Breaking away

Cambodia's south coast has beaches, temples and treehouses - without the tourists, writes Louise Southerden.

You've seen the ancient temples of Angkor, sipped cocktails at Phnom Penh's Foreign Correspondents' Club, been to the genocide museum. With tourism in Cambodia maturing since the country opened to visitors in the early '90s, infrastructure has been expanding beyond Angkor Wat and the capital - to the south coast.

Why go to Cambodia's south coast? I have five days to find out, on a private tour with Footsteps in Style - just my partner and me, our guide (Sam) and a driver ("Mr Da").

Within minutes of leaving Phnom Penh, we're in the countryside. The landscape is unmistakably south-east Asian - either side of the road there are rice fields interrupted by palm trees, thatched houses, ponies pulling carts, children riding their bicycles to and from school. Only the blue Cambodian People's Party signs and the Cambodia beer ads on rickety roadside stalls remind us where we are.

This is the real Cambodia, Sam says. Eighty per cent of its 15 million people live in rural areas like this. That would be reason enough to visit, to see the essence of the country, but there are plenty more.

The south coast is only a three-hour drive from Phnom Penh, but we make the trip last all day - first by stopping at Ta Prohm, an hour south of the capital. Not to be confused with the Tomb Raider temple of the same name at Siem Reap, this is a miniature Angkor Wat also built in the 12th century but much less crowded. Apart from the aged nuns in white shirts and ankle-length sarongs wandering like ancient angels, we're the only people here and this is the high season.

After a picnic lunch on a bamboo deck over the edge of nearby Tonle Bati lake, where two women paddle past in a canoe selling fried beetles and roasted frogs, we visit Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Centre. Part zoo, part safari park, it's home to animals such as monkeys, mongooses, otters and tigers rescued from poachers and traffickers.

One of the elephants we see has an artificial foot, thanks to a land mine. It's not a happy place, but it's a step in the right direction against wildlife trade.

Our destination is Kep, which we reach at sunset, just in time to see women wading ashore with their crab pots and selling their catch; you can have your fresh crabs cooked on the spot, over open fires at a thatched seaside shelter.

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In the 1950s and 1960s, Kep was the darling of French expats and Cambodia's elite, famed for its beaches of dazzling white sand (which came from Sihanoukville, up the coast) and high-society lifestyle. All but destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s - the main road is still lined with once-grand mansions pockmarked with bullet holes - Kep has been quietly making a comeback. Luxury resorts have been popping up ever since Knai Bang Chatt, a Le Corbusier-inspired boutique hotel, opened here in 2006 and there are eco-retreats in the jungle backing on to the coast.

It's dark by the time we reach Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort, at the end of a rugged dirt road. Our treehouse reminds me of the ice machine in The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux - a timber tower accessible by a wooden door at its base. Inside, there's a bathroom at ground level - complete with an orange frog on one wall, a gecko on another - and steep stairs up to our split-level living area: an open-sided bedroom and a deck furnished with circular cane chairs at treetop height.

Early the next morning, we leave our mosquito-netted bed to curl up in these hamster-wheel-like chairs, listen to the early birds and watch the sun rise out of the sea. Later we climb a short, steep path behind the eco-resort for a walk along the eight-kilometre loop track that follows a ridge in Kep National Park. Every now and then, the jungle on either side takes a break and we get widescreen views of the sea and the surrounding countryside. It's so beautiful I'm surprised there's no one else around, not even at the laid-back Led Zep Cafe, where we stop for a cool drink at the edge of the national park.

The cantilevered verandah has three things going for it: its lofty location (for more views of Kep), ice-cold drinks and black-and-white photos on its rattan walls that pay homage to Kep's glory days - and to rock'n'roll, circa 1970, a passion of the cafe's French owner.

A short walk downhill, past large resorts such as Le Bout du Monde and The Veranda Natural Resort, brings us to The Sailing Club, a renovated fisherman's cottage across the road from, and owned by, Knai Bang Chatt resort. You can rent Hobie Cats, windsurfers and kayaks here, but the best thing to do is sit at a white-painted table on the beach with your feet in the sand and a cold Angkor beer in your hand at happy hour (which goes from 5pm to 7pm).

