Koh Kong Roadtrip
The town of Koh Kong bills itself as the wild west of Cambodia, but unless you go looking for trouble in this port town, you're unlikely to find anything other than a sleepy fishing village and picturesque views of far-off mountains, the start of the Cardamom Mountain range in Cambodia's rugged southwest.
The tough reputation is due only to the town's proximity to one of two legal overland crossings to Thailand, the other being in the northwest near Pailin. Ironically, this feeds a largely illegal border trade in which everything from guns to drugs to appliances and cars are moved across the border by shipping gangs who profit by avoiding government duties.
Interfere with their work, and God only knows why you would want to, and you're asking for trouble. That said, you can safely wander the streets of Koh Kong because here, like much of Cambodia, westerners long ago lost their status as symbols of the imperial and dangerous developed world and became simple tay-suh-jaw: tourists.
Be aware that there are several areas labeled "Koh Kong," and they are often confused on maps. There is the province of Koh Kong, first of all, that sits on the southwest corner of Cambodia. The town of Koh Kong, in Koh Kong province, is made up of several villages, one of which is also called Koh Kong; there's also Koh Kong island near the town. Fortunately the boat drivers know to take you to the town, from which you can explore the surrounding areas.
I made my first trip to Koh Kong as part of a work assignment for my newspaper, The Cambodia Daily. I traveled with my Khmer colleague Phann Ana, a funny and smart-dressed Cambodian who seldom steps outdoors without his penny loafers and, like many of his countrymen, likes to eat pork and rice for breakfast.
We were on our way to Koh Kong to gauge the public's interest in the February, 2002, local elections.
To get there from Phnom Penh we would have preferred to fly, merely to save time, but Royal Phnom Penh dropped its twice weekly flights to the remote area in late 2001 due to lack of interest. That turned out to be a blessing. As it turns out, the journey to Koh Kong is half the reason to go there.
We started on bus, catching the Sihanoukville bound 7 am bus from the Central Market, or Psah Thmei, in Phnom Penh, being sure to tell the bus driver that we wanted to go to Koh Kong. It's necessary to catch the 7 am bus in order to catch the boat to Koh Kong, which departs at 11 am from Sre Ambel.
Three hours into the four-hour trip to Sihanoukville, the bus stopped in a roadside village. We stepped out with our packs and watched the bus move on down the road in cloud of dust and smoke. When it grew quiet again, we were left with a handful of roadside stands selling pineapples (me-noah), delicious but strange looking rambuttan (sow-mow) and the ever-present Cambodian banana, (jake) a short, fat fruit that sells for almost nothing.
I have a theory that a westerner with a slightly disoriented look can draw a crowd of willing drivers and helpers in Cambodia faster than anywhere else in the world. This village was like others I have been to in Cambodia where a westerner is made to feel like they are wearing a sign that says, "Help. I'm stupid and likely to kill myself if you don't assist me." It's an uncomfortable feeling at first but it grows on you.
Two men came running from what looked like a karaoke bar, their helmets in hand as they shouted: "Tow? Tow?" the shortened version of their titles as moto drivers.
We told them we were on our way to Koh Kong, though it was unnecessary. The only reason a handful of westerners come through this village every day is to catch the Koh Kong boat at the docks located 10 km to the west. Minutes later we were straddling the back of speeding motos.
Some people complain about traveling by moto in Cambodia, but for me there's no better way to see the land, unless someone was willing to pedal a tandem bicycle for you as you sat on the back and soaked up the surrounding landscapes. A moto spares you none of the sights and smells along the way, and unless your driver is drunk, which can happen, the travel is entirely safe. Most moto drivers will take your pack for you and hold it between his knees, a trick most of them mastered long before they met you. Some even carry extra helmets for their passengers.
We passed thatch huts where families sat on their front porches, shaded from the baking morning sun, and tended to various projects: fixing a bike wheel, drying rice on great sheets set near the road, holding children. We rolled into the docks a few minutes later.
The tickets cost $11 and here I got my first taste of Koh Kong's free-wheeling economy. Located near the Thai border and more reliant on tourists from Bangkok than government support from Phnom Penh, Koh Kong trades mostly in Baht. The ticket price was 500 baht, in fact, but the ticketing agent accepted dollars as all but the most remote sellers in Cambodia do.
We had a few minutes to kill so I wandered around the docks and soaked up the smell of gasoline mixed with saltwater. Children sold Doublemint gum, water and fried squid cakes, a kind of large potato chip that smells of vegetable oil and seafood.
I caught the eye of a fishermen and he asked me how much I had paid to travel to Koh Kong. When I told him he shook his head. "If you came with me only 120 Baht," he said, or about three dollars. I looked at his boat, painted bright blue and fronted by an enormous prow with a small cabin set on the deck. His passengers included a family of four and several mysterious boxes wrapped in sheets of cardboard. One boat carried a brand new Tuk Ampul, or Sugar Cane Drink, cart, a Volkswagen Beetle sized cart made to extract the juice from stalks of sugar cane for a sweet drink sold on the streets of Phnom Penh and just about anywhere else a crowd gathers in Cambodia.
The fishermen's boat was tempting, just for the feeling that we would be traveling with real Khmers, but I later learned it would have taken a day and a half to get to Koh Kong, despite the fishermen's promise that he would get us there in "just a few hours."
Even the fast boat, which is air conditioned, enclosed and similar to the boats that run from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, would take four hours to travel up the Cambodian coast to Koh Kong.
Soon after we departed I stepped out on the bow of the fast boat. No one else left their seats, despite the beauty of the land we were passing, low laying jungle interrupted every few minutes by a fishermen's hut. We eventually sailed out of the inland sea where we began and pulled out onto the Gulf of Thailand. On the day we traveled there was absolutely no swell and fishing boats in the distance were the only way to mark the horizon line dividing the crystalline blue water from the cloudless sky.
I spent an hour lost in thought and then returned to my seat, where Phann Ana, like the other Cambodians on board, was deep asleep. We woke at a rest stop at Koh Sadeck, an island that I've heard makes for an interesting, but short, visit. A few hours after a friend of mine landed there, he had seen the entire island and was ready to move on. Unfortunately no more boats were due in that day and he spent the night in one of a handful of cheap guesthouses on the island, feasting on clams and crabs. Not such a bad place to be stuck.
No one was allowed off the boat unless they were disembarking, so vendors scurried aboard to sell water, bread and the usual Doublemint gum/squid cake treats. Most were on and off quickly, selling their goods to a small crowd that had gathered on the bow.
When the boat pulled away however, two child vendors were still on board and suddenly they wore a look of panic as we pulled away. There was much yelling from the shore and the boat shuddered to a stop, nosed into the docks once again, and the children leapt to safety.
For the next hour we cut between a series of small islands that were not on my map and the mainland. The beaches here looked like something out of Alex Garland's book and doubtless a few intrepid backpackers had made these sands their home. A fishing boat from Koh Sadech would only be too happy to ferry some backpackers there, I thought.
Next time. We had work to do. And Koh Kong was less than an hour away.
At the time of this writing, construction crews were 90 percent finished with an $8 million bridge spanning the estuary near Koh Kong town and connecting the village to the border region. That means no ferries across the estuary, but there will be a toll to use the bridge, I was told.
And just in case you're thinking the Cambodian government suddenly splurged on a public works project of its own, you should know that the bridge was paid for by the owner of the Koh Kong International Resort and Casino, who clearly has a vision of the future in which a bridge owner profits.
I mention this now because the bridge is the first thing you see as you pull into Koh Kong. The town is on your right, the bridge straight ahead and the border and Casino are a few kilometers away on your left. Minutes after landing, pressing through the vendors selling, what else?, Doublemint and plastic bags stuffed with squidcakes, we found our rooms at the hotel. All told the trip had taken eight hours and cost $16, squid cakes included.
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Published on 2/27/02