Hey travel lovers! Are you looking for some inspiration for your next outbound (or even domestic) escape? Think no more, Cambodia is here for you, and particularly Cambodia off-the-beaten-track!
Written by Catherine GERMIER, Founder & CEO of Herost, and CEO of Destination Mekong.
Now is the perfect time to visit the Kingdom of Wonder(s), as explained by my friend and colleague Mark Bibby Jackson, in his recent article Five reasons to visit Cambodia Now. Of course, you might be tempted to rush to the now deserted temples of Angkor in Siem Reap and maybe spend the rest of your stay in spirited Phnom Penh, quirky Kampot, or even sinophile Sihanoukille if you are in a playful mood.
However, if you are reading this post, chances are that you would not be against exploring Cambodia in a more authentic and somewhat unique way, with closer encounters with the locals, a deeper immersion into nature and a stronger sense of adventure. In that case, how about spicing up your itinerary and pushing a little bit further towards the Cardamom Mountains (or Krâvanh Mountains) in the southwest of Cambodia?
In search of lost time, I landed in Cambodia on 18 January with a sense of exhilaration and relief. After being trapped like most of us in this COVID pandemic for almost two years, and forced to endure four quarantines, three vaccine jabs, one lockdown and countless swabs in the nose just to be able to commute between France and Korea, I could eventually fulfill my dream of traveling back to Southeast Asia. Furthermore, I just had to undertake a rapid COVID-test on arrival to be released from Phnom Penh international airport, after getting my results (negative) in about 15 minutes. And no quarantine since I am fully vaccinated.
The day after (actually a few hours later), I took the road to Sihanoukville coastal city in order to attend the 2022 ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) as the new CEO of Destination Mekong, among other caps. Needless to mention that I was shocked, not necessarily in a negative way, about how the city had developed since my last visit in 2016. But that’s another story. After this promising global event, which gathered many hopeful overseas delegates and involved daily COVID tests for all (no pain no gain and what does not kill you makes you stronger, haha ), I spent a couple of days in Koh Kong province before going back to Phnom Penh.
Thanks to Mark, I had the chance to be invited to participate in an adventure familiarisation (FAM) trip organized with the support of the Ministry of Environment (MoE) of the Kingdom of Cambodia and The World Bank, as part of the Cardamom Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism Project (CSLEP). Implemented by the MoE and the Ministry of Rural Development, this project is mainly aimed at improving the management of protected areas, and promoting ecotourism opportunities and non-timber forest product (NTFP) value chains in the region.
On 25 January, in spite of having to wake up in the middle of the night (setting the tone for this whole sleep-deprived expedition), I happily left my modest guesthouse in Doun Penh district, and tuk-tuked to the MoE building. At the main entrance, I joined a diverse group of 50 euphoric and slightly dormant (I guess you can be both) travel, environment and development professionals, consultants, media representatives, and influencers, all sharing the same values of environmental sustainability, social inclusion, and shared prosperity. All of us, ready and eager to hit the real ground again.
Our first stop (let me spare you the trivial yet essential restroom-coffee break) was at the Chambok CBET site where we were warmly greeted by the local villagers. We learnt how to prepare kralanh, or sticky rice cooked in coconut milk inside a bamboo stick, and we enjoyed a hearty local lunch graced with a dance performance by young girls from the community.
The program concluded with a presentation of the site and its conservation and income-generating activities. We then visited some surrounding homestays before heading to Kirirom National Park, and more precisely V-Kirirom Pine Resort, our final destination of the day. After stopping by the reception, we left for a hike in the forest that led us to the scenic viewpoint of Thmor Loy Kirirom where we were mesmerized and enchanted by the stunning panoramic views over the Dâmrei (or Elephant) Mountains. On the other hand, we also had a heartbreaking view of the copious amount of litter in that area, which really calls for solutions and actions to tackle this issue. Our long and busy day ended with a joyous camp overnight at V-Kirirom Pine Resort with a delicious (maybe too meaty to be eco-friendly) buffet dinner and a (too) short tent bed night. I found my tent big enough to accommodate my small format and the mattress had the right thickness to be labeled comfortable. Of course, tents are not the only accommodations available and glampers (glamourous campers) can easily request an upgrade.
