Selective Asia's Nick joins Valit to explore the up-and-coming south coast of Cambodia. All they have to do is decide how to travel.
Having arrived in Phnom Penh, I was met by the ever-reliable Mr Valit, the man who’s on hand 24-7 to ensure that all the services Selective Asia offer in Cambodia run like clockwork. A native of Kratie on the banks of the Mekong River, Valit brings many years of experience to the job, along with a passion for travel, and a wicked sense of fun.
Before we had even left the airport car park it was evident that he was up to his old tricks and that I was in for a bit of treat, with the day’s location and activities being kept in utmost secrecy.
10 minutes later we pulled up alongside Wat Preah Theat to scenes of slight mayhem, as a dozen or so novice monks swarmed around an open-backed truck. As the orange-robed monks stepped aside to make way, I could immediately see why; the truck was loaded with a pair of 275cc Honda scrambler motorbikes (reasonably rare in Cambodia, explaining the monks' excitement) and a pair of Trek mountain bikes.
Valit looked very pleased with himself as he explained that the truck would act as a support vehicle for the next four days allowing us to select our mode of transport at any given time. This man knows me too well, I thought!
Well - for now it was a no-brainer - the Hondas were swiftly unloaded and we hit the back roads, heading in a south-easterly direction and having agreed to liaise with our driver at the coastal town of Kep later that day. It was a terrific afternoon's ride, passing through some of Cambodia's more remote villages, well away from the highway, and stopping to visit several Angkor-era temples such as Phnom Chiso and Ta Prohm (same name but none of the crowds that its namesake in Siem Reap welcomes each day).
We also stopped for a superb packed lunch, prepared by Valit’s wife Thary, at Tonlé Bati, a popular weekend spot for Phnom Penh's residents. It's an incredibly pleasant place to relax for an hour or two, and one we use on several of our mountain programmes in the area.
The flight I had disembarked just a few hours previously felt like days ago and memories of why I loved Cambodia were rushing back. This country is SO much more than a set of temples!
Thanks to our lazy use of motor rather than leg power we arrived in Kep just as the sun set. I made a quick inspection of the very pleasant Mealea Resort, and was seriously tempted by the scent of the whole barracuda being BBQ'd on their seafront terrace restaurant! But Valit refused to let me stay, promising a far superior meal. Although at the time I struggled to see how that would be possible, I was not to be disappointed.
After checking in at the hill-side Veranda Resort (I love this place although it's not to every taste) we returned to Kep's waterfront, where there are a number of seafood shack-style restaurants serving only the freshest of the day’s catch. Valit made a beeline for Kimley Restaurant, and as usual everyone seemed to know him and we were treated like family immediately.
Put simply, the food was outstanding. Kep’s famous crab of course stole the show, although there was a strong contender in a huge plate of gigantic juicy tiger prawns (I couldn't help myself - it was 32, to be precise) with fresh green Kampot pepper in a light and creamy curry sauce that resembled the Thai dish Tom Yum in flavour.
We ordered far too much and then, insisting that these fine shellfish should not die in vain, ‘sacrificed’ the next two hours by forcing down plates of crab, squid, prawn and fried fish with the assistance of several of Cambodia's finest - the mighty Angkor Beer. I had only been in the country 12 hours and already it already felt like a lifetime...Cambodia can do that to you.
By 8.30am the next morning it was 28 degrees, so we got cracking, keen to avoid being out in the fierce April midday sun. Before moving on to Kampot there was Kep to explore and immediately I wish I had longer; what a superb town. At first I couldn't quite put my finger on why I was so won over, but it soon became evident. The Colonial architecture was all, for the best part, still in tact; the number of touristy shops and restaurants very limited; the hotels were all very boutique and personal; and there was no real beach to speak of...no beach, ah!
The lack of beach had undoubtedly preserved this charming town more than any other contributing factor and as I inspected the half dozen or so hotels it became evident that the lack of sand did not matter one jot...in fact I soon started to prefer it. The hotels and resorts all have swimming pools, many also boast verandas or gardens with sea views, none are over-run with beach ball carrying children or beer-swigging parents.
It was heaven - I wanted to stay a lifetime, or at least until my wife came searching for me! The pick of the hotels is undoubtedly Knai Bang Chatt, just a few minutes walk from the town centre and with lawns running down to the sea's edge (almost said beach!). The aforementioned Veranda is also high on my list, as will be the House of Monsieur Thomas, although this is yet to be completed.
We moved onto Kampot, this time by pedal power as a way of burning off some of the previous evening’s seafood orgy. It was an incredible ride along dust tracks cutting through dry rice paddies; with the rains due in a month, this is the driest time of the year. As we cycled through hamlets and past lone houses, faceless voices could be heard, shouting ‘hello, hello’ and from time to time a child, clearly pushed by a friend, would stumble out from behind their barricade with a huge smile on their face before darting back for cover.
Throughout the morning we dodged the cattle and chickens in the road, made room for the ox & carts to pass, with the slower pace giving me all the more opportunity to soak up the mesmeric rural backdrop, as well as to engage with the friendly locals that we passed.
