By: Gabrielle Yetter
It was the first time I’d seen leeches.
In the jungle terrain of Koh Kong, there were masses of them, many of which fastened themselves onto my legs and ankles as we tramped through the undergrowth on our trek through the Cardamom Mountains. Our guide, a gnarly-faced Cambodian man wielding a machete, cut a path through the dense brush and slashed branches hanging across the trail until we finally arrived, hot and dripping with sweat, at our destination.
First we heard the sound of rushing water. And soon, a pristine, crystal clear waterfall emerged in front of us, beckoning us to swim in its refreshing pools and slither across the moss-covered rocks into the cool water.
Koh Kong, Cambodia’s Wild West
This was a day in Koh Kong, a small town and province bordering Thailand on the west coast of Cambodia, where outdoor pursuits are the main attraction. It wasn’t always that way – in fact, even in the period of a year we’ve seen many changes in the shape of more restaurants, nicer hotels and more attractions available to visitors.
In the past, this border town was known to be rather on the seedy side with rundown guesthouses, places of ill-repute and people seeking alternative pleasures. With its reputation as a “Wild West” frontier town and a place for wildlife smuggling, Koh Kong was a location regarded as rough and ready in many senses of the word.
Today, however, it’s a destination for visitors who love the outdoors. Perched on the rim of the Cardamom Mountains and on the bank of the Gulf of Thailand, the town still offers a number of rundown guesthouses and funky-looking massage places but it also has the new Koh Kong Bay Hotel, the Oasis Resort and Café Laurent, all of which are attractive and more than comfortable.
Treks and Hikes in Koh Kong
There’s also a wonderful selection of tours which take you to Koh Kong Island (a 2 ½ hour boat ride), hiking in the jungle, boating on a long tail boat or trekking to one of many waterfalls in the region. Our day trip consisted of a 45 minute boat ride up the Tatai River where we disembarked and hiked for two hours into the jungle – precariously balancing ourselves on manmade bridges constructed of tree trunks across water crossings and up steep rocky perches where leeches lay in wait. We stopped at two beautiful waterfalls, far from any form of civilization, ate lunch on the rocks then took the boat back at the end of the day.
Another day, we rented a motor bike in town and drove to the second bridge on the highway where we rented a boat and driver who took us to the incredible Tatai Falls – multiple layers of enormous rock stacked upon rock with cascades of water pouring over them in thunderous torrents. And in the afternoon, we traversed the Thai-Cambodian bridge (at 1,900 meters, the longest bridge in the country) and paid a visit to the beautifully located casino with spectacular views overlooking the ocean and rooms full of marble floors, ornate fountains and slot machines.
The town itself is small, with not a great deal to do, but interesting to explore some of the local restaurants, such as the open air Thai restaurant with excellent cheap food and a sign which reads “Pan Pan Pub” (not sure if it’s the restaurant or the place next door) and the Dug Out Hotel where Rithy, the manager at the adjacent Koh Kong Eco-Tours will offer suggestions and tours through the region.
The trip to Koh Kong takes about seven hours on the bus from Phnom Penh and, once you’re there, it’s an outdoor paradise.
As for those leeches, all you need to do is get a good grip on them, peel them off your skin and fling them back into the jungle where they belong.