Sweeping views from the top of the temple at Preah Vihear. Photograph: Reuters.
Uncharted temple trekking
Perched on a cliff’s edge in the Dangrek mountains, fringing the Thai border, the UNESCO World Heritage listed temple of Preah Vihear peers out across Cambodia’s north, with arresting views of sweeping forests and cascading rice fields.
The labyrinthine Hindu temple is said to date back to the 9th century but over the last five years, the site has seen few tourists: when the temple was awarded its UNESCO status in July 2008, violent cross-border clashes ensued between Thai and Khmer military soldiers over who had ownership over the temple and surrounding disputed territory.
However, in 2012, conflict subdued, and tourism to the shrine surged, with Preah Vihear’s tourism department recording an increase of 147 per cent in foreign tourists and 84 per cent in local.
While the site saw only 2,582 visitors from January to November in 2011, that figure soared to 6,396 for the same period last year, while 86,953 local tourists flocked to temple, and authorities from both sides in August began discussion on a new border crossing. Preah Vihear tourism director Kong Vibol attributed the influx of tourists to a calmer political situation and tighter border security.
Located about 150 kilometres north-east of Siem Reap, a private taxi can take you from temple town to the base of Preah Vihear in about four hours, with a round trip costing between $150-200. Once at the base, pile into a pick-up truck for around $20 which winds up a steep track to the temple complex.
Anna Betts, a senior travel advisor for AboutAsia travel, says interest in the company’s chartered helicopter trips to the temple has spiked. “Guests really want to travel slowly and take up side trips. The journey to Preah Vihear is half the part of the trip…a patchwork of fields below you that slowly turns into forest.”
She also recommends traveling overland, with a visit to Anlong Veng (one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge and home to the grave of Pol Pot). Luxury travel company Abercrombie and Kent plan to soon promote Preah Vihear as a side trip from Siem Reap, also by air.
“We did sell a lot of these trips this year though - it’s isolated and unique, very inspiring, and people like that,” A&K country director Long Leng says. At $2000 per person, chopper trips are not cheap; however he says the 35 minute travel time, and chance to see some of Cambodia’s most remote land from the air, sells.
“Tourists are very keen on exploring the unexplored - I predict this year many will want to get to Cambodia’s most remote temples,” he says. Accommodation options close to Preah Vihear were beginning to crop up too, he says, such as the Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel, set to open this month.
“We are still a long way from any five star options though,” he says. Country supervisor for adventure travel company Grasshopper Tours, Marie Phouek, says she expects cycling day trips to temples such as Oudong, just 40 kilometres from the capital, to become more popular.
“It’s already a bigseller - people want to see temples but want more real life, on the top of the mountain you see lovely views, especially in the rainy season.” The pre-Angkorian temple complex of Sambor Prei Kuk, near Kampong Thom, and Wat Nokor near Kompong Cham, were also becoming popular, she says.
A last slice of paradise?
The white sandy beaches of Koh Rong may not feel so Robinson Crusoe anymore, with bamboo backpacker bars and lazy reggae beats set for a surge - the Phnom Penh based Mad Monkey crew plan to open a hostel on sister island Koh Rong Samloem this year.
However, the islands and their palm lined beaches remain relatively pristine when compared to Sihaoukville. Lazy Beach, with its swinging hammocks, turquoise waters (it has its own private coastline) and jungle canopy backdrop, remains peaceful and relatively isolated and has continued to see a steady influx of sun-seekers keen to ditch rum buckets and the beach partying hordes, according to one of its owners, Rich King.
Meanwhile, marketing manager for the Raffles hotel group, Noemie Payumo, says many of the hotel’s guests were in fact return visitors to Cambodia and were keen to explore areas besides the temples, Kampot and Kep. “One of the most popular destinations are the Koh Rong islands at the moment - in particular Song Saa,” she says.
Caroline Major from AboutAsia travel, agrees. “Song Saa has made great strides and increased interest in the islands- many people didn’t know they existed. We really didn’t have beach options (for high-end travellers) two years ago, there has been a big change in the offerings available.”
Even further off the beaten track, heading 60 kilometres west towards Koh Kong, is the Koh Sdach archipelago, a collection of twelve almost untouched islands. Nomads Land plugs itself as a deserted island (there are only seven other inhabitants on the island, Koh Totang), running an eco-conscious travellers paradise, without running water or electricity.
