Every morning I settle into a big rattan chair sipping weapons-grade Northern Cambodian coffee watching a parade of monks in pumpkin robes, street vendors selling baguettes and crepes, and trios of uniformed school-kids balancing on a single bike on the wide riverside promenade. Then I grab my own clunky Chinese-built, dollar-a-day-rental-bike-with-a-basket and explore the dusty, pot-holed streets of Kampot on Cambodia's south coast. Lining the small grid of roads is a remarkable collection of faded French colonial shophouses, crumbling villas and grand administrative buildings. Some are on the verge of collapse, others are dressed up and chic again. It feels like I've stepped back into the streets of French colonial Indochina.
Until the 1950s Kampot was the country's biggest port; the French built more than 500 colonial buildings. Kep, 28 kilometres away, was the beach resort for French expats in the 1960s – called Kep-sur-Mer, the Cambodian Riviera – until it was abandoned, its villas gobbled up by jungle during the occupation of the Khmer Rouge regime which killed almost two-million people
Over the past decade this forgotten corner of French colonial Cambodia has become a popular weekend getaway for Phnom Penh residents. The towns and tropical islands are still rough around the edges, with the exception of several dozen charming guest houses, small resorts and restaurants run by colourful expats. So far it's off-the-radar – except for adventurous, mostly European, travellers, and backpackers. But it won't be for long.
There's not a lot to do in Kampot and that's its charm: There's virtually no shopping besides a traditional market, a used book store and a couple of shops. A favourite pastime is chilling-out over a frosty Angkor beer and eating local seafood. Kampot is also much safer than pick-pocket prone Phnom Penh – even at night, when riverside establishments perk to life and families saunter the waterfront promenade snacking from pushcarts. The former French presence lingers as men play boules at the roadside and Edith Piaf murmurs from tinny loudspeakers.
In the relative cool of morning and afternoon, I go exploring on my bike and come across fishing villages tucked among the mangroves and an informal fish market on a shore where fresh squid, prawns and crab are cooked up for breakfast on the spot. For the most part, the biggest cycling hazards are scraggly roosters and bare-bummed toddlers. Some days I end up sipping sundowners – sunset cocktails – with the pierced and dreadlocked crowd at waterside backpacking outposts a couple of kilometres from town, where you can rent kayaks and windsurf on the river.
Or, at 4 p.m., I'd spend $5 for a two-hour, no-frills sunset cruise in a “long-tailed” – long-propped – boat heading with a few passengers up or down river into tropical wilderness and fishing villages.
One of the area's biggest attractions is Bokor Mountain Hill Station, a once elegant 1920s French casino and mountain-top resort. Abandoned in the 1940s during the war of Independence from the French, it's an eerie place, often shrouded in fog. The grand buildings where glitterati sipped Champagne now stand empty, gathering a surreal coat of orange lichen. Despite this being within Bokor National Park, in late 2011 a new road was completed to access a massive summit development which will include a casino, a 300-plus room hotel, golf course and something called Buddha Religion Land (local press presume it to be a religion-themed park). Thankfully, the nearby colonial ruins are also being restored. There are hikes to waterfalls and on rare occasions wild elephants and other jungle animals are spotted.
I hire a tuk-tuk for a day – a tiny, motorized open-air chariot – to take me around the rice-paddy countryside and on to Kep. There are coastal salt fields, then hillside pepper plantations where high quality Kampot pepper (which filled the grinders of the smartest Paris dining rooms before the Khmer Rouge sent everyone to the rice fields) is seeing a revival: white, red and black Kampot pepper is back on European and Asian gourmet shelves.
Branches of fresh green peppercorns appear on my plate at the Crab Market, a cluster of rustic restaurants on stilts over the water that I discover in Kep. They're a key ingredient in my lunch – a rich coconut curry sauce atop a pile of crabs. Outside the open-air windows, fishermen keep crabs fresh in floating wicker baskets until they're ordered.
Kep isn't a town, it's several dozen resorts and bungalows from low- to high-end dotting the jungle hillside and the kilometre-long beach (created by the French with barged-in sand). Cambodian King Sihanouk's once lavish but now abandoned retreat, still riddled with wartime bullet holes, faces the beach. It's easy to spot some of the Le Corbusier-inspired villas from the days when Kep was a jet-set hideaway. Mango trees grow through angular, flat roofs and roots ribbon across architectural details and through windows. I prowl, climbing minimalist staircases and stepping over patties left by wandering cows in sunken living rooms that remind me of party scenes from Pink Panther movies. I can't get the tune What's New Pussycat? out of my head.
I finish up taking a 30-minute boat ride from the Kep pier to spend the day on tiny Koh Tonsay-Rabbit Island. It's a tropical paradise of white sand beaches, palm trees and a few thatched-roof bungalows for rent by local families who serve up killer Kampot pepper-grilled seafood. It feels like the middle of nowhere, but as I sip my Angkor, toes wriggling in the sand, I can see a big new hotel on the waterfront of Kep that is about to open. And I've been hearing rumours for days, of a five-star resort for Rabbit Island, another casino outside Kampot. I'm glad I made it here before they did.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Kampot is about three hours by comfortable, air-conditioned bus from Phnom Penh. Most hotels will arrange tickets and a hotel pick-up. $6 (U.S.), one way
Where to stay: Rikitikitavi in Kampot has seven stylish rooms from $40 (U.S.) double, breakfast included. The upstairs restaurant is likely the best eatery in town. Rich beef Saraman curry is their signature dish. rikitikitavi-kampot.com
The Columns is a new boutique hotel in a multilevel row house with a French colonial atmosphere that's been elegantly retained in the high ceilinged lobby and room details. From $35 (U.S.), double, including continental breakfast. facebook.com/TheColumns
Kampot Mea Culpa is a quiet guest house and eatery away from the bustle: the house specialty is excellent pizzas freshly baked in an outdoor wood-fired brick oven. From $25 (U.S.), bicycle included. meaculpakampot.com
An upscale open-air mountainside resort in Kep, The Veranda is thatched-roofed bungalows connected with boardwalks buried in tropical greenery. Spectacular views. The inn and restaurant are popular with Phnom Penh weekenders. From $37 for a double, with breakfast. veranda-resort.com
Villa Romonea is a restored 1968 luxury villa in Kep on a large waterfront estate. Rooms from $150 (U.S.). villaromonea.com
What to do
Kimly Seafood Restaurant is the best of a cluster of seafood shacks along the main stretch of Kep waterfront known for its fresh crab and green peppercorn. Call 089-822-866.
Jolie-Jolie Beauty Salon is a rare lemongrass-scented oasis of stylish luxury in Kampot offering everything from $4 manicures and $17 facials to Swedish oil massages at very low prices. joliejolie-kampot.com
Special to The Globe and Mail