Edge of the wild

Alongside Cambodia’s last flourishing rainforest, in the waterways of Koh Kong, sits Koh Andet Eco Resort – a refreshing getaway and natural haven fit for adventure

Words by Janelle Retka

Photography by Sam Jam

It’s early afternoon, and an orange and teal wooden boat typical of Cambodia’s waterways is chugging along the Tatai river, its engine roaring over otherwise tranquil waters. Hugo, the tour guide at Koh Andet Eco Resort who I’ll be spending the next two days adventuring with, tells me of his initial journey to Koh Kong province from his hometown in Spain by way of bicycle. He and a friend spent a year pedaling towards these breathtaking estuaries and the surrounding Cardamom Mountains, the country’s last unfragmented forest. Here, they met the resort’s founding owner. “I like your spirit,” Sovann told them, and invited them to stay at his unfinished floating paradise to rest their feet for a few nights.

A year later, the resort’s 12 floating wooden villas are finished, and Hugo has returned on a new adventure to guide tours by kayak and foot through the natural beauty of the serene setting for a few months. As I try to wrap my head around Hugo’s previous 13,000km Tour de Cambodge, the wooden boat pulls around a bend to reveal the resort. Sheer white curtains trace each villa and float in the breeze, giving the scene a whimsical beauty.

After we dock, I’m welcomed with a fresh mango juice and make my way across a wooden dock to my private quarters, where I sink into a cushioned seat on the private deck of my buoyed bedroom. Before me, a kayak rests on my dock. Mangroves and palm trees in the distance cast mirror images on the river. The water spills out into smaller estuaries spotted by a collective of islets dubbed a Ramsar Site – wetlands designated by UNESCO to have international importance for their rich ecosystem – and the Gulf of Thailand. The soothing comforts that greet me inside my room include a plush down comforter topped with a towel twisted into the shape of a swan and a bottle of fresh mountain spring water.

Mangroves hug the narrow path and give the journey a maze-like feeling. We are soothed by the sound of the water hitting the paddles

I spend my down time at the resort split between this space, perfect for delving into a holiday book, and the restaurant up the wooden walkway. Its menu is flush with seafood, from grilled fish to seafood tom yum soup, a cuisine for which Koh Kong and its rich waterways is renowned. From the dining area, the outdoor river-water swimming pool surrounded by a wooden dock and umbrella-covered lounge chairs are a coin toss away. When night falls, the stars are vibrant above this oasis, sparkling overhead and on the water below.

Just after 9:00am the next day, Hugo calls the six visitors at Koh Andet to board a wooden boat to set off on our first adventure. We pile in, learn one another’s name, and balance the weight of the boat by positioning ourselves evenly on either side. And then we’re off towards the Gulf of Thailand. After 20 minutes, we veer off into a small estuary, kayaks in tow. We break into pairs, fill into the kayaks and then follow the meandering waterways, with Hugo leading the way. Mangroves hug the narrow path and give the journey a maze-like feeling. We are soothed by the sound of the water hitting the paddles and swirling behind our small boats. After an hour of exploration, we head back to the main boat. The peak hours of sun have kissed our skin, and we all strip down to swimmers and dive into the brisk water to cool off.

Solitude rules: (clockwise from top) skimming the water on a lazy day; the soothing rhythms of Tatai Waterfall; a view from the room is a window to paradise; refreshed but not quite ready to head back to civilisation

Back on board, the boat picks up speed towards a quiet dock on Koh Sralao, one of the area’s most famous fishing communities. Hugo passes out containers of spicy pad thai and the group exchanges stories of our journeys to Cambodia and other countries we’ve visited. Bellies full, we step onto the island, where we explore a school campus emptied of children on this Saturday afternoon. There’s no one in sight. Water tanks and toilets represent significant development in such a remote area. Koh Sralao is a tiny community of no more than 300 families, but was once a famous getaway for locals looking for a fresh start. The protected waters were so full of fish and crabs that locals could simply wade through the shallow estuaries with nets and, within minutes, make a living. The catch has been slowed by overfishing and sand dredging nearby, but the community remains vibrant.

Back at the resort, we crack open beers and relax in our villas and at the shared pool area. In the evening, Sovann, the owner of Koh Andet Eco Resort, is behind the bar sharing jokes and stories with visitors. It feels as if I’ve travelled to visit old friends and have been warmly welcomed into their home – much like Hugo was by Sovann at the end of his long journey. I return to my room and drift to sleep to the sound of the water lapping against my villa. The next morning, the sun pours through the windows of my villa, nudging me awake, and my neighbouring villas lay silent. Just after 6:00am, I slip into the kayak buoyed on my private dock and take a jaunt around the island of Koh Andet. Some early-bird workers are already constructing villas on the other side of the island. I spend the morning gliding serenely across the water – a gentle way to ease into the day.

The boat engine roars just past 9:00am once again. Hugo and our group head west this time, towards Tatai Waterfall. The brunt of monsoon season came to a close about a week before, but when we approach the falls 20 minutes after launch, the torrent of river water pounds against the boulders and riverbed below. Our boat can’t come too close to the falls, we’re told, so we dock on the side of the river and Hugo leads us along the edge of the Cardamom Mountains.

When we break out of the vibrant green trail, decorated with bamboo shoots pointing in every direction and vines dangling from overarching tree branches, we’re in the midst of the waterfall, which stretches far across the river. Pools of crystal-clear water form in the wake of the downpour, and locals plunge into them, making cannonballs as they crash down like the powerful water behind them. Below the falls, our group goes for a swim.

The water is the perfect temperature for a dip and clear enough to see down to the rocks below. Pressed up against the bottom trickles of the falls, the view beyond is hard to escape. The river weaves back towards Koh Andet Eco Resort, the rainforest guiding its way – and soon ours, as the holiday draws to a close.

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