Cambodia’s southern provinces offer ravishing contrasts – a near-iridescent green quilt of rice paddies, the looming crags of the Cardamom and Elephant mountain ranges and a palm-fringed coastline stretching for more than 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 adds to its charm, although encroaching development – even within the region’s pristine national parks – is a constant threat. Numerous islands dot the azure Andaman Sea, and although many are also earmarked for resort development (with some already under way), a castaway ambience still prevails.
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Southeastern 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 more importantly, 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 or use the town as a jumping-off point to the islands, their white sands washed by warm, shallow waters. Sihanoukville sits on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Thailand, its coastline scalloped with gently shelving, tree-fringed white-sand beaches, and hazy 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 Ochheuteal Beach bars 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.
Sihanoukville is also the base for another area of outstanding natural beauty, Ream National Park, with mangrove forest and fine sandy beaches. East of town, Bokor National Park remains worth visiting for an eerie walk around the abandoned hill station amid its jungle-clad slopes, although private development is starting 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, a sleepy seaside destination famed for its fresh crab.
East of Kep, 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 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.
In southwestern Cambodia, meanwhile, the Cardamom Mountains, a lush expanse of forested valleys and peaks rising towards 1830m, are accessible from the community village of Chi Phat where you can go trekking and experience a Cambodian homestay. You can also access the Cardamoms on foot from the sleepy border town of Koh Kong, an emerging ecotourism destination, whose engaging hinterland attractions include waterfalls, isolated beaches and a mangrove sanctuary.
Yeah Mao: the Black Grandmother
There are regular traffic jams on NR4 south of Kirirom at the Pich Nil pass. This is due to Cambodian motorists breaking their journey to make offerings at the shrine of Yeah Mao, or Black Grandmother, who is believed to protect travellers and fishermen – the most popular story has it that she perished in the waves after setting out to find her husband who had left to fight at sea.
To pick out her shrine, follow the eye-watering haze of incense – a smoke-dimmed image of her can be found within it. The rows of spirit houses are recent additions and are a bit of a scam by local stallholders, but most Khmer would prefer to make an offering rather than risk offending the spirits.
Kirirom National Park
From Phnom Penh NR4 makes its way through a typical Cambodian landscape of rice fields and sugar palms before the distant blue peaks of the Cardamom Mountains to the north and the Elephant Mountains to the south begin to loom on the horizon. After 100km, a detour takes you to the pine-clad hills of Kirirom National Park, an important wildlife sanctuary often ignored by travellers, but worth the effort of reaching for its almost alpine scenery and crisp mountain air.
The rolling hills of the park are zigzagged with well-trodden trails and dotted with waterfalls, lakes and abundant wild plants. These 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, following a visit from King Norodom, who named the area Kirirom – “Happiness Mountain” – work began on building a hill station. Construction was hindered by the Khmer Issarak guerrilla troops who prowled the forests until the 1960s, and the completed resort was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge years. In the mid-1990s it became accessible again as an attractive holiday destination, including two royal residences. Nowadays, it’s well worth staying a few days. Kirirom begs to be explored on foot – and the area has been entirely cleared of land mines.
Cambodia’s conservation muddle
With proper, sustainable management, Cambodia’s forests could represent a valuable source of income, not just in terms of providing timber, but also as a focus for ecotourism. Regrettably, the last few decades have seen the country’s forest cover decline dramatically – a 2005 survey by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggested that it has decreased by 2.5 million hectares since 1990. Initially the deforestation was due to logging, mainly illegally for timber, but more recently they have been cleared in vast swathes to make way for plantations, such as rubber in Kompong Cham province, and more worryingly, for the illegal production of the drug MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, in the Cardamom Mountains.
In 2001, the Cambodian government (forced by the World Bank) began to take action to reduce some of the most glaring environmental abuses. However, the government soon fell out with Global Witness (globalwitness.org), the environmental watchdog appointed by the Bank to monitor Cambodia’s forests, when its findings were not to its liking. In June 2007, a damning report issued by Global Witness naming a number of high-ranking government officials as using the country’s resources for personal gain was met with derision; the government responded by calling for heads to roll at Global Witness. In the meantime, more than a decade after a cessation in logging was announced, little has really happened and the country’s natural resources continue to diminish at an alarming rate.
