Sink into seaside pleasures of unspoilt luxury and escapism
There is something soothing about the ritual at Koh Kong immigration once you get used to it.
First, there is the throng of spivs offering useless advice and needless assistance, then there is the profoundly dishonest and shifty-looking immigration official quoting prices that he seems to make up on the spot.
Hardened travellers might enjoy the interview in the office with the gimlet-eyed lady who officiates. It is extremely unlikely that you will actually pay the real price, though apocryphal stories do exist of those who have the time and inclination to wait two hours and negotiate with tenacity.
Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia. You have arrived at the border crossing on the Gulf of Siam, now quite a busy route because a road exists from here to the resort town of Sihanoukville and on to the coastal towns of Kampot and Kep.
Koh Kong itself might not appeal to the traveller used to the more ordered society of Thailand: There are no 7-11s or other detritus of Western influences. Instead you have crumbling, spacious buildings and uncrowded, if not particularly clean streets.
The main attractions do not lie in the town itself – though the Westerners who live there seem to enjoy themselves well enough by patronising one another’s bars – but outside, in the verdant jungle and on the pristine beaches.
My own favourite spots are the Ta Tai falls, with its crystal waters and beautiful setting, and the mangrove boardwalk. There is something eerie about walking through mangroves that always puts me in mind of early explorers who became lost on some distant coastline and had to try to find their way through.
The island of Koh Kong, supposedly to be developed soon by big figures in Thai and Cambodian society, offers deserted beaches and great fishing. Irregular tours can be arranged from the Blue Marlin or Bob’s bar.
Diving is also a possibility, with a couple of interesting sites within easy reach of the town. There are plenty of guesthouses, and doubtless you will be encouraged by your motodop from the border to patronise one of his choice. Should you decline, the Blue Marlin offers good rooms for a reasonable price. The variety of eating and drinking choices is not huge but adequate.
Leaving Koh Kong these days will probably involve a bus trip, as the boat, formerly quicker, has been largely superseded by the new road, which has cut the land journey down to four hours.
It is a pleasant journey giving views over vast tracts of jungle and, seaward, great swathes of mangrove. Smugly sitting on the bus with your ticket, you would do well not to ask the actual price of the ticket at the station. I did and found out that my extremely happy and helpful motodop’s “small commission” was the same price as the ticket itself. Nobody leaves Koh Kong without being rolled somewhere.
Sihanoukville is the only beach resort in Cambodia that offers anything approaching international standards of hotel choice and food. Mercifully, it offers much more besides. Though not nearly as attractive as it was before the trees that lined the boulevards years ago were cut, Sihanoukville still retains much charm, and its uncrowded and separated beaches make it feel unhurried and varied.
Ochheuteal beach is the busiest one, attracting a crowd of young people eager to immerse themselves in Khmer culture ( booze cruises, happy hours, “happy” pizzas, etc.) whereas the more mature male fraternity can often be found instructing young Khmer ladies in the art of pool at the Freedom Hotel. These courteous, avuncular, somewhat corpulent figures are often to be seen escorting their ladies home late at night – who says the age of chivalry has died.
Victory Hill is the place for an evening’s music where musicians jam and the audience, mercifully inebriated, suffers and claps at appropriate junctures. If you follow the searchlight you will find your way to the Airport Disco, a new Russian venture that sells surprisingly good food in the daytime and plays astounding dreary techno music in the evening. It is definitely worth a visit.
On your way down there you will most likely follow a dark path and will pass the platoon of tuk-tuk drivers. A voice will gently and inevitably out call, “smoke, sir?” – they are not selling tobacco. However many times you turn down this offer you will always be asked: Hope springs eternal.
For veteran expats there is regular quiz at Sakal guesthouse, which attracts a friendly bunch of politically incorrect Trojan drinkers. The night brings out the pedant in us all, and fantastically useless bits of knowledge are displayed and defended with drunken indignation. It is good fun, and the tables are sometimes turned when the quizmaster is one of the contestants.
Sun Tour is one cruise that stands out above the rest. Run with Teutonic efficiency, it leaves from Victory Beach at 10am (ish) – even the Germans have to bow to Cambodian time. The boat is purpose-built and really is a superb example of marine engineering. Highlights include lazing on the top sun deck, jumping into the water from the same – not for the fainthearted – and swimming to the beautiful beaches. Snorkelling, though pleasant, does not equate with the Great Barrier Reef.
Another day excursion is to Ream National Park – this is not a booze cruise but a pleasant day spent watching birdlife and, perhaps, spotting dolphins.
Food is surprisingly varied in Sihanoukville, with pleasant French overtones. Good wine is available, and coffee and baguettes are widely sold. Totally unsuited to the climate, Vienna schnitzel seems to becoming widely available – The Savory Guesthouse offers good value as does the Swiss Garden.
Otres beach offers some interesting options by the expats who have opted to bale out on the coast. Try the fish tacos at Cantina if you have an afternoon to spare.
It is an interesting ride over to the beach and on the way back you can go and see a film at the Top Cat Cinema near the Golden Lions. This unique entity seats about 50 and is a great place to watch movies. You can smoke in there as well – not exclusively tobacco, either.
If you manage to tear yourself away from Kompong Som – and many don’t – you only have a short journey to Kampot and the brooding mountain of Bokor on the left-hand side. Worth a trip up, it has the remains of a French Hill station – or at least it did. Currently it is being developed, so the road might be closed.
Kampot is delightfully situated on a river and has several old colonial buildings. The rapids are a bit of a disappointment, especially as a hydroelectric project makes for a dusty journey to them. The town itself is attractive and a nice stop on the way to Kep, which is a delight.
Quiet, tucked away and forgotten for years, Kep is only now making a gradual comeback. The famed crab is a bit overrated, but the walk round the tiny national park – basically the hill that overlooks the town – is great. There are wonderful sunset views and evidence of monkeys and birds in the trees. Perhaps with not the greatest degree of sensitivity to the environment, the path is being widened to a road – get there before people start driving Humvees round it, playing loud music.
There are plenty of delightful little guesthouses, Botanica stands out for its garden, but the choice is wide.
You have reached the end of Cambodia’s coast. This is just a taster, and there is still much to explore, but there is plenty to enjoy.
You won’t get the bright lights of Pattaya, but you would be unlikely to be lonely unless so inclined. The coast is full of vigour and people doing things and starting businesses. It has the liveliness of a place starting afresh after a years of neglect.
No one should leave Cambodia without visiting Angkor, but if you have the time the coast offers a pleasant antidote to wandering around those fabulous ruins with a guidebook.