Review: North Korea’s Angkor Panorama Museum, Siem Reap

When we crossed the vast, empty parking lot in front of Siem Reap’s new Angkor Panorama Museum and stepped up to the front door, a young museum employee rushed to meet us. “May I help you?” she asked warily, as if we’d accidentally wandered into a restricted area. Her greeting, at once polite and slightly sinister, proved emblematic of the entire Panorama Museum experience.

North Korean Museum Siem Reap

The new North Korean Angkor Panorama Museum is hardly a teeming hive of activity.

Built and maintained by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at a reported cost of $24 million, the place is less a museum than a showcase for one gigantic artwork: a panoramic painting 120 meters (nearly 400 feet) in diameter and 13 meters (42 feet) high, equivalent in size to three basketball courts.

The painting fills the building’s cylindrical central space with depictions of Cambodia’s history: Jayavarman VII’s bloody and ultimately victorious battle against invading Champa forces in the 12th century, his construction of the Bayon temple in the aftermath, and prosperous village life in his Angkor empire.

A spectacular example of the social-realist heroic, the panorama is the work of North Korea’s Mansudae art studio, famous for creating outsized and hysterically idealized depictions of the country’s rulers and workers. The panorama’s gruesome vignettes of hand-to-hand combat, its scenes of happy villagers bringing crops to market and of hard-working artisans creating temple carvings are simultaneously photorealistic and fantastical. As meticulous as the painting itself is the three-dimensional trompe l’oeil foreground of trees, rocks, and human and animal figures that seamlessly create the illusion that the viewer is inside the painting’s world.

Angkor Panorama Museum

The panorama decidedly more impressive in real life than in photos, and stunningly realistic.

When visitors climb up to the viewing platform in the middle of the panorama, a guide materializes to explain its historic and artistic details. Our guide told us that 63 Mansudae artists labored for nearly two years to complete the panorama, which has some 45,000 distinct figures. (We neglected to ask whether that number is only the people, or the myriad elephants, horses, and other animals as well.)

While we admired the painting, another museum employee with a large camera around his neck lurked in the background. His presence was never explained, but we noticed that he visibly tensed whenever one of our party pulled out her phone, then relaxed when he saw she was only answering a text. Taking pictures in the museum is strictly forbidden, and this being a North Korean enterprise, the rule is enforced with utmost strictness. The camera wearer’s job appeared to be to make sure that no one else committed an act of photography.

Angkor Panorama Museum, Siem Reap

The simultaneously photorealistic and fantastical scenes took more than two years to paint.

Once we’d studied the panorama at length, which took us about 20 minutes, there proved to be not much else to see. The building’s main hall presents a detailed miniature model of the Angkor Wat temple complex and a few informative placards about its history and construction. Another gallery showed several dozen not particularly interesting paintings of landscapes and smiling people, presumably by Mansudae artists.

We could have watched a 20-minute 3D movie showing how the temples were built, but the museum charges $5 for the movie, in addition to the steep $15 apiece we’d already paid to spend 20 minutes with the panorama, which felt like more than enough cash to drop into Kim Jong-Un’s pocket. (Those are barang prices; Cambodians are charged $8 for the panorama, $3 for the movie.)

We appeared to be the museum’s only visitors for most of the afternoon, and wherever we went we were trailed by several pink-shirted museum staff, some Cambodian, some from the DPRK. Our efforts to engage one of the young North Korean women working in the snack bar and gift shop in some entirely anodyne conversation (“How long have you been in Cambodia? How do you like it here?”) provoked such visible anxiety in both her and her colleague that we quickly abandoned gestures of international friendship, paid for our souvenirs, and hurriedly left the premises.

The DPRK already has a network of restaurants in despot-friendly countries — Cambodia has a long history of friendship with North Korea — that are widely understood to be a way for the isolated, impoverished country to gain desperately needed foreign currency that international sanctions have otherwise placed out of reach. The Angkor Panorama Museum presumably has the same goal, which perhaps explains the high ticket price. (Prices in the gift shop, however, were surprisingly reasonable.)

