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    Highlights of Cambodia

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    For many of Cambodia's four million annual tourists, Angkor Wat and the buildings in nearby Angkor Thom are all that they will ever see of the country.   Even for Cambodians, Angkor Wat is the iconic image of the country, found on everything from beer bottles to the Khmer Rouge's national insignia.

    It's no surprise, then, that most visitors arrive through the airport at Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, rather than through the airport in the capital of Phnom Penh.   Not only are there more attractions around Siem Reap, but the nation's roads have been in such a bad state that it was very difficult to drive around, even though Cambodia is south-east Asia's most compact mainland nation.

    There are certainly still some atrocious roads which are challenging to drive even in the dry season, but the transport situation has improved significantly over the last few years, and major construction work currently in progress will make things even better in the future.

    At the beginning of 2009 I spent three and a half weeks driving one of the country's ubiquitous Toyota Camrys in a large circuit which took me through most of Cambodia's twenty provinces.   This took me from Phnom Penh along the southern shore of Tonle Sap lake and up to Angkor, then east to the eastern province of Kratie to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River, and Mondulkiri, to see spectacular waterfalls and some of the local wildlife.   I then headed south of Phnom Penh to stay at Kirirom national park before heading west almost to the Thai border to see the other delights of Koh Kong province.   Finally I made my way along the south coast from Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) to Ream and Kep.

    Cambodia has so many interesting sights that it requires two pages, this one with photos from around the country and another featuring just the sights around Angkor.

    Almost everyone who travels to Cambodia will see Angkor Wat and some of the temples and other buildings in Angkor Thom.   Many will also see the small temple complex of Banteay Srei, about 20 kilometers from Angkor Thom, but far fewer will go the 18 kilometers from Banteay Srei to Kbal Spean, "the river of 1000 lingas".   As well as the distance from Siem Reap, it's not too well sign-posted for those travelling under their own steam, and it's a 1.5 kilometer uphill walk from the parking area to the carvings.

    Kbal Spean and nearby Phnom Kulen are of great spiritual significance to Cambodians.   The water flowing down the river at Kbal Spean passes over hundreds of "linga", or cylindrical symbols representing the Hindu god Shiva.   Although widely regarded in the western world as phallic symbols, Hindus don't think of them that way, however the square yoni symbol you see here, surrounding by broken-off linga, is more clearly a female symbol, the word itself meaning "womb" or "vagina". 

    From a spiritual point of view, the water flowing over the linga and yoni symbols carved into the riverbed is said to sanctify the river, which then flows into Tonle Sap and from there into the Mekong river.   Since this lake and the Mekong are so central to life in Cambodia, the water from Kbal Spean provides spiritual power to the whole country.

    It didn't rain during my time in Cambodia, but there was still enough water flowing out of the hills to fill the rivers and waterfalls, this one being very near the carvings in the previous photo.

    Central Cambodia is flat, but the rice paddies and characteristic sugar palms still provide plenty of interesting views.

    The sugar palm or toddy palm is as much an icon as Angkor Wat, though it's not totally unique to Cambodia, since it's also grown to a lesser degree in other parts of Asia.

    As well as having an attractive appearance, it's also very useful - the Tamils in India call it the "celestial tree" because every part has value.  Not only is the timber durable, but the leaves can be used for thatching, weaving and even as a writing material.   The fruit, which comes in a 10 or 20 centimeter diameter husk, has a mild flavor, though I've only tasted it canned with sugar syrup.   Before the fruit forms, a sap called toddy can be obtained from the flower stalks, and this sap can be boiled down to sugar, or fermented to make the famous arrack liquor.

    The palm trees you see here in a rice paddy near Siem Reap have epiphytes growing on their trunks, these epiphytes are probably not parasitic but just using their host tree for support.

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    If you drive around Cambodia you'll see lots of normal rural activity, and perhaps a few surprises.

    I went about 100 kilometers west of Siem Reap to a place called Ang Trapeng Thmor, which is a large reservoir built by forced labor under the Khmer Rouge.   The reservoir was one of many large projects undertaken in an attempt to return Cambodia to the blissful state which the Khmer Rouge imagined existed during the Angkorian period - though with a murderous communist dictator in charge rather than a king.

