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.
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.