Cambodia's Countryside

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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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.  

Yeay Mao

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.

Black Palace

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.

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Walk towards the back and further into the jungle to find some truly sci-fi-y scenery… 

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Buddhist Temple

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). 

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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.

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Catholic Church

Another eerie abandoned building tucked away in the misty grayness in the highlands of the park. 

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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!

Sunset Cruise

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. 

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As you head out, wave to the cheery fishermen heading back in from their day on the water.

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Countryside

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.

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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.

Salt fields

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.  

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Take a stroll along the edge of the fields or watch the workers shovel the sparkling white gems from the staggeringly enormous storage shed. 

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Pepper Farms

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. 

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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).

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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.

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Kep

So you chose to stay in Kampot, but if you must satisfy your curiosity about Kep, it’s only a short 45 minute ride.

Rabbit Island

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.

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Crabbing Market

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.

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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! 

Digs

  • 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.

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Cameron Highlands

The Cameron highlands are best known for hidden hiking trails, expansive tea plantations, and abundant strawberry farms. The little mountain neighborhood is packed with shops and shacks serving cheap, authentic Malaysian food.

Getting to the Cameron Highlands

Kuala Lumpur has multiple buses per day heading in all directions - it’s easy to grab a taxi to the main bus terminal and book a ticket day of. The ride is a windy two hour journey through the mountains in a big comfy bus seat. Try to get a window seat to gaze out at the passing landscapes, they’re captivating. 

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You’ll arrive at the Tanah Rata bus station, which is where you can find the local bus or any onward travel. After our adventure in the highlands, we booked a comfortable van that brought us straight to our hostel up north in Georgetown, Penang.

There’s one main road that runs through the Cameron Highlands, connecting Tanah Rata, Brinchang, and Kampung Raja. The local bus runs between Tanah Rata and Kampung everyday - but since there’s only one bus, the times are pretty infrequent. 

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The bus doesn’t run on a rigid schedule, so make sure to be at the stop a bit early.

Hiking the Highlands

Just by coming to the highlands, you’re obligated to take at least one hike. There are tons of options, whether it be heading down to a waterfall for an hour or up to the top of a mountain for the afternoon. 

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Hiking in the Cameron Highlands is done by “paths” with numbers. Not all of the paths are well maintained, so it would be wise to check with your hosts as to whether your choice path is in good enough condition.

Path 10

The most popular option is Path 10 up Gunung Jasar. The beginning of the Path is straight through someone’s driveway, but they’ve curated a little garden for passing hikers to enjoy. 

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It takes about an hour to get to the power lines at the top, and the view is quite breathtaking. We opted to just return back down Path 10 since we only had the afternoon, but if you’ve got time, you can continue along Path 12 to Gunung Perdah. It takes another hour and a half to circle back around.

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Robinson Falls

An easier option, and very close to downtown Tanah Rata, is Path 9 to Robinson Waterfall. To get to the path, you walk through the town park and along the river. There are signs to guide you towards the path. You’ll pass right by some local homes before heading into the forest. It’s only about 10 minutes until you see the waterfall. 

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After that, you can either continue down the EXTREMELY STEEP path to the Robinson Power Station (which may or may not be trespassing?). At that point, you won’t want to backtrack back up the cliff you’ve descended, so just continue along the road you empty out on. It’s another half an hour to the main road. The walk is a great way to see what the “real” Cameron Highland farms look like.

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Once you get to the main road, you can either hike back for 10 kilometers, hitchhike with a friendly-looking passerby, or hail a taxi for a buck or two. We stumbled upon a taxi before we reached the main road, so we all just piled in.

Path 2

Path 2 is only for the true adventurers. We sort of stumbled into it without realizing what we signed up for, but apparently it’s the least maintained, most-wild trek of them all. 

It begins at the Sam Poh Temple, which is most easily reached by taking the local bus up to Brinchang in the morning. The walk from downtown to the temple is really enjoyable if you go for an early morning stroll. The neighborhoods are just waking up, and it’s a fun way to explore the less busy areas of the highlands. 