North Korean Museum Siem Reap Cambodia

The main hall of the museum with exhibits about the temples

The museum opened at the beginning of 2016 and will be operated by North Korea until 2026 or until it recoups the $24 million construction costs, whichever comes first. Eventually both the museum and its revenues will be handed over to Apsara, the agency that oversees the Angkor temple complex and the temples’ ever-growing tourism business.

Visitors will have to make their own moral calculation about spending money that will likely help support Kim Jong-Un’s heinous dictatorship or foregoing the chance to experience the panorama and the museum’s intriguingly paranoid atmosphere. Skeptical about sanctions, and about moral outrage that targets some heinous dictatorships and gives others a free pass, we opted to check the museum out. But since we were almost the only paying customers there, it was hard to feel that Pyongyang was getting much benefit from our custom.

Next to the museum is another new building, a large hall that reportedly will soon become the main ticketing station for the Angkor temples. One Apsara official told the New York Times that diverting some of the tourist influx to the Angkor Panorama Museum could reduce the tourist impact on the temples themselves. Apparently the hope is that instead of journeying out to the temples, a substantial number of tourists will opt instead to spend an air-conditioned hour in the Panorama Museum and then retire back to their hotels.

Expecting people to pay $20 — the same price as an all-day admission to the temple complex — for what little the museum offers seems delusional, however. But clearly the regime responsible for creating this odd tourist attraction doesn’t inhabit quite the same reality as the rest of us.

Angkor Panorama Museum

Open daily, 7 a.m. til noon, 1 p.m. til 9 p.m.
Road 60, Sangkat Slorkram, Siem Reap
T: 063 76 52 63; 096 54 95 530
www.angkorpanoramamuseum.com

Fancy weekday breakfasts in Phnom Penh

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and my coffee dealer agrees. But it’s hard to manage a weekday morning when you are not rushing off to work or school or dropping the kids off…you know what I mean. In the hopes of inspiring you to take a day off for brunch, we’ve explored some of Phnom Penh’s swanky new breakfast spots.

Phnom Penh breakfast

So what if it’s a weekday? You deserve a beautiful breakfast.

The Tiger’s Eye

South African chef Timothy Bruyns is serving some favorites from Common Tiger’s brunch menu, along with some new Western and Asian breakfast dishes at the gastropub incarnation of his restaurant, The Tiger’s Eye. Braised short rib stirred through egg noodles and bok choy with a fried egg on top was excellent, with the tender meat holding itself together just until it’s inside your mouth. Scrambled eggs with toast and bacon isn’t fancy per se, but in-house cured bacon and fresh rye bread made this a satisfying plate, even if the eggs were a bit softer than I prefer.

Phnom Penh brunch

Yes, this is breakfast at Tiger’s Eye.

Tim’s bread — served with lightly smoked butter and vanilla tomato chutney — and his pastries are two things I order every time. When he makes pain au chocolat he folds the dark chocolate with a bit of kaffir lime peel to take it a level beyond anything else in Phnom Penh. The soft-boiled egg with mushrooms on focaccia was almost too pretty to eat, but tasted as good as it looked so keep an eye out for that on their constantly changing menu. At $7 to 8 for most of the breakfast items, it’s not somewhere I will go regularly for a simple egg and toast, but with great views out onto Sothearos and the White Building, it’s a great place to have a leisurely if slightly indulgent morning meal. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m. during the week and 2 p.m. on Saturday.

Monday to Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
49 Sothearos Blvd, Tonle Bassac Phnom Penh
T: 017 876 382
thetigerseye.asia

Enso Phnom Penh

Explore Enso’s range of international influences with Middle Eastern shakshuka.

