For a hint of Europe in Cambodia, follow the pepper trail to Kampot

Source: Shutterstock/David Bokuchava

AFTER years in the condiment wilderness, Cambodia’s spice industry, like its tourism, is on fire. 

In 2016, Kampot peppercorns achieved the coveted “geographical indication” status from the European Union (EU) giving it unique market protections enjoyed by iconic products such as Champagne from France and Parma ham from Italy.

Indeed, spend some time in Kampot and you could (almost) imagine yourself in a corner of Europe. But for way less.

There is no big name sight in this charming enclave, just a wonderful place to absorb Cambodia’s je ne sais quoi. Perched on glassy river waters, the restaurants and boutique experiences here are some of the country’s finest.

Hotels with sweeping ceilings and five-star touches abound and they certainly won’t break the bank. Try The Columns for a French colonial feel.

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The main attraction though is the food. This petite town offers surprisingly cosmopolitan cuisine. Try Veronica’s Kitchen for Kampot’s eponymous pepper chicken.

The most popular spot for local specialties with a trendy twist is Rikitikitavi – slurp on a Singapore sling here while feasting on their excellent beef lok lak. If duck is your drug, try Ecran for excellent noodle soup while Tertulia is the place for a hearty Portuguese feed.

If you fancy simple seafood, then head to one of the riverfront boat bars for prawns stir fried with lemongrass.

Often in this corner of the world, it’s hard to get a decent glass of wine without blowing your budget – the country’s French connections ensure decadent drinking without a price tag.

For a combination of wonderful wine and terrific tapas head to BarAca. If you get bored of vino, try Camp’Potes bar, which specializes in adventurous rum infusions.

It’s not exclusively about your belly and your taste buds though as there are plenty of activities (albeit culinary in nature) to interest the intrepid. The riverside setting is a boon.

Take a ride downstream to the seaside town of Kep on the daily “crab shuttle” boat – a sumptuous cache of blue swimmer crabs with a sauce of local pink peppercorns awaits at the end.

Popular and definitely worthwhile are the evening cruises that promise and deliver superlative sunsets with a return journey that takes in river banks festooned with fireflies.

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After years of devastation under the Khmer Rouge, it’s heartwarming to take in just how far this region has come in recent times. Take a tour of a pepper plantation to see the white, pink and black berries that are making this pocket of Cambodia come to life again.