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Cool mountain getaway

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090522_17.jpg

A favourite of former King Sihanouk, Kirirom offers a respite from the city

Photo by: STEPHANIE MEE

A chimney stack is all that remains of former King Norodom Sihanouk’s summer home.

Just two hours away from Phnom Penh, in Kampong Speu province, lies Kirirom National Park, a thickly wooded mountain retreat long sought out for its peace, solitude, nature and respite from the oppressive heat of low-lying cities and towns.

Boasting 35 hectares of protected land in the rugged Elephant Mountains, Kirirom possesses a landscape that is unique to the rest of Cambodia, with pine trees towering over the leafy slopes and cool breezes drifting across crystal lakes.

The name Kirirom means "mountain of joy", a name bestowed by former King Norodom Sihanouk, who was no stranger to the mountain's beguiling charms. During the 1960s one of the King's favourite summer getaways was his mansion at the summit.

The retreat was destroyed during the civil war, and today all that remains is the giant stone chimney, jutting into the sky. But the same incredible views that so enthralled Sihanouk are still there.

Close to the abandoned retreat is a visitor's centre, open only on weekends and managed with support from Mlup Baitong, an environmental NGO, as well the Ministry of Environment.

Vendors sell a variety of drinks and snacks next to the visitor's centre, including grilled fish, sticky rice with sweet potato and coconut, and, oddly enough, traditional Khmer remedies.

Srey Pov, a young vendor, explains: "We get all the remedies from the forest and many people come from all over Cambodia to buy them - mostly Khmer people, but also quite a lot of Chinese visitors."

The traditional remedies include large, woody tree mushrooms, boiled in water to make a tea used to cure headaches; tree bark that smells strongly of menthol, also boiled and drunk to cure fatigue; and black-and-white porcupine quills.

"The porcupine quills are for pregnant women who suffer from morning sickness and loss of appetite," says Srey Pov. "We light the quill on fire until it crumbles, and then put it in rice wine. We get many pregnant woman who come here just to receive this cure."

Just a few feet away from Srey Pov's natural remedy stand is a small nature trail leading down to the secluded lake. The walk takes about 10 minutes and trekkers are rewarded at the bottom with access to the glassy blue body of water and near total seclusion amid the tall grass and gently swaying pine trees.

Paths around the lake end up at either a cluster of small bamboo picnic huts sitting in a verdant patch of grass on the edge of the lake, or the towering stupa of Wat Chas, otherwise known as Old Wat, overlooking a bubbling stream.

One of Kirirom's most popular attractions is the Tea Farm Waterfall, known in Khmer as teuk chreus jom ka tai. Located 700 metres from the main road, the waterfall can be reached by a steep set of stone stairs built into the side of the hill. Thatch and bamboo picnic huts balance precariously on hillside, looking down onto the small waterfall, which tumbles noisily over the slick black rocks.

"There are a lot of animals out here," says Ruot Ravy, manager of Kirirom Guesthouse and Restaurant, located nearby on a ledge overlooking the nearby mountain ranges.

"The animals don't often come out in the daytime, but sometimes I see them very early in the morning or late at night," she says. "It's hard to tell what they are sometimes, but we know that there are deer, porcupine, bears and possibly even tigers in these mountains."

Guests can try their luck at animal spotting at the Kirirom Resort in one of their basic rooms for US$20 a night.

The quirky Kirirom Hillside Resort at the base of the mountain also offers accommodation ranging from $17 a night for a simple tent on the grounds to $160 for the opulent executive suite. Attractions here also include a manmade UFO structure, plastic dinosaur gardens and a turreted castle-like gate entrance.

More down-to-earth accommodations can be found at the Chambok Community-Based Ecotourism site, located at the base of the mountain, down a rich red dirt road and surrounded by fields of mango and jackfruit trees just 10 kilometres from the park's entrance.

Visitors can stay at the home of a local villager for the small fee of $3 per person per night. Meal options are available, as are guided treks to a 40-metre waterfall, ox cart rides, trips to a bat cave, bicycle rentals and traditional Khmer dance performances.

All revenues from the site go directly to the villagers, and are used in part to protect and conserve the area's natural resources. Entrance to the Chambok is $3 for foreigners and 1,000 riels for Khmers.

For more information about Chambok, or to stay overnight, contact Mlup Baitong at 023 214 409. The entrance fee to Kirirom National Park is $5 for foreigners and free for Khmers. To get there, follow National Road 4 west to Treng Trayeung town, where signs point the way to the park.

Kirirom Guesthouse and Restaurant can be reached at 012 957 700 and Kirirom Hillside Resort at 016 590 999.

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