From lost temples to serene villages and balmy beaches, Cambodia is cheap and easy to explore, finds Alex Robinson, on a comfy new train line through the historic heart of the country
After a few minutes my eyes adjusted to the darkness. Behind me, the cave entrance was a glowing mouth framed by jagged rocks and gleaming tangles of green foliage. In front, worn steps stretched down into the gloom and the cave floor 30 metres below. In the half-light I could just about make out something set against the back wall: a hulking shape like a giant bear, and I was alone. My mouth dried and I froze for a moment, before remembering that there are no bears in Kampot. As I walked on, the shape became clearer. I could see a brick arch and a gabled roof. It was a temple.
I traced its elegant lines upwards. And gasped. The building was smothered by what looked like ectoplasm oozing from the ancient rocky walls as if it were being eaten, amoeba-like, by the mountain. Then I heard the drip-drip of water echoing through the cavern – through the centuries, back to the time when the temple was abandoned. It wasn’t ectoplasm. It was stalactites and flowstone – formed, as it sounds, by water flowing down.
This was the Cambodia I loved – the Lara Croft lost tombs, the crumbling temples. It’s the Cambodia everyone fantasises about: a bucket-list destination of golden light, ethereal ruins, peaceful Buddhas, tangled vines. Then there are the islands, fringed with flour-fine beaches; serene villages, mango-filled markets and rolling rice paddies. Like Thailand… but 20 years ago.
Frustratingly, though, getting anywhere in Cambodia is a step-back-in-time experience, too. It’s a hassle. The roads are terrible, the journeys a crash and bump. So when I learnt of a new railway line running through the historic heart of the country, right down to the balmy beaches of its south coast, I leapt at the chance to visit again. This would be my seventh trip to Cambodia, but my first ever by train.
On the Cambodia railway website, I plotted my fantasy route of about 250km. It began in bustling Phnom Penh, then click-clacked past fields of buffaloes to Takeo, where the ancient temples are older than Angkor Wat. I’d move on to sleepy French colonial town Kampot, fragrant with pepper blossom and lemongrass, and eat curried crab on the coast at Kep. Journey’s end was Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand, gateway to beaches lined with palms.
The next morning I sat in air-conditioned comfort watching Phnom Penh city slip by like a video on mute: a cluster of shiny skyscrapers, the sluggish brown of the Mekong River, level crossings snarling with mopeds… Then, out of the blue, a smartly dressed conductor brought me a perfumed towel, coffee and a breakfast menu. Minutes later came paddy fields
My first stop was Takeo, two hours south – a sleepy provincial capital as big as a village, among pretty canals and lakes. I spent the morning wandering through the market, where mangoes were piled alongside clucking chickens in wicker baskets, bags of Siamese fighting fish and buckets of slippery eels. I wondered why everyone was staring at me until the receptionist at my hotel told me I was the only foreigner in town.
“The new train will bring more people: Takeo is the cradle of Cambodian civilisation,” she assured me, proudly. “The Khmer empire began here, with Funan kingdom. Angkor Wat came later.”
She arranged for a local taxi driver and a boatman to show me the sights of ancient Funan. Later that afternoon I heaved my way up steep steps to the summit of Chisor mountain, where King Suryavarman I built a ceremonial centre in the 11th century. Sweating from the climb, I looked for shade and found a gated courtyard strewn with ruined masonry, dotted with temple buildings. Their doors and lintels were carved with floral swirls – before Angkor, but unmistakably Khmer in their intricacy and delicate beauty. And there were no crowds. The only person I saw was an elderly fortuneteller, illuminated by a shaft of light and snoozing inside one of the buildings, next to a thousand-year-old statue. I heard chanting and followed it to a monastery, cresting the hill, and found novice monks in saffron robes sitting at old-fashioned school desks (complete with inkwells) reciting sutras as if they were saying their times tables. This was an Angkor temple as it used to be – the temple tranquillity and timeless beauty as yet undisturbed – and reachable, not by coach parties, but by train.
‘As the sun sank red over the paddy fields, I was rocked to sleep by the sway of the railway carriages and the tick-tock tapping of the track’
I was woken by the train shuddering to a halt in Kampot. Even though it was after 11pm, a man in his forties with a wispy moustache and a collared shirt was waiting for me with a placard and a warm smile. “Welcome to south Cambodia,” he said with genuine enthusiasm and excellent English, grabbing my bag. “You must be tired.”
“Not really,” I thought. I’ve never had so restful a Cambodian journey.
