Kampot and Kep: French Fancy in Darkest Cambodia

A bevy of historical sites such as the Angkor Wat temple complex are undoubtedly the nation’s main tourist draw, but there is sufficient natural wonder and low-key hospitality off the beaten track as well

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The border of river at night in Kampot, Cambodia

As the blinding sun streams through the terraced café’s shuttered windows, I drain my espresso and gaze through shielded eyes at the imposing European villas across the meandering river. The first guilty pangs of forenoon hunger have hit and thoughts turn to the seafood delights that will form my midday repast. After paying the bill, I stroll along the quaint esplanade past street-side baguette salesmen until the heat takes its toll and the welcoming shade of a taxi beckons.

Yet this is not the French Riveria but some 6,000 miles away in the sleepy Cambodian town of Kampot. A former colonial retreat, three hours southwest of the capital Phnom Penh, the town still maintains much of the quant charm that endeared it to Gallic settlers over a century ago.

While neighboring Thailand is lauded as a tourist’s paradise, Cambodia is famed for genocide, landmines and orphans — hardly the conventional trident for a relaxing vacation. But after decades of war, the Southeast Asian kingdom isattempting to leave its turbulent history behind. A bevy of historical sites such as the Angkor Wat temple complex are undoubtedly the nation’s main tourist draw, but there is sufficient natural wonder and low-key hospitality off the beaten track as well.

Such is the case in historic Kampot, where charming restaurants and pubs intermingle with grand yet crumbling holiday homes. Further remnants of European interlopers can be found a short drive away at derelict 1920s Bokor Hill Station, set amid the misty climbs at some at 3,500 ft. Wandering the grand open chambers and spiraling staircases of these rust and lichen-imbued shells serves as an eerie reminder of a very different time. Fans of polar opposites may want to drop by the gaudy new Chinese-built casino recently constructed nearby.

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Yet rumbling stomachs are not assuaged with culture — or games of chance — and Kampot has been an ingot of Southeast Asian culinary gold since the first intrepid Europeans arrived. French gourmands swiftly realized what an unrivaled ingredient they had with the piquant local pepper. Farming these emerald pearls became a major industry, peaking with a million poles turning out 8,000 tons of pepper annually for export.

When Pol Pot’s vile Khmer Rouge seized power in the early 1970s and attempted to implant their brutal agrarian utopia, pepper was not considered much of a priority and the lush drupes made way for rice paddies. More recently, local NGOs have helped the plants return to these fertile plains, situated where the Damrei [Elephant] Mountains run into the Gulf of Thailand. Once again, Kampot pepper rules the world.

Celebrity chefs are not shy about extolling its virtues. “It has a lingering eucalyptus flavor, rather delicate, without the direct heat of most peppers,” says Raymond Blanc, owner of the Two Michelin Star restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in the U.K., who uses the seasoning in everything from quiche lorraine to boeuf bourguignon.

Personally, however, the true treasures to be plundered here are the bounties of the sea, not sod. At nearby Kep, traditionally Cambodia’s refined beach resort, fishermen haul teaming baskets of crabs and clams onto the pier and immediately plunge their catch into huge wood-fired caldrons just a fewfeet away.

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This freshly blanched fare then sells from $1/kilo from the market, or $11 for an enormous mixed seafood platter in one of the waterfront eateries. Frei Restaurant, just west of the market, specializes in tender crab stir-fried with scallions, capsicum and oodles of those pungent local greenpeppercorns. This feast is perfectly accompanied by a chilled sauvignon blanc — a decent bottle starts from $8 due to refreshingly civilized alcohol duty — and is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding eating experiences around.

Accommodation is likewise low-key but comfortable. Mea Culpa Guesthouse, just south of town by the regal Governor’s residence, hasperfectly-appointed rooms with DVD, cable television and air-conditioning from $20/double. The attached restaurant specializes in wood-fired pizzas as well as traditional Khmer delicacies.

Nearby islands offer the perfect respite for those seeking a little solitude. The cobalt waters and deserted reef-fringed beaches of KohTonsay are a long way from the overpopulated offerings of Thailand’s Andaman coast, and relaxing in one of the thatch huts restores that natural calm. Tiny plankton dance by the shore emitting tiny bursts of phosphorescence, a beguiling sight for concrete-weary urbanites.

Kampot’s finest feature, however, is its people. Despite the enduring poverty — not abject, but marked — locals remain captivatingly amiable, with delighted children swarming newcomers to practice their English. While Cambodia’s south coast lacks the wow factor of Angkor’s majestic temples, the quiet village life and natural beauty offers something much more soulful.