Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A weekend away on the south coast

My work colleague Chhrep and I decked out in our life-vests
The deserted beach at the Sokha Resort
A timeless lagoon behind the main beach on Koh Rung
Our boat is beached on the gorgeous 8 km Koh Rung beach
My colleagues suffering from the dreaded sea-sickness
My first-ever visit to the south coast beaches of Sihanoukville was both brief and work-related. Its one of Cambodia’s premier tourist attractions but a place I’d studiously avoided until now. With no ancient temples to uncover and its main attraction being its beaches and nearby islands (sunbathing has never been high on my list of must-do’s) it was with a mixture of reluctance and curiosity that I took my first ‘fam’ trip to the south coast with sixteen other members of our office staff. ‘Fam’ is quite simply a familiarization trip which Hanuman send their staff on two or three times each year, so they get a better understanding of the different locations around Cambodia as well as using the trips as a team-bonding exercise. The previous ‘fam’ trip was to Ratanakiri, a few months before I joined. This trip was a much-shorter bus ride down to the south coast and would be a combination of business and pleasure, though we set out much later than we’d originally planned on Friday afternoon and ended up heading straight to our overnight stop at the run-down Borey Bokor hotel in Kampot. A group meal at the Ta Ouv restaurant on stilts over the Kompong Bay River and a few drinks at the Rusty Keyhole pub completed the first day.

Saturday was scheduled to be the trip’s business day while Sunday would be the relaxing part of the visit. However, I wasn’t really prepared for visiting no less than 13 hotels and guesthouses in one day and to do it in a group of seventeen was tough going to say the least. We began early with breakfast at a popular spot along the riverfront before heading out for the twenty-five minute drive to the seaside resort of Kep, some 25 kms from our overnight stop in Kampot. As I’d visited both Kep & Kampot in previous years I was focused on the hotel visits rather than seeing the sights, which was just as well, as we had no time to fit anything in besides our hotel inspections. The stylish Knai Bang Chatt, with its infinity pool and boutique feel was our first stop before we moved onto visit the Beach House and its ocean views on the hillside overlooking Kep beach. With no time to spare, let alone an opportunity to taste the crab or seafood for which the resort is famous, our next stop was the La Villa, with construction work still underway and the opening delayed until next year, followed by the wooden walkways and friendly charm of the Veranda Resort on another hillside. With so many ruined villas still to be renovated, I can only imagine that more hotels and lodges will be opening in the next few years as Kep recovers from its thirty years in the doldrums.

Returning to Kampot, we called in to visit two guesthouses on the riverfront, Bokor Mountain Lodge and Rikitikitavi, who offer gorgeous sunset views, good food and a friendly welcome. After lunch at the Ta Ouv restaurant, we made a brief stop at the Sopheak Mongkol guesthouse before our ninety minute drive along a good road to Sihanoukville (or Kompong Som as the Khmers prefer). The 5-star luxury of the Sokha Beach resort was our first port of call. Easily the town’s best accommodation, its private beach and facilities are top drawer. The hillside bungalows of Chez Claude beckoned before we enjoyed the sunset views from the suites at the newly renovated Independence Hotel and a final call into the chalets at Chez Mari-yan. My overnight stop was to be at Malibu Bungalows but I was welcomed by a power-cut so headed out to join the rest of the team at their Seaside Hotel location and our group evening meal of seafood at Chhner Molop Chrey restaurant. We ended the evening with drinks at the Mermaid beach-bar on Ochheuteal Beach, and I nodded off to sleep to the sound of waves lapping gently against the Malibu’s rocky beach.

Sunday was fun day and a chance for the group to relax and unwind. We donned our life jackets and boarded the boat at 8.30am for a two-hour excursion to the largest of the nearby islands, Koh Rung. It was great to see the excitement on the faces of my young companions as we set off but that soon turned to agony as the roll of the waves brought on the Khmer propensity for travel sickness. Landing at a tiny fishing hamlet, the white sands of the secluded eight kilometre beach on the west side of Koh Rung was our sun-bathing and swimming haven for a couple of hours followed by another small beach and lagoon for an hour, before heading back to the port area at Sihanoukville. On the way we passed the tiny island of Koh Dek Koul and its brand-new Russian-owned swanky hotel, though most of my colleagues were by this time either asleep or retching over the side of the boat! Back on dry land, we left Sihanoukville at 5pm and headed home along the excellent Route 4 with a brief food stop at Kompong Speu, the journey taking four hours exactly. Whilst not being my ideal retreat, I have to agree that the beaches are a delight, the opportunities to visit unspoilt islands with snorkelling and scuba diving on offer are tempting and the slow pace of life along the south coast will be a magnet for many, especially after a bout of temple touring at Angkor and the frenetic pace of rush-hour in Phnom Penh.

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