Mr Try’s Toyota was as comfortable as a sofa. And the mattresses in the Rikitikitavi hotel were draped in Egyptian cotton. There was even a DVD library. If Takeo was still a relative unknown, Kampot was well-visited, a fact confirmed at breakfast: poached eggs and banana pancakes were on the menu and tourists plentiful (though they had come by bus on bumpy roads, I reflected smugly, not tranquil rail tracks). The view over French townhouses and a gently winding river was enchanting. This was Cambodia
Mr Try was waiting in reception. “Lots to see,” he said with boundless enthusiasm. “Temples, beaches, fine food. And of course you will be itching to see the pepper plantations!” He looked almost hurt when I clearly had no idea what he was talking about. “Gourmet,” he exclaimed. “Gourmet!” We floated along narrow roads past fields where women picked chillies, and buffaloes lazily chewed grass, white egrets perched on their backs. A narrow lane lined with what looked like poplars brought the car to a grand, terracotta-roofed French mansion with Gallic gables decorated with Khmer swirling dragons. I opened the car door and was hit by a delicious, honeysuckle-sweet fragrance that had me drinking in the air. Mr Try was triumphant.
“Pepper blossom! Gourmet!”
And with the enthusiasm of a Bordeaux vintner he walked me through rows of pea-green pepper plants – some laden with tiny, star-like white flowers, others ripe with red pepper fruit, which he said would become peppercorns. Notices warned ‘Do not touch the pepper!’ as if it were a museum relic. “Isn’t pepper just pepper, Mr Try?” I asked. Again he looked appalled. Anthony Bourdain didn’t think so, nor did the great French chef Olivier Roellinger, both of whom he’d guided. I needed culinary education. So that evening Mr Try dropped me at Atelier – an elegant restaurant on the riverside with distressed brick walls and French chill-out music on the stereo. It was hip, and crisply dressed staff explained the provenance of each dish with hushed reverence. I ordered Cambodian tiger prawns in Kampot green pepper sauce. The prawns were tender and fresh; the sauce fiery, but fragrant, with a rich, almost fruity, vanilla-like aftertaste. I’d chosen my stops well: if Takeo was Angkor Wat without the crowds, then Kampot was Hanoi, without the hectic rush.
I thanked Mr Try, who recommended that I take the fisherman’s boat the next day to Kep village. “Like the train. Very relaxing,” he promised. “And don’t miss the Kep crabs.”
So, in the morning light, I sat comfortably on the wooden deck of a converted fishing boat – floating languidly past Kampot’s bustling fish market, where women dragged baskets of silvery needlefish off wooden launches. We reached Kep in an easy-going two hours’ sail. It was a tiny wooden hamlet – fringed with a long beach and backed by steep slopes swathed in rainforest, much of it protected as a National Park. I took a guided walk on paths winding through parakeet-filled trees. Macaque monkeys sat in the shade, meticulously grooming. Then I searched out Mr Try’s freshly caught crabs at a market stall – they cost just pennies. I ate them. Once again he was right. They were indeed delicious.
Then it was time for the final train leg – to the coast at Sihanoukville. Getting there was as beautiful as it was relaxing. The train ambled past ponds of pink lotus flowers and village wedding parties tinkling with traditional Cambodian music, clattering across a broad brown river. It was all so much gentler than the dusty bus ride I’d have had to take before the railway ran. Then we climbed into the mountains – at cycling pace – before meandering through mangrove swamps and slipping into Sihanoukville: the end of the line. The town was stray-dog-scruffy – half dusty building site, half tawdry port. I was glad I was only passing through on my way to some of Southeast Asia’s finest beaches. A tuk-tuk brought me to a backpacker-packed boat for the first hint I’d had of the crowds I remembered from Angkor. But in less than an hour I was on Koh Rong island, walking barefoot on talc-soft white sand. The loudest sound on Sok San Beach was the lapping of the sea.
My restful hotel was set in a coconut grove on a silver strand, where thatched-roof-meets-Mykonos bungalows sit right on the beach, facing the morning sun, which rose deep red over the aquamarine ocean. For three days I did nothing but laze in my hammock, paperback or drink in hand, pausing between chapters for a swim or a stroll to the nearby fisherman’s shack for spicy amok curry.
On my final day I determined to be active and booked a snorkelling trip with a local fisherman, Chay. The boat chugged off in the early morning, the wind billowing the bright banners tied to the prow of Chay’s boat. A turquoise sea deepened into dark green, then inky blue. Chay pointed to a pod of dolphins a few hundred metres ahead – their dorsal fins cutting the ocean’s low swell.
After 30 minutes we reached another islet, Koh Koun, slipped our masks on and slid into the water. A stingray sped from the sand, swam off and buried itself next to a coral head. Then Chay dived deeper, beckoned me to follow and pointed to a little rocky inlet. We swam closer. Entwined together were two tiny, golden sea horses. Dozens of others swam around. A turtle floated past, paused and drifted into the blue.
When I pulled myself onto the boat gasping, Chay was waiting, holding out a cold drink. I put my feet up and sighed. It was the perfect end to the perfect trip. In a fortnight I’d seen what would have normally taken a month in Cambodia. On the next trip, there’d be no buses for me, now that I’d discovered rail – the real deal.
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Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing
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