Leaving Phnom Penh, National Route 4 makes its way through a typical Cambodian landscape of rice fields and sugar palms. South of Kompong Speu the views alter dramatically as the distant blue peaks of the Cardamom Mountains to the north and the Elephant Mountains to the south begin to loom on the horizon. A detour will bring you to the pine-clad hills of KIRIROM NATIONAL PARK, often ignored by travellers, but well worth the effort of reaching for its almost alpine scenery, crisp mountain air and Chambok (whttp://www.chambok.org), a community-based ecotourism site.
The rolling hills of the park are zigzagged with well-trodden trails and dotted with waterfalls, lakes and abundant wild plants. An important wildlife sanctuary, the park’s slopes are home, despite illegal logging, to forests of Pinus merkusii, a pine tree not found anywhere else in Cambodia. Although poaching has taken its toll, species of deer, wild ox (gaur and banteng), elephant and leopard still inhabit the depths of the park. In a 1995 survey, tiger tracks were found, but the lack of subsequent sightings gives little hope that tigers survive here today.
In the 1940s a road was cut through the forest, and the development of a hill station began following a visit from King Norodom who named the area Kirirom, which means Happiness Mountain. Building the hill station was hard work, with construction perpetually hindered by the Khmer Issarak guerrilla troops who prowled the forests until the 1960s. The completed resort was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge years only to become accessible again as an attractive holiday destination, which included two royal residences, in 1996.
From the entrance, the road climbs steadily for 16km to a rolling forested plateau, where you’ll find the majority of the park’s attractions and its few facilities. About halfway up the hill, a signpost points down a narrow path to Outasek waterfall, a series of cascades just a short hike off the main road. There’s always some water for splashing about in here, except during the very driest part of the year.
One of the first things you’ll see when you arrive on the plateau is the Kirirom Guesthouse; a side road beyond here leads to a cluster of derelict buildings, including the newer of the two royal residences, a fairly well preserved white-ish building with a red roof. A bit further on, the other, older royal residence, is also derelict, and you can scramble through the overgrown garden for views over the forest and out to a magical lake, Sras Srorng, which can be reached by heading downhill along a rough track from the palace. About 1km beyond the guesthouse is the park office; unsurprisingly, it has no information for visitors, although a nearby notice board has a useful map and shots of various park locations, as well as displaying photos of dead animals illegally caught here.
After another 500m or so you reach the only major road junction in the park, from where signs point towards various sights. The most appealing option (particularly in the rainy season) is the track north to a series of three waterfalls, I, II and III, numbered according to increasing size, and located roughly every 2km.