Daytrips: Kirirom RevisitedMay 9, 2005
The road unfurls like a grey ribbon on a green carpet. We pass through lush orchards and grassy fields. The thickly forested mountain ahead looms ever larger. We veer right and skirt the base of the mountain. Then we begin our indiscernible ascent on a cracked and winding asphalt road.
The air grows cooler as we climb the mountain. It’s the hottest month of the year, so the change is pleasant. But visit during the cool months, and the wind will cut through your shirt and set you shivering. The road is lined with tall pines, which flourish in these cooler climes, rising out of fields of long green grass. It’s like a different country.
Past the ticket booth, we take the right fork past the Kirirom Hillside Resort. The uneven dirt road, strewn with rubble and carved by erosion, leads to the Chambok Ecotourism Site. The ticket booth at the end of the road, where they collect an additional entrance fee, is covered with handpainted signs and laminated newspaper articles.
We park the bike in the shade and wait for the girl to fetch the metal ticket box from a nearby hut. There is no entry for vehicles, though the villagers can arrange ox-carts on weekends, so we’re told that we have to undertake an hour-long hike to reach the series of bat-filled caves and the twenty-one meter waterfall.
Back on the main road, we continue a bit further until we spot a small sign on the left side for O Traw Sek Resort. We follow a small trail through the jungle to a crudely fashioned brick stairway. A parched stream winds around giant boulders at the bottom of the valley. The place?s name is misleading, we find, as we pick our way down the stream to a series of isolated rapids and waterfalls.
My plump Khmer friend sits down by the placid green pool and snaps photos while I plunge my hands into the thin streams spilling over the rock ledges and soak my head with icy water. The side of the fall is dry enough to allow me to get a good hold and climb the two meters to the next level. The stream winds down from the jungle over a series of small falls and under a heap of boulders.
Refreshed, we check out two more attractions. The first is one of the two pagodas in the park. Sitting atop a small knoll, the stairs up are so short that we take them on my motorbike. There is a peaceful atmosphere there, and it is easy to relax and gaze across the rich landscape. The second attraction is the series of dirt trails that criss-crosses the park. Most lead to indistinguishable little villages, but the scenery en route is invariably beautiful.
Finally, we return to the road and pass the large cobra traffic circle and come to a row of food stalls on a hill to the left. To the side of the road is a glass case containing a stuffed bear with no paws and a grinning goat with a smashed snout. Here is the end of the drive into Kirirom, where the road splits in many directions, and visitors buy food and drinks before deciding at which resort they wish to spend the day.
Being more interested in exploring the park than in picnicking by the water, we decide to try each of the roads. The first one we choose leads up a rocky slope to something unexpected: an abandoned helicopter landing pad, overgrown with weeds and strewn with rubbish.
The next two roads we try take us to the riverside swimming spots. Weekdays are a quiet time at the park, and each time we arrive at a river, old women rush out of the trees and try to coax us to stop at the little thatch huts that they rent to picnickers. Last year, we spent a day sleeping on woven mats, eating cold rice, and swimming in the chilly water that pours over the chutes and rapids. But today we return to the hilltop to choose another road.
The last one we take leads under a wooden archway painted with the blue and red of the military. An old man passes the day in a wooden hut by the roadside flagging down holidaymakers and collecting 1000 riel per motorbike to pass. The narrow, heavily eroded trail snakes its way through the trees to a valley below. A sparkling green lake, nestled between pine-covered slopes, is visible to the left.
The near bank is lined with thatch huts. Dragonflies fill the air. A boy waits at one hut filled with lifejackets and tubes to rent to swimmers. We take a hut by the river, and a girl strings up a hammock, and we relax for a short time after the long ride.
My young Khmer friend can never rest long before pestering me to go for a swim. So we use our towel to cover up as we change our clothes and walk the sandy path to a dock made of slim branches, encircling a splendid tree that grows out of the lake?s muddy shallows, with little ladders to help you in and out of the water.
There are only three other couples at the resort. So we have almost the whole lake to ourselves. We each take a tube and jump in the water. The air is cool in the valley, but a swim is still refreshing. We paddle around, and lay on our stomachs on the tubes, and just chat and joke for the rest of the afternoon.
Note on prices. Kirirom: $5 for foreigners, free for Khmers. Chambok: $3 for foreigners, free for Khmers. O Traw Sek Resort: free. Thatch huts: $1 on weekdays. Lifejackets and tubes: 1000 riel. Mid-range accommodation exists inside the park at a few hotels.
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