Discover the serene waterways, perfect beaches, swishy resorts and charming villages of Cambodia’s southern coast
'WHAT'S THAT NOISE?’ shouts Innes, a jovial Glaswegian who had been enjoying the first of many ice-cold Angkor beers on our boat trip through the heart of the Cambodian jungle.
As the boat passes underneath a clump of coconut palms, a series of ominous thuds can be heard on the underside of the craft. With worry etched all over his face, Innes rests his half-drunk can on the seat in front of him and turns imploringly to Wee, our guide.
‘I didn’t know there were crocodiles here!’ In the depths of the jungle there are things that go bump in the night and things that go bump in the morning.
We are puttering our way up a river in the far western province of Koh Kong towards the Tatai waterfall. Once there we will leap from rocky outcrops into deep pools, have our bodies pounded by cascades of foaming water, and receive complimentary skin-removal treatments from fussing, matronly monkeys.
For the moment, though, the smooth sailing from our tented digs at the Four Rivers Floating Lodge — one of a clutch of accommodation options that is turning this previously neglected tract of jungle-clad mountains into a haven for eco-minded tourists — has encountered some unexpected turbulence.
‘No, there are no crocodiles here any more. The boat just ran over some discarded coconut husks,’ answers Wee, one of the villagers turned guides working for Four Rivers, as the boat steadies itself and continues to plot its course upriver. ‘There’s snakes, though, lots of them. They have killed many villagers.’
Cobras are not the only nefarious elements to have found solace amid the virgin jungle. It was from these remote areas that fanatical Khmer Rouge cadres kept alive Cambodia’s nightmarish civil war. More recently, impoverished locals — forgotten by the government in Phnom Penh, 250 miles away — have plundered the protected forests to boost their meagre earnings through illegal logging, smuggling and poaching.
Such activities have exacted a significant environmental toll on this wondrous landscape of emerald forest, wild flowers, rushing streams and meandering rivers. Thankfully the arrival of tourism is at last providing an affirmative alternative to destructive old habits.
‘Before we had nothing,’ continues Wee. ‘We didn’t have any option but to go into the jungle to hunt. It is a very dangerous life. There are bears, elephants, snakes and even tigers. You also had to avoid the rangers, who would arrest you or even shoot you. Tourism has taught us new skills and given us new opportunities.’
What’s more encouraging is that the developments in the area broadly share a similar ethos of being in as much harmony as possible with their surroundings. In Tatai there’s Four Rivers — a collection of twelve luxurious tents that float on interconnected decks of recycled wood — and the more homespun Rainbow Lodge.
Further east, the village of Chi Phat is home to a community-based eco-tourism project run by NGO Wildlife Alliance, where guests stay in local homes for a heady swig of unadulterated rural Asian life. For beach bums, meanwhile, Nomad’s Land is an Edenic hippy retreat on the island of Koh Totang.
It's a Shore Thing
It’s not just locals for whom these projects have been a godsend. For visitors they provide the missing link in a chain that connects the entire southern coast of Cambodia from Thailand to Vietnam. It’s a route that takes in pristine jungle, untouched islands, sleepy towns and haunted hill-stations.
It even finds the time to squeeze in one of South East Asia’s few remaining backpacker fleshpots, the rambunctious town of Sihanoukville. Saner travellers would tackle the coast with the sedate relish it deserves. However, with just a few days to spare I take one last dip in the (crocodile-free) river and ready myself for the four-hour car journey along Highway 48 to Sihanoukville.
Even at full pelt it is impossible not to be lulled by the languorous rhythms of country life passing by outside the window. Flocks of egrets use water buffalo as launching pads into the sky and giant river fish are hung out to cure outside roadside restaurants. Our only fellow travellers, meanwhile, seem to be ingenious souls using battered Honda motorbikes to transport giant panes of glass or baskets of chickens.
Things become more rough and ready when we join the main north/south highway, and it’s not long before we are pulling into Sihanoukville. ‘Snookie’, as it is affectionately known by the legion of budget travellers who choose to overlook its slightly shop-soiled beaches in favour of its frequent parties and cheap accommodation, isn’t for everyone. Nevertheless, respite is close at hand in the shape of the string of islands that stud the Gulf of Thailand just offshore.
Outposts such as Koh Russei, Koh Ta Kiev, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem offer the kind of untouched island idyll whispered about reverentially for decades in guesthouses from Kathmandu to Bangkok. With long stretches of white-sand beach backing on to makeshift digs situated amid jungle clearings, you could happily spend weeks polishing off the entire works of Dostoevsky (or, more likely, backpacker perennials Alex Garland or Paolo Coelho) while swaying between coconut palms on a hammock.
Alternatively, if you are short on time and keen on luxury, you could spend a couple of nights at Song Saa. Occupying two diminutive islands at the far end of Koh Rong, the 27-villa development, which comes complete with trimmings like infinity pools, fully stocked bar fridges and a world-class restaurant, has already picked up a string of awards despite being open just over a year.
As I toast the completion of a swim around one of the two islands with a mojito sundowner mixed with the resort’s own lemongrass vodka, I find it hard to fault the experts.
The Quiet Life
Having been dragged kicking and screaming from poolside and bundled on to a speedboat back to terra firma, we resume our journey. After lunching in Kampot, a provincial capital where life is about as fast-paced as the slothful river that bisects the town, we make the short hop to Kep.
Like Kampot, Kep is heavy with somnolence. During its heyday as Cambodia’s premier beach town, it was the favoured place for R&R for the Khmer elite, including recently deceased King Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanoukville usurped it as the nation’s sun, sea and sand capital prior to the civil war, and the years of turmoil and bloodshed saw it slink back even further into obscurity — the shells of its grand old villas are the only reminder of its starring role on the Cambodian Riviera.
For the past decade or so it has been in a perpetual state of semi-resurrection. There’s still virtually nothing going on — a statue of a giant crab just offshore is about the extent of the tourist sights.
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, where we are ensconced — have sprung up, some breathing life to the derelict grand old villas.
There’s also the crab market. A one-time secret, it has become a prime destination for gourmands due to its ramshackle restaurants’ way with crab and local Kampot green pepper. With the ocean providing a lulling soundtrack, we descend into a food trance, devouring a mountain of crustaceans and leaving an apocalyptic scene of discarded shell by our plates.
Where to Visit:
If you have time to spare in Kep, you could consider a day trip to Koh Tonsay. The little outcrop boasts trails leading to gorgeous deserted beaches
Sandan, in Sihanoukville, is a restaurant which also provides hospitality training to disadvantaged local youths. The food is far from a mere charity case