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What to see in Kampong Speu

Right on the doorstep of Phnom Penh, the province of Kampong Speu offers an easily accessible off the beaten path experience for the slightly more adventurous traveller. Often overlooked, Kampong Speu is an ideal spot to experience Cambodia's countryside life and an interesting stopover on the way to Sihanoukville. 

Some 48km southwest of Phnom Penh Kampong Speu town is centred around a bustling outdoor market. Most of the buildings are low rise with a few taller structures around what can loosely be described as the commercial heart of the city. This is where most of the schools, government buildings and NGOs are located.

While the market offers few items for tourists, it is one of the friendlier markets in Cambodia where a welcoming smile is never far away. Stalls sell an eclectic array of belts, wallets, plastic buckets, electronic equipment and hats. In fact hats seem to be the essential fashion accessory in Kampong Speu and numerous stalls support this local obsession. You can pick out your own design for around US$2. One of the more innovative stalls at the market is a car decorated with an array of plastic toy vehicles.

Thinning Your Blood

Kampong Speu is well known for its palm sugar and palm sugar wine. The sugar is made from the sap of the sugar palm trees. "The trunk of the sugar palm tree is tapped and drained of sap before the sap is boiled down to syrup," says Hom Sophoros, a regular visitor to the province. "The syrup is then poured into moulds to make palm sugar." If the palm sap is not used by the end of the day it starts to ferment and turns into wine. "Palm sugar wine tastes good and some people drink it for health reasons as it is good for blood circulation," according to Hom Sophoros.

The wine is quite a taste sensation - guaranteed to set your taste buds on fire. A frothy, yeasty, pungent smelling white substance, it should be consumed within two days of fermentation, but can last up to two weeks if refrigerated. If left any longer it becomes sour and its alcohol content "increases to potentially dangerous levels," Hom Sophoros adds.

A local man, known simply as the palm sugar wine maker, sells bootleg out of his small bamboo hut. To find him turn right into a dirt lane 3km before the provincial town. If you ask around the town, people will be more than happy to point you in the right direction - literally, because very little English is spoken in Kampong Speu. You may even get a guide to show you the way. A litre of wine should cost around 1,000 riel. Make sure you bring your own bottles.

Ampe Phnom

A nature reserve with a river, walking paths and big shady trees, Ampe Phnom also has a beautiful old wat perched on top of a small hill. Visitors can swim in the Prek Thnoat River, visit the old pagoda or simply relax in one of the many bamboo huts along the river. Whole deep-fried chicken and catfish are a specialty of the area. These can be bought from the many stalls along the river. But beware, as the surrounding woods are full of monkeys so keep an eye on your food and belongings.

The wat dates back to 1632. According to the head monk, it was rebuilt in 1968 after being damaged by a fire. The interior is decorated with beautiful frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Buddha. Numerous fortune-tellers have stalls outside the temple. For a small donation one will tell you your fortune, if you come with a translator.

There are thirty monks in residence at the pagoda, according to the head monk. In 1975, the five monks who lived at the wat were exiled into the forest by the Khmer Rouge, and the head monk is the only one who remains to tell about that time.

Kirirom National Park

"It has a cool climate, waterfalls and wonderful views of the pine forest," says Eun Soben. Born in Kampong Speu and now living in Phnom Penh, he says that Kirirom National Park is one of his favourite places in Cambodia. Set amid lush forest and pine groves, its surroundings are quite distinct from most of the country's tropical jungle. Located on a plateau 675 metres above sea level, it has a climate noticeably cooler than Phnom Penh. While you will be hard pressed to spot any kind of larger wildlife here, Kirirom is an ideal spot to glimpse some of the country's unique birdlife.

Meaning the Mountain of Joy, Kirirom covers an area of over thirty five thousand hectares in the Elephant Mountains. Once a favourite retreat for the rich and powerful and even a hideaway for King Sihanouk himself in the 1960s, today a tall chimney surrounded by a wooden deck, next to the small visitor's centre, is the only remaining evidence of the king's hot-season retreat. The mansion was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, who were only driven out of the area in 1992.

Chambok Ecotourism Site

Kirirom community based ecotourism site is located in nearby Chambok. Run by Mlup Baitong - a Cambodian NGO working to increase environmental awareness - and the local community, the site has gradually developed into an ecotourism destination. A 40-metre high waterfall, traditional ox-cart rides, bat-cave, numerous nature walks and local homestays are some of the site's attractions. The proceeds from tourist activities go directly to the local community.

The commune of Chambok consists of nine villages located on the outskirts of Kirirom National Park. You can organise a tour of Chambok through a number of travel agencies such as: Local Adventures, Hanuman Tourism, Tour Asia Cambodia, Khmer Community Development NGO and Carpe Diem Travel. For more information visit: .

Other Attractions

Although not a volcanic country Cambodia boasts hot springs high in the foothills of Mount Aural. Teuk Phoh, which means emerging water in Khmer, is located on a five-hectare site, full of forests and red rock. The water in the hot springs is 70C - hot enough to boil an egg. It comes out of the ground all year round and has the distinctive odour of sulphur and limestone.

Local villagers, members of the Kuoy minority hill tribe, believe that the water from the hot spring can cure a variety of illnesses and skin diseases. Washing your face with spring water is believed to bring good luck. Phnom Prey is a natural site composed of small, rolling hills, accessible by car. There are kiosks on the hilltops where visitors can relax. Until recently, this site was largely unknown to tourists.

Getting There

If you want to get the most out of the area your best option is to travel by motorbike or to hire a taxi and really savour what the area has to offer. Another possibility is to catch a bus to Sihanoukville. Ask to be let off at Kampong Speu town or Kirirom National Park.

Ampe Phnom

Located in the villages of Tang Tonle and Ampe Phnom Ampe Phnom is about 52km southwest of Phnom Penh, turn left down a small road signposted both in Khmer and English about 5km before Kampong Speu. It costs 500 riel to cross the rickety old bridge.

Kirirom National Park

112km southwest of Phnom Penh, Kirirom is around 25km to the west of National Highway 4. The turn off for the park is about 85km from Phnom Penh and is marked by a large concrete sign on the right-hand side of the highway. Park rangers charge foreigners a US$S5 park entrance fee. The best time to visit is during, or just after, the rainy season.

Teuk Phoh

Located in Phnom Te Village around 126km from Phnom Penh and around 70km from Kampong Speu town, turn right around 76km from Phnom Penh to the Aural District.

Phnom Prey Khmer

This site is about 22km southwest of Kampong Speu.

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