Exotic Breaks: Kampot, Cambodia

This country is one of the year's must-see far-flung destinations. Andrew Spooner explores the faded grandeur of Kampot

The mist is swirling as we arrive, the thick jungle dripping with sticky moisture. The road to the top has been a mess of potholes and muddy rivulets; a 15-mile journey has turned into a two-hour epic. The dense cloud clears and I glimpse a giant, weathered edifice: Bokor. "This used to be a Khmer Rouge camp," says my Cambodian guide and driver, Cheung Try.

Once, the remote destination of Bokor was one of the jewels of French Indochina. Set on the edge of a 4,000ft plateau at the centre of the Elephant Mountains, this leisure complex of grand casino and hotels was the resort of choice for well-to-do French colonialists. The altitude created a cooling climate, offering relief from the heat of Phnom Penh.

The casino is big, cast over four floors, with terraces, balconies and ballroom. The walls are riveted with bullet holes and worn into a greying organic state by years of damp. "The Khmer Rouge used to shoot at the Vietnamese from here," says Try.

To get to Bokor most visitors base themselves in the small town of Kampot, 20 miles to the east of Bokor and three hours to the south of Phnom Penh. "Kampot used to be the most important port for the French in this part of Indochina," says Try, as we arrive in this dreamy riverside town. "Some of the buildings are very old," he adds, pointing to a factory building which he claims was built in 1820.

I don't know if Try's dates are right but what is apparent is the mouldering charm of the run of French villas, shops and walkways. There are even mini boulevards and an abandoned covered market. The town feels like a decaying open-air museum.

My room for the night is at the Bokor Mountain Lodge, a delightful old French villa set by the Prek Kamping Bay River and run by a New Zealand Maori expat, Eric Karatau. "I took this place over about six months ago, so we are still getting things together," says Karatau.

What is already together is the location. With a soothing breeze off the river and great views back to Bokor and the Elephant mountains, I feel ready to unwind. "This is a great riverfront," says Karatau. "There are quite a few places opening and foreigners moving in. We're getting a bit of an international vibe going."

The riverfront is lined with antique French villas, some still abandoned. Several have been taken over and turned into eateries and bars complementing Kampot's languid atmosphere.

Despite its lazy feel, Kampot is still an important trading town, and the market doesn't disappoint. There are smiling ladies lounging in hammocks proffering rumps of pork and buffalo; tiny Khmer tobacco sellers, just about visible behind mountains of leaves. Buckets of exotic fish and acres of fresh fruit add astonishing colour

I head for the river with goodies bought from the market. The dramatic skyline evokes memories of Bokor's dark beauty and Cambodia's painful past. As I soak up the view and the juice from a fresh mango, local children begin to tease me mercilessly. It is moments like this that make travel worthwhile.



HOW TO GET THERE

Travelmood (08700 664556; travelmood.com) offers return flights to Phnom Penh with Malaysia Airlines from £629. The Bokor Mountain Lodge in Kampot (00 855 33 932314; bokorlodge. com) offers rooms from £8 per night. Andrew Spooner travelled in Cambodia with Red Raid motorcycle tours (motorcycletourscambodia. com), which offers motorcycle rental from £22 per day and organised tours from £50 per day.

Further reading 'A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam' by Norman Lewis (Eland, £12.99)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    Day In a Page

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate