The most relaxed, lush part of the country, Southern Cambodia is blessed with dazzling white-sand beaches and richly forested national parks.
Faded Colonial architecture, lively beach bars, and beautiful virgin islands are on offer in this sparsely populated region. Visitors can engage in a variety of activities, from jungle treks and boat trips to snorkelling and diving.
Stretching from the Thai border in the southwest to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta frontier in the southeast, Southern Cambodia is a region of myriad attractions. In the north are the relatively inaccessible Cardamom Mountains, a supremely biologically diverse range.
History of Southern Cambodia
Until the late 1980s, these mountains were one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, whose presence, coupled with the difficult terrain, deterred loggers. The amazing variety of wildlife in the Cardamom Mountains includes elephants, sun bears, tigers, pangolins, Siamese crocodiles, and primates.
The biggest draws of the area are its pristine beaches and virgin islands. Sihanoukville, with its mix of ramshackle buildings and fancy hotels, continues to draw visitors despite its lack of urban planning.
Exploring Southern Cambodia
National Highway 4, which connects Phnom Penh with Cambodia’s only port at Kompong Som, or Sihanoukville after the former king, was built by the United States to facilitate Cambodian trade and the influx of aid starting from the mid-1960s.
Just adjacent to the busy Sihanoukville port, you can find some lovely little beach areas, most of which are speckled with budget bungalows and groovy bars owned by Western expatriates.
The town of Kampot is a lazy little river town, just a grid of mostly colonial-style houses along a quiet, lazy river, but another good place to kick back. You might also visit nearby Kep, which was a French colonial vacation spot whose 1950s/1960s-era villas lay in ruin. It’s also a seafood mecca, and worth visiting just for its Kep crab in Kampot pepper.
Connections by bus with Sihanoukville are convenient, and many choose to do this region in a rented vehicle or even by affordable local taxicab. So, if you’re stuck in Phnom Penh for a few days waiting out a Vietnam visa, hit the beaches. You’ll be surprised.
The town’s fine-sand beaches and turquoise waters are a haven for watersports enthusiasts. A number of tour operators and diving companies, which can assist travellers with planning activities, operate in the town. Several uninhabited and sparsely populated islands lie just off the coast of Sihanoukville and make for excellent day-trip options.
Apart from tourism, the main sources of income in the coastal areas remain agriculture, fishing, and salt production. The region is also home to several wildlife preserves. Ream National Park envelops a vast swath of coastland, with mangrove forests and coral reefs, in contrast to the expansive pine forests of Kirirom National Park.
The rainforest preserve of Botum Sakor National Park is home to elephants and hornbills, while Bokor National Park has an old French hill station and the ruins of a Catholic church. Other attractions include the tiny town of Kep, with its crumbling Modernist buildings, and the captivating temple ruins of Phnom Da in Takeo province.
A heady combination of beaches, islands, and national parks makes Southern Cambodia a delight to explore. Koh Kong, near the Thai border, is beginning to establish itself as an ecotourism centre, with picturesque waterfalls, forests, and mangrove preserves. In the south, bustling Sihanoukville has some of Southeast Asia’s most gorgeous beaches and pristine offshore islands.
Kampot, which lies to the east of Sihanoukville, is an important town with a delightful river setting and an atmospheric French quarter, and serves as an ideal base for trips to Bokor National Park. Tiny Kep, a former French resort, still retains a quiet rustic feel, while Takeo province is home to the ancient temple of Phnom Da, which is accessible only by boat from Angkor Borei.
The road system in Southern Cambodia has improved greatly. All the main routes are well paved and generally in good condition, although all are single-lane highways. The bus network is reasonably efficient and since distances are not great, journeys are not too tiring. Shared taxis supplement buses, particularly on the Sihanoukville.
These usually stop to allow travellers to take pictures en route. Car-rental agencies are common in Sihanoukville and motorcycle rental companies operate in most towns. Boats are available to offshore islands and riverside towns, and to explore parks and temple ruins such as Phnom Da.