Photo: River exploration out of Koh Kong.

Introduction

Sitting on the borders between the Cardamom Mountains and the sea and the kingdoms of Thailand and Cambodia, and just below the confluence of the Meteuk and Koh Pov rivers, Koh Kong City (Krong Koh Kong) is a dusty frontier town with a soft edge.

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True, travellers arriving here from Thailand will have to brave the cowboys at immigration control — more on that later — but Koh Kong has a completely different vibe from Poipet to the north, which just seems to get viler at every turn. Overlooking the peninsula that links Cambodia to Thailand, which is accessed by a near two-kilometre long bridge, Koh Kong on the other hand is a far lighter and breezier town, and actually makes for a pleasant and relaxing base from which to explore the surrounding hills, seas and all that lies in between.

The town itself has little in the way of tourist attractions, and it’s not the loveliest of towns either. There is a kind of pleasant promenade along the waterfront, provided you’re prepared to overlook the oceans of rubbish bobbing in the waters below, and the leathery male sexpats stalking along clutching their girlfriends’ hands. Going back from the promenade, wide streets are largely residential giving the town more the feel of a village. Some of the houses and gardens are actually very pretty so an early morning stroll might be a nice way of walking off breakfast, or passing time until your next excursion.

Meet the Tatai River.

Meet the Tatai River.


For a town of its size, it has a disproportionate number of Western-operated bars. One Koh Kong regular describes the local expat scene as “rather Monty-Pythonesque”, and there’s invariably a certain tension whenever you mention one to another, but regardless of that, there’s certainly not a shortage of places for a refreshing drink and expats to talk to. They’re rarely less than entertaining. The clientele are drawn in large part from the Thailand-based expats who need to make visa runs from time to time. They appear to like stodgy food and cheap beers since these seem to be the principal defining features of most menus.

The town is developing though, thanks to the completion of National Route 48, running through the Cardamom Mountains and connecting this sleepy burgh with the capital city, growing tourist numbers and investment in industry. The special economic zone near the border with Thailand holds one of the first car assembly plants in Cambodia and other operations, some of which appear to be quite recent.
Hang out on Koh Yor Beach.

Hang out on Koh Yor Beach.


The town has also become a hub for ecotourism, river, sea and jungle trekking tours, and a couple of dedicated operations have sprung up. The standards are fairly basic, but so are the prices. We would say don’t expect your life jacket to actually hold the buoyancy material in, if there are life jackets at all.

Koh Kong was for a long time under Thailand’s administration, and almost everyone here also speaks Thai. It was, to an extent, less affected by the Khmer Rouge than more central parts of Cambodia, as most of the citizens were able to escape over the border. Notwithstanding that, Koh Kong province retained a strong Khmer Rouge presence longer than other tracts of Cambodia and Thai military and private “investors” took advantage of this to extract vast tracts of timber and other valuables. The Chi Phat area in particular was known for rapacious logging, slash and burn and poaching. Ironically, through the involvement of Wildlife Alliance, many residents of Chi Phat to the east have been retrained and now work at the vanguard of one of Cambodia’s more promising ecotourism initiatives.
Trekking in the Cardamom Mountains.

Trekking in the Cardamom Mountains.


With an overnight stay in Koh Kong you could visit a waterfall in the morning and an outlying beach in the afternoon before catching transport out of there the following morning — that would be sufficient for many, though with more time, there’s no shortage of beaches worth exploring or jungles to be trekked — just bear in mind the cost of getting to the beaches can get prohibitive if you’re travelling alone.

Along with the bars there’s an ample supply of guesthouses in Koh Kong, both in the centre of town and down towards the river. Prices are competitive.
Chilling on Koh Kong Island.

Chilling on Koh Kong Island.


Cham Yeam International border crossing
Many tourists using this border crossing report lots of extra charges, fees and requests for cash on the Cambodian side — however, with some perseverance you should be able to get through without paying extra. The main things to remember are to keep your cool, keep smiling and have the correct money and the photographs that you need. The Cham Yeam international checkpoint is open between 06:00 and 22:00.

In late 2015, it took us all of three minutes to get through the Thai side of the border. If that. Things took a little longer on the Cambodian side of the crossing, however, which was even more depressing since earlier in the day we’d been eavesdropping on a German tourist who had been royally fleeced in Siem Reap. Here in Koh Kong, we attached ourselves to a Belgian couple to see what would happen. It was achingly predictable.
Grabbing a bite to eat in the market.

Grabbing a bite to eat in the market.


Once you pass through the gate, go to the building on the left, where you can pick up the form you need from the second to last window away from you. You can ignore the “health check” desk — having a health check is not a requirement. Do not let anyone take your passport and fill out your visa forms or carry your bags, they will expect to be paid 20 baht or more for these “services”. We let them try it out on us when we went through, but they stopped playing the game when they saw the long-term visas in our passport. That didn’t stop them from trying with the next group that came through though. Just ignore the desk and carry on, collect your form and fill it out. You’ll then need to go to the middle door (at the top of the stone stairs) where three round-bellied men will then set about trying to con you.

