No place screams TROPICAL VACATION quite like the Philippines. We island hopped around Coron and El Nido on the island of Palawan for 10 days and came away tan, tired, and completely blissed out.Read More
Kampot or Kep?
So you want to head to southern Cambodia and see a bit of the countryside, but which to choose? Kampot is a bigger town, feels a bit more alive. It’s still really chill though, with lots of artsy digs and good food on every street. It’s basically a low-key river town.Kep is smaller, more of a resort-y beach town. They have a really cool crabbing market worth checking out. The main draw of Kep is Rabbit Island - a deserted, lazy-day retreat. We chose Kampot, mostly because of the long list of food recommendations we’d been given. Plus, it’s easy to get to Kep for the day anyway.
Things to Do
Either way, whether you’re staying in Kampot or Kep, definitely try to make it out to the National Park for a day, and the countryside for a day. There are a handful of companies that run tours everyday. We went with Bison Tours and loved them. They’re a pretty basic company that shuttles you around for the day in a typical white sprinter van, but they include lunch and have a lot of activities packed into one day. Plus, it’s only $10-20 depending on which of their many options you choose.
You can also rent scooters, which is a cheaper, more self-led option. It will definitely take longer to drive on the roads, but hey, it’s cheaper. You can also hire a tuk-tuk all day, but it might be just as costly. Bison’s countryside tour operates out of tuk-tuks anyway.
Preah Monivong (Phnom Bokor) National Park
The windy mountain drive into the Dâmrei Mountains is exceptionally scenic. Plus, there are a bunch of unusual places to stop and explore scattered throughout the park, most notably the French Colonial Bokor Hill Station. Built in the 1920s as an escape from the sweltering Cambodian heat, the lofty settlement atop the regions highest peak was intended to replicate the cooler climate of France.
There have been a number of recent development initiatives to encourage tourism in the park, including the renovation of the not-spooky-anymore “abandoned” Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino. Still, a worthwhile trip into the mountains for a taste of one of Cambodia’s most prized ecological landscapes! Depending on the weather, you’ll either experience incredible views of the far-off sea, or you’ll be enveloped by cozy grey clouds in every direction.
This enormous Buddhist monument is impossible to miss on your way into the park. While there are various versions of the story of Yeay Mao, this particular statue represents her as the protector of travelers. If you know what’s good for you, make sure to pull over and pay her some respect…
She also acts as an obvious marker as to where you can find the Black Palace, just across the street.
This series of abandoned buildings just off the main road used to belong to King Sihanouk as his summer palace. You can just imagine what used to be an extravagant, mountain-view escape as you’re walking around the now eerie graffitied halls.
Walk towards the back and further into the jungle to find some truly sci-fi-y scenery…
Wat Sampov Pram, of the “Five Sailing Boats Monastery,” was built in 1924, at the same time as the Bokor Hill Station, by King Monivong (yes, it’s the same guy the National Park is named after).
The temple grounds will make you feel like you aparated into an episode of Avatar the Last Airbender. The gold accents of the embellished pagoda sitting among the craggy rocks creates a true image of a mountaintop wonderland.
Another eerie abandoned building tucked away in the misty grayness in the highlands of the park.
If you scramble up the path over the rocks on the left, you’ll get to an incredible viewpoint. On a grey day, you’ll have reached the edge of the world.
Walking Trails and Waterfalls
As a National Park, there’s also a network of walking trails ranging in length. Check out the local resort for information on where to explore. In the wet season, there are plenty of waterfalls to discover around the park!
There are loads of boats floating down the river at sunset. Hop on any boat for a picturesque evening under the bright pink sky as the sun falls behind the mountains.
As you head out, wave to the cheery fishermen heading back in from their day on the water.
A visit to Kampot would be pointless without venturing out to get a feel for the countryside. The passing scenes of rural Cambodia will fascinate and inspire as you zip down the dusty country roads by the sleeping cows and laughing children.
Bison Tours offers a morning visiting salt fields and pepper farms that you can combine with an afternoon on Rabbit Island, off of the beach in Kep. The only vehicle of true adventure is a tuk-tuk, so prepare for a bumpy ride.
Cambodia produces heaps of salt every year by bringing salt water from the coast to dry out under the sun in the quilted fields across the countryside. The network of dry and wet fields creates a checkerboard of dirt orange and sky blue, especially during the rich morning light.
Take a stroll along the edge of the fields or watch the workers shovel the sparkling white gems from the staggeringly enormous storage shed.
Have you ever had gourmet pepper? Well, Kampot is the place for it! The vibrant green vines weave in and out of brick columns of the pepper fields. Learn about the red, black, and white peppercorn varieties and how they’re grown. You can even pluck them off the vine and give them a flavorful chomp.
Our tour brought us to the Starling Ridge Plantation, which to our surprise, is also a luxury resort. Now we know where to stay if we find ourselves back in Kampot.
Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple
On the way out, we stopped at the Phnom Chhngok Cave. The 17th century temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, with a mystic brick shrine incorporated into the stalactites of the cave.
The hike to the entrance brings you to a great vantage point to look across the fields in the valley. Descend into the cave and through an inconspicuous tunnel to wander through the cave and out the other side (obviously don’t do this if you don’t have a guide… caves can be tricky).
Brateak Krola Lake
This beautiful countryside lake, also known as the Secret Lake, isn’t actually a lake but man-made reservoir. That’s the secret.
So you chose to stay in Kampot, but if you must satisfy your curiosity about Kep, it’s only a short 45 minute ride.