Enso

Enso is a new restaurant on Street 240 that everyone is talking about. The menu has a range of international influences — shakshuka and watermelon salad with pomegranates and rose water pointing to the Middle East, avocado “smash” on sourdough evidencing an Australian influence, pancakes for the Americans, and leek pie with smoked salmon and eggs benedict with leg ham to round things (and bellies) out in continental fashion. They also offer a slew of nice juices and smoothies served in mason jars. The breakfast here runs $5 to 7 approximately, and is available all day, which is great, although their more traditional lunch and dinner options are also really delicious.

Enso Phnom Penh breakfast

In Australia, they don’t mash, they smash.

The “big” breakfast really is huge, with bacon, sausage, eggs, potato cakes, beans and toast, but everything is pretty generously portioned. Our one complaint (ok, two complaints — I hate pitted olives, which is what they use in the shakshuka) is actually Enso’s signature “62 degree” eggs. The idea is that instead of poaching, the eggs are cooked in a sous vide water bath to control the temperature and thus the doneness of the egg. No more overcooked eggs, great! But while very consistent, the whites, which are not completely opaque and a bit runny, are a little less cooked than I prefer, but you can ask for your egg to be fried instead.

Open daily 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., closes at 5 p.m. on Sundays
50 Street 240, Phnom Penh
T: 078 626 240
enso-cafe.com

Black Bambu Phnom Penh breakfast

Black Bambu has entered the Phnom Penh breakfast race…and yes, these are breakfast tacos.

Black Bambu

Black Bambu, a restaurant run by the Cambodian Children’s Fund, is another high-end restaurant that is entering the breakfast game. Their breakfast options are distinctly the least “fancy” of this bunch, but also the cheapest, and there were some surprisingly good dishes to be had. The menu is small and changes regularly, but we had the breakfast taco, a salmon omelette, a Mediterranean scramble, and a goat cheese and mushroom pizza.

Black Bambu Phnom Penh

Winning breakfast: goat cheese and mushroom pizza.

The clear loser of the bunch was the small, dry circle of overcooked and under-seasoned eggs studded with chunks of salmon. The clear winner was the pizza (which is also on the lunch menu) and the breakfast taco with chorizo, jicima and salsa. I wouldn’t go out of my way for this one, but for around $4 per plate, if you are in the area and not in the mood to take a gamble on the notoriously dodgy street food on nearby Street 55, it’s a good option.

Open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
#28 Street 228 (corner of Street 55), Phnom Penh
T: 023 966 895
black-bambu.com

Keeping fit in Battambang

Surprisingly enough there is no shortage of ways to get or stay in shape in Battambang. Whether it is more traditional means you seek or some fun ways to enjoy the local area while working up a sweat, you really just need to know where to start!

Classy-Hotel-Battambang-pool

Quite possibly the biggest pool in Battambang.

Take a stroll down to the banks of the Sangker River at dawn or dusk and you will be intoxicated by the culture and community spirit that culminates. Whether running, walking, or making the most of the permanent work-out machines, there is no shortage of activities to help you keep fit. The best part about choosing this option, other than that it won’t cost you a single riel, is that you also get a great opportunity to interact with the locals. Additionally, dance workout groups run 6 to 7 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. on the Wat Sangker side of the river, offering low-cost (1000 riel) exercise groups with a really fun and social vibe.

If getting out and about isn’t your style, there are a number of gyms around town as well; they are low-cost but with have a wide range of quality and facilities. The most highly recommended Khmer-style gyms are on Road 1 near the junction for the Wat Sangker bridge and on Road 3 near the Chaya apartments.

A higher standard and more up-market alternative is available at Classy Hotel for $5  and long-term memberships may be negotiable.  The gym is surprisingly well-equipped, featuring several cardio machines, free weights, bench press, Smith machine, and several other bits and bobs, including exercise balls.

Classy Hotel Battambang gym

Surprisingly well equipped, the Classy Hotel gym is one of the best in Battambang.