Cambodia’s forests are home to a vast, diverse wildlife population, including globally threatened species including the tiger. Ironically, the improvements in infrastructure that followed the establishment of the country’s national parks in 1993 have sometimes made it easier for poachers to capture wild animals, which are either sold in local markets for the pot or used to produce medicines and charms. Until a government clampdown in 2001 it was possible to buy game taken from the Kirirom park, particularly venison, along NR4 nearby, while restaurants specializing in rare meats such as pangolin were easy to find in Phnom Penh. Nowadays, this appears to have mostly stopped and you’ll see anti-hunting posters along NR4 instead, although poachers still sell their bounty on the black market.
Despite its official stance on logging and poaching, Cambodia appears to lack the will to implement sound conservation policies. Most recently, concessions have been granted to international companies to explore for oil and gas offshore, and – after a nifty change in the law – for bauxite, gold and copper in a protected area of Mondulkiri. Though it could be that the government simply doesn’t recognize the long-term implications of the present shambles, ecological organizations claim that exploiting the country’s natural resources offers just too many tempting opportunities for personal profit – witness the current situations at Bokor and Botum Sakor (see Arrival and departure) national parks.
Sihanoukville and the beaches
Cambodia’s primary coastal party town, SIHANOUKVILLE occupies a hilly headland rising above island-speckled waters and six gently shelving white-sand beaches. The sprawling, workaday town centre, also known as “Downtown” sits a little way inland, and offers few attractions – though this is where you’ll find the banks, internet cafés, markets and supermarkets, and it does at least have the relaxed atmosphere you’d expect of a seaside resort.
The main hub of activity is on and around Ochheuteal Beach, roughly 4km south of Downtown, and the southern end of Serendipity Beach Road, off which you’ll find the majority of the bars, restaurants and guesthouses. In recent years, development on Otres, the town’s furthest-flung beach, has mushroomed, yet still poses a mellower alternative to the inner town strands. The sixty off-shore islands dotting the Gulf of Thailand offer further escapism; a handful are easily accessible from town. There are also a couple of inland waterfalls to visit north of Sihanoukville.
South of the town centre, Ochheuteal Beach, the town’s longest and busiest strand, is a 3km stretch of fine sand lined with bars and restaurants. The roads behind have a good selection of hotels and guesthouses, while the sand itself is lined by near-identical beach bars, prevented from encroaching too far onto the beach by a tiled pedestrian walkway. That said, their respective beach umbrellas, deck chairs and tables still stretch to the water. Freshwater showers and toilets cater for the pretty much 24-hour activity. During the day it’s packed with Cambodian families and sun-soaking tourists; by night, the BBQs are fired up and the cocktails start flowing into the early hours.
Sihanoukville beach life
For the Khmer, a visit to Sihanoukville is an excuse for an eating and drinking binge, with a dip in the sea as a fringe benefit. Their conservative nature, coupled with a concern – verging on paranoia for the women – about maintaining whiteness, means that shade is everything. Accordingly, the most popular beaches have a plethora of beach parasols and deck chairs for rent at a nominal sum, and men, women and even young people take to the sea fully clothed. Consequently, many will stare in amazement at foreigners stripped off and baking in the blazing sun. For women, bikinis are just about acceptable, but going topless is a definite no-no.
You may find yourself almost bullied into buying massages, manicures and leg-hair threading from the women who patrol Ochheuteal Beach, telling you that your nails are dreadful and must be tended to – men are targeted just as much as women and it takes nerves of steel not to buckle under their relentless attention. A $5 massage is not bad value, and usually turns out to be a relaxing experience, but buying bracelets and trinkets from the children only encourages them to stay out of school or work late into the evening, so maintain a firm resolve if you can.
On the road: survival tips
While there is no more exhilarating way to explore Sihanoukville’s coastline than on the back of your own rented motorbike, you need to be on your guard for prowling policemen looking for a bribe. There is currently no legal requirement for tourists to hold a license but the police have come up with a few reasons to pull you over and take your money. There are some measures you can take to keep them at bay.
The first, and one that we would recommend regardless of police interference, is to wear a helmet; it’s every one for themselves on the road, so safety should be your number-one priority. Riding without a shirt is enough to have you pulled over and, bizarrely, driving with your lights on during the day is unacceptable; allegedly, it’s the privilege of travelling dignitaries only.
