Readers' awards: Favourite long-haul country
We all know about Cambodia's magnificent temples. Less well known are its idyllic beaches. John O'Mahony kicks off his shoes - and our awards special - on the dazzling, unspoilt coast
- The Guardian
- Saturday November 3 2007
Swimming at midnight on Koh Tonsay is like taking part in your own personal light-show. The sea around the island, situated just off Kep on Cambodia's south coast, is as still as glass and perfectly reflects the sky, which is divided into bright gleaming stars on one side and, on the other, the flashes and crackles of the sudden electric storms that characterise the end of the rainy season.
But the real revelation comes from below once you begin to wade in. The still dark water immediately lights up into a multitude of tiny blue-green sparks, fizzing and flickering around your hands and feet. Every splash produces its own new explosions; every dive leaves an eerie glowing trail. It's like being surrounded by a swarm of underwater fireflies, buzzing through your fingers and flitting right by your eyeballs if you submerge.
Sure, on a marine biology level it's just plankton emitting tiny bursts of phosphorescence on contact, but in the context of this beautiful tropical island, it's nothing less than mesmerising. On the first night we experienced it, the effect on our little international band of castaways was one of wide-eyed amazement: "Het is absoluut magisch!" gasped one, "That's astonishing, awesome!" "C'est superbeau. C'est superbeau!"
After decades of war, Cambodia is enjoying a dramatic resurgence as a tourist destination. It's a boom that is being fuelled as much by the temples of Angkor as the immense potential locked in the country's magnificent south coast, which sweeps down along the Gulf of Siam, reaching from Koh Kong and the border with Thailand in the north right down to Vietnam. Strewn with fine, white slivers of beach and spattered with tiny, unexplored islands, the region is, variously, the "Next Goa" or the "Cambodian Phuket", depending on which gushing report you read.
But, for the moment at least, much of this lost coastline is entirely free of the kind of the tourist development that afflicts Thailand and many other seaboard Asian countries. Instead of blank holiday apartment blocks or marble-clad hotels, you're more likely to find yourself staying in bamboo huts teetering on stilts (as we did on Koh Tonsay) or atmospheric little guesthouses. And the locals - quite miraculously, given the enduring levels of poverty - remain captivatingly friendly, with children chiming out "Hello" at every passing traveller.
But at the same time, it's far from an entirely carefree holiday option. This part of the country was among the last places to be fully liberated from the grip of the Khmer Rouge and the scars are everywhere. This is a coastline haunted by powerful and violent ghosts.
We fly into Siem Reap, but after three days basking in the daunting magnificence of the temples of Angkor, followed by a couple more in the dusty tumult of Phnom Penh, my wife and I are weary of the overwhelming heat and are beginning to share the same craving: sea, sand, glistening water ...
So we board a decrepit old bus for the juddering five-hour journey to Kep. The shanty towns of the capital soon melt away into broad gleaming rice-fields, then jagged mountains before, finally, the sea-front at Kep swings majestically into view.
Founded in the 1920s, Kep-sur-Mer was once French Cambodia's premier resort. Period pictures show schoolgirls skipping down the driveways of grand white villas with manicured lawns. After independence in 1953, Kep remained a favourite of King Sihanouk who built an opulent summer house on the sea.
Decades of civil war and the ferocious destructive instincts of the Khmer Rouge, however, have taken a devastating toll. The deco villas now stand charred and gutted, pocked by bullet holes and mortar fire. But one thing that the guerrillas didn't manage to destroy was the natural charm of the place: the glimmering turquoise waters, the throng of little islands, the twilight conflagration of its sunsets. The French called this area La Perle de la Côte d'Agathe - and that's pretty much what it remains.
Another bonus of the indestructible beauty of Kep is that foreigners tend to fall in love with it, stay and open delightful little places to stay.
On the peninsula, there is an understated designer place called the Champey Inn and, on the hill, a clutch of quaint little thatched bungalows called the Veranda Natural Resort, all connected by a web of gnarled wooden walkways. We opt for the Beach House, a beaming new building vaguely in the French colonial style right on the shore. It's just a few steps away from the town's kilometre-long crescent of beach. When the evening storms descend, guests can relocate to the hotel pool for what amounts to an all-over monsoon Jacuzzi.
On our first day, we hire bikes and tour along the peninsula and the immensity of the seafront. The deserted road carves its way between untouched jungle and the limpid water. We stop for lunch at one of the town's shack restaurants, and lap up crab soup practically in the middle of the street. But it's difficult not to gravitate to the ruins and we end up at Sihanouk's destroyed villa, where a women camping in the gutted front room tells us she is "minding it for the king". For a dollar, she gives us a tour. Climbing on to the balcony, we survey both the destruction and the dazzling view across the delicate arc of the bay.
We had planned just a day trip to Koh Tonsay - otherwise known as Rabbit Island - the following morning, but news that there are "bungalows" there for rent prompts us to pack a few things for a longer stay. As the longboat shears through the water, we can first make out only a blob of jungle, then a halo of coconut trees, then a little bow of sand and a row of thatched roofs and finally, we see a little motley band of locals and foreigners lolling on the sand. We're shown to our room: a bamboo stilt-hut just a few metres from the water.