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The Temple is not crowded at all. It’s a nice way to start the day before trekking through the jungle. From Sam Poh, you go back down the main drive and make the first right. Follow that road until there’s a dirt driveway on your left, and a pinkish apartment building on your right. It’ll seem really strange, but the trailhead is up through the lower level of the apartment building on the right.

The beginning is a crazy scramble up a steep hillside until you get to the first trail sign. Fellow hikers have written warnings of steepness, and they’re not wrong. The rest of the trail is a series of ups and downs through some pretty authentic jungle highlands. Expect to cross over riverbeds, duck under fallen trees, and wonder for a few moments which way the path goes. 

That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Path 2 the most. It’s not so much of a hike up a mountain as it is a wander through the woods. There were so many moments that we stopped to sit and listen to the jungle around us. The sounds of water trickling through the rocks, or birds calling in the canopy. It really is a peaceful way to experience how alive Malaysia is.

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Near the end of Path 2, you can empty out near the golf course, or fork back into the jungle for a shot at Path 3. Both will take you south towards Tanah Rata, but the path will take much longer. We headed out towards the road and walked along the golf course and through the outskirts of town. Again, a fun way to see the area! 

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Mossy Forest

The Mossy Forest was by far my favorite activity. At the very top of a rolling, tea-covered hill, an elevated boardwalk wanders through native highland forest. The dripping wet leaves, glossy palms, moss-coated trees, and drenched brown boardwalk planks will make you feel like you’re in the middle of one big raindrop. 

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It’s like you can hear the moisture among the silence of the forest. This is what the very highest of the Cameron Highlands were like before the tea plantations.

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For a surreal experience, go in the morning before the clouds lift and the crowds arrive. Catch the 8:30 bus and let the driver know you want to get off at the Cameron Square Shopping Centre. He’ll drop you off at the bottom of the very long hill. We originally planned to walk up, but decided it would be way easier and faster to hitchhike up. The couple that picked us up were visiting the Highlands on their honeymoon! Less romantically, there are a number of tour companies in town that offer trips to the Forest as part of a larger package.

There are some areas at the back of the forest that are not a part of the main boardwalk. They are usually muddy, slippery, and dangerous. We chose to stick to the in-bounds boardwalk, but if you choose to go rogue, remember that the rangers will not be able to help you. And if they find you, you might get in trouble. That being said, we bumped into a girl who wandered back there and said it was cool - pretty much the same as the regular forest area, but muddier. 

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Head up to the top of the lookout tower to really get your head in the clouds. It’s beyond peaceful to be surrounded by the grey, windy, morning forest air up there. Apparently if it’s a clear day, the views of the surrounding plantations are incredible.

But if the wispy clouds are all you get up there, just take a slow meander back down to the bottom of the hill to really appreciate the plantations. It’s a two-hour descent back to the bus stop without stopping. But of course, we stopped at each of the roadside viewpoints to snap pics and get the drone in the air.

Only after landing did an officer scoot up to inform us that it is indeed against the rules to fly drones above the plantations. Oops.

Boh Tea Plantation

If you have the time to pitstop at the Boh Sungai Palas Tea Centre. You walk past the fields on your way up or down. It’s a bit of a ways of the road, but if you opt to go into the plantation, there’s a restaurant/tea house overlooking fields. 

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Sit for a quick snack or tea. If you can snag a seat outside, there’s a great view off the balcony. We got the blackberry iced tea - worth the walk!

Strawberry Farms

There are a couple of options around Brinchang. We didn’t have time to get to any of them, but it’s a fun activity for an afternoon if you’re already up there! Check out one of the butterfly farms while you’re at it!

Digs in Cameron Highlands

  • Map Travelodge - Awesome travel-themed hostel with amazing photos lining the entrance stairwell. Plus an entire wall of postcards for sale, all taken by the owner of the hostel! We seized this opportunity to write some hellos to friends back home - reception will even postage and send them out for you!

  • Cameron Curry House - uh-mazing Indian food on the corner of the main street. Went there 3 times.

  • Jungle Bar - at the very far end of a small street off the main road. Chill vibes, good old pool table, cheap liquor and even an outdoor fire pit!

  • Travellers Bistro & Pub - near our hostel, sells Tiger beer towers. And fries.

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