This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.
Heading to Cambodia, I had absolutely no plans. I booked my first night in Phnom Penh, and that was pretty much it. I knew I’d make it up to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, but I had no idea what other wonders Cambodia had to offer!
Talk about traveling without a plan.
Exploring With No Plan
Cambodia was my first major trip without a guidebook. I pinned a few articles on Pinterest about Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields, but other than that I did no research whatsoever. I had no idea how the country was structured and I had no plan for a general route.
For a serial planner like me, this trip was a huge step. While it would’ve been nice to know that Koh Rong has no Internet or ATMs, other than that my trip actually went very well. The best part of my trip planning? Trusting the advice of a dude in my hostel and a random local on a bus and booking a ticket to Kampot and Kep.
Locals and Expats Love Kampot and Kep!
My first day in Phnom Penh, I met a long-term expat in my hostel. I picked his brain on travel in Cambodia, and after bashing Sihanoukville for a solid twenty minutes, he told me I had to visit Kampot and Kep. Later on my bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, a local mountain biking guide told me the same thing. If both a local and a long-term expat are recommending Kampot and Kep it’s a sign. I had to go!
All throughout my trip, I kept mentioning Kampot and Kep to fellow travelers and hostel friends. No one had ever heard of it! That scared me a little as a solo traveler, but I was convinced. It had to be good right?!
Apparently, my enthusiasm is contagious and I unwittingly convinced a bunch of other people to visit Kampot and Kep after me. One of my friends from Siem Reap even arrived in Kampot while I was there. She messaged me asking to meet up and it turns out we were both staying at the same hostel! When I saw her message, rather than responding I snuck around the hostel until I found her. SURPRISE!
Since Kampot and Kep are so close together, my original plan was to stay in one place and do a day trip to the other. After asking around, I decided to stay in Kep, the beach town with amazing crab. I booked my ticket from a travel agent on Koh Rong and thought I was set. You’d think I would have
You’d think I would have learned my lesson with Cambodian travel agencies, but apparently, I was in for another surprise…
Going to the Wrong City!
I thought I’d have a solid two hours to kill from the time the ferry reached Sihanoukville from Koh Rong until the time I had to be on my bus, but I was immediately approached by people from bus companies, one of which was a man from my company. He offered to drive me to the bus station for free, so of course, I accepted.
It wasn’t until I got to the bus station that I was informed my ticket was for Kampot, not Kep! I had no idea because the entire ticket was in Cambodian.
I had no idea because the entire ticket was in Cambodian. Apparently, the travel agent had made a mistake and booked me a ticket to the wrong city. It wasn’t a huge deal, and I decided to go with the flow. It was obviously fate I ended up going to Kampot.
Besides, I had an hour to research hostels in Kampot and find a place to stay.
Where to Stay in Kampot
About five minutes after discovering my ticket was to Kampot instead of Kep, a minivan pulled up full of people. “Get on!” they shouted to me. “There’s space! jump on now!”
What?? I didn’t know anything about Kampot and I had no idea where to stay once I arrived.
Hopefully, I can find wifi…
After a two-hour crammed minibus ride, we finally arrived in Kampot. I decided to tag along with two British girls to their hostel, Mad Monkey because I had no idea where else to go and they said it was affordable and had a pool! Thankfully they had a bed for me, and the hostel ended up being awesome.
Not only was it clean and new, the vibe was great. The hostel itself was a somewhat backpacker party hostel, so it was easy to meet people and have a good time. But Kampot itself doesn’t have a large backpacker area or a huge party scene. This meant I could have a great time at a really social hostel, but once I stepped outside, I was in a residential area of Kampot, right near the river.
I really enjoyed escaping backpacker madness for a much more relaxed, less touristy place.
Kampot is one of those places I really wished I had more time for. Especially since my hostel, Mad Monkey, organizes fun trips to the river every Friday for a Vang Vieng-esque afternoon of tubing with less alcohol-induced deaths and more fun water toys! I
also really wish I had time to spend a few full days in Kep at the beach stuffing my face with crab. Next time!
Epic Kampot Day Trip
The two British girls and I quickly organized an epic tuk-tuk day trip to salt and pepper farms, the Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple, and Kep beach. We rented a tuk-tuk for the day from our hostel, but I met a few other people who did the day excursion on motorbikes. Had I known I probably would’ve opted for that!
Our tuk-tuk driver was great though, and he installed speakers into his tuk-tuk so we could blast music the entire ride. Best tuk-tuk driver ever.
Heads up: You can also rent a motorbike instead of taking a tuk-tuk if you want to get adventurous!
Kampot Salt Flats
Our first stop was Kampot’s famous salt flats. We were able to watch the locals harvesting salt into little piles to be raked into a huge pile in a shed. I also may or may not have eaten some salt off the ground. Don’t judge me.
Don’t judge me.
