RAVEL information on Cambodia has always been pretty scarce. Many visitors confine
themselves to a tour of the Angkor ruins simply because they lack material on other
parts of the Kingdom. Cambodia's rugged reputation nevertheless lures many who pride
themselves on staying off the beaten track, picking up information from other travelers.
But lots spend their first days hanging around their guest houses, hoping to meet
kindred spirits who have already been to Stung Treng or Koh Kong and can tell them
something about it (besides the population estimates given in their dated Lonely
The Cambodia Less Traveled sheds much-needed light on the dark parts of the map.
Author Ray Zepp, an American mathematician teaching at Phnom Penh's Faculty of Business,
has spent much of his free time exploring the "other Cambodia," and his
book is a compilation of pertinent information and breezy anecdotes picked up during
these travels. Each of the sixteen chapters deals with a different under-visited
locale, from the obviously up-and-coming (Sihanoukville) to the sleepiest backwaters
(Kratie and Prey Veng, for instance). Several spots in the Phnom Penh area finally
get some notice: the Chruoy Changvar peninsula, quiet, shady and rural, is just across
the Tonle Sap river. Even the Mekong Island guided tour, which independent travelers
might eschew as a pricey "cattle drive," has fascinations that Zepp found
worth mentioning; the author can find something of interest no matter where he goes.
The information packed into each chapter is not presented in any systematic manner.
But that is not a grumble; in fact, it adds a spontaneity lacking in most other guides.
The selection on Kampot, for example, gives a straightforward summary of what the
area has to offer the visitor, whereas the chapter entitled "A Three-day Circuit:
Prey Veng and Kompong Cham" takes the form of a travelogue. Those expecting
a "full service" guidebook with large chunks of historical background and
uniformly presented information on transport and accommodation maybe disappointed.
Too bad. This has all you want - for the rest, take the time, ask the locals and
find out yourself. Unlike most guides, which have an anonymous, authoritative tone,
this is essentially a personal record, unashamedly anecdotal and subjective. Zepp
will tell you how to get there and where to stay, but he'll also tell you how much
the roadside soldiers usually ask for and how big the cockroaches in the bathroom
are. He will also offer the occasional editorial comment on his findings, but whether
this detracts from the book or not will depend on what the reader's opinion is.
Although he is not as much of an authority on Cambodia as some people will believe
themselves to be, Zepp is a keen observer, and many of the details he includes add
to the book's appeal. A list of birds spotted on the eastern bank of the Mekong,
mushrooms encountered in Kirirom and plants in Ratanakiri will delight nature lovers.
Other bits, like the enterprising customs guys and the taste of grilled spiders at
Skoun, are just plain fun.
Zepp makes a point of knocking on the doors of city fathers and encourages others
to do the same. He's found talking with minor officials and people all over helpful
and rewarding. The author offers only conjecture on a number of historical and cultural
points. For instance, upon finding a ruined mansion on the outskirts of Sen Monorom,
Zepp suggests that the house may have been a royal residence, but one is left to
wonder (or encouraged to find out for ourselves).
The book has more than two dozen maps drawn napkin deluxe style, like the ones fellow
travelers sketch out for each other over a beer. The proportions may be skewed and
north maybe at the bottom, but they'll be of help to folks going to towns like Sre
Ambel and Kratie because there's little else available now.
Encouraging people to seek out the more remote corners of the Kingdom inevitably
raises questions about security, and the book tackles this in a very level-headed
way. Zepp fully appreciates the romantic appeal of adventure, but urges a cautious,
well-informed approach. Zepp gives reasonable advice on having a good time in Cambodia
- in fact, over considerably more of Cambodia than, say, the Lonely Planet would
ever bother itself with - without getting into trouble.
"I am always attracted to shade, to peace and quiet, and to the romance of old
colonial buildings," writes Zepp, and it is like-minded travelers who will find
this book most useful. So there's not a lot to do in many of these places other than
to sip a beer and watch the river go by - but surely most everyone can appreciate
that concept. A long-awaited new edition of Lonely Planet has yet to surface, but
when it does it won't cover such an array of places as The Cambodia Less Traveled.
This home-grown guide is sure to find an audience much bigger than its first print
run of 2,000.
There's simply nothing else like it.