Being stopped for any of these offences will result in you being asked to hand over a fistful of dollars (up to $100). However, in almost every case you can barter this down to one or two. If you know you haven’t done anything wrong, insisting on handling the situation down at the station is a big deterrent, as the police are not actually charging you with anything.
Crime and safety in Sihanoukville
As Sihanoukville flourishes, so does petty crime. It is rarely serious, and mostly opportunistic, and certainly not something that should put you off visiting, but it’s a good idea to make the most of hotel safety-deposit boxes and keep an eye on your belongings when on the beach. Bag snatching, even from motos and tuk-tuks, is on the rise. As a rule, don’t carry anything with you that you can’t afford to lose.
Personal safety is another issue altogether; there have been several incidents of assault at Weather Station Hill/Victory Hill and along the dark unlit road to Otres Beach late at night, and drunken brawls are not uncommon, so it is safer to travel home by tuk-tuk rather than on foot or by moto, even around the main beaches.
Although none of this is anything to be paranoid about, it’s as well to ask your guesthouse when you arrive if there have been any recent incidents. Ultimately, the fun happens in the well-lit parts of town, so it shouldn’t be too hard to stick to them.
Eating at Sihanoukville Beaches
Don’t leave town without savouring the local seafood, priced by the kilogram and cheaper than anywhere else in the country. If you prefer something informal, flop in a deck chair on the beach and order what you fancy from passing hawkers, and the fabulous (and fabulously cheap) evening seafood barbecues on Ochheuteal Beach ($3.50). For cheap eats in the centre, the night market opens up south of Ekareach St near the Golden Lions roundabout in late afternoon, and there are dozens of street vendors around Psar Leu. You’ll find a good range of Western-oriented places on the streets behind Ochheuteal and Serendipity, serving everything from fish and chips to wood-fired pizza and falafel. Most of the restaurants on Otres double up as bars.
Diving Cambodia’s uncharted waters is a colourful experience, all the better for the lack of other divers. In places visibility reaches up to 20m, and, with a wealth of islands to choose from, operators can offer itineraries ranging from reefs encased in coral to an almost overabundance of marine life, including barracuda, puffer fish, moray eels, giant mussels and parrot fish. Closest to Sihanoukville at just two hours away, Koh Rong Samloem is the most popular day-excursion; trips include a couple of dives, a lazy lunch and a spot of beachcombing on its gloriously white sands. You could also stay overnight. Further afield, more experienced divers might prefer overnight trips to Koh Tang and Koh Prins (each a 5–7hr boat ride away), with reefs, coral bommies, a wreck or two and better visibility in their deeper waters.
The Dive Shop
Serendipity Beach Rd 034 933664, diveshopcambodia.com. Friendly German-owned PADI five-star dive centre – HQ is at Robinson’s Bungalows on Koh Rong Samloem. Offers two-dive day packages ($80), two-night liveaboard trips ($295) and three-day Open Water courses ($320) with free dorm accommodation on the island, plus a number of speciality courses.
Between the Golden Lions roundabout and Serendipity Beach 034 934631, ecoseadive.com. Another experienced outfit running PADI courses, fun dives, day-trips and overnights including accommodation in dorms, tents or bungalows, from their base on Koh Rong Samloem.
MoHaChai guesthouse, Serendipity Beach Rd 012 604680, divecambodia.com. Fully insured five-star PADI outfit with highly qualified instructors and some of the most advanced courses in Cambodia; options include four-day Open Water courses ($445), day-trips ($85) and overnighters ($220–325) – including night dives – on their tailor-made boat; the pricier trips make for Koh Tang.
Sihanoukville Beaches drinking and nightlife
Sihanoukville has some of the best nightlife in the country. With so many bars, with new favourites popping up and others closing almost weekly, it’s worth asking at your guesthouse or looking in the Sihanoukville Visitors Guide for the latest hangouts; utopia and Monkey Republic are usually packed each night.
Accommodation in Sihanoukville
From $4 bunks to $400 suites, Sihanoukville caters to all budgets. Hotels and guesthouses can get incredibly busy during public holidays and festivals, when it’s as well to book if you want to stay at a particular place, though you’re unlikely to be completely stuck for anywhere to sleep. During peak season (Nov–March) and major holidays (particularly Khmer New Year), hotels may hike their prices up by 25–30 percent. It’s worth trying to negotiate a discount if you plan to stay for a week or more, or if you arrive during the week, even during the peak season. Pretty much all accommodation now offers free wi-fi and most can make bus and tour bookings.
