Cambodia can be an adventurer’s playground with an abundance of beauty hidden just off the beaten track. As the country’s rougher terrain opens up, Marissa Carruthers takes a look at some of the hotspots that look set to take off. Photography by Charles Fox.
A woman wraps a silk shrug tightly around her shoulders, snuggling into her partner’s arms as they seek a slight reprieve from the cool breeze that gently settles on the forest as night falls. Nature makes itself known – an array of birds and insects replacing the mechanical humdrum of city life that lies not so far away.
“It’s like another world,” 24-year-old Australian expat Melanie Skimer says, sitting next to a roaring barbecue amidst lush green trees that stretch tall, filling the landscape for as far as the eye can see.
Skimer and her boyfriend of five years, Paul Patrick, are two of a growing number of people trading in a weekend in the city for the surrounding countryside’s less trampled trails. A couple of hours earlier, they were leaving the chaos of capital life, trading in Phnom Penh’s smoggy, choking air for the fresh bite of Kirirom National Park.
“We’ve spent three years in Phnom Penh, and we’re bored of the beach, and Kep and Kampot,” Patrick says, adding that the couple have pledged to spend this year getting off the beaten track to explore more of what outlying Cambodia has to offer.
Like Skimer and Patrick, expats can all too often get trapped working and living in the Phnom Penh bubble, escaping only to the popular getaways of Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep. However, with roads, access and development improving at a rapid rate, more and more of the Kingdom’s outlying areas are opening up and are ready to be explored.
“Cambodian city centres are developing, just as any cities in the world, being globalised or standardised,” says Alexis Suremain, who co-owns a string of hotels including The Plantation and Blue Lime, “If one is looking for Cambodian authenticity, it is more in the provinces that it will be found.”
Sitting a two-hour drive southwest of Phnom Penh is Kirirom National Park. Offering visitors the chance to well and truly escape city life, the Kampong Speu destination boasts winding trails through towering pine forests, sharp cliffs with views across to the Cardamom Mountains, gushing seasonal waterfalls and access to rare flora and fauna.
“Every capital in the world has a weekend destination, usually within a two-hour drive,” Suremain says. “The only accessible pleasant area with cool temperatures, dry air, pine forests and lakes and rivers is Kirirom Natural Park.”
The destination proved popular with the French during colonial times. Its outstanding beauty, coupled with fresh air, nature and tranquillity, gives a welcome reprieve from the stifling tropical climate. Becoming a Khmer Rouge refuge during and in the aftermath of the war, Kirirom was forgotten for decades. However, in recent years it has seen a revival, with thousands of Cambodians living in Phnom Penh hitting the area for weekend getaways.
This led to a Japanese investor launching a huge development project, vKirirom Pine Resort. Here, 29 rooms and 150 tents, from cottages and wooden bungalows to innovative accommodation made from large cement pipes and luxury tents with king size beds and en suite bathrooms, inconspicuously litter the landscape. Available activities include trekking, mountain biking, field sports, driving a bulldozer, nine-hole disc golf, bubble soccer and orienteering. Tens of hectares have also been prepared for villas, shops and even a university.
This development and the rise in visitors have sparked a flurry of other boutique and eco-friendly resorts setting up shop. In 2014, Suremain opened Kirirom Lodge, a restored 1950s villa transformed into a seven-room retreat that sits atop a mountain with roaming views of surrounding valleys.
“Being in the higher altitude, the temperature is much cooler – about 10 degrees lower than the city,” says Karen Latade, sales and administration manager at the lodge. “It’s the only area where the climate is bearable all year round, without AC or fans. Nature is pleasant and the forest allows walks and cycling. Later, for sure, horse riding. There are also lakes and rivers for swimming. I don’t know any other such places so close to Phnom Penh.”
The Cardamom Mountains’ remote location combined with a diverse landscape that takes in rocky headlands, pristine emerald green forests, flatlands, highlands and lowlands make it the ideal adventurer’s playground.
Kimhean Pich, founder and CEO of travel company Discover the Mekong, has highlighted the destination as a place to watch. “The area is rich with natural resources, such as waterfalls, bird watching, trekking, camping, tree-planting, kayaking, homestays and other cultural attractions,” he says. “It’s the perfect place to be at one with nature.”
The area’s recent history has been plagued with problems, with the tough terrain serving as the perfect hideout for the Khmer Rouge. In more recent years, it has fallen victim to deforestation, illegal logging, poaching and land grabbing. However, measures are being taken to protect the largely unexplored forest through ecotourism and community-based projects.
As the largest remaining rainforest in mainland Southeast Asia, the Cardamoms are home to more than 18 critically-endangered species lurking in their depths. Siamese crocodiles snake through rivers, crested gibbons swing from treetops and elephants make their way through one of the continent’s only elephant corridors. Rare sightings of tigers and cloud leopards have also been recorded.
The Areng Valley is one area that boasts a diverse range of terrain, wildlife, birdlife and adventure. Home to about 1,300 indigenous people, the area is home to NGO Mother Nature’s Wild KK Project, which uses tourism as a tool to preserve the area while giving visitors a rare insight into life. By offering tailor-made trips into the forest, the organisation is also equipping villagers, many of whom are Khmer Daeum ethnic minorities, with a sustainable income to survive.
