Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Beyond Angkor Wat: Cambodia's Hidden Beaches

Sunday, Apr. 05, 2009

Most visits to Cambodia begin with the ancient temples of Angkor Wat or the Khmer Rouge's infamous killing fields just outside Phnom Penh. I'm not saying they're not worth seeing, but on our recent 10-day journey through Cambodia, we visited neither. My husband had already hiked Angkor Wat a couple of months back and, frankly, it just felt too depressing to center an entire vacation around mass murder. So we headed instead to southwestern Cambodia, to the developing coastline, in search of waterfalls and beaches. And we found the people there were just as welcoming as the landscape.

We flew into Phnom Penh International Airport and took a tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw) into town. It was a $5, 45-minute, open-air trip on the highway, which probably did bad things to our lungs but helped ease my motion-sickness from our wobbly descent into the airport. It also gave us a nice visual primer of the capital, which we were using only as a way station. Looking back, I would have liked at least another day in Phnom Penh to take in the culture — the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, for example — and the laid-back, late-going bar scene. As it was, we had time only for dinner at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (363 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh; +855-23-210-142), where we also stayed the night, and to hit up a couple of bars, including Love Orange — a disco packed with teenagers cheering on the drag-queen-lip-synching show.

The next day, it was on to Koh Kong, a coastal frontier town on the Thai border, which until a couple of years ago was best accessed by boat. It is separated from the rest of Cambodia by the Cardamom Mountain range, a dense forest that houses endangered species like the Indochinese tiger and the Malayan sun bear, and used to be a Khmer Rouge stronghold. But a national highway, built with help from the Thais, including four bridges spanning rivers once crossable only by ferry, has cut the drive to Koh Kong from the capital in half — to four hours.

Koh Kong has one paved road, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it dock and an inordinate number of Germans. The main activity for travelers in this beach town is meeting other travelers. Most of the guesthouses and hostels in Koh Kong are run by Europeans and Australians (the proprietor and family usually live on-site) and are good for getting a drink, sitting in a hammock and chatting up your neighbor. They're also good for a cheap ($7 per night) room, if you can endure using a shared toilet. If not, I suggest you stay at the $35-per-night Koh Kong City Hotel (Street 1, Koh Kong; +855-35-936-777) on the waterfront, which is sparse and basic, but has decadent, memory-foam-style mattresses and private, Western-style bathrooms. The front-desk service here is lacking, but you'll sleep the sleep of the dead.

The tour outfits in Koh Kong aren't well advertised, but you can get yourself a seat on an organized excursion if you know whom to ask and don't mind surprises. We stumbled randomly on Otto, owner of a guesthouse called Otto's, on our first night in town. We went to his place for dinner (fantastic fried potatoes) and when we asked for advice on local tours, he pulled out his cell phone, dialed his friend Thomas and booked us instantly on a boat excursion for the following morning. His method was efficient, if mysterious. Even as we boarded the boat the next morning, we had no idea where we were going or what we would see.

There were eight other travelers aboard our long-tail motor boat, seven of whom were German and most of whom were staying at Thomas' guesthouse, Neptune. Thomas, also German, did the entertaining, while our Khmer captain steered with his foot and drank an Angkor brand beer. The first two hours took us south past islands dotted with stilted fishing villages painted in blues and greens and oranges, then through a mangrove forest, into the Gulf of Thailand. There we hit the jackpot: a school of dolphins jumping in the waves.

We stopped for lunch in a fishing village where Thomas had once stayed a night after being stranded at sea. He made friends with the villagers, and now returns often to introduce his tour groups. In general, as tourists, we try not to gawk at the poverty around us, but this was impossible at such close range. About 15 people lined up on the "dock" (really, a front porch) and helped us clamber from our boat over theirs and into their one-room home. There wasn't much dialogue between the groups, given that none of the tourists spoke Khmer and our hosts didn't know English, but there was much smiling and cooing at the babies, one of whom was cooling off in a pot of water. We ate stir-fried veggies and tofu with a cabbage salad cross-legged on the floor. Through the slats, you could see the water a few feet below. The hospitality was free: Thomas brought our lunch, and gave our hosts a case of beer as a token of friendship.

Another sail took us to Koh Kong Island, a dense national forest that is forbidden to recreational exploration. We dropped anchor off a deserted white-sand beach and hopped overboard into the clear, warm sea. The water was probably 70 degrees and not more than five feet deep, with gentle waves that glimmered in the late-afternoon sun. Then, sated and relaxed, we motored home.

