Cambodia Travel Diary 1: Kampot & Koh Rong Samloem

Exploring south Cambodia’s beach paradises

After a month in Vietnam, our tourist visas were up, and it was time to move onto Cambodia. From Ho Chi Minh City, we elected to try out an underused land border crossing in the south, along the coast to the small town of Kampot, rather than the well-traveled tourist trail that would take us to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. As this particular border crossing (from the Vietnamese town of Ha Tien) was lesser used by foreigners, we weren’t sure exactly what to expect. We booked a bus from downtown HCMC with the local company Futabus the night before our visas were up. We were at the bus station promptly at 6am to start our 8 hour ride. The ride was smooth enough, and we were deposited in Ha Tien without difficulty. From here, numerous taxi drivers swarmed us to offer over-priced rides to the border. Balking at the cost, we turned them all down. Fortunately, as we regrouped outside the bus station, Chris met a man in the washroom who offered us a cheap motorbike taxi ride. Score for random washroom encounters. We each hopped aboard a moto-taxi to enjoy the breezy 20 minute ride to the crossing.

Once at the checkpoint, departing Vietnam was easy and fast. Entering Cambodia was another matter however. As we walked up to the arrivals building, a young western man approached us, asking if we had any US dollars we could trade him. While US dollars are one of the two currencies accepted in Cambodia (the other being the local Riel), Cambodians are very picky about the quality of the bills; no tears, discolourations, excessive creases, or dirt of any kind are allowed, else the bills are worthless. To enter Cambodia, one must purchase a visa with crisp, fresh US bills only. Period. And this poor man we encountered at the border, stuck with a slightly inky and thus useless $20 bill, was currently in mid-border hell: unable to purchase his Cambodian visa, and unable to return to Vietnam to obtain more cash as he had already received a check-in stamp to Cambodia prior to paying. He and his partner had been waiting, trapped, for about an hour and half already. Fortunately, Chris had some pristine US cash, and after buying our own visas, we had enough leftover to swap with this guy and get him over the border. Once across, the four of us split a cab, and we arrived in Kampot just as the sun was going down (only an hour drive, fortunately).

Sunset by the river in downtown Kampot.
A lotus-pond in a park in the middle of town.

Kampot itself is a pretty small town along the banks of the Preaek Tuek river with kind of a funny vibe. Neither of us liked it at first, but it grew on us during our 4-day stay. The town is sleepy, and was hit pretty hard by covid. It has a large expat community of older white men (some with Cambodia wives, and honestly, probably a good deal just there for sex-tourism – yuk). Since the demise of the neighbouring city of Sihanoukville, which used to be a backpacker/hippy party-beach town but is now almost entirely taken over by Chinese-owned casinos, many of the expats have migrated to sleepy Kampot. There isn’t a whole lot going on in town, but the countryside is quite beautiful, especially if you time your visit with the end of the rainy season when everything is at its greenest (November). Kampot’s claims to fame are pepper farms, the nearby beach town of Kep (which in turn is famous for fresh crab), and an abandoned holiday resort on top of a mountain.

We took it easy in Kampot, renting both bicycles and motorbikes to explore the area, but also spending some time just hanging out at our hostel, Monkey Republic, which featured good food, a huge craft beer selection, and a pretty good live band on Saturday night.

Biking in the scorching hot mid-day sun to find this amazing coffee shop in the middle of nowhere. They made literally the best blueberry smoothie I have ever had in my life.

Our biggest outing was a day-trip to Kep. After failing to take our motorbikes down a muddy, washed out puddle of a dirt road to see a waterfall, we instead turned our bikes towards the dustiest road in existence, the highway to Kep. Once in town, we stopped for some drinks and fresh Kampot pepper crab by the water, a must-do activity. During our entire time in the south of Cambodia, we were hit daily with a huge rainstorm sometime in the afternoon. This day, it struck as we were departing Kep. After a brief stop huddled under shelter at a local shop, we donned raingear, threw the rain cover on the backpack, and decided to commit to a very wet bike ride home. It felt like a local experience we really should try, and it actually wasn’t so bad.