“There really is an incredible biodiversity and scenery here,” says Mother Nature co-founder, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson. “There’s unused, pristine forests, lowland forests, rivers with vegetation that can’t be accessed, paddy fields, fallow land, mountains, rocky crops and a huge plateaux. There’s nothing else like it left in Cambodia.”
Nestled in the heart of the Cardamom Mountains, is the rural village of Chi Phat. Under a Wildlife Alliance-led project, villagers have been encouraged to turn their backs on illegal poaching and logging by being offered alternative sources of income.
Jungle trips see visitors stay at guesthouses and homestays, and eat at small restaurants run by locals. Tours are also led by members of the community familiar with the rugged terrain and take in hiking, trekking, climbing, cycling and kayaking. Villagers even put on Khmer cooking classes and night lobster fishing sessions.
“With a steady increase of improved connections, places that were once very hard to access are now becoming popular and seeing the arrival of travellers, creating valuable income for the local communities in those places,” says Jake Bartholomew, regional director of Indochina for Khiri Travel. “Areas like Chi Phat give a really immersive experience into local life and the chance to explore local wildlife, while offering a great mix of authentic activities and experiences.”
The idyllic life can still be found on the tropical islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem. But with development picking up at a rapid pace, “for how long?” is the question on everyone’s lips.
“Koh Rong is a beautiful destination too, one of the nicest islands of the country,” Suremain says. However, he adds that a restriction by the company dishing out concessions is currently hampering substantial development by only offering short land leases.
As visitors start to stamp their footprints hard in the two islands’ sand, some of the other 60 smaller islands are starting to become popular with those wanting to seek a slice of true solace. Pich predicts the islands to become Cambodia’s future “rising stars”.
Koh Totang is one of 12 tropical islands that form the Koh S’Dach archipelago, which sits between the border of Thailand and Sihanoukville. The 650,000 square-metre island’s remote location and undeveloped shores make it the perfect place to escape.
Home to just two families and their dogs, Koh Totang boasts one five-bungalow retreat in the form of Nomads Land, which opened in 2009. On the island there are no roads on the island, ATMS, WiFi, restaurants or natural drinking water, and phone coverage and electricity are provided by solar panels.
Koh Thmei is another serene island well worth exploring – and soon. Despite the island forming part of Ream National Park in Sihanoukville, the government has granted a 99-year lease to a Malaysian company for development. They have presented plans to create a 2,000 hectare resort town as well as a bridge to the mainland.
Currently, the island sits empty with just a few families calling it home. The eco-resort, Koh Thmei Resort, is the sole accommodation on the island, with eight wooden bungalows powered by solar panels.
The island is flanked by mangrove forests and is also home to more than 155 bird species, including the endangered Brahminy kite, making it the ideal getaway for twitchers. For those wanting to relax, there are several shell beaches and a coral reef for snorkelling.
Koh Tang is another island waiting to be explored, and quickly. Sold to an investment company in 2009, grand plans were etched to transform it into a high-end island paradise for the wealthy. However, the island, which sits about 52km off the coast of Sihanoukville, still remains untouched and is by far one of Cambodia’s ultimate divespots, offering visibility of 30-metres and crystal clear waters.
“Some of the islands really are pristine and offer a natural beauty that seems to have disappeared from Thailand’s islands,” Pich says.
An anticipated 4.6 million international visitors were expected to have followed the well-trampled temple trail through Siem Reap’s spectacular Angkor Archaeological Park last year – a staggering 10 percent rise on the previous year.
Although no figures for last year were available as AsiaLIFE went to print, more than 2.2 million visitors explored the historic temple complex in the first six months of the year – a 5.3 percent jump on 2013.
However, opportunities to take a break and enjoy a unique, authentic and tranquil temple trip away from the madding crowd, and Temple Town, are mushrooming at a rapid rate. Banteay Chhmar, in Banteay Meanchey province, is one such complex. The 12th century temples are hidden in northwest Cambodia and are starting to be marked on visitors’ maps.
Discover the Mekong is one company that offers unique visits to the site in the form of luxury camping. “There are so many fantastic testaments to the ancient temples in Cambodia,” Pich says. “It is very easy to get off the beaten track and explore them away from the crowds that flock in droves daily to Angkor.”
In a bid to boost the local economy, Khiri Travel offers similar trips, having teamed up with the local community to operate and manage the site as well as offer alternative accommodation in the form of homestays. “Although the road is very bumpy, it’s incredibly rewarding as a traveller as you will, at this stage, likely be the only people at the temples,” Bartholomew says. “I believe people who want to see a really authentic Angkorian temple but sans the crowds will make the journey out to these more remote sites.”
Sambor Prei Kuk, in Kampong Thom province, is shortlisted for UNESCO status and is another future hotspot, predicts Bartholomew. What makes the Sambor Prei Kuk stand out is they date back to the Chenla era and pre-date Angkor Wat by several centuries. The site’s location between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh also makes it a great way to break up the arduous trip between the two cities.
As Cambodia continues to become more accessible, with infrastructure underway to more remote parts of the country, now is well and truly the time to get off the beaten track and hit these more undeveloped gems.
“I’m hoping less visited areas will develop more with better infrastructure as more travellers visit them,” Suremain says. “Hopefully, basic infrastructure, like roads, can be improved with a visitor increase. We have seen over the last few years more and more travellers are looking to visit areas that are a bit more off the tourist trail, so these areas have a lot of potential.”