The most southerly point of the Cardamom Mountain range, Kirirom National Park rises from the flat rice fields and mango plantations, and the natural beauty found its pine trees, mountain lakes, wildflowers, and seemingly endless vistas make the journey to Cambodia’s first National Park worth the effort.
Halfway between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville along National Road 4, Kirirom National Park is 700 meters above sea level. The cooler temperatures and inviting odor of pine means that Kirirom offers the closest glimpse of the forests of Europe in Cambodia, while the piles of plastic garbage along the winding road help to remind you just where you actually are.
But this certainly shouldn’t stop a visit, with the waterfalls and forest walks on offer a suitable payoff. Just like the coastal town of Kep, Kirirom was a playground for the Cambodian elite prior to the Khmer Rouge era, and the shells of their villas (including that of the late King-father Sihanouk) dot the landscape. And now with the construction of the sprawling V.Kirirom resort, the country’s new elites have returned with villas again nestled among the trees—but with paddle boarding and zorbing now on offer.
Getting to Kirirom by public transport isn’t easy for those without access to private transport, but it isn’t impossible. Buses to and from Sihanoukville and Koh Kong pass through the town of Treng Trayeng, and hopping off will ensure that local taxi drivers will quickly find you and offer access to the nearby park. A more expensive, but less stressful option is to hire a taxi in Phnom Penh to make the journey. The highway is narrow and lacks a hard shoulder, so attempting to ride a motorbike to the park should only be done by confident riders in daylight hours.
To repeat though, it is certainly worth the effort.
From the park gates, where guards insist on a $5-per-foreigner entry fee, the narrow road winds up and up, passing small communities selling forest plants and garlands of wildflowers that are a hit with Cambodian ladies.
Most visitors head to the “waterfall,” a modest set of rapids encased in bamboo huts offering a very Cambodian setting to enjoy lunch and respite from the sun. For the more adventurous, numerous tracks and trails offer walkers and moto-drivers kilometers of forest to explore, with less garbage on display the further away. Small hill-top shrines allow the forest spirits to be appeased, and offer fantastic viewpoints across the park.
In terms of accommodation, there are four main options. V. Kirirom Resort and Kirirom Mountain Lodge are inside the park, while Kirirom Resort and the Chambok Community-Based Ecotourism homestays are outside of the park. And of course there’s always the option of bringing your own tent or hammock and head into the woods.
From $20 tents to $270 villas, the vast V.Kirirom Resort is popular with local families, and the wide range of activities on offer helps to keep the kids occupied.
Kirirom Mountain Lodge
Occupying a renovated 1960’s villa, the peaceful location of Kirirom Mountain Lodge offers great views and the Moroccan chief rustles up fabulous—if expensive—meals.
Built at the bottom of the hill and outside the park, Kirirom Resort offers none of the perks that the other two options do, but it does have giant dinosaur statues and a UFO-shaped water feature. Its forested “accommodation island” has a range of villas to choose from and a stay here will likely be undisturbed by other guests, if the empty car park is any indication.
Chambok Community Based Ecotourism
Chambok Community Based Ecotourism is a great local organization which arranges numerous homestays with local families. Rustic but clean, this is the best way to immerse oneself in Cambodian rural life, and save lots of money at the same time. They also offer tours of forests, farms, and local waterfalls.