The next day, my husband and I decided to find our own adventure. We rented a motorbike for $4 and borrowed a couple of sturdy helmets from Bob, the Australian restaurateur who runs Bob's, in town. Then we headed east about a dozen miles out of town, to check out the Tatai waterfall with two friends we had met on the boat the day before — a twentysomething German woman who was traveling solo in Asia for six months and a dreadlocked guy we called The Wanderer because when asked where he was from he said, "My last address was Berlin, but I am now a man with no address," and when we asked for his name, replied, "I don't believe in names. They are so superficial."

Tatai gushes rapids during the rainy season (May to October), but during the dry time of year the river is low and dotted with warm, fresh-water pools. Families picnicked and swam. And barefoot kids climbed up and hurled themselves off the cliffs in ways that would give most parents I know a seizure.

But the real adventure of the day was the motorbikes. The last time my husband, Keirn, had driven one was 10 years ago in the Philippines. Now that we live in Vietnam, where everyone gets around on scooters or motorbikes, we were keen to practice our driving skills and happy to do so outside of Saigon's swirling, incessant traffic.

We rode the highway, over hills, across a bridge and back. It was exhilarating. But on the dirt access road from Tatai to the highway, we hit a patch of sand and lost control of our bike. Next thing we knew, Keirn and I were lying on our sides, covered in red soil, wondering if we were still in one piece. We were. We had been traveling slowly, luckily on a dirt road not asphalt, and there were lots of people around to help us.

Everyone came running. A group of five women — our saviors — pulled their truck over just past our crash. A few of them hoisted our bike into the bed of their truck, tied it down and piled in after it. My husband and I climbed into the cab with the driver, who turned out to be the proprietress of one of the nicer guesthouses in town, Koh Kong Guest House (Street 1, Koh Kong; +855-16-654-171), and took us to a pharmacy before dropping us off at our hotel.

The Wanderer, it turned out, had trained as a nurse sometime in his mysterious past. It was another stroke of luck for us. I had gouged some holes in my hand in the accident and Keirn had a deep gash on his elbow that probably should have gotten a stitch. But we felt wary of our chances at a neighborhood clinic, so The Wanderer cleaned our wounds, patched us up, and sent us back to our comfy bed to relax.

Which is what we did for the rest of our trip. From Koh Kong, we moved on to Sihanoukville, a three-hour drive southwest. Sihanoukville, named after a former king, is billed as Vietnam's up-and-coming high-end resort town, but, for now, it is more accurately described as a beach-town-for-backpackers. Hostels are abundant here and there are a couple of nice hotels, where you can get rooms for $5 to $400, depending on your budget. We got the last room, a private bungalow, at the one real resort in town, the Sokha Beach Resort (Street 2 Thnou, Sihanoukville; +855-34-935-999; reservations@sokhahotels.com), which was nice enough, but not worth the $200-plus per night.

Sihanoukville's main public beaches, Occheuteal and Serendipity, are lined with cafes that offer lounge chairs by day and become bars night. This shoreline and the roads behind it constitute the town's most popular restaurant and nightlife area, and there's enough litter piled about to prove it. We had excellent Mexican food at the new Reef Resort (Road to Serendipity, Sihanoukville; +855-012-315-338; bookings@reefresort.com.kh), a boutique hotel, and practically fell asleep afterward on the huge pillows spread out on the sand at Purple Lounge (at about the midpoint of Serendipity Beach). The town's former main drag, which is a 10-minute ride northwest of that area, is called Victory Hill. The crowd there comprises mostly older Western men and their young Cambodian companions, which is a little creepy, but we had a nice French dinner at XXL (+855-92-738-641).

We pried ourselves off the beach for one day, paying a tuk-tuk driver $30 (probably too much) for a six-hour tour of town. If you like animals, ask someone to take you to the Buddhist monastery, where the legions of wild monkeys will eat out of your hand. And definitely set aside an hour to visit Boom Boom Room (Serendipity Beach Road; +855-12-219-657), where you can load up your iPod or MP3 player with supercheap music.

Recently, Russian developers have taken an interest in Sihanoukville, helming many new projects, including Snake House (a guest house, restaurant and zoo on Mittapheap Kampuchea-Soviet Street; +855-12-673-805) and the town's most impressive bar, Airport (Krong Street; +855-34-934-470): it's an open hangar housing a real Antonov-24 turboprop plane, which makes up the club's VIP section. Airport opens onto Victory Beach, which during the day offers a small, calm, shallow shoreline without the hectic scene found on Serendipity.

Sihanoukville is Cambodia's main shipping port, so there's local wealth here as well. In five years, a handful of new resorts and several middle-class housing developments will have likely sprung up. So, if you like your beach towns simple, cheap and dirty — The Wanderer, for one, thought Sihanoukville was already too bustling — you might want to go there now.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants to visit Angkor Wat, let me know.

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