The next morning we're driving north-west to the salt-and-pepper town of Kampot, passing seaside salt farms and visiting a pepper plantation on the way. Kampot pepper has been farmed in this part of Cambodia since the 13th century. Nearby is The Vine Retreat, an American-owned stone and timber lodge frequented by Phnom Penh expats as well as tourists for its organic farm, swimming pool and open-air weekend yoga retreats.

Another Kampot attraction, and our next stop, is Phnom Chhnork, a small Hindu temple just inside the entrance of a high-ceilinged cave. Showing us around and explaining why the temple was built here in the seventh century - because of rock formations (now inside the tomb) that resemble a lingum and yoni, Hindu male and female symbols - is 11-year-old Wong. She learns English from the monks in her village and, presumably, the few tourists who come here. "Kids here look smaller than they do in your country," she says matter-of-factly as we follow her along a dirt path to the cave.

At Epic Arts Cafe, run by people who are deaf and disabled, the specials are croque monsier and madame, the coffee is Lavazza, there's even soy milk available. Then there are the sunset river cruises.

Waiting for our boat to arrive, we see another almost capsize, it's so overloaded with backpackers. Ours is thankfully smaller and just for us. We sit in folding chairs under a canopy, taking in the serenity - until the driver starts the engine, which is as noisy as a jackhammer. At least there's plenty to see, a passing parade of stilt houses, boats under construction, monks at a temple.

It's a long hour to the river mouth where the driver mercifully cuts the engine and we hop over the side onto a sand spit to wander barefoot in ear-ringing silence until the sun disappears behind the nearest palm trees.

The return journey is a joy. With the wind in our faces, there's less engine noise, and we wave at passing fishing boats.

Our final destination is Koh Rong, a two-hour ferry ride from Cambodia's seedy port town, Sihanoukville (affectionately called "Snooks"), where we leave Sam and Mr Da. Paradise Bungalows, one of the dozen or so accommodation options on this large island, is only a 10-minute barefoot walk up the beach from the jetty, the bars and the cheap guesthouses, but a hundred times more peaceful.

The bungalows are basic but just metres from the silica-white sand and aquamarine water. Who knew Cambodia had beaches like this? But it's Paradise's restaurant bungalow that's the highlight of our visit, and perhaps our entire south coast trip. It's calm, earthy and cool with its thatched cathedral ceiling, Buddha statues and shiny timber floors where guests lounge on colourful cushions, reading, playing backgammon, using the free Wi-Fi and dining on the Khmer-Asian food. I could stay here a month.

The south coast has it all. Ancient temples, treehouses, river cruises, tropical beaches, even proximity to Phnom Penh. On our last day we take a taxi from Sihanoukville back to Phnom Penh; it takes four hours and costs $US70 ($75). Go now, before word gets out.

The writer travelled courtesy of AirAsia and Footsteps Worldwide.

GETTING THERE

AirAsia X flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, where you change flights to Phnom Penh. Flights from Sydney to KL (8hr) start at $640 return, including taxes. AirAsia flies from KL to Phnom Penh twice a day (1hr 45min) from $177 return, including taxes. See airasia.com. Cambodia visas can be obtained upon arrival or online for $US28 at mfaic.gov.kh/evisa.

TOURING THERE

Footsteps Worldwide arranges group tours through Cambodia as Footsteps in Asia (footstepsinasia.com) and tailored trips as Footsteps in Style (footstepsinstyle.com).

STAYING THERE

Knai Bang Chatt has rooms from $US121 ($130) a night, see knaibangchatt.com.

Jasmine Valley Eco Resort has eight rooms and two treehouses from $US22 a night, see jasminevalley.com.

The Vine Retreat has rooms from $US25 a night, see thevineretreat.com. Paradise Bungalows has bungalows from $US35 a night, see paradise-bungalows.com.

TRIP NOTES MORE INFORMATION

tourismcambodia.com.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Louise Southerden is a writer and photograper with a special interest in eco-travel, exploring the world's wildest and most natural places.

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