The Kampot Express Breaks Cambodia’s Quite
Chartreuse rice paddies and tree-covered hills ease by as I gaze out the window on the four-hour train journey from Phnom Penh to the southern riverside town of Kampot. Arriving at the tumbledown station, before bumping along a dirt track in an outsized tuk tuk, I’m prepared for the possibility that Kampot is little more than a rural backwater. But the approach belies the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of this emerging destination, with a boom of new cafe, bar and restaurant openings propelling this historic port forward.
Set on the banks of the winding Praek Tuek Chhu River in Cambodia’s south. Kampot has long attracted foreigners, from the Malaysian and Chinese merchants plying their wares before French colonizers stamped their presence on the port town, to the Americans, Aussies and Europeans who are making it their home now, with a growing number of creative-types drawn to the city’s laidback vibe.
The days of the Khmer Rouge are finally behind it (Kampot was one of the regime’s last strongholds until the mid-1990s), and the delightfully restored Royal Railway trains began running again from the capital last April, with bright yellow and blue exteriors, pull-down windows and comfortable vinyl seats offering a charming way to journey towards a much-changed Kampot. Today you’ll find international standard restaurants tucked into crumbling French colonial building’s, attractive shop fronts that peer onto the faded beauty of the tree-lined riverfront, and cute cafes that add sparkle to the town’s languid pace. While world- famous among foodies for its pepper, Kampot receives few visitors compared to Cambodia’s temples and beaches. But with anew literary festival, a range cuisines on offer and its bucolic surrounds ripe for exploration, travelers should visit soon, before it truly takes off.
From the outside, there is little to distinguish Twenty Three from the dozens of other restaurants housed in the colonial-era building’s that line the streets of Kampot. But the unassuming eatery has flair where it matters most: in the kitchen. Since opening in May last year, head chef Owen Kaagman has quickly carved out a reputation in the town’s dining scene with perfectly balanced dishes such as the smoked mackerel pate appetizer and roasted sea bass with cauliflower puree main, which I wash down with a glass of white wine at lunch, followed by a decadent chocolate-and-salted caramel pot for dessert.
Trained in high-end London restaurants including the Michelin- starred Medlar, Kaagman now works with two domestic stoves and substitutes cold-climate vegetables with whatever approximations he can find in the local market. “It’s been a massive learning curve in terms of adapting,” he says. But while the potholed streets of sleepy Kampot are along way from London’s fine-dining’ scene, that’s just the way he and co-owner Jeremy Ashby like it. “It’s a beautiful, sleepy little town,” Ashby says, “but it’s getting busier now; you can see it happening.”
A sunset cocktail on the riverfront at the centrally located Fishmarket is the perfect way to wind down at the end of the day. Hugh Munro, who spent four years refurbishing the 1930s Art Deco building before opening the restaurant early last year, admits the town’s growth spurt has taken him by surprise. “I thought we would be ahead of the curve, but in the last six months or so we’ve had five great new places open,” he says as green-hued fishing boats putter along the river behind him. “And it’s only going to get better.”
Cafe Espresso is a Kampot institution that last year moved to one half of a cavernous former salt-storage warehouse outside the Old Market area where most other tourist-oriented businesses are clustered. “This is one of the last abandoned industrial buildings,” says Angus Whelan, who owns the popular spot with his wife, Kiara Notaras. “I had to do all of the plumbing’, electrics, water in, water out. It was a challenge.” The update was worth the work: the minimalist- industrial feel in the space is balanced by a friendly atmosphere (dogs and children are most welcome) and hearty, modern brunch fare such as the pork tacos followed by ricotta- and fig-jam pancakes that I devoured there on a recent lazy morning.
As the trickle of travelers to the town has turned into a stream, this high standard of cuisine is what people are now expecting, according to Angus, who also recently opened Kampot Espresso Bar in the center of town. Few businesses now rely on the backpacker trade of so- cent beers and “happy” pizzas (toppings mixed with marijuana) that were once Kampot staples. “We’ve got to the point that unless you’re doing something new and original, you’re not lasting,” he says.
One of the first creative initiatives that attracted visitors was Epic Arts, which began with a cafe that opened in 2006 to empower the local disabled community by providing them with employment opportunities and the chance to experiment with different art forms. Last year, the organization started staging—in the town’s iconic Old Royal Cinema—its well-received Come Back Brighter, alive telling of the country’s story, featuring some dancers who have disabilities. Shows will resume in December.
The Kampot Arts and Music Association, established a couple of years ago by the famed rock n’ roll band Cambodian Space Project and operating out of a crumbling colonial building that once served as a bordello, is providing a space for aspiring musicians to hone their myriad skills.
More recently band founder Julien Poulson was part of a team that setup the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, which had its first edition in late 2015 and has proved a rallying point for members of the country’s literary set. As well as being the staging’ point for several book launches, last year’s event fostered a relaxed atmosphere by including music workshops and oral storytelling.
Wandering along the riverfront, I stumble upon Atelier, a gorgeous store-meets- eatery designed by French Cambodian architect Antoine Meinnel and run by his brother, David. Setup to showcase the famed Kampot pepper grown on their family’s plantation, every element of the space has been meticulously thought out, from the mosaic patterned floor tiles to the soft-leather menu covers. The pepper culture started around the 13th century, in the Angkorian era, according to the writings of Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan; the Meinnel family only purchased their farm a couple of years ago after returning to Cambodia, following the civil war that ripped the country apart and scattered its citizens around the world. “Kampot pepper is a really interesting product, because [cultivation] knowledge nearly disappeared in the dark period, and there’s really a lot of knowledge in Cambodia,” David says. Atelier hopes to seamlessly blend the new with the old, atrend that’s becoming de rigueur in Kampot.
Next door to Cafe Espresso I meet Kunthear Mov, who moved from her hometown in nearby Takeo province in 2008. She co-founded ethical clothing label Dorsu after spending four years working in one of Cambodia’s many garment factories. “We can employ people in fair conditions so women don’t have to work just any job,” Mov says. She now oversees a team of 16 who produce the label’s classic, comfortable clothing lines that are sold both online and at a reduced rate from their Kampot showroom.
This creative vibe is increasingly attracting people from all over the world, Denise Ruygrok tells me at Rikitikitavi, my accommodation for two nights in Kampot. Along with her husband, she opened the comfortable, Asian- influenced hotel in a converted rice barn the same year that Epic Arts sprang up. “It was love at first sight. There was nothing then,” she says. “The atmosphere is the same, but so much has changed: there are paved roads now, restaurants, hotels, shops. Kampot has progressed.” I take in that progress as I stroll one last time along the riverbank before departing for Phnom Penh. Pepper-infused ice cream in hand. I muse over how classic Kampot and its evolving charms now manage to mingle in such sweet combination.