A sharp twist was enough to crack the hardened carapace of the fried crab. It also bent the tines of the fork. When we saw the size of the finger bowl we knew this would be a hands on meal and any illusions of delicate dining were soon forgotten. Without crab crackers, the creative use of fingers and forks was required to extract the succulent pepper infused crab meat. I even managed to cut a finger wrestling with a razor sharp claw. Despite the challenge of eating crab, and the risk of injury, Kampot Pepper Crab was our favourite Cambodian dish.
After several weeks of exploring ancient temples and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge it was time to slow things down in Kampot on Cambodia's small but perfectly formed coast. The French colonial shophouses that line the riverfront of this sleepy town are packed with cafes and restaurants that cater almost exclusively to the burgeoning expat and tourist population. We found it a welcome retreat from the party atmosphere in some of Cambodia's other hotspots.
Kampot's Famous Products
Kampot Province is well known for two crops. The first and most famous is Kampot pepper, one of the country's biggest exports. With a legacy spanning more than 700 years, it's unsurprising that pepper turns up in a lot of local cooking. Instead of drying and grinding the pepper, dishes are often garnished with whole stalks of fresh green peppercorns. Although we found the taste overpowering in some dishes, it perfectly balanced the sweet sauce of our Kampot Pepper Crab.
Kampot Pepper Crab
The main attraction for a lot of Kampot's foreign visitors however is the region's second crop, Marijuana. This is almost as common a garnish as the peppercorns. Traditionally, Khmer cooking includes marijuana, for the flavour of course. This has led to fairly relaxed laws on possessing small quantities for cooking and medicinal use. These special concessions do not apply to foreigners and smoking marijuana is illegal for everyone. In practice however, the rules seem flexible. A significant proportion of local restaurants openly advertise happy pizzas, happy shakes and a number of other 'ecstatic' offerings. We saw plenty of people openly skinning up in parks and cafes and our hostel's bar even sold pre-rolled joints.
So, What Is There To Do In Kampot?
Although there are a few tourist attractions, Kampot is primarily a place to take a break from the world and, according to a tripping kayaker we encountered, reality. Google lists the Durian Roundabout as the number one attraction in Kampot. This aptly named sculpture is no more than a giant durian in the middle of a busy roundabout. Although it is surprisingly photogenic, Kampot does have more to offer.
Kampot's Night Markets
After dark, two night markets entertain local families and visitors alike. With all the usual food and clothes stalls, we found the main night market in the centre of town quite generic. Down by the river however, the colourful Borkor night market was a lot more fun. We watched rollerbladers cruising around the skate park and jealously admired the kids driving floating jetski dodgems. Sadly, these weren't big enough for adults. There was even a karaoke stage but we didn't see anyone brave enough to perform.
Sunset Cruising on Preaek Tuek Chhu River
A highlight of our time in Kampot was a sunset cruise on the river. We set sail as dusk approached, just in time to see the brightly coloured boats of the fishing fleet heading out to sea. Relaxing on deck with our sundowners, we watched the sun sink behind Mount Bokor as the sky turned golden. After the last light had faded, the cruise had one more treat in store. Along the riverbank, tiny pinpricks of green light flashed sporadically in the trees. As our eyes adjusted, the eerie glow of the fireflies became more apparent, the perfect way to finish off our cruise.
Despite the Durian Roundabout's obvious charm, there is more to Kampot. The Old Market building is now full of cafes and restaurants and we whiled away several sunny afternoons there. Across the road, the old Fish Market has reopened as an excellent seafood restaurant. Sunsets are a big deal too. Most people will enjoy a sundowner either from the comfort of a river cruise or along the riverbank during happy hour. Kampot is also a good base for visiting the former French holiday resort on Mount Bokor, as well as being a pleasant place to relax.
The Fishing Fleet
Kampot Travel Tips
Tours of Bokor Hill Station often include tickets for a sunset river cruise. Bear this in mind before booking a separate cruise.
Unless you're staying in the centre of town, there may not be street lights on your walk home. It is advisable to bring a torch, if only to placate the local dogs. We found they were much less aggressive when they could see who was passing by.
How To Get To Kampot
Unless you want a very long ride on a motorbike from Phnom Penh, it's probably best to take a bus to Kampot. In Cambodia, we used both Giant Ibis and Sorya bus services. Both were good. Giant Ibis offers a more comfortable service but Sorya tend to be cheaper.