun­dreds of tons of poivre de l’In­do­chine were shipped to French har­bors. Revered by chefs and gour­mands across the Gal­lic world, Cam­bo­dian pep­per was al­most ex­tin­guished by the Kh­mer Rouge, who drove farm­ers off their es­tates to grow rice. But since 2006, the spice har­vest has re­cov­ered. The Kampot Pep­per Pro­mo­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, founded in 2010 to mon­i­tor and sup­port the in­dus­try, cur­rently has 300 mem­bers, mostly small-scale planters who have re­turned to the land where their fam­i­lies have pro­duced pep­per for gen­er­a­tions.

In ad­di­tion to its or­ganic black, white, and red pep­per, La Plan­ta­tion grows turmeric, chili, and more; Guy aims to make it the lead­ing spice pro­ducer in the coun­try. “Pep­per shouldn’t be ag­gres­sive, the taste should be long. Ours has a deep fin­ish, like a good wine,” he tells me as I nib­ble on a sun-dried pep­per­corn. The farm is also some­thing of a tourist at­trac­tion. Vis­i­tors can ride a buf­falo cart down to the lake, walk among the vines, and eat at one of the on-site restau­rants, with a por­tion of the pro­ceeds used to fund chil­dren’s school­ing in the neigh­bor­ing vil­lages.

If La Plan­ta­tion as­pires to be Cam­bo­dia’s pre­mier pep­per pro­ducer, its salty coun­ter­part is Thyda Fleur de Sel de Kampot. Run by a young, lively-eyed woman named Thyda Thaung with the help of her fa­ther Bun Narin, a for­mer salt farmer, the two-year-old en­ter­prise op­er­ates out of a small fac­tory in Kampot’s Trey Koh dis­trict. One wet morn­ing they show me around their fa­cil­ity, de­scrib­ing the back­break­ing work that goes into hand­har­vest­ing fleur de sel (that’s French for “flower of salt”), the del­i­cate crust of crys­tals that forms on the sur­faces of salt ponds when the weather con­di­tions are right. “We need dry­ness, lots of sun­shine, and wind to push the par­ti­cles to the edge of the field,” Bun says. “If one of those is miss­ing, there is no fleur de sel.” He goes on to ex­tol the prop­er­ties of fleur de sel, whose 70 min­er­als and trace el­e­ments are all miss­ing in com­mon ta­ble salt. “The crys­tals are like di­a­monds.”

Be­fore en­ter­ing the fac­tory, which sits on a for­mer mango plan­ta­tion next to Thaung’s fam­ily home, I am asked to re­move my shoes, step bare­foot into a bleach trough, put on some fresh flipflops, and don a white lab coat. “We have a big fo­cus on hy­giene here,” Thaung ex­plains later as we watch one worker care­fully sort­ing salt crys­tals by color in a chilled room and an­other in a sur­gi­cal mask pack­ing the stuff into zi­plock bags. Work­ing with a hand­ful of salt-farm­ing fam­i­lies, she sells her fleur de sel to su­per­mar­kets and or­ganic shops in Phnom Penh, and hopes to soon se­cure a dis­trib­u­tor in Ja­pan. In 2019, she plans to ap­ply for Kampot salt to get EU Pro­tected Geo­graph­i­cal In­di­ca­tion sta­tus, a des­ig­na­tion that Kampot pep­per re­ceived in 2016.

Af­ter the fac­tory tour, Bun and Thaung drive me out to see some of their salt fields—shim­mer­ing ponds of packed clay that stretch all the way to the sea. As we bump along, Thaung tells me that she used to work in the ho­tel busi­ness in Phnom Penh, but re­turned to Kampot be­cause “I want to help the farm­ers and in­vest in their ex­pe­ri­ence … and be­cause it’s so peace­ful here.” But when we pass a road­side clear­ing, she sighs. “They’re go­ing to build con­dos here. Be­fore, Kampot was sleep­ing. Now it’s awak­ened.”

Kampot is also the jump­ing-off point for nearby Kep, and trav­el­ers who come to this slice of south­ern Cam­bo­dia usu­ally build both towns into their itin­er­ary. Kep was a buzzing sea­side re­treat un­der the French and a play­ground for the Kh­mer elite (in­clud­ing the late King Norodom Si­hanouk, then a movie-mak­ing prince) in the 1960s, but was left a ghost town by the Kh­mer Rouge. Of its orig­i­nal 1,000-plus vil­las, well less than 200 are still stand­ing, of which per­haps a cou­ple dozen are fit for restora­tion. There’s only been a steady sup­ply of elec­tric­ity for the last decade or so.

If Kampot is awak­en­ing, Kep is still a very long way from its Si­hanouk-era hey­day as the so-called “St.-Tropez of South­east Asia.” But it does have its at­trac­tions. Apart from a kilo­me­ter-long beach (filled these days with sand im­ported from Si­hanoukville), there’s a rightly fa­mous crab mar­ket, aban­doned vil­las to pon­der, and a na­tional park with some fine hik­ing trails. And un­like Kampot, there are also some ex­tremely hand­some places to stay. The best of these is Knai Bang Chatt, which opened in 2006 amid a clutch of mod­ernist vil­las built in the 1960s by pro­tégés of Vann Moly­vann, the first Cam­bo­dian ar­chi­tect to be trained in Eu­rope (at Paris’s es­teemed École Na­tionale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, where he was taught by Le Cor­bus­ier). En­com­pass­ing Phu Quoc and Bokor, the views from the pool are cer­tainly easy on the eye. As are the min­i­mal­ist in­te­ri­ors, with walls en­livened by nat­u­ral pig­men­ta­tion (they must be re­painted ev­ery year) and rooms dot­ted with In­dochi­nese an­tiques and cab­i­nets. Just next door is Villa Romonea, a white­washed gem de­signed by an­other of Vann Moly­vann’s col­leagues that re­opened eight years ago as a six­room hide­away. Both are bliss­fully quiet, and the idea of ram­pant growth spread­ing down here seems like high fan­tasy.

Back in Kampot that evening, I join one of the nu­mer­ous sun­set cruises that de­part from ei­ther side of The Fish Mar­ket. I find a small clear­ing on the boat’s top deck, mostly pop­u­lated by Cam­bo­di­ans who have come early to clink bot­tles of lo­cal beer and nib­ble on skew­ers of beef. From the river I can fully ap­pre­ci­ate Kampot’s lowrise pro­file, and won­der how long it will last; a ho­tel tower ris­ing by the Old Bridge is al­ready taller than any­thing else in town.

As we ap­proach a low bridge, one of the boat at­ten­dants barks some­thing in Kh­mer and then in English tells us to lie flat on the deck. When we emerge un­scathed on the other side, ev­ery­one starts laugh­ing and cheer­ing. But fur­ther down­stream, as night closes in and the river nar­rows, the crowd grows quiet, ab­sorbed by the spec­ta­cle of it all. Apart from the gen­tle rum­ble of the boat’s en­gine and the dis­tant thrum of dance mu­sic, the only sounds are from the jun­gle. And so we drift through the dark­ness and the cool night air. It’s calm­ing, much like the rest of Kampot. For now. But who am I to be­grudge a town its progress?

Right: Sun­bathers soak­ing up the af­ter­noon light on the float­ing jetty of a guest­house be­side Kampot's Tuek Chhu River.

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