A water-side cafe in Kep.
Fresh crab served with an amazing French-inspired creamy Kampot pepper sauce.
Chris looking surprisingly dry after being hit with a rainstorm on the bike.

The highlight of our time in Kampot was a highly informative bike tour we took with a Canadian expat, Jason. Jason, a former tour guide, history buff, and amateur anthropologist, had been living in Cambodia since just before the pandemic struck, and had gone to great lengths to integrate with and truly understand the Cambodian people. In a five-hour bike tour through the countryside, he gave us a crash course in Cambodian history (and recommended our new favourite podcast for long bus rides: In the Shadows of Utopia), and helped us start to understand local beliefs, mindsets, traditions, and social structure. It was simply the best tour we have ever taken, helping us to bridge the cultural and psychological gap from where we stand as Canadians to the Khmer (Cambodian) people, and, importantly, to begin to unpack the ubiquitous national nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge.

Our time in Cambodia would be continually punctuated by discussion of the Khmer Rouge, the communist party that led the country from 1975 to 1979. The brutal totalitarian regime emptied cities, forcing the population into the country for forced agricultural labour, and resulted in a horrific mass-murder of approximately one quarter of the entire country’s population. It is an appalling and bewildering tale, and to understand how something so terrible could happen, a deep-dive into history, world-events, and Cambodian culture is required (and thus began our addiction to our new podcast mentioned above). Nearly everywhere we visited in the country was marked by the scars of the Khmer Rouge, and indeed, many of the tourist activities throughout the country are visits to sites from this infamous period in history. We’d come to spend a lot of our time in Cambodia reflecting on the madness that occurred in this seemingly peaceful, pastoral landscape.

Biking through emerald green rice fields in the idyllic countryside.
Stopping by ornate Buddhist temples.
More scenic pastoral gems by the railroad tracks.
Temples are everywhere, usually featuring groups of child-aged monks playing out front.
A thin, wooden stick is tied to the trunk of these trees. Villagers (usually daring young boys and men) will use this to climb to the top of the tree to harvest palm sugar. Scary!

The next stop in our Cambodian itinerary was a trip to Koh Rong Samloem (KRS), a small island off the southern coast of the country. KRS is reached via speedboat from one of the ports in Sihanoukville. On the recommendation of our tour guide Jason, we booked a trip to Sihanoukville from Kampot via the train (you can also go by bus, which is apparently absolutely horrendous – bumpy, hot, and slow). We took a glorious train (short and air-conditioned!) to Sihanoukville, then a quick tuk-tuk ride deposited us at the Autonomous Port, where we caught a speedboat to the island.

Waiting to catch a speedboat at the port in Sihanoukville.

Arriving in the small village of M’Pai Bay on Koh Rong Samloem, we were treated to a unique community in a beautiful setting. Much quieter and less-developed than the neighbouring Koh Rong Island (which has a party reputation these days), Koh Rong Samloem is split into half a dozen disconnected beaches, most of which require a boat to move between. While most of the beaches are dotted with resorts, we elected to stay in the Cambodian village of M’Pai Bay, which we read had a lovely backpacker scene, and more importantly, was home to a well-reviewed scuba dive shop. Our goal for KHS was for me to get my first scuba certification: Open Water. Chris, already being a Dive Master (a professional-level cert, meaning he’s worked in a dive shop and dived about a million times), planned to do some ‘fun dives’ with a guide while I chipped away at my three-day course.

The beach near the center of M’Pai Bay. Numerous little restaurants and guesthouses dot the beach.
Long Beach, a five minute walk from the main street. It’s 2 or 3 km long I heard.
Trekking down to the beach.

Unlike neighbouring Koh Rong, M’Pai Bay is definitely not developed. There is only one partially-paved road, and you won’t find widespread wifi or air-conditioning (there is cell service if you have a Cambodia SIM card though). It is not glamourous and touristy, and it doesn’t have a huge party scene. It does have a very charming and authentic village feel though, with numerous expat-run businesses interspersed with local ones. We really enjoyed the laid-back vibes and small town feel. Indeed, after starting my diving course and going to just a couple restaurants, we felt like we recognized half the people around town! Our accommodations for the week we spent on KRS – the Hornbill Guesthouse – were particularly social, with regular movie nights and a much-anticipated weekly quiz night. We felt right at home as soon as we stepped off the speedboat, perhaps because the owner of our guesthouse happened to be sitting behind us on the boat, and happily shepherded all us visitors off to our respective accommodations.

