Doing nothing in Banlung, Cambodia’s most remote capital

Banlung, the post-1970’s capital of Ratanakiri province (after its predecessor Lamphut was flattened by US air forces under cover of its war next door), is the northeastern gateway to Virachey National Park, Cambodia’s last vast forest, and Vietnam beyond. In between are waterfalls, hikes, and hill tribe villages, all of which normally attract the intrepid and the adventurous.

green road in Banlung, Ratanakiri

No matter where you go in Banlung, the capital of Ratanakiri, you’re never far from green.

In 1978 it took the Vietnamese army five days to cross east to west from the border to Kratie town, battling not just Khmer Rouge soldiers but also thick forest and a lack of infrastructure. These days, it’s about 5 hours on smooth roads from Kratie up into the hills near the Vietnamese border. The roads have improved, the soldiers gone; and so have the trees, with mile after mile now growing monoculture rubber and cashew.
Continue reading

Nibi Spa offers a slice of Nordic calm in Kampot

A sauna with a view of the Kampot river, a glass-fronted steam room overlooking a tree-filled garden, and private massage bungalows — it doesn’t take long to realize what has made Nibi Spa the “must visit” recommendation in Kampot by all my bougie Phnom Penh friends.

view from sauna at Nibi Spa in Kampot

Sauna with a view at Nibi Spa, Kampot.

Set on a bend of the river some 10km north of the increasingly popular coastal town, the act of getting there is an adventure in itself, and makes the reward that awaits even more appreciated. The most direct (and picturesque) route is along the east side of the Kampot river, as it winds away from town through Cham villages, durian plantations, and shuttered backpacker bungalows. The road surface declines into the stuff of Cambodia of old: slippery red clay with more potholes and ruts than actual flat surface. The alternative is along the west bank, on smooth paved road, and a quick ferry trip (one car accepted each journey) over to Nibi.

The journey out of the way, it is time to be pampered, steamed, chilled — and to chill out. Continue reading

Eating, drinking, and making merit in Phnom Penh

In these socially-distanced days you might expect that an update on any bar and restaurant scene would involve a depressing catalog of closures. Happily for business owners, staff, and patrons alike that’s not the case in Phnom Penh. There’s no denying many establishments have taken a hit, either directly or indirectly, from the loss of tourist income. A surprising number, however, from local street cafes to venues catering more towards foreigners, are hanging in there, some even flourishing.

Itacate Mexican Phnom penh

Itacate is Mexicana’s sister restaurant and just as good.

Opening as it did in early 2020, Itacate barely had a chance to establish itself before the pandemic, but is making up for it now. What this colourful, mural-decorated Mexican eatery has over its hugely popular BKK1 sister restaurant, Mexicano, is its size. Where the latter is more snug cantina than full-size restaurant, Itacate boasts ample indoor seating that incorporates comfy, couched booths (ideal for social distancing) and long tables that lend themselves well to group get-togethers, plus a sizable, leafy forecourt. Continue reading

Odom Garden: Phnom Penh’s newest park is amazing, and doomed

The newly unveiled green space Odom Garden in BKK1 offers almost everything that the capital’s expats have long complained that Phnom Penh was lacking: towering trees, shady walking paths fringed with greenery, play areas for children, craft beer, and what may be Cambodia’s only dog run.

Odom Park

Odom Gardens: A way for big corporations to remind you what you can’t have.

And it’s all doomed, because Odom Garden isn’t a park. Rather, it’s an elaborate marketing ploy to get long-term residents to buy apartments in the Singaporean-designed towers due to start construction in mid-2021 “when the site begins its transformation into Odom — and expansive development of two buildings offering the city’s best address for both residences and commercial office space…[that] will bring the community feeling of traditional Khmer villages into the future,” according to marketing bumf, whatever all those words mean. Continue reading

Preah Khan — no, not that one, the other one

The Preah Khan temple complex in Preah Vihear province is huge, nearly two square miles, making it the largest of the Angkorian religious sites. Yet thanks to its remote location down bumpy unpaved roads, it wasn’t properly documented until the mid-20th century, and was only properly looted in the late 1990s with the end of the Khmer Rouge.

Preah Kanh Kampong Svay

Preah Kanh Kampong Svay

Preah Khan Kampong Svay (its more impressive, full name) sits, confusingly, in Preah Vihear province, not Kampong Svay. It’s also known as Prasat Bakan or Bakan Svay Rolay. The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list earlier this year.

Together with Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Sambor Prei Kuk, Bang Melea, and Banteay Meanchey, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay sits in my esteemed club of “awesome temples that are not in the Angkor Archaeological Park.” It was also the last on this list for me to visit, so I am rather chuffed I could squeeze in a visit after a stay at nearby BeTreed. Continue reading

Lockdown, what lockdown? Embracing expat life in Phnom Penh during coronavirus

“Life not normal is the norm” a Khmer Times editorial read, explaining the importance of adjusting to virus safety precautions in the early days of COVID-19. It’s fair to say, however, that a few months on (and notwithstanding that old chestnut about what constitutes ‘normality’ in the Kingdom of Wonder), expat life in Phnom Penh feels pretty much as usual.

Cambodia covid hand-washing sign

“In order to prevent the recent outbreak of coronary artery disease (Corona Virus)…” Helpful signage at Dol Chaang Cafe.

As most of the rest of the world navigates various levels of lockdown, in our rarified corner of Southeast Asia it’s almost possible to forget there’s a global pandemic out there. With the number of confirmed cases in the low hundreds and no deaths to date (and I’m typing this with difficulty due to the need to keep my fingers firmly crossed) Cambodia has so far been able, for a whole slew of reasons I’ll leave to the experts to consider, to keep the virus contained. We’re lucky, we know it. Continue reading

Sambor Prei Kuk: Cambodia’s other forested temple complex

Back in the halcyon days of my first few months in Cambodia in 2014, when political discussion among local colleagues still included optimism for the future and there were far fewer coffee shops, I first visited Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom province while en-route to Preah Vihear.

Sambor Prei Kuk banyon tree temple

Kampong Thom has their own extremely photogenic banyan-tree-smothered-temples!

In fact, I saw both of these before even venturing to Angkor Wat a few months later to brave “the temples” with the great hordes of unwashed masses. It may not get the attention that Angkor does, but the Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex is no less worthy of a visit.

Continue reading

BeTreed Adventures, ecotourism in Preah Vihear province

Down a potholed village road in Preah Vihear province in northern Cambodia, in what can accurately be described as ‘the middle of nowhere,’ you’ll find BeTreed Adventures, an excellent ecotourism project focusing on conservation and community development, with an environmental protection mandate over a vast swathe of forest.

Preah Vihear forest

Seeing the forest for the trees at BeTreed Adventures

BeTreed Adventures (the capital T keeps the focus firmly on the forest) offers rustic accommodation in treehouses or stilt cabins, as well as ziplining and guided hikes that give visitors the opportunity to experience Cambodia’s lush forest, a luxury rapidly disappearing across the Kingdom as pressure for land and resources grows.

Banteng, eagles, owls, hornbills, wild pigs, deer, monkeys, snakes, two ponies, a tame squirrel, a somewhat-friendly gibbon, and a three-legged dog called Mikey are just some of the animals you might spot during your stay. Continue reading