Kratié town and its surrounds
Few tourists stray into Cambodia’s “wild east” where, beyond Kampong Cham, the main roads are dirt tracks or just poorly surfaced. Yet this sparsely populated region offers a quintessential slice of Cambodian rural life largely unaffected by the world beyond.
Kratié is a little market town 216 miles north-east of Phnom Penh. A spattering of tourist-friendly cafes and hotels has sprung up near the central market place or facing the Mekong river. An evening stroll is the ideal time to absorb the spectacle of sunset. It’s like watching a giant blood orange fall from a tree in slow motion. As the sun dips behind the treeline it turns the sky a dazzling vermilion, tinting purple the French colonial villas, traditional wooden stilt houses and Wat Roka Kandal – a beautiful temple that dates back to the 19th century.
The nearby river island of Koh Trong boasts the alluring possibility of seeing Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtles in the wild. After a short ferry ride from an unsheltered wharf, the Preah Soramarith Quay (preceded by a long, hot wait), visitors enter a bucolic world of fruit plantations and rice paddies still tilled by Cambodia’s iconic white cows, the humped zebu.
The local community office advertises rural homestays organised by NGOs, bicycle hire and ox cart tours. The 8.5-mile perimeter route takes you right around the island’s edge. It’s unchallenging and climaxes with the sight of a floating Vietnamese village buoyed-up just off the south-west tip of the island. The Vietnamese are a recognised ethnic minority in Cambodia and this community lives offshore, though they’ve established a Vietnamese-style temple on the island. An unexpected treat after a hard day’s pedalling is Rajabori Villa Resort in the north-east of the island, where it’s possible to cool off in the pool for just $5 (doubles from $65 a night).
The route north out of Kratié is so breathtakingly scenic one almost forgives the dismal quality of the roads. It’s a necessarily bumpy tuk-tuk ride in order to take in Kratié’s rare ecological treasures. In Phnom Sambor, 22 miles north of Kratié, visitors are guaranteed a sight of the soft-shell turtles. In the hallowed grounds of the Pagoda of One Hundred Columns, a small breeding centre aims to return the turtles to the river.
Closer to Kratié the fishing village of Kampie offers boat trips to view Kratié’s other aquatic marvel, the Irrawaddy dolphins. Though locals have long revered the dolphins, believing them to be half human, half fish, their numbers have diminished in recent years due to electric rods and explosives used for fishing. Don’t expect any flipper-style antics, these retiring creatures only surface to breathe.
Kirirom national park
All that remains of the king’s palace is the fireplace. Twenty feet tall, it was built in the 1940s by the king and his acolytes. It stands on a flattened mountain top. The view is of Cambodia’s only high-altitude pine forest, in Kirirom national park – two hours’ drive southwest of Phnom Penh. The scenery is almost alpine, the skinny pines saluting the sun, the air aromatic and fresh. When the Maoist Khmer Rouge retreated here after losing power in 1979, the guerrillas smashed the palace along with 150 surrounding villas that once made up the king’s “Happy Mountain” resort. Some buildings are intact - more deserted than ruined.
Today, Kirirom is popular among locals but often overlooked by foreign visitors. Away from the hot chaos of the capital, there are peaceful treks, mountain biking and dips in waterfalls. A stay at Kirirom Mountain Lodge (doubles from US$35; from $60 on weekend), a converted 1940s villa near Oamrei Phong village in the centre of the park, Moroccan chef Bouchaib serves flatbread, honey-dripped and dotted with raisins. Guests can eat while surveying the green expanse of cardamom forests below.
Gulf of Thailand islands
Another island, off the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand (10 miles south of the Cambodian coast), is
Phú Quoc [Koh Tral], on which tourism is growing. Dangling off the island is the An Thoi archipelago which has new places to stay in among its 15 scattered islands. Stellar beaches – all turquoise coral seas lapping at dazzling sugar-white sands shaded by palm trees – include Fingernail Beach on Hon Mong Tay, Hon Vong Beach on the island of the same name, and Hon May Rut.