It won’t take you long to work up a sweat in the Battambang temperatures, so a preferable choice might be to take a dip at one of the local hotel pools, many of which offer low cost day passes. Delux Villa ($3) has a decent sized (around 15 meter) pool for swimming lengths. Slightly more expensive, Classy Hotel on the banks of the river, has a larger pool at $5 a splash. Priority is given to hotel guests and the waters may get busier during peak afternoon hours, but for a morning or evening dip they could be a good choice.

Around the Victory Club on Road 1 just past the pedestrian bridge, groups of locals get together after work to play volleyball and basketball matches among other sports, offering another great way to get in shape whilst mixing with the local community.

Delux Villa Battambang pool

Just $3 per visit, the pool at Delux Villa is perfect for swimming laps.

Battambang and its surrounds also offer a unique cyclist’s paradise — with flat roads and quiet yet beautiful country routes, it is a great way to explore while keeping healthy. Heading out towards Wat Kor is one recommended route, north to Ek Phnom another, and for the more adventurous, all the way out to Wat Banan (40km round-trip). Please remember to carry sunscreen and lots of water!

Finally, an opportunity to stretch out and relax after all of the other activities is offered by Here Be Dragons hostel’s bi-weekly yoga classes; Tuesday’s and Thursday’s at 6:30pm on the roof. Head up to the terrace a few minutes before to grab a spot and a mat (available to borrow), classes cost just $2.

Delux Villa

Phum 20 Uksaphea, Sangkat Svay Por, Battambang
T: 092 210 211
deluxvilla.com

Classy Hotel and Spa

Pool hours: 6am – 9pm
159 D, Street 207, Battambang
T: 053 952 555
classyhotelspa.com

Here Be Dragons Hostel

Road 159D, Street 209, Battambang
T: 089 264 895
herebedragonsbattambang.com

Review: Skybar, Koh Rong

As your boat arrives at Koh Toch pier, high above the line of beachside bars, restaurants and guesthouses, you’ll see the word “Skybar.” The term is often been used to describe city bars perched on top of a high-rise block, and it seemed unlikely that the view from a beach bar that wasn’t serviced by an elevator could match the vertiginous heights of skybars I’d been to before. But, after having put in the legwork to get up to the bar-restaurant, the panoramic view of sea and sky did justify the name.

Skybar Koh Rong

The view from Koh Rong’s hilltop Skybar.

In case the climb begins to put you off, the stairway up is dotted with encouraging signs — “Keep going! Not much further!” — as you make the ascent. We arrived around 5 p.m. to find a happy hour from 6 p.m. offering two-for-one cocktails (normally priced between $3 and $4.50). They also have regular daily deals, such as Wine and Dine Wednesdays and Thirsty Thursdays. The lovely view along with reasonably priced spirits and a couple of choices of wine make this arguably the best spot on Koh Toch for some sundowner drinks — even if you won’t be getting a direct sunset view (which you would need to be on the other side of the island on Sok San beach for).

While Skybar is fine for beers (cans of the ubiquitous island beer, Klang, or Angkor) and mixed drinks, don’t expect too much from the cocktails which we found were a mixed bag. The lemongrass and orange martini we tried was light and refreshing but a disappointing espresso martini tasted weakly of both coffee and booze, and served in a plastic tumbler that made me feel like I was a three-year-old, or at best, enjoying a picnic.

Equally, don’t expect too much from the food, as the menu offers fairly typical island grub skewed towards Western fare (burgers, pancakes, omelettes and pasta) with a few Asian dishes such as fried rice and fried noodles. There was nothing to tempt us to have dinner there, so we got some bar snacks — as they were out of our first choice of cheesy balls, we settled for some cheesy chips and chicken spring rolls. They were adequate at soaking up the booze; the portion of spring rolls was generous, although the chips received only a stingy sprinkling of cheese.

The bar was manned by Western staff each time we went in the Koh Rong tradition of backpackers in no rush to leave the island, prolonging their days by working in the guesthouses and bars. Simple wooden décor and relaxed beats add to the atmosphere. As well as the bar-restaurant, Skybar also offers private or dorm accommodation in bungalows on either side of that staircase, which seem like a good option if you want to stay close to Koh Toch pier without being right on the noisy beach.

