Just 17 km from central Sihanoukville, Ream National Park was formally inaugurated in 1995, the first national park in peace-time Cambodia. This stretch of forest and coastline was of major strategic importance when the Vietnamese launched their attack on the Khmer Rouge in 1979 as they needed to deny Pol Pot access to Cambodia’s only deep-water port.
Today though, its significance lies in the protection afforded to 210 square kilometres of mangroves, fresh water marshes, forests, the Prek Toeuk Sap estuary, beaches, coral reefs and seagrass beds that lie within the park’s boundaries, including the islands Koh Thmei and Koh Ses, and all of the plant and wildlife that are dependent upon it.
It took the Vietnamese just three days to secure the coastline along here, clearing the way for a sweep up country towards Phnom Penh. A certain arrogance on the Vietnamese part saw an under-manned force attempt to take Sihanoukville before support had arrived from Kampot, which was almost fatal to the task. But air strikes and a desperate scramble along the coast to support the beleaguered soldiers turned the game around, and Sihanoukville was secured by the morning of January 10, with the victory squared off when Ream Port was taken by Vietnamese forces that afternoon.
It’s a lot quieter now. Wandering through the park, the dominant sounds are bird song, cicadas or the splash of waves along the beaches. Surrounded by such lush greenery and whirling flights of butterflies peace and tranquility get under your skin and into your bones in a way those soldiers could only have dreamed of. The park is home to more than a third of Cambodia’s bird species, including the brahminy kite, grey-headed fish eagle, the white-bellied sea eagle, lesser adjutants, and milky and painted storks, and there are also recorded populations of sun bears, mouse deer (or muntjac), the increasing beleaguered pangolin, gibbons and macaques.
You might catch a glimpse of these, or perhaps an unlikely tiger (wildly unlikely – despite suggestions to the contrary by underhanded tour touts, the last wild Cambodian tiger is very likely long gone) on a hiking trip, which can be arranged through a tour operator in Sihanoukville or simply take a tuk tuk out to the park, and for $8 hire a ranger at the park office who will take you on an easy hike into the park’s forests.
One of the loveliest ways of doing that is to take a river boat ride along the estuary. Once again, the park rangers will be able to help you out and a boat costs $45. They advise bringing your own food and drink as these are hard to come by in the park. Make sure to bring sunscreen as well.
But just because peace prevails, it doesn’t mean that danger no longer lurks. Almost 30,000 people depend at a subsistence level on the forest’s resources for their food, shelter and income putting pressure on plant and wildlife populations. Development plans threaten the pristine coastline, and the mangroves risk being turned into prawn farms. Illegal logging and commercial fishing create separate risks.
Responding to and managing these issues is a huge task, for which the responsible authorities are wildly underfunded, but tourism is an important part of it. Emphasising Ream’s importance as a tourist attraction in its current form will help to ensure its future, and can also provide valuable income replacement strategies for the communities that depend upon it.
The number for the park rangers office is (012) 875 096 and they speak English, if you want to confirm any details beforehand. Make sure it’s not a national holiday before you go, or there may not be sufficient staff around.
You can also stay in the park at Monkey Maya, on a quiet, secluded beach on the edge of the park. An hour away from Sihanoukville town centre by bus and tuk tuk, this is a real retreat from the world.