A Cambodian Eco-lodge
First published 30th August, 2009
The best hoteliers and restaurateurs have reputations that precede them, but the newest to form a cult of personality complete with pilgrims is barrister Janet, whose remote ecolodge lures travellers seeking quiet wilderness under the care of a meticulous matriarch.
Set in the foothills of Cambodia's southwest Cardamom Mountains, The Rainbow Lodge in Ko Kong province is a five-hour drive southwest of Phnom Penh. Your bus or car drops you off at the fourth bridge, where an employee is waiting by the Kep River with a boat.
Janet's lodge is set in the hillside about 15 minutes upriver. Buildings sit on thick wooden stilts, connected by raised concrete paths, with the restaurant and lounge area at the centre of the "rainbow" and six bungalows flanking it, like an arch. Power is solar generated and runs only in the evenings. Bungalows are clean and simple, though with coldwater showers. Each has a private porch overlooking the river valley.
"It was a great combination of nature and comfort," said Matthew Magenheim, who works for Leopard Capital in Phnom Penh and said he first heard about the lodge from a friend. "I've been here for two years and it's the best place I've been to so far."
When I visited for a long weekend back in September 2008, my boyfriend and I were the only guests. Janet gave us her undivided attention -- occasionally, for a newly reunited couple, too much of it. Meals for two people are included in the $60-per-night (for two, singles pay $40) price of a bungalow, and Janet served the best all-inclusive food I'd ever tasted. Everything was fresh from the local market and there was a range of Khmer and Western dishes, from squid stir fry to bruschetta. Dinners are a three-course affair, and each night there's a fresh choice of three appetizers, three entrees, and two desserts.
Janet's idea for the lodge first arose several years ago when she took an extended vacation to volunteer with an environmental preservation group in the mountains. She then quit her job as a barrister in Birmingham, England, and in 2007 she started building Ko Kong's first eco-lodge. Janet is an attentive, zealous hostess who takes pride in the fresh, fantastic cuisine she and her staff prepare and the lovely setting she's created. She oversees her little empire from her perch behind the bar, cigarette and cocktail in hand, regaling guests with stories about her previous life and the strange challenges to now living in the jungle (her neighbour killing and eating her dog was one particularly challenging moment).
Eating, drinking, and reading on the porch while glancing at the view of the river valley from time to time is a fine way to spend the time at the Rainbow Lodge. Exploring, however, is even more fun. We paddled upriver in one of the lodge's kayaks to a small waterfall, where we climbed on the rocks and swam naked in complete privacy. There's also the option to go further upriver on the motorboat or to take afternoon and overnight hikes deeper into the surrounding forest.
For venturing into the forest, I recommend it in only the dry season. In the middle of monsoon season, we foolishly decided to take a trek to the TaiTai falls with Janet's helper, Mr. Lei, a former park ranger. My boyfriend and I should've guessed what we were in for when Janet's mangy Rottweiler, Sunny, walked with us for a few metres then retreated back to the lodge.
Janet had warned us -- "You will get leeches." By that I naively assumed my sandal-wearing boyfriend might attract a parasite or two. Wrong. Little black worms dotted the soggy leaves, stretching their fat bodies upward as soon as they felt the warmth of our bodies approaching. When we stopped to flick them off, more inched over and crawled up our legs. For two hours, we rushed along, climbing over logs and scooting under brush, trying to keep our bare hands from touching the hungry earth.
We saw no wildlife (though there are some elephants, tigers, and gibbons remaining farther inside the mountain range), only leeches, beetles, dense brush, and mud. In my haste, I hit my head three times and was poked in the eye with a stick. Rain poured. Finally, after two gruelling hours, Mr. Lei, machete in hand, cleared a path to the waterfall. It was beautiful and surging. I found a clean patch of rock and pulled a woodchip from my forehead and three leeches from my body.
A boy from the lodge met us in a boat with a packed lunch. Our reward. We ate Janet's sandwiches, popcorn, fruit, and drank soda water and Angkor beer. I felt like I'd been through an episode of some sadistic reality television show that people watch so they can think, "Thank God that's not me". Perhaps serious trekkers and nature lovers will enjoy the experience. It was certainly memorable, though next time, I think I would rather take the boat to TaiTai, which Janet had subtly suggested back at the lodge. Like any good mother figure, she let us learn the lesson ourselves.
For more information, contact Janet at Rainbow Lodge on +855 (099) 744 321 or see their website at: http://www.rainbowlodgecambodia.com -- read the "getting there" information carefully!. Note the Lodge is closed from 1st August to 2nd September, reopening on 3rd September, 2009 and also from 4th January to 21st January, reopening on 22nd January, 2010.
Story by Claire Duffett
Related readingExploring the Lungs of Bangkok
Five special hotels in Cambodia
Kompong Cham escape
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
The Gibbon Experience
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