Exploring Southern Cambodia
November 20, 2014
Covering everything from barefoot island luxury to sleepy colonial charmers, Cambodia's southern reaches are developing all the magical ingredients for an epic road trip. By Duncan Forgan. Photographed by Aaron Joel Santos.
Published on Nov 20, 2014
In the depths of the Cambodian jungle, there are things that go bump in the night… and things that go bump in the morning, like the ominous thuds that are suddenly sounding on the underside of our boat.
We are puttering our way along the Kampot River towards the Teuk Chhou Rapids, around 8 kilometers from the center of the charmingly somnolent little town. Once there, we will swim in crystal-clear pools, sway gently in riverside hammocks, and receive free skin-removal treatments from fussing, matronly monkeys.
Bridge to Song Saa resort.
As the boat passes underneath a clump of coconut palms that jut out almost horizontally over the tranquil water, a loud disturbance beneath the craft becomes obvious. "There aren't crocodiles in here, are there?" a fellow passenger asks nervously.
"No, the boat just ran over some discarded coconut husks," laughs Wee, our captain, as the boat steadies and continues to cruise upriver.
The boat's unhurried yet sure progress is mirrored by the development of a cohesive tourism infrastructure along Cambodia's southern coast. Boutique boltholes, eco-lodges and exclusive resorts dot the region all the way from Koh Kong in the west to Kep in the east. It is now therefore possible to chart a highly amenable course all the way from the Thai border to Cambodia's southern frontier with Vietnam.
The west to east route takes in the pristine jungle of Koh Kong, untouched islands in the Gulf of Thailand off the coast of Sihanoukville, the lazy colonial vibe of Kampot, crustaceanoriented culinary manna of Kep, and even the lively town of Sihanoukville.
Children play in Sihanoukville.
Although it may sound like a journey of epic proportions, the distance between Cambodia's two southern frontiers is just a sliver of more than 250 kilometers. Hire a private car in the capital of Phnom Penh and on a leisurely drive you can hit all the main stops in about a week.
Our time is limited to just five days, so we decide to eschew Koh Kong and make directly for Sihanoukville, a three-and-a-half hour ride from Phnom Penh, for some beach bumming before making our way along the coast to sample the subdued charms of Kampot and Kep.
A favorite with budget travelers due to its frequent parties and cheap accommodation, Sihanoukville isn't for everyone. Those seeking more refined respite will find sanctum at its quietest and most paradisiacal stretch of sand, Otres Beach, where Tamu (tamucambodia.com) and Secret Garden (secretgardenotres.com) are the best of the boutiques.
Also a world removed from the full-moon party scene is the string of islands that stud the Gulf of Thailand just offshore. Outposts such as Koh Russei, Koh Ta Kiev, Koh Rung and Koh Rung Samloem are easily reachable from Sihanoukville by ferry and offer an untouched island idyll with long stretches of white-sand beach backing onto makeshift digs situated amidst jungle clearings. Luxury resorts are in the pipeline, especially on Koh Rung, but for the moment the islands retain a rustic, castaway feel with bungalows and fresh seafood providing shelter and sustenance.
If you are short on time and have money to spare you could spend a couple of nights at Song Saa (songsaa.com). Occupying two diminutive islands at the far end of Koh Rung, the 27-villa development, which is reachable from Sihanoukville via the resort's own speedboat, justifies its hefty all-inclusive price tag, and continues to snare regular awards. As I toast the completion of a swim around one of the two islands with a mojito sundowner mixed with the resort's homemade lemongrass vodka, I find it hard to fault the experts.
Royal Villa - Song Saa Resort.
Back on land, we leave Sihanoukville behind and continue our odyssey eastwards on the two-hour drive to Kampot. Even at full pelt it is impossible not to be lulled by the languorous rhythms of Cambodian country life passing by outside the window. As kilometers fly underwheel, flocks of egrets use water buffalo as launching pads towards the blue sky and giant river fish are hung out to cure outside roadside restaurants.
In Kampot, we spend one night at the Two Moons (twomoonshotel.com), a great value option where accommodations range from comfortable bungalows to a sumptuous penthouse room with 360-degree views of the river and the nearby Elephant Mountains. Kampot's main claim to fame is its sought-after pepper, regarded as being among the finest in the world due to its complex flavor and fragrant aroma. The town's other attributes are just as pleasing. After a day of river-based action at the Teuk Chhou Rapids, we make the 30-minute hop to Kep.
Like Kampot, Kep is about as fast-paced as a Sunday morning and just as enchanting. During its heyday as Cambodia's premier beach town, it was the favored place for R&R of the Khmer elite, including the late King Norodom Sihanouk. His namesake Sihanoukville usurped it as the nation's sun, sea and sand capital prior to Cambodia's civil war and the years of turmoil and bloodshed saw it slink back even further into obscurity—the shells of its grand old villas the only reminder of its starring role on the Cambodian Riviera.
Despite its torpor (or perhaps because of it) there's something about Kep that entrances. The gentle sea breeze is invigorating while a string of boutique hotels, including the wonderful Knai Bang Chatt (knaibangchatt.com), have sprung up since the middle of the last decade, breathing new life to the derelict grand old villas.
Knai Bang Chatt in Kep.
There's also the town's crab market. A one-time secret, it has become a prime destination for in-the-know gourmands due to its clutch of ramshackle restaurants' way with crab served with local Kampot green pepper. With the ocean providing a lulling soundtrack, we head to Kimly (Kep crab market; +855 8982 2866), one of the best regarded of the town's crab restaurants. We descend into a food trance, devouring a mountain of crustaceans and leaving an apocalyptic scene of discarded shells in our wake. Drunk on seafood and reeling in relaxation, it's a fitting end to the hypnotic journey. Yes, it may be our last evening on the road, but Cambodia's dreamy pace has rubbed off on us and we're in no hurry to leave. The night is still young and another plate of crab beckons.
Fishermen compare crabs.