My name is Lok-Lak, you can see a picture of me in the boat with my Master Nicky, who’s drinking beer and looks silly in a plastic rain coat on the way to Phnom Da. I’m a country dog from Angkor. Manus found me when I was a very little puppy and took me to Nicky, who said I could stay.
This is the story of my adventures with Nicky and Manus and their friend Alistair who I like although he calls me a pest and Christian, I liked him as well coz he showed me respect and tickled my ears, across the South West of Cambodia.
Nicky gets a bit grumpy sometimes and when Kong our van driver kept going the wrong way Nicky got angry with him. ‘Kong go right,’ ‘right?’ ‘Yes go right,’ ‘ok,’ ‘Kong why are you turning left?’ ‘This way?’ ‘No you’ve passed the turning now turn round and go back.’ Nicky said that he had no sense of direction.
It’s a long way from Siem Reap to Takeo but by taking the short cuts and in-spite of Kong’s completely random choice of routes we made it in 8 hours to the sleepy provincial capitol situated beside Mekong floodplain.
We passed by the hilltop spires of Oudong, the former Cambodian capitol and a grissly Khmer Rouge Killing Field written about by Francois Bizot in The Gate, which would break the journey as a lunch stop and point of interest if we had guests travelling with us.
We had no booking in Takeo and of course Lok-Lak but the potential of 3 rooms with another reserved for when Michelle got here meant there wasn’t a problem with the dog. So after checking in we set off with Mr Slim for Phnom Da.
It looked a bit dodgy to me but I have to look after Nicky even if he and his friends Alistair and Christian had put on polka dot pieces of plastic, its only water, da! So I sat down in the bottom of the boat as Mr Slim made a big noise with the engine and made the boat lurch but we seemed to be going fast. There was lots of spray, whoosh, so I tried to catch it.
Nicky didn’t need his polka dot plastic coz the dark grey clouds heavy with rain held off as we flat-planed across the shallow flood water towards the nipple mountains and beyond that Vietnam. I’m not usually let off the lead because there’s so much to explore that I forget my job of looking after Nicky but today I could run round the hill with the Temple on top, Phnom Da.
I had my dinner in the guest house, which I was going to share but Nicky wanted river lobster instead so we went to a restaurant above the water where they all made satisfied noises so I suppose the food was good. I wasn’t very well behaved because they didn’t give me any.
The next day it was Svai Leu then Chambok in the Kirirom National Park via the scenic route (with a quarry detour when we lost the way completely). It was supposed to be a short cut after visiting Phnom Tamau in the morning but it would have been quicker to go back to Phnom Penh.
Nicky told Kong we were going to Chambok near Kirirom but Kong found a Chambok near Takeo so we ended up where we’d started.
The South East – North West passage. Khmer life as it exists for most Cambodians, not destitute or pathetic but food secure. Wooden houses with tidy yards shaded by coconut palm and fruit trees.
Phnom Tamau, which serves as a zoo for Cambodia is an animal refuge where animals confiscated from hunters and the illegal pet trade are rehabilitated with the aim of release though in fact the environmental shit that’s going on in Cambodia means that most of them will stay there for the rest of their lives.
There are some small cages but the animals are well looked after and most have plenty of space. The bear enclosures managed by Free the Bears are the centerpiece and home for the Asiatic Black Bear and the Sun Bear.
There’s leopard, leopard cats, elephant and otters, Sambar, Eld’s Deer, Banteng, Gaur and Serow. But above all there are 6 tigers. I strained to see any when I walked up to the wire with Lok-Lak then looked up and found we were being watched by a magnificent animal lying lazily on top of a boulder, even Lok-Lak looked subdued.
This is not true. I was not scared of the tiger in his cage but I didn’t like the monkeys who growled at me then showed me their bottoms.
Kirirom on the road to Sihanoukville is the wild frontier town to the Cardamon Mountains where we heading, in particular Chambok a collection of small once forest villages beneath the mountain and a long way down a muddy track.
Water and mud, 2 of my favorite things as long as I don’t get cold, and being off the lead but when we got to where Nicky and Manus were going to have dinner, what about me! It was a bit scary, there were a lot of legs under the table and a lot of noise above so I growled at some backpackers. Nicky passed some rice and pork and chicken under the table so I felt better. So did Nicky coz Michelle had brought lots of wine.
