Tucked in at the foot of the Elephant Mountains along the Kampong Bay River, the provincial capital town of Kampot is a flashback to Cambodia’s colonial past.
The pace of life remains unhurried. The wide boulevards give ample room to the occasional desultory traveler. And the events on any given day pass by as lazily as the waters of the meandering Kampong Bay River.
Bicycle still makes an ideal means for transportation in Kampot. Rich with French-colonial and Chinese architecture, the leisurely pace of a pushbike offers a perfect viewing speed to soak in the town’s architectural details.
Unlike Phnom Penh and many other parts of the country, the quiet ways of Kampot and the southern coast have so far mostly escaped the country’s current building boom.
And while the coast’s idyllic ways are not under any grave threat just yet, the boom of development continues to encroach, however slowly, and the march of modernity remains undeniable.
Bokor Hill Station
No place is the increasing pace of development more apparent than Bokor Hill Station. Built by the French in the 1920s, Bokor was once a playground for royal family members and nouveau riche high-rollers.
In its heyday during the 50s and 60s the city on top of Bokor Mountain played home to hotels and dance halls, the king’s holiday palace, a wat, a Catholic church, and a school, among other places. Looking down into the gulf of Thailand at the edge of it all stood the city’s raison d’etre — The Bokor Palace Casino and Hotel.
But the rise of political instability in the early 1970s chased even the most determined punters away. The casino took its last bet in 1972. Beyond a few pitched battles during the war, the mountain remained abandoned until January, when Bokor’s played-out fortunes found a new gambler.
Sokimex, one of Cambodia’s largest companies, announced in January a plan to rebuild the Bokor Hill Station from the ground up. Massive changes are now underway.
Slated to cost $1 billion over 15 years, the Sokimex plan includes demolishing the old casino and building a new 3,000 square-foot casino to replace the old one. Additionally, the company expects to build about 1,000 residential villas and condominiums, plus markets and gardens to support the community.
What Kep lacks in terms of beaches it more than makes up for in charming colonial character.
Like Kampot, Kep is a quiet town marked by its ageing colonial villas and delicious, fresh seafood.
Yet the face of Kep, too, is changing. In places the town’s derelict French villas are now being turned into luxury residences and hotels. Places like Knai Bang Chatt are the new face of high-end tourism on Cambodia’s southern coast.
Billed as a “private resort,” Knai Bang Chatt is a luxurious secluded get-away catering to the very top end of the Kep tourism market. The resort comprises three beautifully restored villas — each with million-dollar views overlooking the sea — and boasts the country’s only sailing club.
Property prices in the area are increasing, and others are sure to follow in Knai Bang Chatt’s grandiose foot prints.
The Merits of Development
Tourism and development often get a bad rap by outsiders. But not everything that gets labeled “development” need have negative effects — far from it.
An influx of tourist and development dollars often bring with it the small luxuries unknown to remote outposts, as the explosion of new restaurants along the river in Kampot will testify.
Not long ago Kampot was home to only one hotel, and the town’s singular restaurant required reservations made 24 hours in advance.
A walk along the Kampot riverfront today reveals half a dozen cafes, every one of them serving food. Jasmine is one of the best values in the world for global nouvelle cuisine. Other notable eateries include Rikitikitavi, Bokor Mountain Lodge, Rusty Keyhole and Little Garden Bar.
Around the corner by the market is the wonderfully cute Epic Arts Cafe, whose proceeds go toward helping disabled children through art. Boddhi Villa and Bissful resorts, both located on the other side of the river, offer quieter places away from the town center.
With just enough new places to make it interesting, yet not enough to make it crowded, Cambodia’s southern coast appears on the verge of recapturing some of its faded glory. Some might even argue that those days are now.
What’s certain is that in a few years the “tourist city” atop Bokor will have filled the area with madding crowds, and travelers in the future will lament missing the quieter days gone by.