Cambodia’s green retreat

Jungle resorts in Koh Kong offer an authentic and welcome eco-tourism experience in a country where dredging and dam-building are wreaking havoc.

With the tourist trail expanding across the key provinces of Cambodia, there is certainly a fair share of places from boutique hotels to high-end resorts for visitors to crash, but it is perhaps the eco-conscious options that are drawing the most attention from travellers.

Like Thailand 40 years ago, the rapid pace of new developments in the tourism sector has led some people to focus their attention on the remaining natural assets. A new class of visitors is hiking past the main attractions of Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh and toward little-seen frontiers yet to be touched by the mainstream. Koh Kong province is where many of them go.

The heart of the Cambodian jungle, Koh Kong is full of stunning wildlife and equally impressive waterfalls and rivers, all running through the beautiful Cardamom Mountains. Visitors can choose to either stay in town on the cheap or book resorts located in centre of it all, kayaking passed untouched mangroves, exploring the local fishing villages, or hiking nature trails in the tropical rainforest.

Others will choose yet to take a boat ride out to the pristine and virtually vacant beaches of Koh Kong Island or take to the rapids of O’bak Retes.

Koh Kong is undoubtedly filled with appeal for any nature enthusiast, but for all of its beauty the area is also the location of ongoing and rampant ecological crimes. Endless sand dredging threatens to collapse the river banks, while invasive construction on Chinese-funded hydropower dam projects has taken hold in the province. They are a sombre reminder to visitors that choosing to participate in ecological tourism is just as important as enjoying it.

The first step is choosing environmentally conscious accommodations. Luckily there are at least two.


Koh Kong remains rich in natural resources, beautiful waterfalls and mountain views.

Cambodian children at play are among the local villagers travellers will meet.

Located along the Tatai River, 4 Rivers Floating Lodge offers a quiet and relaxing experience with the jungle. Imagine jumping from your own private floating villa into one of the crystal-clear freshwater jungle rivers with little else than the towering trees and the sounds of the water and rich birdlife to keep you company.

With luxurious accommodations, you can grab a kayak or fishing rod and enjoy the calm current of the river. There are also guided tours to nearby mangroves and nightly boat rides to admire trees filled to the brim with fireflies. But that is only part of it.

In an effort to keep close ties with the local communities, the staff work hard to make sure they acquire as much of their food and supplies from local merchants. They also keep in constant contact with local authorities and conservationists to make sure that the area stays as pristine and untouched as possible.

“ [Conservation is] very important. We have guests who are really eco-nuts to the extreme, but it is not easy to teach the local people to not throw rubbish in the water,” said Anna Pawlik-Szocs, general manager of 4 Rivers Floating Lodge.

She and her husband opened the 12-tent resort in 2009 with a $2-million investment.

“Right now, we are trying to figure out how we can cut energy costs, so we are trying to build a floating structure to install solar panels, which need to be heavy and stable enough to float,” she said.

On the 4 Rivers floating village tour, you get a chance to meet local fishermen and their families, as well as see their community and purchase local crabs, which the resort’s staff will then prepare for you at supper.

But if seafood is not your first choice, then 4 Rivers prepares a lovely three-course menu each night with various healthy food choices featuring some great Khmer-fusion and western meals including caprice salad, prawns in Koh Kong sauce or a succulent steak with the always crowd-pleasing Kampot peppers.


Tourists can enjoy the traditional style of living in a homestay lodge.

Another option also located on the Tatai is a fantastic eco-resort called Rainbow Lodge. Embedded in the heart of the jungle only a hundred metres from the river, these land-side bungalows are surrounded by jungle. Sit on your own private porch and swing from a hammock with a drink as the sun sets over the noisy and frenetic jungle.

With its own solar panels, the lodge generates its own electricity, and without refrigeration, the meals you eat are all natural and fresh with vegetables and meat bring brought in from the local towns.

“Because [the lodge is completely immersed] in nature is a definite plus point for visitors since there are lots of opportunities for doing adventurous activities, relaxing, and involvement with the local community. It is just a nice place where people can come to get away,” said Lois Woodward, a manager at Rainbow Lodge.

Perhaps the most appealing feature here is that aside from being completely entrenched in the jungle, there is not a television or internet connection in sight, leaving little to distract you from a natural experience. In the mornings, grab a fresh pot of coffee and mull over a menu of several adventures that range from overnight hikes in the jungle to having drinks in a longboat as the sun sets.

Guests can jump from their own private floating villa into a crystal-clear jungle river.

“I would also say it is pretty unique in that there are only two places with mountain ranges in Cambodia and Koh Kong is one of those places,” she said.

“The Cardamom Mountains is one of the largest surviving rainforests now, so communities are very reliant on nature here. People [coming here] are looking for something different to do and want to experience that natural environment.”

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Writer: Philip Heijmans