Chambok is a community based eco-tourist initiative started 10 years ago to provide an alternative income for the villagers, cooking, guiding and offering accommodation to visitors instead of cutting the forest. Rice had provided a sustainable livelihood for Chambok until the local population was displaced from their land when the government was routing out the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in the eighties. Now about 200 foreign tourists a month stay in the homestays, eat food prepared by women from the village in the restaurant where Lok-Lak was biting the ankles of the backpackers, and go with local guides on hikes through the forest to a 40 meter high waterfall. This provides direct and indirect employment to 700 villagers and has resulted in the forest growing back.
Nicky and Manus didn’t wake up and Christian was snoring so much I couldn’t sleep so I went downstairs and chased chickens. I haven’t done this before but I’d definitely add it to the list if Nicky wants to sell his adventures. A not very nice lady then Nicky and Manus chased me, which might have been part of the adventure but I got the feeling I had done something wrong.
Back on the road we were heading for Koh Kong, there was only one direction so Kong couldn’t get lost.
Rainbow Lodge is perched on a hillside in what appears to be impenetrable jungle overlooking the river. It was shrouded in mist rising from the forest when we got there. Women skulled wooden fishing boats across the still black water studded by exploding raindrops. A hornbill slowly flapped across. It’s the rainy season so there’s a lot of water, dark swirls of stout with a creamy froth.
I wanted to play and swim and play so Nicky let me off the lead and I met my first friend Niko. Of course as the elder dog I had to teach him what to do but there were a lot of muddy puddles where we could wrestle. I played so much that I was as tired as when Manus ties me up in Nicky’s old underpants so I didn’t feel well and was a bit grumpy. When Nicky chained me to the veranda I was especially grumpy because I watched them eat without me.
I’m a country dog so I have to protect myself and when Nicky came back I thought it was him that made me have pain in my legs, did I tell you I had a very bad accident when I was a small puppy? I had to protect myself from the hurt so I bit him. Oohps that wasn’t good, I knew right away that Nicky and Manus were very angry with me. I didn’t get any cuddles and they ignored me, I could see them talking about me? I didn’t understand but knew I’d done wrong. So in the morning I was especially nice and even ate some of the nasty dog food from the tin though I think Nicky’s a bit frightened I’ll bite him again because he’s still not talking to me.
The next day Christian’s red kayak gave a scale to the vast vista of tumbling cliffs clad in vivid rainforest green.
There were breathtaking views as the river wound round the escarpment to reveal a white wall of water cascading over the rocks. 2 hours disappeared as we scrambled and slipped over boulders beneath the falls. When we bring guests here, we’ll make a day of it and cook up a BBQ on the riverbank.
Christian and Michelle were tired from the previous day’s kayaking but we set off on our second Koh Kong Adventure to The Peam Krasaup 20,000 Ha Mangove Forest near Koh Kong Town. There’s a concrete slab boardwalk through the eerily twisted forest that looked it should feature in a Tim Burton film. Contorted trees raised on a twisted mat of prehensile roots. It was low tide so we watched mudskippers below us, gulping and swiveling their eyes.
We scrambled up a watchtower on the far side of the channel. The view was of a landscape monochromatic green in color, panes of mangroves bisected by brown silty seawater channels. We followed a small stream in our kayaks leading deep into the gloomy forest, the only way to explore this otherwise impenetrable environment.
We could see the trees mass of supporting roots rising out of the mud and hear a frustratingly unidentifiable clacking coming from within. At first we thought the noise was made by crabs clicking their claws but later agreed it was most likely bivalves slamming their shells shut.
Aside from a couple of kingfishers there seemed to be disappointingly little life, that was until, ahead of Alistair and Christian, I rounded a point in the trees to see the snout of an otter like the ones we’d seen at Phnom Tamau, raised high enough to watch me. I drifted too close so he dived, reemerging between the roots of a mangrove.
We turned off the road to the Thai Border, down to the river and a crab restaurant above the water. We sucked out the succulent white flesh from the shells, while LokLak made a big mess under the table eating everything we didn’t.
