It’s a wonder that so few people visit Cambodia’s southern provinces, given the ravishing contrasts created by a near-iridescent green quilt of rice paddies, the looming crags of the Cardamom and Elephant mountain ranges and a palm-fringed coastline stretching over 440km. The relative inaccessibility of much of the southwest, thanks to heavy forest cover, the presence of the mountains and the lack of roads, only add to its charm.
The central part of southern Cambodia – roughly comprising Kampot and Takeo provinces – is dotted with craggy karst formations that project starkly from the plains. This is one of the country’s most productive agricultural regions: parts of Kampot province are like one vast market garden, producing durian, watermelon and coconuts, while in Takeo province rice paddies dominate. Salt and pepper are also key products. The former is extracted from the saltpans of the coast and plays an important part in the manufacture of the country’s prohok (salted fermented fish paste); the latter is cultivated almost like hops, with regimented vines clinging to cords, and was once the condiment of the colonial occupiers – at the time, no Parisian table worth its salt was without Kampot pepper.
Most visitors come to the south to hit the beach at Sihanoukville, its white sands washed by warm, shallow waters. The town sits on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Thailand, its coastline scalloped with gently shelving, tree-fringed white-sand beaches, and misty islands looming enticingly out at sea. But don’t expect atoll-like isolation: the town is attracting increasing numbers of party-animals keen to live it up in the clubs by night and in the beach bars that line Ochheuteal Beach by day. That said, a short moto ride along the coast in either direction uncovers stretches of less developed, peaceful beach, particularly during the week.
On the way to Sihanoukville, just two hours’ drive south from the capital, you could stop off at Kirirom National Park to enjoy the fabulous mountain scenery and experience a Cambodian homestay. Sihanoukville itself is the jumping-off point for another area of outstanding natural beauty, Ream National Park, with mangrove forest and fine sandy beaches. East of Sihanoukville, Bokor National Park may still be worth visiting for an eerie walk around the abandoned hill station amid its jungle-clad slopes, although private development is set to diminish some, if not all, of its unearthly appeal. It’s most easily reached from the charming riverside town of Kampot, as is Kep, an increasingly popular seaside destination.
East of here, you’ll find the down-at-heel remains of the Funan-era city of Angkor Borei, home to a fascinating museum of early statuary and interesting records of the archeological digs of the ancient city scattered around the town; close by, the hilltop temple of Phnom Da is most easily visited by boat from Takeo, a shabby little town that still feels far removed from the tourist trail, despite its proximity to Phnom Penh.
Communications between the larger towns in the south are pretty good by Cambodian standards, with continual road works marking the progress. Travelling along National Route 4, one of the country’s busiest roads, you can get from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville in under five hours. From Phnom Penh, two other major roads lead south. The tarmac on National Route 3 to Kampot was near completion at the time of writing, and dramatic improvements have been made to the route from Kep to Vietnam. National Route 2 is also in the process of being asphalted as far as Phnom Den for the crossing to Vietnam. If you’re arriving in this part of Cambodia from Thailand, it’s possible to reach the capital using National Route 48, via the sleepy border town of Koh Kong, which not only links up with National Route 4, but makes a good base for exploring the surrounding natural attractions.