The actual price for a one-month, single-entry tourist visa is $30, while a one-month, multiple-entry business visa costs $35. Get the latter if you want to stay for more than one month as it can be renewed indefinitely. In practice, the immigration officers will ask for between 1,600 baht and up. If you don’t have two passport photos, they may charge you a fine of 100 baht, which is within the rules. Any more than that is not.
Keep on walkin.

Keep on walkin.


As part of their ruse, they will show you a press release stating that the actual cost of a visa is $37 (roughly 1350 baht at end-2015), however this release in fact relates to e-visas which do include a $7 administrative fee, which you pay in advance when you organise your visa online. You can ignore this, and tell them you know that it relates to e-visas and not visas on arrival.

However, don’t attempt to argue with them; they can keep it up all day — they’ve got nothing else to do — and can hold up your progress for as long as they like. They will also not back down if it means they may lose face. They may also try to tell you that you’re going to miss the bus in order to put the pressure on. Ignore that too. Simply smile, hand over the correct amount in US dollars for the visa you want as well as the photographs or fee, be polite, smile some more, and do not show doubt.

The easiest solution is in fact to get your visa in advance so that you do not need to get one at the border.
Crab shack views.

Crab shack views.


Once you finally make your way through, a moto either way between Koh Kong and the border costs US$3 or 100 baht and includes the 1,400 riel toll. A tuk tuk will cost 400 baht, also including the toll, and can be divided among travellers.

Ignore anyone that tells you that you need to change your Thai baht before crossing or that there aren’t ATMs across the border. There are, and you’ll get better exchange rates in town compared to the extortionate ones at the border.

Orientation
Overlooking the point where ocean and river meet, and the peninsula connecting Cambodia with Thailand, the town of Koh Kong is a narrow strip of human activity in between forest and sea. The straight waterfront road that defines the town centre is flanked at one end by the two-kilometre long bridge that brings you to the Thai border and at the other by a short bridge overlooking a floating fishing village. There is a little more to the town beyond there, but not much of interest. Going inland from there, the roads are arranged in a sort of grid that recedes into scrubland, before eventually thickening out to start the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains.
Time to eat.

Time to eat.


This mountain range is home to a dense tropical rainforest and some of Cambodia’s highest peaks — Phnom Aural at 1,813 metres, and Phnom Sankos at 1,717 metres. It is also home to a wide and largely undocumented range of plants and animals. Among the endangered species that live here, the pileated gibbon, the sun bear, Asian elephant, clouded leopard, gaur and banteng continue to survive in the face of poaching, illegal logging and land conversion. However, the World Wildlife Fund lists the pileated gibbon as an example of the species that face extinction thanks to deforestation. Some report that tigers are still here, but it is wildly unlikely.

The forests have attracted a number of ecotourism operations, particularly around the Chi Phat area to the east. Around Koh Kong, it is possible to join what are touted as “ecotours” but in most cases these are simply tours of wild, pretty places. Ecotourism proper involves a direct relationship between the tours and conservation. One example is 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, which employs former poachers in order to provide them with an alternative source of income and take them away from poaching.

Back in town, depending on the business, prices will be quoted in Thai baht, riel or US dollars. It’s generally best to pay in whichever currency is quoted, because the exchange rates are usually unfavourable. There are at least a dozen money-changers on the outskirts of the market who offer decent rates. There are ATMs at the Canadia and Acleda banks which will dispense in dollars or riel, but always choose dollars. The Canadia Bank is on the waterfront road, as you head south away from the Thai bridge, while Acleda can be found on the second roundabout as you head east (inland) from the Thai bridge (at the junction of Street 3 and Route 48).

Moto drivers hang out on virtually every corner, and tuk tuks are found along the riverside — especially in front of Asian Hotel and Koh Kong City Hotel. You can also hire motor scooters at Ritthy’s Retreat (Ritthy’s Koh Kong Ecoadventure Tours) on the riverside, or at Fat Sam’s on the roundabout linking Street 3 with Chicken Farm Road. Scooters cost $5 a day, and dirt bikes $25 a day.
Old meets new in Koh Kong.

Old meets new in Koh Kong.


If you get sick, there are two pharmacies on Street 3 that were recommended: Pharmacie Preah Vihear is just north of the roundabout that links Chicken Farm Road with Street 3. T: (016) 566 738. Pharmacie Koh Kong is a little further north on the same road. T: (011) 977 938. For both of these, you will need to know what you’re looking for before you get there.

If you need medical attention, then there is nothing in town that could be recommended other than to get over to Trat, 90 kilometres away in Thailand, which has an excellent hospital. We are told that the Provincial Referral Hospital in town is to be avoided at all costs.
A quiet moment at Rainbow Lodge.

A quiet moment at Rainbow Lodge.


A number of minimarts are dotted around the town. The best stocked seems to be the one in the Asian Hotel, near the Thai bridge. The staff were more than unhelpful, but they had a good range of snacks, toiletries and and essentials like batteries.

The number for the Tourist Police in Koh Kong is (012) 420 620. We’re told that they’re “okay”, which is quite a step up from other towns.

There is a post office on the corner of the roundabout that links Street 3 with Route 48 – go in the direction of the Thai Bridge. It has EMS services, which includes international deliveries, however it might be better to wait until you are in Phnom Penh or Thailand.

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