The most populus island of the archipelago, Koh Sdach, only has two local guesthouses and a small fishing village. Karim Svai says business was “getting better and better” every season.” This is the last area like this, I believe, in all of South East Asia, a few of the (12) islands are completely deserted. The corals here are fantastic - the further away from Vietnam you are the greater the visibility, it really is paradise.
The reason is that access isn’t great (a six hour bumpy minibus ride from Phnom Penh to Pou Yopon, then a boat to the island) and the fact not many people know about it - it only made the guidebooks about a year ago.” He says many guests were backpackers and “flashpackers” who wanted “the slow life - you won’t find this in Thailand.”
He says he and partners Arianne, Kevin and Charlene, were proud of their low footprint (they produce all electricity with solar panels, use filtered rain water for drinking and showers and refrain from using any plastic bags or bottles, grow what produce they can and use dry (sawdust) toilets).
They have a strong expat clientele, he says, and with only five bungalows accommodated over 200 guests last year. Karim says to come soon though, as a Chinese development company have bought up 40,000 hectares of national park on the mainland, set to develop the site in 2015. “Things will change, slowly, it’s inevitable,” he says.
It was rainy season when we stood in the gardens of Memoria Palace, Pailin province. Perched on a hilltop in the Cardamom mountains we looked out at the rolling landscape green with lush palms and banana trees. ‘Memoria’ is the Spanish word for ‘memory.’ Some 30 years ago, this site was a massive ammunition depo. Now, it’s a hotel.
Once a vibrant area, home to over 1 million people, Pailin province has dwindled in stature: its population has not risen above 80,000 for some years. Until late 1996 the region was a major Khmer Rouge stronghold and resource centre under the Pol Pot regime.
For almost a decade afterwards Khmer Rouge’s senior leaders hid out in the province: Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second in command, Ieng Sary, number three, and his wife Ieng Thirith all sheltered there until late 2007 when they were arrested, detained and charged by the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Hundreds of bullet holes remain in the walls of old buildings in the town.
One of the Khmer Rouge’s largest arsenal stations in Cambodia, housing an enormous cache of arms and munitions, sat where Memoria’s swimming pool is today.
The resort, a $35-90 per night getaway five hours from Phnom Penh, was built on the spot as part of a drive to regenerate the area by manager Mr. Long Panhavuth. Vuth himself spent three years helping authorities clear more than 120 land mines from the area. After the majority had been exploded, he worked with mine detectors to check the work was done. The local authority and Cambodian government recently certified that all land mines are cleared out from where Vuth concentrated his efforts.
A warm, intelligent man who is also an official with the Cambodian Justice Initiative, which monitors the tribunal, he is passionate about the potential of the land. Before Khmer Rouge, Pailin was well-known as a land rich in gems, timbers and fruit-tree orchards.
During the French colonial days Pailin was home to a variety of coffee and rubber plantations set up by the protectorate government. Memoria offers excursions to see the plantations and points visitors towards small stores in Pailin that buy and sell rubies and sapphires: much of the ‘mining’ is done by locals who look for gemstones in gravel after a rain. Orchard walks, fruit-picking and trips to waterfalls and ancient pagodas nearby are also encouraged.
Deeply passionate about the possibility that Pailin will once again be a place of peace and prosperity, Panhavuth hopes that, as well as a draw for tourists, his resort will offer a boost to the local economy. “I want to see people have good lives here and a future with hope,” he said.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism has earmarked the country’s Cardamom Mountains, home to mangrove forests and rich biodiversity, as a key area for tourism development in 2013. Flanking the border with Thailand, eco-tourism is flourishing in the 4.42 million-hectare expanse of mountains, waterfalls and villages such as Trapeang Rung and Chi Phet (a popular destination for village homestays, about four and a half hours from Phnom Penh.
The Chi Phet Community Based Ecotourism group can arrange homestays for around $5 a night, with a family dinner, sitting toilet and a bucket shower). Director for marketing for the ministry, So Visothy, says the government had flagged eco-tourism as a priority.
“We’ve noticed a trend in tourists wanting to experience nature, conservation, natural wonders, hiking, bird-watching and homestays,” he says. Anna Pawlikzocs, one half of the popular 4Rivers Floating Lodge - a set of 12 luxurious African safari like canvas tents suspended over the Tatai river - says the majority of their guests were repeat visitors to Cambodia or expats.
