Far from city life, the vast waterways and untamed jungle of Koh Kong province are enticing adventurous visitors to Cambodia’s westerly reaches
By David Hutt Photography by Bernardo Salce
Sam Bo, our tour guide, points up at the forest canopy and recalls once seeing a five-metre python dangling from the branches of a nearby tree. This information doesn’t come at the best of times. We are paddling in kayaks through the narrow tributaries of a mangrove forest in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.
With waterways just wide enough to allow our vessels to pass, branches brush against our heads as we traverse shoulder-high waters. The news sends my eyes skywards and my kayak straight into the trunk of a tree. Yet this enforced stop simply provides an opportunity to listen to the overwhelming silence of the surroundings.
The calm comes as a welcome relief. That morning we were in the hectic heart of Phnom Penh. Now, after a five-hour taxi ride and another hour in a small boat, we are miles away from civilisation. And, this being Koh Kong, nature is just part of the deal.
The province used to be known as Cambodia’s ‘Wild West’ but, in recent years, Koh Kong has thrown off its anarchic reputation and forged a more respectable image as a gateway to the country’s forested hills. Indeed, much of Cambodia’s largest national park, Botum Sakor, lies within the province’s boundaries, as do the slopes of the Cardamom Mountains, mainland Southeast Asia’s second-largest virgin rainforest.
If other parts of the Kingdom have eco-tourism retreats, then Koh Kong province has the most eco of them all. A few years back, in an effort to tackle the problems of poaching and illegal deforestation, the NGO Wildlife Alliance launched a pioneering community-based ecotourism project in the village of Chi Phat.
Today, the small community serves as a base for adventurous tourists and, from there, it is possible to arrange an array of tours. Treks range from one to five days, with the latter taking visitors deep into the hinterland of the Cardamom Mountains, winding up and down the hills and cutting through vegetation to uncover centuries-old paths.
Sunrise bird-watching tours, mountain-bike safaris and kayak adventures are also on offer, while the NGO can organise traditional homestays or nights encased in hammocks deep in the forests.
Further south, the Tatai River – the location of our river-bound accommodation, 4 Rivers Floating Lodge – has become another hotspot for tourists. Our kayaking trip wound through its tributaries, and the hotel also organised a boat trip to a local fishing village, Sor La Koh, during our stay. The village contained no more than 200 households and featured narrow alleyways with shops on one side and boat-makers, net-weavers and fishmongers working on the other.
Back in the mangroves, after an hour of drifting through the waterways, serpentless, we head to an awaiting boat to journey to the Tatai waterfalls. It doesn’t take long to realise we have the river to ourselves. Skimming along the waters – salty for one half of the year, fresh for the other half – a gentle breeze softens the heat as we listen to the chatter of distant birds and the hum of an archaic outboard motor.
On either side, thick mangroves scale the banks and the sunlight trips off the water, freckling the waves formed by our boat.
“We only got the first motorised boats here in 2007,” explains Sam Bo. “Before that, people had to paddle.”
Another boat passes, the driver dragging on a cigarette, his eyes trained straight ahead. At 60, maybe 70 years old, he handles his vessel as effortlessly as the country’s young urbanites tear through Phnom Penh on Honda Dreams one-handed. We don’t see another boat for 20 minutes; the next stilted house along this stretch of the river doesn’t appear for another 30.
Arriving at the province’s famous Tatai waterfalls at midday, and after a short cut through the forest, we emerge at the base of the cascading waters. Though they are only about eight metres high the force and beauty of the tumbling water makes the falls a must-see site.
Then there’s the tranquillity. Again, the distance from civilisation feels immense. We lie down in the clear, cool waters, and Sam Bo nonchalantly scales the rocks to the top of the waterfall. He spreads his arms, eagle-like, and leaps headfirst into the rumbling waters.
A few seconds later, he emerges, beaming us a smile before repeating the stunt – four more times.
Where to stay:
Eco-tourism doesn’t have to be uncomfortable – that’s the maxim of the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge. With unspoilt surroundings and around-the-clock silence, this luxury resort, which floats a few centimetres above the Tatai River, boasts a dozen opulent tents imported from South Africa. Expansive beds, comfortable living-room areas and accompanying bathrooms, complete with walk-in showers, offer all necessary creature comforts. Top-notch dining – four-course meals each night – and an array of day trips and tours will keep any high-end, nature-loving tourist indulged for the whole stay.