After a seven hour bus ride from Phnom Penh ($9 each), we reached a small town in the southwestern region of Cambodia called Koh Kong. So, why Koh Kong? When we left Siem Reap, we were on our way to Sihanoukville, a beach town, but we changed our minds at the last minute and decided to forgo the beach for the jungle and islands of Koh Kong.
We arrived in Koh Kong on Tuesday afternoon, dropped off our stuff at our hotel ($15 / night for one of the nicest places In town) and went out to explore the town. We quickly realized that this was a less traveled area as all the locals were excited to say hello and wave to us. Felix even got to borrow a child’s bike and take a group photo with the local children. We decided to book an organized tour with Koh Kong Eco-Tours (probably the more reputable of the two tour companies in town, all offering the exact same packages) – Wednesday to the island and Thursday to the jungle. We, of course, negotiated the price down by a few dollars to $20 per person per tour.
With our plans for the next two days sorted out, we went out in search of dinner. Having read about a local restaurant with many vegetarian options, we were off. After walking for about an hour up and down the same street, with the help of some locals, we found the restaurant only to discover it was closed for renovation. Getting hungrier, we checked out a few other local places, but found they didn’t have much to offer us (a lot of chicken, pork and seafood; lots of picture menus). Now starving, we followed the tourist map to Paddy’s Bamboo guesthouse, a grungy backpacker hostel, with a limited selection of food and a scraggly crew of randoms hanging around. Happy to see an English menu, we ordered some stir-fried veggies and an omelet sandwich. Tired and finally fed, we returned to our room vowing not to repeat this experience.
On Wednesday morning, we met our tour on the boat dock at 8am, hopped aboard with the other tourists, and started out on a 2.5 hour journey out the mouth of the river and into the ocean. It was a noisy ride on this converted fishing boat, two lawnmower engines rattling loudly behind us. Finally, we arrived on a deserted white sand beach, hopped off the boat, and looked around at the beautiful scene of Koh Kong island in front of us. The thought crossed Jordan’s mind: this is how Survivor begins!
We spent the next four hours napping in the shade, snorkeling and swimming in the warm clear-blue water, and enjoying a lunch of fresh fish grilled on the spot by the staff, rice, grilled veggies, baguette, and pineapple. Recharged from a relaxing afternoon, we all got back on the boat for a two hour journey to the mangrove forest that covers the entire shoreline in this area. It was cool to see how they grow right out of the water, their roots reaching down like a hundred fingers into the mud. We learned that mangroves help stop coastal erosion and can even absorb the force of a tsunami. We walked through the forest on a boardwalk, which gave us the opportunity to be surrounded by the trees, and climbed a tall observation tower to see the view just before sunset, looking out over the forest.
Back in Koh Kong town, still gross from the salt water, sunscreen and mosquito repellant, we decided to play it safe and go get some pizza for dinner. It was actually quite good, and we accompanied it with a local beer ($8.25 total). Tired from our day and with an early wake up ahead of us, we went off to our room to shower and sleep.
On Thursday morning, we woke up a few minutes early and went for a very nice breakfast at Cafe Laurent across the street – decidedly the nicest place in town. We enjoyed fancy coffee, beautifully presented, and some chocolate croissants (pricey at $7 total), while looking out over the river. Feeling a little more human, we crossed the street back to our hotel and hopped on the Eco Tours tuktuk, which took us a bumpy 10 minute drive to a small boat docked at the end of a random dirt road. Along with one other tourist, Teamo from Finland, and two staff members, Taan the guide and his uncle Mao, we motored into the river and through mangrove-lined waterways inland towards the mountains. About an hour later we arrived at our spot – a rock on the side of the river – and hopped off the boat.
Into the jungle we climbed, up a hill for about 20 minutes, to a scenic overlook. In the distance we could see the town and the ocean. Here, we were joined by two German students, on the same trek, but with another guide and from another company (confirming that indeed all the tours are exactly the same). The eight of us continued deep into the jungle for another 40 minutes, crossing over and under branches, the leader hacking off an occasional branch with his machete. Eventually, we came out near a small mountain stream, complete with a waterfall and a small pool full of little 1-3 inch fish. We slipped into bathing suits and jumped in. The water was cool and pleasant, and very refreshing after the hot and humid hike. We had our lunch (rice and stir-fried veggies, carried up by the staff) and some pineapple and enjoyed the tranquil scenery. At one point, Mao decided to feed some leftover baguette to the fish – what a sight to see those little guys fight over it, causing a large chunk to disappear entirely in about 30 seconds!
At around 2pm, we picked up our stuff and headed back into the jungle. Taan stopped at one tree, hacked off a piece and handed it to us – the familiar smell (the Germans said it smelled like Christmas) explained the name given to these mountains – Cardamom! About half an hour later, we came out to a river bed, where Taan pointed to a small waterfall and pool. This was supposed to be the second stop of the tour, but being the dry season, it wasn’t so impressive.
Ironically, the sound of thunder started getting louder in the distance. We looked up to see a large dark cloud forming overhead. Felix asked, “how much further to the boat” and Taan replied “10 minutes”. Then Felix asked, ” how long until the rain?” and Taan answered “5 minutes”. We all looked around ready to book it out of there, but Taan just sat there leisurely enjoying a banana. As we headed back into the trees, not six minutes later, the skies opened up, dumping buckets of rain on us in huge droplets. By the time we reached the boat, walking through sheets of water, we were completely soaked. Luckily, the boat had a “sun-covered” which provided much needed protection from the downpour. Motoring back on the waterway towards the light, we cleared the rain and found ourselves in the sun, still completely soaked, for the hour journey back to town.
Arriving back nearly dry, we thanked our staff for a good time, and went back to our hotel to change. Having given up on the local small-town food scene, we went back across the street to posh Cafe Laurent for a very nice dinner. Tomato bisque, little pizelle (tomato-basil-mozzarella on a wonton), and a veggie omelet were all yummy, and creme brûlée for dessert (first western dessert in 2 weeks!) were just what the doctor ordered. The atmosphere was romantic, sitting on a balcony right over the river, with excellent service and international soft music in the background. The most expensive meal yet ($14.50), but well worth it. We returned to our room happy that we opted for nature over a tourist town, and satisfied that we will return to Phnom Penh with a little more color (sunburn red) and understanding of Cambodia.
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