By the 1880’s Kampot was a provincial centre (“circonscription résidentielle de Kampot”) set up by the French, created by uniting 8 villages into a town and adding administrative functions. Kampot was selected for this function as it lay roughly in the middle of what was coastal Cambodia. Koh Kong, predominantly a mountainous wilderness, was not ceded to Cambodia by Siam (Thailand) until 1904, and Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) was undeveloped as a port until well into the twentieth century. 1
Its importance as anything more than this was undercut by the 1880’s with the development of Saigon as a port, and large ships being able to sail all the way up the Mekong to Phnom Penh.
The settlements around Prek Thom (translated as big salty river) were in three areas (and can be imagined on the map below):
- firstly on Trey Koh (Fish Isle on map). These included Vietnamese and Malay settlements, with large junks, fishing and buffalo grazing taking place in addition to rice. In 1888, there were 12,000 kg produced in one village.
- secondly, on the narrow strip of land to the west, between the mountains and the sea. There was a Chinese village there, with a (rare) Cambodian settlement behind and a Vietnamese one in front of it.
- thirdly on the left bank of Prek Thom, where the main settlement is today (Kampot City on map). A Chinese settlement of 250, called Kompong-Bay, contained 30 houses and a school. Most inhabitants were merchants.
This map is used with permission from (and gratitude to) Kampot Survival Guide ( https://www.kampotsurvivalguide.com/maps )
The country to the east of the town contained pepper growing areas long run by Chinese farmers, and this stimulated the development of trading centres along rivers where small junks could reach. Kompong Trach was one such town and had a market built in 1907, leading to “shops, restaurants and tailors” springing up in the town. Chinese “coolies” were dropped off at a small port at Kep to work on these plantations.
Further east, the predominantly Chinese town of Tuok Meas sprung up as larger junks could reach there. Two other towns, Tani and Tohon, less important today, also grew with the pepper industry.
To the west, rivers also attracted settlers who could find a living trading or providing for the needs of the local Khmer population. The latter tended to live scattered over the land rather than in villages. Metis-Chinese (mixed race), Vietnamese and, further west, Thai villagers made up the clusters of 10-20 houses, sometimes actually on the river.
Forest products such as timber, gamboge, resin, and gum were the goods traded here for tobacco and “cottonades” brought from the larger centres around the coast. Rice was grown on land that was flat enough and much of the fertile ground was owned by Chinese and Malays who lived in Kampot.
Vietnamese artisans turned timber into planks for boats to be bought by these same wealthy traders from Kampot and Ha Tien (in Cochinchina).
It was a four day journey by land from Kampot to Kompong Som. Sailing was definitely the way to get around!
- Most of the information in this article is from; Kitagawa Takako, Kampot of the Belle Epoque: From the Outlet of Cambodia to a Colonial Resort, Southeast Asian Studies, vol 42, No 4, March 2005, pages 395 - 400