    The building of the reservoir by hand must have been horrific, but it now serves a useful purpose both for the villagers and for local wildlife.   But one shock was to find the remains of this Angkor-era bridge, still in use by the local inhabitants.   The farmer with the oxen might also have stepped straight out of that period, except for the modern wheels on his hay-cart.

    With so much water around in the wet season, it's no wonder that the ancient Khmers became skilled at bridge building.   There's a worthwhile one in Angkor Thom which is rather unimaginatively called Spean Thmor, which just translates as "stone bridge"!   There's another one about 60 kilometers east of Siem Reap called Spean Ta Ong which is 77 meters long and has 15 arches, but in spite of my best efforts I couldn't find the turnoff because it isn't signposted in English.

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    I went to Ang Trapeng Thmor because it's one of the most important birdwatching sites in Cambodia.   A few days earlier I went down to Tonle Sap, intending to go to Cambodia's premier bird sanctuary at Prek Toal, but it was a longer boat ride than I expected, and at $US120 for a visit of a day or two, more than I was willing to pay.

    My trip over to Ang Trapeng Thmor almost ended as badly, because I couldn't find the turn-off north from national highway 6, which was being rebuilt and was therefore very slow and difficult to traverse.   I eventually gave up and headed back to Siem Reap and on my way back into town I stumbled upon the Siem Reap war museum, which has American, Russian and Chinese tanks, guns, aircraft and mines.   I mentioned Ang Trapeng Thmor to the docent, and I was soon on my way back to Ang Trapeng Thmor with him and the head of the museum, who had fought against the Khmer Rouge in that area when he was a young man.

    The museum director knew the area well, and showed me the unmarked turnoff at a small village with a statue of a woman using a spinning wheel.   We got to the reservoir fairly late, and it turned out that the main attraction, the rare sarus crane, doesn't arrive in the area until later in the dry season; but there were plenty of other water birds like storks, ducks, jacana and the ubiquitous Chinese pond herons, and there were other sights like the farmers going about their daily routines, and this boatman out on the reservoir in a dugout canoe.

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    I'd spent about a week in Siem Reap, waiting for the overcast skies to clear so I could get some decent photos, but when that didn't happen I headed east and of course that's when the blue skies made their appearance!

    This is the Mekong river at the town of Kompong Cham.   The Cham people are depicted in many reliefs at Angkor, where they are portrayed as coarse and oafish.   That's because they were a rival kingdom based in what is now Vietnam; you can still see some of the famed Cham towers in Vietnam, but the tower you see here was built by their descendants, who now comprise a significant muslim minority in Cambodia.

    Severely persecuted under the Khmer Rouge, there are now mosques both in the countryside and in the cities and if you travel around you'll probably see Cham women wearing headscarves or even full burqas.

    The Mekong has always been a central part of life in Cambodia, a vital artery for travel especially when the wet season makes roads impassable, a reliable source of water both for drinking and for agriculture, and also a major source of food, with at least 1200 species of fish, some of which grow up to 3 meters in length and 300 kilograms in weight.

    This river scene is from the town of Kratie, which retains quite a bit of French colonial architecture and is popular with backpackers.

    I was less interested in Kratie than in the town of Kampi, about 15 kilometers north, where I went to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins which spend the dry season there.   I certainly got to see the dolphins, though they surface and dive again so quickly that it was very challenging to get a decent photo.

    For an insight into how bad roads used to be everywhere in Cambodia, you need only visit the northern provinces near Thailand or Laos, or eastern provinces like Mondulkiri, near Vietnam.

    This is "highway" 76, an unsealed road which branches off from highway 7, which is now sealed all the way from Siem Reap to Kratie.   Highway 76 might look bad, but it's far better than another numbered highway which doesn't even appear on most maps I've seen since - after about ten kilometers on that road I turned back and took the advice of some locals to use this road.

