There are plenty of places just a few hours away from Phnom Penh that are waiting to be discovered. Nathan Thompson heads to Takeo.
No-one goes to Takeo. Even the Sorya bus company discontinued its Phnom Penh-to-Takeo service last year. Now you have get a taxi or drive yourself. But for people who don’t mind straying off the beaten track this provincial town is an undiscovered gem.
Known to archeologists as the cradle of Khmer civilisation, Takeo province has a host of pre-Angkorian sites dating back to the Funan empire that ruled vast swathes of Southeast Asia from the 1st to 6th Century AD.
More recently Takeo town was a key trade route between Cambodia and Vietnam. Goods arrived on boats via canals, some of which are more than 1,000 years old. The French administration also used the town as a key trading route and many colonial villas have survived.
With tourist traffic at a minimum you can stroll fragrant parkways with the locals and watch the sun set over huge lily-covered lakes that stretch into the blue distance. In larger towns like Battambang and Kampot the sound of buildings being constructed is never far away. Not so in Takeo. Here, the only sounds are birds, rustling trees and the distant thud of a wedding stereo.
There are plenty of small guesthouses that border the lake. Expect them to be basic. If you want rooftop swimming pools and detox juices, best stick to Siem Reap and Kampot. Indeed, the only swimming available in Takeo are the reservoirs full of cattle and gamboling children.
A good option for lodgings in the area is the Phnomda Guesthouse, which is located on a quiet street with views over the calm water. Outside, a girl tending a tank of live giant prawns, assured me that for $10 a night you get a clean, air-conditioned room.
The guesthouse is opposite a restaurant that, despite being ominously named Stung Restaurant, has one of the prettiest settings I’ve seen in Cambodia. The wood-and-stilts structure juts out into a lake garlanded by thick grass, lilies and flowers. It’s a place to sip a pre-dinner drink while drifting on a hammock.
Top of the menu are giant prawns (which they call lobsters), as big as a size nine shoe, plucked from the lake. A large pot comes in at $20, an extravagance the good readers of AsiaLIFE would take a dim view of trying to pass off as “essential expenses”.
Instead, I plumped for the shrimp sour soup and French fries for $6 total. The sour soup was excellent, tangy and bursting with shrimp. The fries were somewhat overcooked, but I guess that’s to be expected so far off the tourist trail.
Given that the nearest espresso is in Kampot, two hours’ drive away, the best option for after-dinner coffee is Takeo market. By the entrance is a lady who serves a superior Vietnamese blend for a mere 1000 riel. Next to her, two brothers dish up excellent noodle soup. The two stalls provide the perfect combination for a cheap, tasty breakfast or lunch.
Fortified with food, it’s time to explore Takeo’s many sites of interest. Our first port of call is where most head out to, Angkor Borei. This is a town full of ruins dating back to the Funan and Angkorian periods. These crumbling afterthoughts have long been difficult to reach as the road tends to flood every rainy season. But now adventurous types can head there by boat, along canal 15.
After Angkor Borei head to the nearby Phnom Da (Da Mountain), which is capped by a 6th century Brahmin temple built by King Rutravarman. Inside is a lintel of the sleeping god, Vishnu and a sculpture depicting the Hindu legend of the Churning Ocean of Milk. The views are expansive, with a chance to feel the warm breeze flow over miles and miles of canal-slashed rice paddies.
Back in Takeo town, it’s the evening and there’s nothing to do. Of course, there are a few of outlets of the ubiquitous drunken screech-along, KTV. But nothing else. No bars or club nights that you must attend because “everyone’s going”.
No, in Takeo you really get a chance to unwind, read a book or walk through veils of dragonflies with your romantic partner.
One tip is to visit a small shop located in Lawein Market, a short drive out of town towards the Vietnamese border. There you’ll find a smiling girl who does excellent “Tuk Grolock” – the Khmer fruit shake. It’s a great place to sit, sip a sweet smoothie and meet the locals and compare smartphone snaps.
Takeo is hardly a cosmopolitan destination but if you’re looking for untroubled, rural charm and a waterside setting, hop in a Phnom Penh taxi and take the two hour drive.
Another getaway is the agreeable colonial town of Kampong Cham. Here is the best place to see the sun set over the Mekong, and, with plenty of decent hotels with balconies, you’ll get the chance to witness this natural spectacle in style. Full of crumbling French villas and newly built hotels, Kampong Cham is like Kampot but with a better river and 90 percent less tourists. Every year locals construct, by hand, a bamboo bridge that bisects the Mekong. It’s a feat of indigenous engineering well worth a visit and, for the brave, a motorbike ride across to visit the fishing village on the far side. Eat at Smile Restaurant, which is run by a local NGO. They have excellent espresso and a very tasty BorBor (traditional rice porridge).