The second day of our trip started with an Asian-Western breakfast in front of the pine forest and the infinity pool of the resort. We then walked to the Coconut school, built by a local community NGO mostly from recycled materials, and promoting waste recycling and upcycling. The founder and headmaster of the school gave an energetic presentation of its actions and achievements and invited us to contribute by buying souvenirs and/or a coffee at the ‘Rubbish Coffee’. Many pictures were taken on this highly Instagrammable site. In most photos of me, I look like an insomniac sloth but on the other hand, if I did not have to fight against my flagrant lethargy, I would have missed the most delicious (and delightful) coffee of this trip. And actually the one and only.
After a short presentation at the Ranger Station in Kirirom, we left the area to inspect the hyper-luxury Shinta Mani Wild (SMW) resort, both impressive and somewhat exclusive, where half of the group had the unique opportunity to experience the zipline. After our visit, we had a local lunch prepared by Thmor Roung villagers with a picturesque view of the rapids (which are quite slow at this time of the year). Representatives of the MoE and The World Bank gave another introduction to the CSLE Project, and all participants were given a chance to introduce themselves individually.
Our next destination was Chi Phat community-based ecotourism site and we had to take a ferry to go there. Due to sudden heavy rains, we were not able to sleep in tents (oh, what a pity) so we had to stay in local homestays and guesthouses in Chi Phat. The leader of the community, also assuming the role of bartender, prepared a few welcome cocktails for us and we later decided to create a new cocktail recipe that would be called Chi Phat sling. I crafted it myself but cannot remember the exact ingredients, except lime juice. After our locally-made dinner, part of the group gathered to share more stories and fun time. That was the end of another lovely day involving creative conversations, shared visions of impact tourism, serious entertainment, and a fair amount of fermented beverages. My guesthouse was more than decent and the perfect place for a restful night. But since I had left my phone in the van, my alarm clock was replaced by my neighbors roosters which, I realized, are not waking up at dawn but in the middle of the night.
The third day of our program was dedicated to water, mostly rivers, and also some Hanuman beverages. After a traditional Khmer breakfast made of chicken (some of my neighbors maybe) and rice, which did not manage to wake me up at all due to lack of caffeine, we were given a presentation of Chi Phat CBET then we took a ferry back to the mainland. We drove to a bridge (maybe Tatai Bridge but maybe not), then took a boat there and stopped at Cardamon Tented Camp, a model eco-resort, for a short inspection. We got back to our boat and to our vans to drive to another bridge (maybe Tatai Bridge but maybe not) where we were provided with eco-friendly lunch boxes before taking another boat. We stopped on the way at the emblematic Canvas & Orchids Retreat, a floating resort formerly called Four Rivers Floating Island, for a site inspection.
After the visit, we went back to our boat for quite a long trip downstream to Peam Krasaop Wildlife sanctuary, Southeast Asia’s largest mangrove forest. It just came up to my mind that I had actually visited the sanctuary a few days ago when I was in Koh Kong. We met the team in charge of stewarding the local mangrove and sanctuary and eventually drove to our beach campsite at 2000 Resort close to Koh Kong city where we would finish our epic day. Our evening started with a shower for the brave ones (like me, even if I don’t like to waste water) followed by a lavish seafood BBQ dinner that culminated with the famous local blue mussels. Then we threw an improvised dance party and karaoke session with more or less talented singers (I put myself in the second category). Then back to the tent for a short sleep, with the sweet feeling of being in the right place with the right people.
On the fourth and last day of our fam trip, we went deeper into the Cardamoms to visit the remote Stung Areng CBET site, established in 2016 with the support of Wildlife Alliance and well integrated into its pristine, near wild environment. We listened to engaging presentations about the area and its possible connection with other sites of interest in other parts of the Cardamom Mountains. After enjoying another tasty homemade meal (we eat a lot in these fam trips), we visited some local homestays and eventually had a group picture outside the Stung Areng Community Centre.
Finally, we undertook our way back to Phnom Penh, after a brief stop at La Vallée, a new eco-friendly resort located in Thmor Bang District, Koh Kong Province, operated by a private company contracted by the MoE.
For most of us, if not all of us, this trip was not only an inspiring travel adventure but also a human story of hope, resilience, and, if I may say, love. Love for travel, love for the jobs we may have lost and will hopefully (certainly) regain, love for nature, love for Cambodia and its people, love for global and local heroes and changemakers.
If you want to feel alive again and even younger, Cambodia is definitely the place to be!
Pictures are from the author and from Unravel Travel TV and other participants of the Fam Trip that I will be happy to mention if they send me their names.
Video by Leslie Graham, Unravel Travel TV, text by Nick Ray, Hanuman Travel (not beer), and narration by Mark Bibby Jackson.