For a relaxing day, catch a ferry to Rabbit Island and laze about in the hammocks or enjoy a fruit shake on the sand. It’s rarely crowded, and all there is to do is eat, drink, and sleep in the sun. Island time, baby.
Before heading back to Kampot for the night, stop at the downtown Crabbing Market. Local fisherman (mostly women, actually) are busy weaving traps, untangling fish from nets, plucking crabs from basket, or wading in the glassy evening water for a last minute catch.
Even if you’re uninterested in a fishy snack, be sure to stop in and watch the goings-on of the local Cambodian coast lifestyle!
Epic Arts Cafe - a cafe staffed by deaf or disabled individuals - support the community by enjoying their delicious treats!
Ecran - rent-a-room movie theatre with loads of options for a lazy night “in.”
Mad Monkey - hostel with a pool.
Monkey Republic - hostel we thought had the pool. Still a great place.
Simple Things - vegetarian restaurant! UHMAZING options!
KAMA (Kampot Arts & Music Association) - another great restaurant that supports the local creative community, run by women!
Kampot Night Market - the small local market has a handful of food stalls with cheap, simple dinner options… and kids’ carnival rides. Right next to the massive durian sculpture in the main roundabout.
An absolute must if you’re exploring the Southern Island of New Zealand is stopping for a cruise in the Fiordland National Park. This park is enormous, bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, and most of its wilderness isn’t accessible by anything other than a helicopter. Cruises are the exception.
The most popular cruise is the famous Milford Sound, which can be done in a day or an overnight trip and is the most accessible of the fiords. Following Milford is Doubtful Sound, which is slightly more remote and nearly double the size.
This is the cruise we opted for after some gentle peer pressuring from the travel desk at Base Queenstown. Despite a substantial price difference, we figured doing a longer, more secluded cruise might give us a chance to both wind down and really experience the fiordlands in a more intimate way. MJ had already cruised through Milford and after a couple of nights out in Queenstown we decided the quiet overnight cruise sounded like exactly what we wanted.
We booked our overnight through a company called Real Journeys. Fun fact about them is that they’re the first tourism company to begin operating in Fiordland National Park. Safe to say, we were in good hands for our journey. We debated Queenstown on a sunny Monday morning for the 2+ hour bus ride that would take us deep into the national park.
Getting to Doubtful Sound is no piece of cake. After our length bus ride, we hopped on a smaller ferry to cruise across Lake Manapouri, which separates Doubtful Sound from the town of Manapouri. We then boarded a second bus that took us over the Wilmot Pass, an incredible stretch of rain forest that is so dense you can barely see through all the trees.
What’s amazing about the Fiordland National Park is that there isn’t very strong or deep soil for trees and other vegetation to grow, but it’s absolutely covered in flora. The reason for this is because it rains in the National Park over two thirds of the days in the year. This makes for a seriously outstanding landscape covered in trees, moss, undergrowth, and waterfalls that can last all year or only for a few hours before it rains again.
So after making our way through this intense forest, we finally arrived in Deep Cove and boarded our home for the night: an old school sailboat called The Navigator. After claiming our two bottom bunks in our otherwise empty room and raiding the brownie tray in the saloon (yeah, they call it a saloon), we set off.
Doubtful Sound is enormous. One of the reasons we decided to do the overnight, and why it’s the primary choice for those trying to see this particular area, is because you get to see all of it.
During our first day, we cruised down Doubtful Sound, down into Crooked Arm, and out into the open sea. We managed to catch a glimpse of at least three Fiordland Crested Penguins and visit the New Zealand Fur Seal colony. Thanks to incredible weather, we were also able to take two of the boats 20+ kayaks out for a paddle on the sound to get up close and personal with the shoreline. It was absolutely fantastic.
Dinner was served buffet style in the Main Saloon and it was delicious. We’d been told by our friends over at the Queenstown hostel that it would be but even we were surprised and impressed with the quality. MJ even broke her vegetarian rule to sample some lamb (seconds, please and thank you). We even got our hands on a bottle of wine from Framingham’s, which was one of the wineries we had visited when we were staying in the Marlborough region.
After dinner we were treated to a nature presentation from the boat’s resident nature guide. New Zealand’s only native species are birds, and before the Maori arrived there were many more than there are today. Now, conservationists work year round to try and eradicate pests introduced to New Zealand, such as the possum and the rat, in an effort to preserve their amazing bird species, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
To learn more about New Zealand’s native species and what’s being done to protect them, check out this link.
The boat anchored in Bradshaw Sound for the night, which is a little off to the right of Doubtful Sound, and we were woken up at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast at 7 in order to explore Hall Arm, the “jewel” of Doubtful Sound, before making it back to Deep Cove by 10 a.m.
Hall Arm is everything that it’s talked up to be. We had a fairly misty and rainy morning, which we ended up loving because it gave us a chance to see many of the temporary waterfalls the Fiordland is known for as well as see the park in its most natural state.
We cruised as far into the arm as we could and finally came to a stop in the final bend. The crew silenced the boat and allowed us ten minutes of complete silence to enjoy the sounds of the waterfalls and the few birds we could hear throughout the surrounding mountains. It was breathtaking.
After a quick break to go in to a waterfall (like actually in the waterfall) to capture some of that fresh mountain dew (all rights reserved), we headed back to Deep Cove to make our way home to Queenstown.
Despite our best efforts, it’s truly impossible to explain with words or pictures the beauty of the Fiordland National Park. It’s something that must be experienced. If you get the chance to visit this area of the world, taking a day or overnight cruise to see this park cannot be missed.