Despite being one of the first stops on China’s new Belt and Road Initiative, the roads in southern Cambodia still leave a lot to be desired. Driving from the capital Phnom Penh to the southern town of Kampot and across to Sihanoukville, the potholes and clouds of dust remind me of the challenges I encountered when I first travelled around the country 13 years ago.
I catch charming glimpses of that old Cambodia – oxen in rice paddies under moody skies, traditional wooden farmhouses on stilts amid tall, slender palms, kind, positive, hard-working people who don’t mind tourists, families riding four-to-a-motorbike and tuk-tuks piled with goods. But there is also change afoot here, and it’s not always pretty.
Connecting Vietnam and Thailand by road and sea – Sihanoukville has Cambodia's only deepwater port – billions of dollars of Chinese investment is under way in the form of huge industrial zones. The Chinese have also invested in new resorts and casinos, some in existing resorts and others in vulnerable and previously protected national parks, along with power plants and shopping malls. Perhaps after all the investment is secured, the roads will finally arrive.
All of this, of course, is happening with the blessing of the Cambodian government and its prime minister Hun Sen. All over the capital and southern provinces, development rights have been given, enabling the clearing of land at breakneck speed in destinations including Ream National Park, which I first visited in 2006.
Then, it was one of the last wild refuges for sun bears, fishing cats and birds of prey. I landed on a long-tail boat on what felt like a desert island. Now, when I fly over, what I'd heard about is confirmed: a huge and previously protected beachside tract has been gouged out for yet more hotel rooms; wildlife has disappeared and some tour operators have stopped offering trips there.
Back in January 2006, I was staying at a lovely guesthouse on Sihanoukville's Serendipity Beach, though there was already more than a whiff of shady deals and, around the corner, some horrible hotels were just beginning to be built. Today, Sihanoukville is a garish strip of overdevelopment – with hundreds of hotels, casinos and towering apartment blocks, overpriced restaurants, a beach full of rubbish and seas filled with dead coral.
A different experience
I'd also been to "Bamboo Island" before. Then, as a backpacker, I'd made my way to the Ream boat launch about 45 minutes from Sihanoukville and waited, with all the other travellers, on hammocks on the pontoon deck, for the boat to take us there. We alighted on the beach of the uninhabited island, swimming, exploring and enjoying barbecued barracuda around a camp fire.
Fast forward 13 years and my experience is rather different. This time around, I am sitting at Beach Shack restaurant, eating the catch of the day with quinoa salad at Alila Villas Koh Russey, which gives the island its proper name. I've arrived by private speedboat, and for the same price as the cheapest room here – around $400 a night including taxes – I had travelled for a month, more than a decade ago. This is now a private, French-owned island resort with some residential villas for sale.
I’m relieved to see that virtually none of the structures are visible from the sea, the coconut palms and Filao trees on the beach have been retained, only 15 per cent of the land area has been developed and the structures are a maximum of two storeys and set well back from the beach.
Most of the jungle has been preserved, the beach is being deep-cleaned and the water is still pristine-looking. I like the slick modern design, cool air-conditioning and smooth sheets of my one-bedroom villa. To stay here, in this environment and away from mass tourism, now seems like the ultimate luxury and the best one can hope for, given that some development is inevitable.
Bokor National Park, Kep and Kampot
While I could have happily spent two days on the island, swimming, kayaking and lounging on my throne-style outdoor daybed in my own private garden, I hit the road again, revisiting Bokor National Park, Kep and Kampot to the east. Like many locals and others concerned with sustainable tourism, my guide isn’t happy with the speed and nature of the Chinese presence in the past two years. “They clear the land and don’t even sell the wood for furniture,” he says. “They burn it then and there.”
Bokor National Park now has a sealed road right to the top – built about five years ago to facilitate a huge and ferociously ugly government-owned hotel and casino complex at the top. The trip up had previously taken two hours on one of the worst roads I've ever seen (and felt). While it's now smoother and thick tracts of forest remain, too much of the sense of remoteness has been lost with all the new structures, and wildlife has beat a hasty retreat. As a former French colonial hill station with eerie abandoned relics of the 1920s, it's always been an odd place, and, my guide tells me, at least 900 Cambodians died building luxury villas in the hills for the French. It's still worth a trip, if only for the views and history.
Amid all the madness, some wonderful, smaller-scale developments have also come to the area, such as the Green House, a riverside restaurant and guesthouse near Kampot (www.greenhousekampot.com) and Knai Bang Chatt with its over-water restaurant The Sailing Club (www.knaibangchatt.com) right on the Gulf of Thailand with views to Phu Quoc and smaller, surrounding islands.
At Kampot market, smiling women still preside over lines of headless chickens and, next to them, a pile of their poor, severed heads; live fish have their heads bashed in and faces hacked off for paying customers, and clusters of live ducks lie trussed up. No doubt some day soon this will all be modernised and sanitised.
While excursions are still worthwhile, it’s a relief to be back on Koh Russey, with its strict sustainability policies and low-density, high-value model. It’s a big enough island to spend a week on, breathing fresh air, swimming in the sea, kayaking, paddleboarding and eating seafood, in comfort, privacy and security. The battle lines are being drawn here for what represents true luxury, beauty and investment, and in the Koh Rong archipelago at least, there’s much that’s mercifully still right.