    In places highway 76 was literally covered in dust to a depth of one or two centimeters, so on arrival in the provincial capital of Sen Monorom, all my clothing and camera equipment in the trunk of the car also had a coating of red dust.   On the few occasions when someone overtook, I had to pull over for a few minutes so I'd wouldn't have to drive completely blind in a cloud of dust!

    As you can see, there's a fair bit of forest left and the population density is a lot lower than other parts of the country.   For a wildlife enthusiast like myself it's sad to know that Cambodia is one of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, largely as the result of a unscrupulous grab for cash by politicians, well-connected businesspeople and even the military.   There are some protected areas, but the protection is often limited and it's often difficult to even visit - a bit further down this road I tried to go into the Snuol wildlife sanctuary, but they don't allow visitors.   However I did see quite a bit of wildlife along the road, including a variety of colorful birds and a troop of some rather colorful primates, which at a glance looked rather like baboons.

    I've driven quite a bit in south-east Asia, but Cambodia had by far the worst roads, beating even Indonesia by quite a margin.

    The last time I was in Indonesia I got three flat tires in about three weeks, but in about the same period in Cambodia I managed to get six flat tires!   I even had to buy four tires during the trip, three used and one new, because I damaged the other tires so badly.   Luckily, it was fairly easy to spot the tire store in a town by the pile of tires lying out on the road next to a tub of water for finding leaks!

    The variety of other traffic on the roads also made driving a challenge.  I'd never seen this sort of cabless truck before, though I was impressed that so many of the drivers went to the bother of wearing a helmet.

    A more pressing danger came at dusk when farmers were heading home on carts pulled very slowly by agricultural engines, which I assume are used not just for transport but also for hooking up to farm machinery like threshers.  With no lights, there was a very real danger of driving straight into the back of them at a big speed differential.

    Domestic animals are another major hazard.

    I was impressed that the local dogs, cattle and water buffalo all seemed to have a good sense of how to handle themselves on the road, but it was still important to be cautious, especially since the animals were often on their own without a human minder.

    Again, this was a particular hazard at night when the cattle and buffalo were making their way back from the fields to their owner's home.   Usually they did this while there was still some light, but I did have a close encounter with a cow shortly after it had become dark, which resulted in me smacking the cow's face with my side mirror.   The noise and shock for both me and the cow were probably the worst part of the experience, and it seemed as if both the mirror and the cow's face got off lightly.

    Sen Monorom is sometimes called the Switzerland of Cambodia, with hills, two small lakes and a large number of domestic tourists who take advantage of its cooler climate.

    It's the largest town in Cambodia's largest province, but as you can see, its 7000 inhabitants have a way to go before they can rival their European counterpart.

    Still, it's a good base for exploring the surrounding area, with plenty of guesthouses and other tourist infrastructure.

    The terrain around the town is very different from most of Cambodia, with rough grasslands and pine trees, but if you go ten or twenty kilometers out of town you'll find very nice forest.

    Monorom waterfall is quite close to town, but the maze of roads and lack of signposts makes it about as hard to find as Ang Trapeng Thmor.

    The waterfall itself is nice, but the area around the waterfall isn't exactly inspirational, with a Japanese sponsored hydroelectric plant just upstream and little in the way of facilities to make anyone want to sit around or explore.

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    Mondulkiri is home to several ethnic minorities, the Cambodian equivalent of the hill tribes of Vietnam, some of whose territory backs onto this area.

    From Sen Monorom it's possible to take elephant treks into the forest, where you'll also see small villages of minority people.

    As a wildlife photographer, the back of an elephant doesn't seem like a very suitable perch, and as a cheapskate I don't much like the cost, either.

    Fortunately for me, the road beyond Sen Monorom passes by several minority villages, and it's still possible to see traditional Phnong minority houses like this one, though they're now being replaced by less interesting generic houses built from lumber and corrugated iron.

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    By far the most interesting sight near Sen Monorom is the Bousra waterfall, about 40 kilometers east of town.

    The road to the waterfall was once ranked as one of the worst in Cambodia, which is really saying something, but even though it's still not sealed it's now in good condition.