During the Sihanouk years, Koh Tonsay was used to intern criminals - but it's now home to six or seven law-abiding families who make their living growing coconuts and fishing. The view in any direction is sublime. The feeling of isolation is intoxicating. The local inhabitants are unnaturally chilled out. The sunsets are transcendental. In the evenings, we feast on fresh boiled crab plucked from the sea just moments before. At night, everyone builds a fire and exchanges stories of their travels over cans of Angkor beer. As a finale, there are the breathtaking underwater performances of the glowing, sparkling plankton.
Most people come for an afternoon and stay a week or two. We would have done the same, but our schedule dictated otherwise and after just two blissful days, we are waved off by everyone on the island.
Our next destination is the run-down riverside town of Kampot, just 20km up the coast, which once supplied its sweet pepper to practically every French restaurant on the planet. It too is enjoying a revival, thanks to a smattering of new foreign-owned bars and guesthouses along its charming, languid riverfront. We check in to the Bokor Mountain Lodge and relax into its white-washed French colonial elegance.
People don't come to Kampot for the rather grotty town itself, but for the gruelling trek up Bokor mountain, now a national park boasting elephants and tigers and cobras. It's also the site of Bokor Hill Station, a 1920s gambling resort that became a guerrilla stronghold and, in 1979, hosted a six month stand-off with the Khmer Rouge. The 40km journey to the top takes two hours by pick-up: landmines have reduced the surface of the road to a mass of boulders and craters with just the occasional gobbet of tarmac.
But it's all worth it. When the mists come down, the old buildings - the casino, the Bokor Palace Hotel (HQ during the battle of the troops) and a dainty little Catholic church (where the Khmer Rouge were holed up) - are said to look like ghostly apparitions. Even on a clear day, they're spooky and unsettling. Equally compelling are the very reasons why the French chose this as a retreat in the first place - the rolling forests, the gushing waterfall tumbling down the mountain which the Khmers call Popokvil, or Swirling Clouds. And then there is the most enthralling view in all Cambodia: the whole spellbinding coast spanning practically from Thailand to Vietnam.
Next morning, we set off for our final destination on the coast: Sihanoukville. Gouged out of the jungle in 1955, this town is about as close as the country gets to a fully fledged resort town. With a half-dozen terrific beaches, stunning islands and nearby Ream national park, Sihanoukville has the capacity to be Cambodia's coastal gem. In the 60s, Jackie Onassis was one of its many celebrity admirers. But tatty, soulless development has reduced it to a charmless place. Even the Sokha, the country's first five-star beach resort, can't save it.
We escape by long-boat to Koh Russei, or Bamboo Island, to laze around on its golden squiggle of a beach and snorkel around its reefs. But the 40 or so other tourists make Bamboo Island seem impossibly crowded, so we venture one island further to Koh Ta Kiev, which proves almost entirely, eerily deserted. With its immaculate white sand half-moon beach washed by clear cobalt waters, it's perhaps more beautiful than Koh Tonsay. Alone on the beach, we swim with fiery orange starfish and then end the day with an incandescent sunset.
Later on in our three-month trip, in the relative comfort and sophistication of Thailand, we couldn't help pining for the simplicity of Kep or the sublime isolation of the islands. This is one of the few stretches of virgin coast left in Asia. But given the scale of the Cambodian boom, it is certain not to remain so for very much longer. No one could argue against renovation of the villas at Kep or the casino at Bokor. But plans are also afoot to develop Koh Ta Kiev into a resort; and even Koh Tonsay isn't safe. It remains to be seen whether the garishness of Sihanoukville or the character and individuality of Kep will be the template.
Either way, the coast is changing at breakneck speed. Our hotel in Sihanoukville was brimming with Australians, Brits, Swiss, all debating which chunk of island real estate to snap up. In just a few years' time, many of the sights described in this article will have changed irrevocably. If you want to experience the coast of Cambodia in its raw, elemental and often dazzling natural state, don't wait a moment longer.
Way to go
STA Travel's (0871 230 8512, statravel .co.uk) cheapest flight to Cambodia is £522 rtn, flying with Royal Jordanian to Bangkok via Amman and on to Siem Reap with Bangkok Airways. Valid for all ages.
Where to stay
A 12-night tour of Cambodia costs £645pp, dropping to £430 in low season (April-Sept) with Travel Indochina (01865 268940, travelindochina.co.uk). In Kep: The Beach House (+012 240 090, thebeachhousekep.com); Veranda (+012 888 619, email@example.com); Champey Inn (+012 501742, firstname.lastname@example.org). In Kampot: Bokor Mountain Lodge (+033 932 314, email@example.com). In Sihanoukville: Golden Sand Hotel (+034 933 607, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Country code: 00 855.
Flight time: London-Bangkok, 11hrs; Bangkok-Siem Reap, 1hr.
Time difference: GMT +7hrs.
£1 = 8,368 riels.