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.