    In typical Cambodian fashion, this was achieved by handing over the road to a private company, who fixed it up and then started charging a toll of about $US4 to use it.   A smaller charge is made for parking at the waterfall.

    The waterfall is one of the largest in Cambodia and well-known throughout the country, so it's very popular with locals, many of whom enjoy family picnics there.

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    Bousra has two tiers, the lower tier shown here is about 100 meters downstream from the upper tier.   It's my understanding that the name "bousra" is fairly recent and means "man, woman" on account of the two drops.

    To get below the second tier you have to climb down a set of hair-raisingly steep wooden stairs, which thankfully seemed fairly solid.   It was scary enough going down them when they were dry, I hate to imagine what it would be like when they are wet.

    For me the waterfall wasn't the only benefit of coming to this place, in fact I came twice, once with a guide and then without.

    The second time, I mostly concentrated on photographing some of the animals in the area around the falls, including frogs, a nice gecko and a wide variety of insects, including a very large and beautiful owlet moth, a spectacular looking lantern bug that I'd previously only seen in photographs, and a large selection of dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies below the upper tier.

    As you might have guessed from mention of the gecko and the moth, I hung around until after nightfall searching the forest with a flashlight to see what would show itself.   It's a very worthwhile exercise if you're into wildlife, though a bit hard to explain to other people!   An added issue in Cambodia is the presence of large numbers of land mines, which continue to cause havoc - but what's the threat of stepping on a landmine compared to the thrill of photographing a nice moth?

    Even more than Thailand, Cambodia seems to be a land of buddhist wats and temples, like this one on national highway 5.

    The large and beautiful buildings are all the more remarkable considering the poverty of the people, and it's also surprising considering the fact that the current Cambodian People's Party is basically still the same government that the Vietnamese communists installed after they invaded in 1979 and toppled the Khmer Rouge.   The monks are obviously popular with the common people, and apparently they represent no threat to the government, so they're tolerated.

    Communist governments from China to Vietnam and Cambodia have made a remarkable transformation from their original principles, and nowadays their self-serving nature and lack of concern for the welfare of the environment and the proletariat would make many a predatory capitalist wince in discomfort.

    Here's another very ornate temple, with a fine collection of statuary.

    As well as the dragon, you can make out other mythical creatures near the entrance, alongside a tiger and a very scrawny looking monk, who apparently hasn't heard of Buddha's "third way".

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    This temple is on national highway 6, not too far north of Phnom Penh.

    The style of the temples is very similar to that in Thailand, but there seemed to be far more of them in Cambodia, even in very rural areas.

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    It's all the more surprising, then, that the main temple in Phnom Penh, which occupies the small hill after which the city is named, is a rather drab and poor looking affair.   Though in spiritual terms, perhaps the appearance of the temple is in inverse proportion to the sanctity of the monks?

    Compared to other temples in the country, Wat Phnom is hardly worth a photograph, but I was lucky to turn up when a service was in progress, which added quite a bit of life to the situation.   The worshippers kneeling on the ground were joined by this official who seemed as if he might be trying to enter a trance state, while a rather full-figured female dancer twirled around somewhat unalluringly in the background.

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    The royal palace is the most attractive sight in the capital.

    Inspired by the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the royal palace in Phnom Penh has several attractive buildings scattered around park-like lawns. 

    It's not as spectacular as its equivalent in Thailand, and I was disappointed by the silver pagoda.   It's not permitted to take photos in the pagoda, but I'm not sure I would have wanted to, anyway.

    Cambodia is perhaps best known as the site of one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, the mass butchery perpetuated by the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge government, led by one of the most infamous dictators of all time, Pol Pot.

    The Tuol Sleng detention center, otherwise known as S-21, was formerly a high school until the Khmer Rouge took control and turned it into one of 196 similar prisons.   At any one time between 1000 and 1500 prisoners were kept here while being tortured and interrogated.   Somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 people were imprisoned here and all but 12 were killed.   Many were either children or very old, but they were treated with utter ruthlessness.

    The school rooms were divided with very crude brick walls into smaller cells and electrified barbed wire was used to prevent prisoners from escaping or attempting suicide.