“People now want boutique, eco-friendly and adventure,” she says, “I would say trekking is something really unique here - although we’re constantly having to change our routes due to land concessions and illegal logging. It’s also still off the beaten track due to access, it is not so easy to get vehicles in and out of the Cardamoms, so it really is authentic, untouristy and quite special,” she says, although the resort has already exceeded expectations for this years bookings.
“The Cardamoms don’t have much in the way of boutique and higher end accommodation just yet, but I think more hotels are planned and are on the way so come soon. There are plenty of budget options, with many homestays and village guesthouses.
Mountain biking is becoming very popular.” She says many visitors to the Cardamoms travelled overland from Trat in Thailand. “I have noticed a trend of much more intrepid, adventurous travellers to Cambodia, especially the Cardamoms.
But they still want a boutique experience. We’re planning on pairing up with companies around Koh Sdach and Koh Kong for diving and snorkelling. Those islands really are the last untouched ones.”
Bamboo bridges, markets and village life
Phnom Penh antique shop owner Marianne Waller is convinced Kampong Cham’s lively, yellow dome shaped central market was designed by national architecture treasure Van Molyvann – though there is no proof. “It’s reminiscent of Olympic market, with the diamond shaped ventilation windows,” she says enthusiastically.
“There is this beautiful, old clock inside, lines of jewellery vendors, lots of gorgeous furniture…you don’t notice how lovely it is until you are inside.” Much the same could be said for Kampong Cham, an underrated, sleepy Mekong town brimming with French colonial architecture - highlights are the rose-hued French watchtower built in the 1920s and old colonial shop houses.
Although most people stop briefly in the town en route to Kratie, to see the Irawaddy dophins, or Laos, travel experts say Kampong Cham and its surrounds are worth a lengthier stay. A large chunk of surrounding villages are made up of ethnic Cham and farming villages, who grow tobacco and agriculture and farm rubber plantations.
Ancient temples such as Wat Maha Leap (made entirely of ornately painted wood), Wat Nokor and Han Chey are all worthy of visits. Koh Paen, or tobacco island, is connected to the mainland with what appears as a rickety, bamboo bridge (rest assured cars and motos travel on it daily in dry season- in wet season it disappears into the rising Mekong waters): it’s an ideal location for a day’s cycling along the sandy roads, with fisherman languidly throwing nets into the waters, farmers working tobacco plantations, stilted houses amid pretty gardens and rice fields.
Kampong Cham is a pleasant surprise for tourists aboard Abercrombie and Kent’s classy Mekong cruise (starting in Vietnam and Phnom Penh), who disembark at the town before making their way to the Angkor temples, says country director Long Leng. '
'We’ve seen a sharp increase in luxury boat trips, up to eight days on the Mekong.
''A lot of travellers want to see local villages, plantations, river life. In Kampong Cham we visit all the temples, craft and weaving villages, and to Koh Paen. It’s all quite untouched and they like that.”
Accommodation options are still modest, but comfortable options are available in guesthouses for between $10 and $30.
En route with Ze foodibus
After opening their new petite French restaurant, Ze Foodiebus, owners Anne By and Bô By are this year offering the chance to travel with them on a culinary adventure.
On a quest to find new cooking traditions and fresh ingredients for their street 310 restaurant, the couple and a friend are set to take their yellow van to explore four destinations in Cambodia.
Over the course of their trip, the trio will film their encounters and publish news about the twists and turns of their cooking ventures. They will also set up a lucky draw: the winner will join them for a trip on Ze Foodiebus.
‘It May Be You’ is the name of the draw. “You” will be the warmly invited candidate to join the dream cooking team on the last leg of their road trip – a visit to Kep.
“We don’t want to be tied to the kitchen. We love what we do but we want to get out of the city,” says Anne. “We have that sense of wanderlust. So we had an idea to combine both high-quality cooking and travel.”
“We are looking for new people to share with them and see how they prepare their own dinner.”
The first stop of their tour will take them to the Kampong Cham province. They will head back to Phnom Penh and hit the road again towards Mondulkiri Province.
The pristine rugged coastline of Cambodia will be their final stop. “The ocean is a must. Crabs, seafood, there is so much to discover,” says Anne.
“We are offering somebody the opportunity to take off with us. It will be rough – this is no 5-star travel but it will still be awesome,” she adds with a characteristic grin.