Kampot Peppers Spice Up Cambodian Travel

Fish soup at Srey Mao Mlob Duong.
Fresh Kampot peppercorns.

Put the Pep in Kep

Cambodia’s famed Kampot pepper fires up taste buds again.


By Chaney Kwak
Photography by Luis García
Piles of palm-sized crabs, chopped, and flash-fried with succulent green peppercorns, fill tables in the dozen humble seaside eateries, about 100 miles south of Phnom Penh. With their shirtsleeves rolled up, large Cambodian families feast on the seafood brought in by the dinghies that cruise the moon-splashed bay.

Though the scene brings to mind the clambakes, crab feasts, and crawfish boils of New England, Chesapeake Bay, and the Louisiana bayous, instead of Old Bay or Cajun flavors, the de rigueur seasoning here is pepper, green and black.

Surrounded by the pepper-producing province of Kampot, Kep is a popular beach destination among Cambodian urbanites, best known for its abundant crabs. As good as the crustacean may be, it merely serves as a blank canvas in the region’s signature dish, Kep pepper crab, starring Kampot peppercorns that impart a refreshing hint of grass before exploding with spicy fierceness.

Travelers can spice up their Cambodian adventure by heading down to the coast pre- or post- Angkor Wat, or make their trip a food- and nature-filled odyssey of its own.

When to Go
Kampot’s cooler dry season begins in November. For the pepper harvest and fresh peppercorns, go February through May.

Getting There
Cathay Pacific flies nonstop to Hong Kong from seven North American gateways daily, with connecting service to Phnom Penh.

Virtuoso’s on-site connection in Cambodia can arrange custom itineraries to Kampot and the country’s southern coast: For example, on an eight-day trip from Phnom Penh, learn about Kampot peppers at organic Starling Farm and visit Kep’s crab market when the fishermen return with their evening catch. After two days on Song Saa Private Island, head to a floating river lodge in the Cardamom Mountains for jungle treks to swim among waterfalls, nighttime firefly-lit sea-kayaking, and more eco-adventures.

Set on two private islands off Cambodia’s southern coast, Song Saa Private Island features 27 overwater, jungle, or ocean-view villas with private infinity pools. Cambodian chefs teach guests how to make recipes with Kampot peppercorns, such as prawns with fresh green pepper, fish soup with generous amounts of white pepper, and lok lak, a peppery beef dish with ginger and lime.

Advisor Tip
“For a perfect day at Song Saa resort, ask to have a private picnic lunch (with a server and chef) on secluded Koh Rong beach. A few hours later, find your way to a swinging daybed for sparkling ginger mojitos at Vista Bar – the island’s best spot to catch the sunset.” Raschinna Findlay, travel advisor, Beverly Hills

Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life magazine, November 2014.

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Flooded rice paddies.