Koh Rong Skybar

Open daily, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Koh Tuch, Koh Rong
T: 098 217 090
skybarkohrong.com

Happy Khmer New Year!

Look around and you’ll see Cambodian New Year, Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei, being celebrated around the country. The holiday is Cambodia’s most important, bringing the country to a near standstill as city residents head home to the provinces to spend time with their families, have parties and visit their local pagoda.

Khmer New Year decorations in Cambodia

At last! The time has come to bust out the Khmer New Year decorations!

The holiday celebrates the end of the harvest season and marks the start of a new year (and also the start of the truly hot hot season). Although the holiday is officially only three or four days long–this year it’s April 13, 14, 15, 16 — it will extend onto one or both adjoining weekends, and often even a few days before that. In the days leading up to Khmer New Year, prices, especially for transportation, can go much higher than usual.

It’s true that Cambodians get to have an awful lot of new years celebrations, and it was pretty recently that we celebrated international new year and then Chinese New Year. But Khmer New Year is different — it’s Cambodia’s most important holiday and one of the only times during the year that Cambodians get substantial time off from work. Houses are decorated with stars, fairy lights, and various food and drink (usually Fanta) offerings, and everyone wears new clothes. There are always several pop songs released every year in celebration of Khmer New Year — this is what 2016 has to offer.

Traditionally, Khmer New Year was when everyone who was born in that year would count themselves a year older. So in a sense, it was every Cambodian’s birthday. This goes a long way to explaining why you’ll hear booming music out of most houses in the countryside this week, and why you’ll hear endless amounts of karaoke until the wee hours. It’s a birthday party for the entire country! These days, though, more and more Cambodians are keeping track of their actual date of birth.

During Khmer New Year, Phnom Penh is eerily quiet, with most restaurants and businesses closed to allow their employees to head home. In Siem Reap, it’s just the opposite. The city is festooned with New Year’s stars, and the road to the temples have holiday decorations all over them. If this year is anything like last year, Pub Street will be packed. Last year, tourists were barely visible among the thousands of Cambodians that were out, enjoying the live music and performances.

World's biggest rice cake Cambodia

The world’s biggest rice cake heading to Angkor Thom for the 2015 celebration.

In Siem Reap, a three-day New Year’s event at the Angkor temples called Angkor Sankranta takes place that is very popular with Cambodians who go to play traditional games. For the last two years running, there was a world record set for the largest sticky rice cake in the world made from sticky rice, mung bean, and pork, and then later a rice cake-eating contest. It’s likely that there will be an even bigger num ansom chrouk this year. Foreigners and locals can attend the event for free, but if any non-Cambodian wants to enter the temples, they will still need to pay the usual $20 entrance fee.

In Phnom Penh, there are usually fireworks and you’ll see impromptu parties set up with a boombox playing Khmer tunes in the street. Cambodians who haven’t been granted enough time off from work to head to the provinces wander past, stopping to have a cheerful dance in the streets. Wat Botum Park is also a good place to visit to see traditional games being played.

Khmer New Year is a good time to get out of the city and check out the countryside, where you’ll find lots of parties, friendly neighbors and happy children. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join in the celebrations. Susaday Chhnam Thmei!

Review: Cambodian Cultural Village, Siem Reap

In a town dominated by foreign tourism, the Cambodian Cultural Village in Siem Reap offers a uniquely local — and to Western eyes, decidedly odd — take on Cambodian culture and history. Part amateur museum, part theme park, part fun fair, the CCV may disappoint more serious-minded visitors, but it’s an ideal outing for those with young children to entertain or a taste for the quirkier side of the Kingdom.

Cambodian Cultural Village Siem Reap

Just one of many photo ops at the Cambodian Cultural Village in Siem Reap.

