Once a remote, frontier town which as recently as 1998 saw Khmer Rouge fighting, Koh Kong is emerging from its isolation to become one of Southeast Asia’s most up-and-coming destinations. The sleepy riverine city, which till recently was overlooked by many tourists in transit from Thailand, sits on the doorstep of striking environmental biodiversity and breathtaking beauty.
One of the few undeveloped stretches of coastline on the Asian mainland, the province encompasses Southeast Asia’s largest virgin rainforest, which reaches all the way to the ocean. While the rest of the region is ravaged by logging, property development and hydropower dams, Koh Kong has remained blessedly unspoilt, though a new port hints at future commercialism.
Koh Kong is a small but infinitely rewarding destination, well worth more than one night. The city is essentially a large village, and children still ambush you with high-fives and hellos. Enjoy it while you can.
Brief guide to Koh Kong
With the completion of the roads and bridges from the Thai border all the way to Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh in 2008, the previously near-inaccessible district and its vast jungles and waterways have become firmly established on the tourist map. The days of treacherous, hazardous ferry journeys to Sihanoukville have been replaced by an efficient bus network, and no longer is Koh Kong another border town for visa-hopping expats.
The city is gradually throwing of its wild-west reputation, based on a decade of offering little more than prostitution and gambling, though both exist, with casinos in particular sitting prominently on the border for Thais who cannot gamble at home.
The city itself is remains somewhat dishevelled but in a uniquely appealing Cambodian way. The streets are numbered 1 – 22, though in no particular order, and a new shopping mall and several mid-range hotels have added some sheen to the dusty streets. The Kah Bpow River runs through the town, its origins in the Cardamoms, eventually emptying itself into the Gulf of Thailand. The heart of the city is centred on the one traffic circle, although development along the riverfront (Street 1) is growing at pace, with most boat and tour operators found along the muddy shoreline.
The real attraction of Koh Kong is the incredible range of attractions and activities, the city being the perfect base to explore the breathtaking natural wonders of the Cardamom Mountains, the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor, Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary, Botum Sakor National Park and countless miles of untamed jungle and mangrove forests.
The islands offshore are some of the last untouched in the country and the diving is spectacular. Boat trips upriver or on the ocean offer a rare, unspoilt experience, while ecotourism looks set to lure a new wave of travellers. The surrounding jungles host such diverse wildlife as Asian elephants, tigers, sun bears, leopards, pangolins, macaques, gibbons and countless bird species.
Unfortunately, many endangered animals wind up on the Khmer dinner table or are smuggled out of the country, but don’t let this put you off enjoying the dining and drinking at Koh Kong’s restaurants and bars. The waterways and oceans provide succulent seafood, especially soft-shell crab and lobster, while fresh fish is just a hook’s throw away. A healthy expat population serves up a surprisingly wide range of western dished, with burgers, schnitzels, English breakfasts and big cold pints of beer making up for the limited local eateries.
The food stalls around the old market and along Street 3 offer the best Khmer dishes and late evening watering holes. There are a couple of bars open till 02:00, but the parties in this town take place behind closed doors. This usually means whiskey and a sing-along with wannabe gangsters and bar girls. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself invited into a hairdresser’s salon that doubles as a Khmer karaoke lounge. Male travellers will no doubt be invited to visit the notorious ‘chicken farm’. Soaking in disinfectant and insect repellent is recommended both before and after.
There are a number of old-time, mainly wooden, balconied establishments offering friendly budget accommodation in Koh Kong. A host of mid-range hotels have sprung up in the past year, aimed at the Thai market but providing decent facilities at reasonable prices. Along the border, the usual casino/ hotel complexes cater squarely to the non-adventure tourist, while outside of town sit a couple of scenic, boutique resorts.
Koh Kong lies 10km from the Thai border, with the NH48 continuing 138kms to Sre Ambel through the lower Cardamom Mountains. From Sre Ambel, Phnom Penh is a further 133km on NH4, while Sihanoukville and Kampot are around 100km south. Buses and share taxis ply the roads and can be booked everywhere, while getting around in Koh Kong is easy thanks to the ubiquitous moto.
The southern coastal route from Bangkok is growing in popularity, be watchful of belongings when crossing into Cambodia, and be prepared for the usual attempts at scams from both immigration and transport operators, but Koh Kong is nowhere near as bad as its northern cousin Poipet.