I was forgiven, cuddles in the van and a strange walk above some mud, which I wanted to jump in. I’m not allowed to go in the kayaks though I like boats and catching water, because Manus says my claws will scratch. So I went with Michelle and Manus to do boring things in town, like drink tea. What if Nicky needed me? There were some strange fishy things on the mud that needed hunting. I was hungry, just tinned muck, which I ate to make up for being bad before so when they started eating fish I couldn’t keep quiet, that’s when delicious crunchy fish was put under the table for me. This was my best eating adventure so far.
Replete with exercise we headed back to Rainbow Lodge to ready ourselves for the next stage and Lok-Lak was hungry again.
Mr Kong had stayed the night at Tatai on a mat on the floor for $6 so he’d be ready for us when we landed beneath the bridge. Christian and Michelle we’re going to New York and Paris respectively, so they in somewhat of a contrast were catching the Virak Bunthoeurn Bus complete with constant karaoke to Phnom Penh.
By lunchtime Lok-Lak, Manus, Alistair and I were jumping off another boat onto a sandy beach at Koh Thmei (lit. New Island). The sea lapped on the shore, the soft wash of water gently soothing us to relax. The magnificence of the dripping jungle plunging into the Tatai River aside, the sea was the perfect way to finish the trip.
Lok-Lak settled onto the balcony and woofed at anyone rude enough to intrude his territory including Kavita who’d saved his life the last time we were on Koh Thmei.
There were snakes and crabs, a horse and a very grumpy dog I had to protect Manus and Nicky. The strange lady smelled of all these things so I felt my hackles bristling and an urge to bark, I’m a dog! She came back later and was very gentle with me so I was polite.
Five days of continuous rain had given way to grey skies then a suggestion of the sun so we assembled the kayaks and paddled across the channel that separates Koh Thmei from Koh Say (Horse Island), where our kayaks had been tagged by dolphins on the last trip.
A pair of sea eagles soared above the forest until a Brahminy Kite dared to enter their airspace. We were then treated to an aerobatic display as the eagles saw off the intruder.
Koh Thmei is the prefect antidote for most of the worries I can think of. It doesn’t matter what you do; swim, kayak, stroll along the beach or just chill on the balcony, time passes until you’re ready for lunch or maybe dinner. My only regret was we were only staying 2 nights.
Day 2 and we were heading for the North Eastern end of Koh Thmei opposite to where we’d been the day before. Mikael, Kavita’s husband and the joint owner of the resort had told us about a sheltered bay with a coral reef.
When we rounded the point to the bay the wind was whipping foam off the top of the waves and churning the water so there wasn’t much point in carrying on. We headed back to the relative shelter of a small rocky cove just around the point.
Paddling across the channel that morning we’d caught a cuttlefish missing most of it’s tentacles but still just alive. Alistair cleaned it, Manus lit a fire and I barbecued it on washed up wands of bamboo. When it was about to catch fire we cut off strips of the pure white flesh, fresh squid came to mind but ‘not really delicious,’ said Manus.
That didn’t matter, had we been shipwrecked survivors on the deserted island of Koh Thmei we’d have survived the first night. And with that comforting thought tucked into Kavita’s fish cakes and drank Mikael’s beer.
A squall was heading towards us so we quickly packed up and paddled close to the coast until we were opposite the Koh Thmei resort before making the kilometer crossing. Dehydrated, exhausted but elated from an amazing day capped by cooking a cuttlefish even if it was inedible.
Koh Thmei was a very nice place. It would have been more fun if I didn’t have to stay on the lead but the grumpy dog did look mean. You can chase crab’s, catch the waves, try and bite the villagers that come to cut the trees – Nicky said I was a good dog when I did this, or just lie on the verandah until somebody brings you dinner and that was good too, no more dog food.
The appendix to Lok-Lak’s adventures across the South West of Cambodia was a night at Knai Bang Chatt in Kep, a former French colonial beach resort. An exquisite hotel spilling over its walls into the sea below like the large infinity pool in the garden.
At first the man at the posh place in Kep said I couldn’t come but Nicky was nice to him so I was allowed to stay. I could see I had to be on my best behavior and wasn’t allowed to run round the garden like my friend Emma, she’s a posh dog! But I recommend the rooms, there was a special sofa for dogs and lots of blankets in case I got cold.
Nick or Alistair will be pleased to take guests on this 7 night 8 day adventure across the South West of Cambodia with the option of an extended stay at Koh Thmei and / or a bit of luxury at Knei Bang Chatt along the coast in Kep (with or without Lok-Lak).