Long considered a one trick pony, Cambodia has come a very long way from its past incarnation as a three-night Siem Reap stopover – essentially just an interesting add-on to your holiday in Thailand or Vietnam. A very long way.
During recent years the former Khmer Kingdom has shaped itself into one of South-East Asia’s most tempting destinations, offering something to suit everyone.
Many of us are now finding our way back there, revisiting the Angkor temples, for sure, but this time including some of the barely known, harder-to-access temple sites, further away from Siem Reap.
Cambodia is no longer all about temples, either; Phnom Penh has metamorphosed into one of the most enticing cities in the region. Elsewhere in the country, excellent eco-lodges and jungle camps have begun to appear, and the south coast has evolved a completely new look.
With the Angkor temples very much selling themselves, for me it’s the lesser-known highlights, in the more far flung corners, that really complete a great trip through this beautiful, intriguing country.
Kampot City sits along the east side of the Kampong Bay River near the base of the Elephant Mountains and is of quite a different character than the beach town of Sihanoukville. Kampot City is an old provincial capital of quiet lanes and colonial period architecture, a bit worn but radiating a quaint, welcoming, small town ambiance. A partially destroyed bridge, bombed in the war, sits city center over the river, it’s unique haphazard repair almost an iconic symbol of the town. Kampot is a place to get a taste of provincial Cambodia, both urban and rural. Use the city as a base to explore and tour the surrounding countryside and as a stepping stone to the nearby beaches and islands of Kep, the Bokor Hill Station and the rest of southeastern Cambodia. Come the end of the day back in Kampot City, a little riverside cafe or pub is the place to be – relaxing curbside over a glass of wine, watching the sun slowly set behind the Elephant Mountains.
KRATIE AND KOH TRONG
Kratie is a delightfully energetic, Colonial-style town on the banks of the Mekong River, about 100 miles north-east of Phnom Penh. Most visitors arrive hoping to glimpse the town’s famous Irrawaddy dolphins, often seen frolicking 10kms to Kratie’s north.
The best time of the year to see the dolphins is between March and August, when the waters are lower, but they can be spotted year-round. Try to avoid lunchtimes, when sightings are less frequent than in the early morning or later afternoon.
Koh Trong – ‘the King’s Island’ – lies in the Mekong, just off Kratie. It’s surrounded by beach between December and May, and river swimming is possible all year round. Peace reigns, here – there’s an old stupa to visit, sometimes Mekong mud turtles along the western coastline, and several small villages to explore. We stay at the Sala lodge, a traditional rural guest house whose restaurant serves excellent authentic Cambodian food. There are only five rooms here at the moment, with four new sympathetically designed villas on the way.
Mondulkiri is an eastern province of Cambodia, which is the most sparsely populated province in the whole country although being the largest province in Cambodia. The province is chock full of natural beauty, with thickly forested mountains, powerful waterfalls and the lush green rolling hills of the western side.
Despite the growing deforestation, especially due to the valuable minerals remaining in the deep red, fertile ground, Mondulkiri has still one of the biggest successional woodlands of Cambodia. Except being in Sen Monorom, you’ll find deep pure jungle, with a huge variety of flora and fauna. You may also find gigantic and beautiful waterfalls, where you can take an empowering shower, such as the impressive Bou Sraa.
Sen Monorom is the provincial capital and doesn’t show up as a typical Cambodian town, while it is the only town the province has to speak of. With approx. 7500 inhabitants, 20 guesthouses, 12 restaurants, 3 bars and no post office it is often compared to American Wild West frontier towns. Concerning the quietness and beauty of Sen Monorom people from other parts of the country move here and therefore the land price doubled from 2006 to 2007.
The town of Sen Monorom is the best base camp for travellers who want to explore the surrounding areas. A quiet but beautiful town nestled into the hills; it has a lot of potential to develop into a centre for non-intrusive eco-tourism. At present, it’s very undeveloped, which gives you a feeling of going somewhere off the beaten tourist trail. Add to that the communities of hill tribe people, who are not affected by mass-tourism, as they are in neighbouring Thailand, and you have an area that is very attractive to the adventure traveller.
Also interesting is the variety of languages being used: Khmer, hill tribe languages, Vietnamese and Lao. 80 percent of the population in Mondulkiri is made up of ten tribal minorities, with the majority of them being the Chunchiet from the tribe of the Phnong. The remaining 20 percent are Khmer, Chinese and Muslim Cham. Most of the population lives off the land, planting rice, fruit trees and a variety of vegetables. Others grow, coffee, strawberries, rubber and cashew nuts.
More and more houses are built in the typical Khmer style. Visiting the hill tribes you still can find the traditional Phnong houses. In the houses you can find traditional gongs and big jars, whereby the last ones are said to be more than a thousand years old. There are various sorts of gongs used for different occasions. Jars and gongs are among the most valuable possessions in an indigenous community, whether in traditional, spiritual or material terms. During the Khmer Rouge Regime those objects were buried in hidden places in the jungle and in many cases they still wait in the ground.