Kampot is famous for its peppercorns that come in red, black and white but grow green. Kampot pepper is really zesty, and many of my European friends complained it was too “spicy” for them. It’s not spicy, just strong!
I absolutely love Kampot pepper, and the locals put it on everything. One dish, in particular, beef lok lak, serves a dipping sauce of Kampot pepper, salt, garlic, and lime. This dish is tied with fish amok for my favorite Cambodian food.
At the pepper farm, we learned about the different types of peppercorns and headed up to a shop to purchase some of our own. Of course, I bought a package of crushed garlic, peppercorns, and salt that I can use to make the dipping sauce. Just add lime!
If you’re looking to buy some cheap pepper, steer clear of these stores and wait till you get to Kep. They sell them in small baggies on the side of the road outside all of the seafood restaurants.
Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple
Next, our driver took us to the cave temple. To be honest, the temple was nothing too special, just a small temple in a cave. If you’re just here to see the temple do not get a guide. You’ll be paying for five minutes of a teenage boy pointing out rock formations that look like animals.
However, if you want to explore the cave, you definitely have to get a guide.
To be honest, exploring this cave was probably one of the most ridiculous/ sketchy things I’ve ever done while traveling.
As we’re standing there in the temple cave thinking “that’s it?”, our guide pointed to a small hole in the side of the cave and said: “Get in!”
After a bit more encouragement, the three of us climbed through the tiny hole. We spent the next half an hour or so climbing through the sketchiest cave I’ve ever seen.
The cave was pitch black, and the group of us used our phones to illuminate the path in front of us. There was also one point where we had to jump from a high ledge onto a sloped floor. The guide kept telling us to “slide down”, but it was basically just a straight drop. After I threw myself off the ledge and almost wiped out, he let the other girls step down onto his leg.
Our young guide was also a little cheeky a**hole who poked fun at us the entire time. He’d run away with the flashlight, laugh when we tripped, and generally took a lot of enjoyment out of the fact that we were freaking out.
So… long story short, the cave was definitely the most entertaining portion of my day.
Seriously, if you come to this cave, use a travel headlamp. Using smartphones to illuminate our path probably wasn’t the best idea…
Relaxing at Kep Beach
Our last stop was to Kep beach for a little swimming and crab eating. The three of us were stupid and didn’t wear swimsuits, but thankfully I wasn’t wearing lacy see-through underwear or anything, so I waded around in my undies and tucked my shirt up.
While Kep Beach isn’t the nicest beach I’ve seen in the world, the water is really warm and perfect for swimming. The beach was also almost deserted in high season which is a pretty rare find for SE Asia.
Kep is where the locals go on vacation, and not many tourists come, meaning you’ll have the lovely beach all to yourself!
Kep Crab is the Best Crab
After an hour or so at the beach, our tuk-tuk driver took us to the pier for a giant crab lunch. I ordered the crab with Kampot pepper (of course) and it was amazing! I’m pretty good at eating crab from my time in Ningbo (they love crab there!), and I know how to break open a crab shell with my hands, and get all the meat out with my teeth and fingers.
The other girls weren’t quite as into it as I was, saying it was difficult to eat. I just tuned them out. it was amazing.
Best crab of my entire life.
If you’re not going with a tuk-tuk, shop around and try to find the best price. All of the restaurants are amazing and have great views of the ocean and locals scouring for crabs in the rocks.
If you have time I’d definitely suggest spending a day or two in Kep. Relax at the beach, lay in one of the beachside hammocks and eat your fill of cheap, tasty crab!
A Firefly River Cruise
After I returned from my day screaming in caves and gorging on crab, I got a small group together to take a boat along the river to see the fireflies. They offered both sunset and firefly cruises, but honestly, who wouldn’t want to see fireflies?
We set off as the sun was setting, and were handed a complimentary beer as we boarded. I think we got an amazing deal because we had both a sunset and the fireflies on our boat tour. Score!
Once the sun had finally set, we entered a deserted, tree-lined area of the river. It was pitch-black, minus the stars twinkling overhead. Then we saw it… little lights floating in the trees. We sailed right up to them and watched for a few minutes as the tiny lights moved around the trees and bushes.
It was pretty magical watching the fireflies float around. While they were a bit far from the boat, we definitely got to see a few different patches of them. The nerd in me liked to pretend they were tiny fairies!
Get yourself to Kampot and Kep
While I wouldn’t necessarily classify Kampot and Kep as “off the beaten path”, they are definitely a bit off the tourist trail compared to other places like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Koh Rong.
If you’re sick and tired of living in “backpackerville”, this is the place to go.
If you don’t want to stay in a hostel, you can always rent a cheap bungalow with a friend along the river in Kampot too!
How to Get To Kampot
You can easily take a minivan bus from Sihanoukville, which will take you about 2 hours. You can also take a bus from Phnom Penh, which takes about 4-5 hours. I took both of these routes and had no problem. My bus was even on time both times!
Have you visited Kampot and Kep? What do you think?