Gorgeous ocean views from a cliff-side bar. There’s a handful of bars facing the sunset in M’Pai Bay.
More ocean views as the sun goes down. Neighbouring Koh Rong Island can be seen in the distance.
Quiz night at the Hornbill also featured a chopstick skills contest, which I won! Turns out a month in Vietnam eating everything with chopsticks was great practice. Our team came third in the actual quiz part, which I feel is less important.

But the highlight of our week in M’Pai Bay was scuba diving, of course. I completed the basic Open Water course with a lovely woman from Poland. We had a lot of fun learning to dive, and I’m proud of myself for overcoming my initial terror of drowning on day one. I definitely had to push myself outside of my comfort zone, but those experiences are so valuable, and I came out of it with a handy new cert to use to explore the ocean (and another very expensive hobby). Once certified, I got to dive a handful of times with Chris as well, and we’ve since made many more plans for continuing to dive in Thailand and Indonesia later on during our trip.

Three of us heading off for a shore dive during the course. Chris snapped this photo while eating a sandwich at our favourite lunch place on the corner of the beach. That sandwich – a BLT with home-baked, thick-cut bread – became our daily ritual.
Celebrating a day of diving with the best gin and tonic in the country (made with local craft Cambodian gin). In the background, you can see the section of ocean where we spent the afternoon diving.

After completing the Open Water course, Chris and I decided to check out some of the other beaches on KRS. The downside of staying in M’Pai Bay is that there are no roads that connect it to other parts of the island; in order to access some of the famous beaches, we’d have to take a boat. While there are numerous water-taxi services, they’re a little expensive unless you put together a group of people. We learned instead that the cheapest way to beach-hop is to take the ‘slow boat’, aka: the resupply ferry. This ferry bounces back and forth between Sihanoukville on the mainland and the islands, dropping off and picking up supplies and people. With some patience, we were able to hop on early in the morning off the pier in M’Pai Bay, and arrived in Saracen Bay about 45 minutes later, all for $5 USD.

Saracen Beach, while better maintained than the beach in M’Pai Bay (which suffers a lot from plastic pollution), is full of small resorts. We found the restaurants to be a bit expensive, and felt it lacked the community charm of M’Pai. While it was nice to visit, we were happy with where we stayed. From Saracen, where we ate a quick breakfast, we walked 30 minutes along a jungle path across the island to the remote Lazy Beach, where we set up for the day. Lazy beach was perfect: hot with some shade, flawless sand, warm water, and quiet. Only one small, rustic resort operates on this beach – just enough for a few of the amenities we wanted for a day at the beach (namely, a place for lunch and drinks, and a bathroom).

Lazy Beach. We laid in the sand and drank out of coconuts. Classic.

We made our way back to Saracen in the late afternoon to catch the supply boat back to M’Pai Bay. While our morning drop-off had been quick, this time, the boat was absolutely packed with stuff. Every single business in the bay pulled up their little boat next to the big ship and began unloading their orders. We figured we were in for a long wait before departure. Fortunately, a women waiting beside us on the pier had scheduled a water-taxi pickup, which we happily joined for the same price as the slow boat. We had just enough time to land back in M’Pai and get to a restaurant for dinner when the sky opened up with the daily torrential rainstorm. Boy were we glad that we weren’t still on the slow boat!

Taking the water taxi back to M’Pai Bay in the evening.

Our visit to M’Pai Bay, as well as my first experience scuba diving, was perhaps the highlight of the Cambodian leg of our trip. However, we were in for a lot more history, plus a lot more amazing locations, at our next stop: the city of Siem Reap, to visit the unparalleled Angkor Wat, the eighth wonder of the world.

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