Shopping in Sihanoukville
Western groceries, toiletries and wines can be bought at a number of supermarkets and minimarts around the town centre and on 14 Mithona St and Serendipity Beach Rd, which is also lined by boutiques selling beach attire and souvenirs.
Islands near Sihanoukville
Cambodia’s coastal waters are peppered with tens of tropical offshore islands, many of them an easy trip from Sihanoukville and a couple of which lie within Ream. Peaceful and idyllic – for now (see Trouble in paradise) – lapped by clear seas and graced with white-sand beaches, they’re great places to hole up in for a few days, and offer a smattering of rustic accommodation. Snorkelling, sunbathing, gentle walks and lounging are positively encouraged; all of these improve the further you travel offshore (particularly the snorkelling). They are also superb destinations for diving.
Trouble in paradise
Although change doesn’t happen too quickly in Cambodia, many of the idyllic islands around Sihanoukville do have a shelf life. Since 2006 the government has leased numerous islands (possibly as many as 22) to international companies for the development of luxury hotels and golf courses destined to wipe out the fragile communities of wooden bungalows. So far, around fourteen five-star resorts and a staggering eighteen golf courses have been mooted, and a Russian company, which has leased both Hawaii Beach and its off-island, Koh Pos (Snake Island), has already built a bridge between the two, juxtaposing grimly against the crystalline waters and the lush jungle on either side.
On the upside, these developments will provide much-needed employment for Cambodians, but it would seem that the downsides are greater, with the money spent by tourists going directly to the overseas corporations, and the resorts adding a further drain on resources such as water, which is already severely limited (in summer it’s not unknown for Sihanoukville to run out of water for several weeks).
For now, plenty of stalwart bungalows and huts are weathering the developers’ storm, but time is of the essence if you want to visit the islands before their humble tranquillity is obliterated entirely.
Koh S’dach and the outlying islands
Lying in clear blue waters roughly halfway between Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, just off the coast of Koh Kong province, the small rocky island of Koh S’dach (King’s Island) gets its name from the legend surrounding the royal spring behind the port, which is said to have gushed forth miraculously when the king and his army were desperate for drinking water as they battled invaders here. Supporting a population of a couple of thousand, Koh S’dach may not look too exciting at first glance, but is refreshingly authentic, has wonderful snorkelling and fishing (even quite close to shore, though you’ll need your own equipment) and is a good base from which to explore little-visited, and still largely undeveloped outlying islands. It is also, by fishing village standards anyway, quite a prosperous little community due to the village’s ice factory, which supports the fishing fleet.
Koh S’dach is just a couple of kilometres long, and 1km wide. There’s a rocky beach on its seaward side, reached by a path through the compound of the simple pagoda, Wat Koy Koh. The beach isn’t brilliant, but vivid coral and shoals of fish found close to shore compensate.
The best of the nearby islands is Koh S’mach, just 1km away, home to a small fishing community and with some sandy beaches. Tiny Koh Totang, 2km off Koh S’dach, has a population of just seven (plus a few dogs) that almost doubles during the dry season when the owners of Nomad’s Land, the island’s only accommodation option, return to set up shop. Aside from this it’s completely undeveloped and you can wander through the wooded interior to seek out hidden beaches.
Ream National Park
Some 18km to the east of Sihanoukville, Ream National Park (also known as the Preah Sihanouk National Park) is unique in Cambodia, covering 210 square kilometres of both terrestrial and marine habitat, including stunning coastal scenery, mangrove swamps, lowland evergreen forest and the islands of Koh Thmei and Koh Ses. At least 155 species of bird have been recorded in the park, and for resident and visiting waders, the mangrove-lined Prek Toeuk Sap River is an important habitat. Besides supporting a large population of fishing eagles, the river is also home to milky and adjutant storks, and kingfishers, which are regularly spotted on the river trips – and dolphins often put in an appearance between December and April. The list of mammals includes deer, wild pig and fishing cats, though these are all elusive and you’re more likely to see monkeys.
Koh S’dach boat trips and diving
To get to neighbouring islands or go fishing from Koh S’dach, you’ll need to hire a boat; agree a schedule with the boatman beforehand and expect to pay upwards of $30/day. Alternatively, contact Octopuses Garden a diving outfit that can organise boats. They also offer introductory dives ($95) and PADI course ($400) from their base on Koh S’dach, and can arrange overnight stays on remote islands.