    Confessions, often with absurd and lurid details, were extracted under torture, as were names of other people supposedly involved in the conspiracies.

    Many of the guards and torturers themselves became victims in the same place, after violating the strict rules of the prison.

    As well as the buildings, the Tuol Sleng genocide museum contains photographs of some hundreds of the victims, skulls showing the types of injuries inflicted, instruments of torture and some clothing belong to those killed.

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    After the area around S-21 had been filled with bodies, many of the prisoners were taken 15 kilometers outside Phnom Penh to Choeung Ek, one of the infamous "killing fields" where prisoners were killed and disposed of.

    Choeung Ek was formerly a Chinese graveyard, but in the years after the Khmer Rouge regime was thrown out of power by the invading Vietnamese, a total of 8,895 bodies were found buried in mass graves.   Many had been killed using crude weapons like metal bars and machetes.

    Today a memorial stupa containing 5,000 skulls stands amongst the excavated burial pits, and human bones can still be seen around the grounds.

    There are many butterflies of different types fluttering around the pits, and there are places for visitors to rest and a pleasant path which passes around a small lake on the site.

    Thirty years after the nightmare of Pol Pot, there's still plenty of poverty.   Life has certainly improved for most people, but government corruption adds a great deal of unnecessary suffering for ordinary people, who often lack the most basic services while moneyed families drive around in the country's many pimped-out Lexus SUVs.

    In the countryside, poverty can have a pleasant external appearance, but in a city like Phnom Penh it usually reeks of squalor, even if economic conditions here are actually better than in rural areas.

    The rows of plants growing in the water here are called "morning glory", in the west they're cultivated as an attractive flower (or cursed as a weed) but here it's eaten as a vegetable, and often makes an appearance on restaurant menus.

    Since the houses lack even basic plumbing, these plants are actually growing in untreated sewage, something to consider when you order your next meal!

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    These shrimp boats are on an off-shoot of the Mekong river near Phnom Penh.   I assume most shrimp fishing is done at night, but in this photo you can see one of them in the background with its net submerged in the water.

    Unfortunately, with 14 million people to feed, even the fisheries have been over-exploited, which is one reason why the per capita GDP when I visited was only $US570.   Since this income is very unevenly distributed, most people are living on less than a dollar a day.

    Tourism is now the second biggest earner after the manufacture of clothing, so travellers can have a real benefit for ordinary people.

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    I wanted to see as much wildlife as possible, so I went south of Phnom Penh and up into the hills to Kirirom national park.   Once again I had trouble finding the turnoff, so I ended up going about 25 kilometers too far south and then had to turn around and ask local people where to go.

    Before going up to the national park itself, I went to the village near Chambok waterfall and stayed in a very basic homestay for two nights with an old man who didn't speak any English.

    There's a path going up the hill with some interesting wildlife on it, and the entrance fees are shared around the community and pay for maintenance of the track and facilities along the way like toilets.

    I was lucky to see a couple of snakes and some attractive butterflies as well as some nice nocturnal bugs.   I was disappointed by the waterfalls along the way, some were unattractive in themselves and one was made unattractive by a very large blue water pipe for the village, which destroyed the aesthetic appeal of the site.   It's about a 4 kilometer haul up the hill, and since I wanted to get to Kirirom before dark I turned around before reaching the top, which was probably a mistake, because I've since seen photos of the top waterfall, which is quite large and attractive.

    I got to the guesthouse at Kirirom in time to photograph this sunset, but the place itself was disappointing.   The guest house was mostly deserted, it's dilapidated and very overpriced at $20 a night.   The area has been planted with imported pine trees, which might be exotic for Cambodians, but results in a fairly sterile environment for animals.   There were no maps, either at the guest house or at the park entrance where I had to pay my entry fee, and I couldn't find any trails, so the best I could manage was a few bug photos obtained by walking along the road at night.

    I headed south to the coastal town of Kampong Som, also called Sihanoukville after Prince Sihanouk, though personally I don't feel he deserves such an honor.