The Cambodian Cultural Village aims to sum up the essence of Cambodia within 210,000 square meters (about 52 acres). There are miniature versions of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, the Reclining Buddha, and other famous landmarks (“It like you have traveled all over Cambodia in haft day,” boasts the CCV’s vaguely English-language web site) and a series of “villages” dedicated to the Khmer and six of the country’s other ethnicities, including the Cham and the Chinese.

What goes on in most of these “villages” are colorfully costumed dance and acrobatic shows put on by an energetic troupe of Cambodian youths, presenting the purported legends and folkways of the various groups in a style more show-biz than anthropological. There’s some kind of performance going on pretty much all day, from a Khmer wedding to Chinese acrobats. During our visit the shows were applauded by an enthusiastic crowd of Cambodian teens, orange-robed monks, French and Korean tourists, and church groups, including a crew whose yellow vests identified them as “Happy Church Best Cinderella Miracle Center.”

Cambodian Cultural Village

There are eight performances a day — this one is the ‘Happy Chinese Dancing Show.’

A tiny museum by the entrance introduces some of the country’s distinctive fauna in the form of distressingly bedraggled taxidermy. There’s a mysterious array of objects — tools, vases — labeled only in Khmer and Chinese. Murals and crudely rendered life-sized dioramas show Jayavarman VII defeating the Cham and consulting with his architects while slaves drag blocks of stone that will become Angkor Wat.

Across the way, a waxworks presents creepily not-quite-lifelike versions of various historical personages, from ancient Kreung tribespeople to 1960s pop star Sinn Sisamouth. Despite signs prohibiting photographs, CCV staff ignored the visitors happily shooting selfies with King Norodom Suramarit and other dignitaries. A notorious display memorializing the early-1990s United Nations Transitional Authority has been removed, reportedly after protests from the UN. The scene showed a blue-bereted UNTAC soldier embracing a bar girl, its implicit message widely thought to be that this was how AIDS came to Cambodia. But still in place are plenty of bare-breasted Apsara maidens and a “happy family” in a 1950s domestic setting that’s straight out of a David Lynch nightmare.

Elsewhere in the park are an ersatz mountain with waterfall, a restaurant that seems to specialize in foot massages, and playground equipment in all shapes and sizes (a favorite is a giant gold Buddha head whose mouth you can climb into). There’s a “floating village” and a “village” devoted to Cambodian emigres to the United States, a collection of a few empty, vaguely New England buildings flanked by a sculpture of a giant bunny clutching a bag of dollars and another of a headless Superman holding aloft a giant rock. Is this a random aggregation of Western imagery or a pointed critique of U.S. policy?

Cambodian Cultural Village Siem Reap

The Khmer diaspora represented by a giant white bunny carrying a bag of US dollars. Obviously.

Even more mysterious is the Judgment Tunnel Ghost House, a dark maze filled with effigies of people being tortured and a soundtrack of recorded screams. It’s genuinely terrifying thanks to the near total darkness, the complete lack of directional signage, and the park employees in ghost costumes who crawl around the floor grabbing at visitor’s ankles as they flail about trying to find the exit.

This heart-stopping attraction, the day-long menu of shows, the museum, and the waxworks are all included in the admission price, a steep $15 for foreigners (or $5 for Khmers), but free for children under 1.1 meters or 43 inches tall. If money is no object and even a short walk seems too strenuous, additional fees will get you a guide, an electric golf cart, or both. Details can be found on their unintentionally amusing web site.

Anyone expecting a Disney level of polish may well feel that the Cambodian Cultural Village falls far short of being worth the admission price. The place looks dilapidated and many of the souvenir shops and other concessions appeared to be closed on the day we visited. But connoisseurs of the Cambodian surreal will find it money well spent. Don’t put off your visit, however. As Siem Reap becomes more and more genuinely international, it seems likely this homegrown salute to Cambodia will be replaced by something slicker, more corporate, and vastly less entertaining.