Koh Kong and around
The provincial town of KOH KONG, once a prosperous little logging town, has now lapsed into a quiet backwater. Laid out on a simple grid on the east bank of the Kah Bpow River, the town is dotted with wooden houses whose style owes more to neighbouring Thailand than Cambodia; there’s no colonial architecture at all. Sights, such as they are, are low-key.
Outside town and across the province, stretching down as far as the northern tip of Sihanoukville, is a fantastic destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. The majestic Cardamom mountain range, more than 1800m at its highest elevation, is still home to some of the rarest species on the planet, including the Asian elephant, the clouded leopard, the Siamese crocodile and the Indochinese tiger (although there have been no official sightings of the last since the 1990s). Meanwhile, Irrawaddy dolphins are often seen playing in the saline waters of the extensive mangrove network along the coast, explorable in the Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary, 6km from town.
Many people come to Koh Kong just for the border crossing with Thailand at Cham Yeam, though eco-outfits in town are doing their best to change that. The Cardamoms’ virgin forests and secluded waterfalls are accessible on day-treks, while longer, multi-day adventures take you deep into the remote Areng Valley (see Koh Kong tours and activities). Boat trips depart for Koh Kong island, a surprisingly large and attractive place, with seven pristine stretches of sand on its seaward side.
Cham Yeam: the border with Thailand
To get from Koh Kong to the border at Cham Yeam (daily 7am–8pm), a 20min trip, it’s easiest to take a moto or tuk-tuk ($4/$10; note that prices from the border into Koh Kong are significantly higher). Taxis for Cham Yeam leave from the transport stop 2km west of Koh Kong, beyond the disused warehouse. Once across the border take a minibus (20m beyond immigration, on the right-hand side; departs every 40min 7am–5pm approx; 120 baht) to Trat where good a/c buses leave regularly for Bangkok (270 baht; 6hr) and other major destinations across Thailand.
There are a couple of scams to watch out for – the attempt to charge 1000 baht (around $30) or more for a visa when entering Cambodia, with the excuse that “This is a land crossing, it’s different”. No it isn’t! A Cambodian visa is $20 regardless of where or how you enter the country. If this happens to you, ask for a receipt; record the time, date and the name of the border official (or jot down the number on his shoulder) and report it, as soon as you get the opportunity, to the Ministry of Tourism (023 884974, [email protected]) and the Immigration Department (t 017 812763, [email protected]). Other scams include a bogus “quarantine station” beyond Thai immigration (you do not need any health forms to get your visa) and touts offering to “facilitate” the visa process by filling your forms in for a fee (anything from 100–300 baht); politely refuse as this is nothing you can’t do yourself. You can avoid all these hassles by buying your visa online.
Koh Kong tours and activities
A few companies (and guesthouses such as Blue Moon) offer excursions to waterfalls upstream or the beaches on nearby Koh Kong island. The boat ride there takes about an hour (although the choppy seas shouldn’t be crossed between June and October). Guided treks into the hinterland are also easily arranged.
Tatai, 18km east of town neptuneadventure-cambodia.com. Experienced outfit with a tranquil riverside guesthouse and all sorts of river tours on offer, including kayaking and boat trips to the waterfall and nearby mangroves.
Ritthy Koh Kong Eco Adventure Tours
Waterfront, close to Bob’s Ice Cream (look for the orange sign) 012 707719, kohkongecoadventure.com. The town’s longest-running operator, offering a range of excursions that includes day-trips to waterfalls and to Koh Kong island, as well as kayaking and multi-day treks in the Cardamom Mountains.
Wild KK Project
097 989 7999,wildkkproject.com. Working with nature, a grassroots movement and local communities, these adventurous ecology- and culture-focused small group tours to the Areng Valley – a pristine region deep in the Cardamoms threatened by a proposed hydroelectric dam, and home to rare Siamese crocs – run for a minimum of four days. You’ll sleep in hammocks and eat local food while activities include trekking, kayaking and cycling. Expect plenty of interaction with local communities.
