A mountain retreat only two hours’ drive away from the capital, Kirirom was once hailed as Cambodia’s own Switzerland. Home to the Kirirom National Park, which was created in the 1950s and put under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1993, it was Cambodia’s first protected national park. Now home to some of Cambodia’s ever-dwindling wildlife population, it offers a cool respite from the relentless lowland heat, and also a chance for a little cultural immersion.
Kirirom can be enjoyed at two very distinct levels: resort-style comfort at one of the three hotels on the mountain, or in more low-key fashion at a homestay at the long-running and highly successful Chambok Community Based Ecotourism site at the foot of the hills.
Enjoy the serenity.
Just over 100 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, the national park is part of the Cardamom Mountains
. The range extends from here all the way west to Cambodia’s border with Thailand. The park itself is approximately 280 square kilometres.
Travelling along the extremely good mountain roads is a fairly surreal experience for Westerners. It took us a little while to work out why on earth we kept thinking of childhood holidays in the hills around Killarney in southwest Ireland, until we realised we were in the middle of a huge pine forest. We were told the trees were planted — or at least the seeds were dispersed — on the instructions of then King Norodom Sihanouk who, along with Phnom Penh’s party-loving elites, used it as a cocktail stop-off
en route to Kep
. Both locations now are dotted with the decrepit and haunting architectural relics
of that era.
A throwback to the past.
The former king’s own house
now stands near the top of the mountain, a forlorn site without walls, from which a handsome central chimney piece reaches up to the sky. Entering the deserted property across gangplanks while trying to imagine how it must have rung to the sounds of laughter and the clinking of glasses feels unimaginably poignant, even to a diehard republican.
Below, other houses of a similar style can be found. Many of them squatted now, which may mark a fundamental sea change in attitudes in Cambodia. The fear of ghosts long kept people out of the corresponding coastal properties at Kep, but that fear no longer seems to have the same hold as it once did.
The mountain, which has been cleared of landmines, offers some wonderful trekking, waterfalls and mountain cycling
. It’s also home to an array of wildlife. At one point, we saw kingfishers, eagles and what looked like a tailorbird, all within minutes of one another.
There are three resort-style properties on the mountain. Then at the bottom of the hill, Chambok Community Ecotourism Project
offers an opportunity to explore Cambodian village life, as well as some of the surrounding hills. The project has been part of a hugely successful drive to protect the forests in the area, which was once prey to rampant logging. You can still see the signs of it as you wander through the forest. While bamboo may look lovely and exotic, it is in fact a current record of past failures
. As nature abhors a vacuum, the growth rate and resilience of bamboo allows it to thrive virtually to the exclusion of anything else. Great tangled thickets of it mark your path up the mountainside, where once proud trees stood.
Access to the national park costs $5, which you’ll need to pay to get to Kirirom Pine Resort and Kirirom Mountain Lodge.
The Japanese company behind the Kirirom Pine Resort has grand ambitions for the mountain, and plans to develop a shopping mall, boarding school and second home for sale or rent seem to be already on the way. There is a technical training college at the top, and we saw large, modern homes for sale near the Kirirom Pine Resort. Best get there soon before the peace and tranquility are no more.
Cooking up a storm.
As far as eating
goes, you’ll most likely end up eating at your own hotel, or the CBET centre in Chambok, as the properties are too far apart to justify casually meandering off on the off-chance. That said, if you fancy a pizza or some Thai food then a journey down the hill to Kirirom Hillside Resort may be just the the trick. If you’re looking for a romantic location, then you should head to Kirirom Mountain Lodge, and if you’re looking for smart Khmer experience, then vKirirom Pine Resort is your destination. If you want an authentic Khmer meal, then the community kitchen at Chambok serves up tasty and generous portions of Khmer soups, curries and stir-fries at reasonable prices.
There are no banking services within or near the park — we didn’t even see a Wing branch. For anything like that, or to find a pharmacy, or police, you’ll need to head to Treng Trayeng
back on Route 4, and about 10 kilometres from the entrance barrier and ticket point for the national park.
At Chambok, electricity at the CBET centre runs from 06:00 to 12:00 and from 17:00 to 22:00. There is Wifi, but only when the committee leader is there and working on his computer, which is usually for about half an hour to an hour in the evenings.