    The original plan had been to go diving here straight after arriving in Cambodia, but I realized on the day I left Los Angeles that I had a head cold, so I drove up to Siem Reap instead and had a week of cloudy weather!   When I did arrive in Kampong Som, the relentlessly windy weather forecast for my final week made diving impossible, so I concentrated on terrestrial activities.

    I started with a short distance walk into Ream national park where I came across a nice tarantula sitting in the open during the daytime, a very unusual occurence.   It's compulsory to pay for a ranger to go with you, which I didn't mind since he spoke reasonable English and I saw it as a way for me to benefit the local populace in a way which preserves everyone's dignity.

    Back at the ranger station I told them I was interested in going west into Koh Kong province and seeing some of the sights there, so I arranged to pay the ranger $25 a day, plus his bus fare back from the town of Krong Koh Kong, which is right on the Thai border.

    Chheang Peal Rong waterfall is near the town of Sre Ambel, so we asked directions at a simple restaurant where we had lunch about how to get there.   We were told that it wasn't possible to drive a car there, and arranged for the ranger, myself and a driver to go on the back of a 100cc motorbike up to the waterfall.   He told us that it was 6 kilometers, but it was more like 12 or 15.   It was certainly true that a car couldn't make it, not only was the gravel road potholed, there were quite a few occasions when we had to get off the bike and walk down small gullies to get around a break in the trail.   Some of the bridges were nothing more than small logs placed next to each other, forcing us to walk once again.   For the last 45 minute stretch we had to leave the bike behind and walk up a steep dirt trail which was totally exposed to the scorching sun.

    The waterfall consists of several tiers, this one being the topmost.   If you look closely you'll see a man in the top, right-hand corner of the shot walking towards the drop, so you can get some sense of scale.   It would certainly be an awesome sight in the wet season, but it would be impossible to get there because of the state of the path!

    For me, the main attraction of Koh Kong was the large Botum Sakor national park, where I hoped to spend a couple of days.

    The ranger at Ream made several phone calls and it seemed like he and I were all set to stay in the park, but when we got there that turned out not to be the case, so we continued on to the town of Krong Koh Kong.  The road was fairly good, but there were some serious potholes at intervals along it, which caused me another flat tire.   I had to make a detour off the main road to a small town to buy a used replacement tire, and that's where I came across this Buddhist monastery.

    Apart from the motorbike, the entrance to the monastery is very similar to the entrance gate of Angkor Thom and entrances to some of the temples at Angkor.   They all depict a Hindu myth called "the churning of the sea of milk", in which Vasuki, the king of serpents, is wrapped around Mount Mandaranchal, which is resting in an ocean of milk.   Gods holding one end of Vasuki alternately pull against demons holding the other end, causing the mountain to rotate and churn the milk.   You might expect that this would create butter, but in the story it produces the nectar of immortality.

    I had to visit this town twice, on my way to Krong Koh Kong and on my way back, because I got a flat tire going both ways!

    The town of Krong Koh Kong was a bit of a disappointment, though I did take a mildly entertaining boat trip through the mangrove forest of Peam Krasaop wildlife sanctuary.

    New Zealand has plenty of mangroves, so for me it's no great thrill to see them, but you can see some cheeky long-tailed macaques (otherwise known as crab-eating macaques) here - one of these monkeys even stole a bun from someone at the restaurant where I had lunch!

    There's also a village built on stilts some distance out from the mainland, and it's interesting to see people going about their lives in such a novel environment.

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    The south coast is rapidly becoming a leading tourist attraction in Cambodia.   I had a melanoma cut off 8 or 9 years ago, so the prospect of soaking in the sun's rays has less appeal than it used to, but I did want to go diving.   As you've already read, the fates conspired against that plan, but I did hit several parks along the coast, traveling from Kampong Som through to Kampot and then on to Kep.

    I wanted to go up to Bokor Hill Station, but the road up the mountain was being rebuilt so that idea also went by the board.   Instead, I spent 6 or 7 hours walking around tiny Kep national park, finding some nice butterflies and damselflies and then, after nightfall, some surprisingly attractive moths which were hiding out from the bats flitting up and down the paths.




































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