A shining example of the success of Cambodia’s community-based ecotourism projects, CHI PHAT is a remote riverside settlement nestled in the southern valleys of the Cardamom Mountains, accessible by moto or by long-tail boat from Andoung Tuek some 20km away, up the Preak Piphot River. Thanks to its isolation, Chi Phat is a good hike off the tourist trail and provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy the forest surroundings while supporting the local community. Established by the Wildlife Alliance in 2008 in an effort to protect the forests from illegal logging and poaching, the Chi Phat Community-based Ecotourism project (CBET), set in a four-village commune home to around 550 families, was designed to empower villagers to pursue sustainable forms of income. Its members – many, former poachers – are trained in nature awareness, earning their keep by guiding and opening up their homes to visitors.
There are scores of guided activities on offer; trips cost around $35/day, including guide (some with decent English), packed lunch and water. An overnight stay is enough to get a flavour of Chi Phat, although a few days or even a week is better if you want to explore the huge network of jungle trails, either on foot or mountain bike, visiting waterfalls in secluded clearings, bat caves and ancient jar burial sites. There are also sunrise birdwatching excursions (the silver oriole, the yellow-bellied warbler and great hornbill are highlights) and peaceful river cruises in traditional rowing boats.
East of Kep, amid stunning karst landscapes, lies the friendly town of KOMPONG TRACH, 30km east of Kampot and 15km from Kep on NR33. The main reason to head out here is to visit Wat Kirisehla, 5km outside town, which is home to a reclining Buddha set in a substantial natural cavity in the limestone hills.
Much of Takeo province disappears in an annual inundation by the waters of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, leaving Takeo town isolated on the shore of a vast inland sea, and outlying villages transformed into islands. As the waters recede, an ancient network of canals, which once linked the area to the trading port of Oc Eo (now a ruined site across the border in Vietnam), is revealed. These continue to be vital for local communication and trade, and getting around the area is still easiest by boat – indeed, for much of the year there is no alternative.
The pleasantly leafy town of ANGKOR BOREI, some 25km from Takeo, sits on the banks of the Prek Angkor, a tributary of the Bassac. It’s well known to scholars as where the earliest known example of written Khmer was discovered, and archeological excavations have identified many features of the pre-Angkorian town, including a moat 22m wide, a section of high brick wall and numerous extensive water tanks. Unfortunately, there is now little to see of the site apart from the finds in the fine local museum.
Angkor Borei can be reached year-round by boat, 20km up a canal and river, an interesting journey through wetlands that are home to a variety of waterbirds, with all types of boats coming and going. The museum is the main draw, but you can also explore the excavated Funan-era archeological sites here and at nearby Phnom Da.
Ironically for a site that has given its name to a style of sculpture, the remains of the temple of Phnom Da are now rather bare; everything of value has been removed to the museums in Phnom Penh and Angkor Borei. The ruins remain pretty imposing, however, constructed on top of two 40m-high mounds built to protect the temple from rising waters. Experts differ on the temple’s vintage, some believing that it was built in the early sixth century by Rudravarman, others that it dates from later.
Boats moor at the small village at the foot of Phnom Da, where local children will offer to show you up meandering paths to the top of the hill, passing at least three of the site’s five caves on the way. On the higher of the two mounds the ancient Prasat Phnom Da comprises a single laterite tower, visible from way off and dominating the landscape. The tower’s four doorways boast ornate sandstone columns and pediments of carved naga heads, though all but the eastern entrance are false.
On the lower hill, to the west, is a unique Hindu temple, Ashram Maha Russei, dedicated to Vishnu and built of grey laterite. Dating from the seventh century, the structure is a temple in miniature, the enclosing walls so close together that there’s barely room to squeeze between them. On the outside, a spout can still be seen poking through the wall, through which water that had been blessed by flowing over the temple’s linga would once have poured.
A key port on the trading route with Vietnam, the town of TAKEO (pronounced ta-kow) consists of two separate hives of activity: to the south, a dusty (or muddy, depending on the season) market and transport stop on NR2 – which has little to recommend it unless you want to visit one of the karaoke parlours – and to the north, a more picturesque area around the Rokha Khnong Lake, canal and port. Takeo makes a good base from which to visit the only Funanese sites so far identified in Cambodia, Angkor Borei and the nearby Phnom Da, which can be combined on a boat trip from town; an informative museum at Angkor Borei displays artefacts and statues unearthed at both sites. Since Takeo is only two hours from Phnom Penh, it’s possible to visit these sights on a day-trip.