We run a range of cycling trips in Cambodia, mainly thanks to Valit’s passion for cycling, and within just a few hours I was in no doubt as to why clients came back so enthralled with the experiences he has designed for them. It really is a delightful way to interact with Cambodia and its people.
We stopped off at the little visited cave temple of Phnom Chngok, which was a real highlight, opting to take the ‘cave route’ rather than the perfectly suitable stairs. We were led up by an industrious local boy who, for a $1 or 2, showed us the ‘safest’ route, constantly looking back to ensure we were using the correct footing. I forget his name, unfortunately, but thanks to his self-taught, excellent English and obvious head for business I couldn’t help but think he was really going to make something of himself…the next Theo Paphitis perhaps?!
Another hour on the bikes and we pulled up, just in time for lunch, at Les Mangieurs on the outskirts of Kampot, where we spent a very pleasant hour or two with the owner Jean Yves and his family.
The 'resort' is set in the most idyllic location on the banks of the Steung Keo River, and while the accommodation is undoubtedly basic (if you were ever a backpacker in Asia, think simple hut, mattress and fan!) it's more than sufficient for those who wish to escape life for a few days...the food is also exceptional.
We had a long drive to our next stop, pausing only to take a quick look at the still closed Bokor Hill Station, and make a quick inspection of the nearby Nataya Resort. We snaked along almost the entire length of Cambodia's south coast and initially we barely lost sight of the sea for more than five minutes, and when we did there was forest or rice paddies to greet us.
In the latter stages the backdrop turned to thick forest, suggesting we were now in the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor, with the Cardamom Mountains to the west completing the fantastic views. Our destination was the place I was most eager to see - The 4 Rivers Floating Lodge - surely a combination of words concocted under intoxication, or so I initially thought when Valit first told me about it. But an eco lodge it is, it does float, and the guests do sleep in tents. Blimey!
Words cannot really do this place justice; it’s marvellous, crazy and luxurious rolled into one. The seriously lavish African safari tents come complete with en suite facilities including a wooden tub; each also has a private veranda with sun loungers. The restaurant serves some delectable Cambodian and international fusion dishes, and for those with itching feet there’s a wide array of activities to choose from, including exploring the nearby mangrove forests by kayak.
By now I was seriously considering burning my passport and selling all my worldly goods. The south coast of Cambodia had completely entranced me and, once I had been prized out of my tent and sent on my way with a smile by the fantastic 4 Rivers team, there was more to come.
Today's destination was the most famous of Cambodia's southern attractions, the beach resort of Sihanoukville. En route there was some biking to be done by way of a journey (it's possible we chose the most round-about, off-road route we could) to a fascinating community eco-tourism project, founded by the Wildlife Alliance, at the foot of the Cardamom Mountains. After an hour’s hard trail riding we arrived at the Chi Pat HQ and met with one of the management team.
The project is run across four neighbouring villages with the aim of introducing a new method of income to the inhabitants, who all play their part in running the project at all levels. Along with basic guesthouse and home stay accommodation, the villagers have set up treks and mountain bike adventures for anything up to five days. There’s boating, waterfall visits and the experience of just residing amongst the community for a day or two, gaining a true insight into the day-to-day lives of the friendly locals.
Sihanoukville had changed beyond recognition from my previous visit seven years earlier. There’s no avoiding the fact that’s it’s built up and several of the beaches resemble some of the overrun Thai beaches with too many bars and guesthouses. However, there are stretches of sand that offer a retreat from this mayhem, with some very nice restaurants and one or two hotels - the sprawling Sokha Beach in particular - that offer all the comfort and facilities you could wish for at a beach resort. In addition, several of the islands off the coast are seeing development and promise to be very special additions to Cambodia’s beach offerings.
The final destination of this whirl-wind Cambodian tour was Phnom Penh, one of my favourite cities in Asia - anywhere that elephants jostle with motorbikes for space is okay in my book! I spent the night at the wonderful Amanjaya Pancam Hotel, the best location in town with views across Sisowath Quay and the Tonlé Sap. I joined Valit and his family, Thary and baby Valor, for a sumptuous evening meal on Sisowath Quay, at a restaurant called Titanic (I’m not sure what the connection is - however, I’m positive that it has nothing to do with remains of the original vessel being discovered on the river bed, as Valit attempted to have me believe).
The next morning I was up early to join in the fun on the banks of the Tonlé Sap River. Large groups of men and women performing Pilates or working out, celebrity video style, to a crazy fusion of traditional Khmer and 80s techno trance music. It’s a unique atmosphere and in many ways sums up this city.
What I am most pleased to report from my latest trip is that Cambodia’s south coast has finally come of age for the modern day traveller. It offers quality accommodation, ranging from backpacker chic to luxurious boutique and colonial grandeur. There’s plenty to keep the adventurer and activity junkie busy, there’s wildlife and cultural interests in abundance and there are some stunning stretches of sand. And the food...out of this world!