Cambodian Cultural Village

National Road 6, Siem Reap
T: 063 963 098
www.cambodianculturalvillage.com

Visiting Kep National Park

Most visitors to Kep do little more than eat crab, laze on the beach, and enjoy sundowners. But if you’ve already exhausted all of those options, just turn around and you’ll see that right behind you is a jungle — Kep National Park — that’s home to walking and trekking (or moto) trails, tranquil scenery, and lovely vistas.

Kep National Park

Need a break from feasting on crab? Hit the trails at Kep National Park!

We’ve been to the park a few times and have always meant to explore, but didn’t get around to it until now. Recently, however, we managed to roll out of bed at 7 a.m.(!) and take hugely enjoyable early morning hike that was well worth the early start and sore feet afterwards.

The main entrance is just behind Veranda Natural Resort, but there is an access point behind Kep Lodge too. The entrance fee is $1 for foreigners, and even though there’s an unmanned barrier behind Kep Lodge, a ranger will probably find you and take your entrance fee later on.

The main circuit around the park is an easy eight kilometer track (about five miles). It’s possible to take a moto around it, but where’s the adventure in that? On foot we passed the Led Zep Cafe — the owner has been a driving force in maintaining and opening new trails through the park — and planned what we’d have for our breakfast on the way back (they open at 10 a.m.) as we’d have earned it by then! You can also read the history of the park there and pick up a map for free with a purchase of 2,000 riel ($0.50).

Kep National Park

Just follow the yellow-signed road.

The trail is well marked, with reassuring yellow signs pointing the way. Shortly after Led Zep you can choose to follow the main trail in a nice circuit, or you can take the interior trails — we braved it and headed into the jungle along the Transverse Path.

We’re not trekkers and it was a bit steep, but the trail has been very well prepared so it wasn’t too scary (if a little sweaty). It was well worth the effort, though, as we got to enjoy the early morning tranquility and see some of the local wildlife — namely squirrels and birds, but there are monkeys in the park too.

On our walk we visited the Little Buddha, Phnom Kep and Sunset Rock but there are several other places along the trail to visit if you have the time. Sunset Rock offers great views over the town and coastline — it was the highlight for us — it’s a 15 minute walk from the Nun’s Path/Stairway to Heaven entrance point if you fancy watching the sun go down from there, but remember to take a flashlight for the walk back.

Kep National Park

There’s no shortage of beautiful views.

At the Nun’s Center near the antennae we had a bit of trouble with some dogs, but we got through unscathed — we had to threaten to throw a stone, though, so if you’re scared of dogs, it might be best to go another way. There’s an old temple there that’s worth a look and a new pagoda further down the road. On our visit there was a guy there who seemed to be waiting for tourists, and as he’d missed his chance to sell us a bracelet he just brazenly asked us for cash.

From there we took the Nun’s Path back down to some dodgy concrete steps at the bottom and onto a main road — this was probably the hottest part of the trek as it was completely unshaded — we did get to see some old villas that we would have missed otherwise, and played our “which one would we have” game that we like to do in Kep.

Kep National Park

Trot along shady jungle paths at Kep National Park.

We spent three-and-a-half hours in the park; the canopy keeps you shaded for most of it and as it was early we only saw the other people the whole time. If you go, bring plenty of water and wear decent shoes. If you’re going for sunset it’s probably a good idea to take some mosquito repellent.

Kep National Park is beautiful; and we wish we had visited sooner! We’re not avid trekkers but we found the walk hugely enjoyable and challenging in a pleasant way, and the scenery and views are breathtaking.

Sadly, as it was a Khmer holiday when we visited, the Led Zep Cafe was closed when we got back so we didn’t get to try any of their tasty-sounding breakfast options or enjoy the view. Next time we’re in Kep we’ll be sure to revisit for a hike and cross our fingers that they’re open.

Led Zep Cafe
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Kep National Park, Kep
T: 088 952 5358