Embedded into a picturesque landscape of forested mountains, coastal mangrove forests and a tropical river lies Sre Ambel (also: Srae Ambel), an isolated smugglers nest in south Cambodia. Travellers and tourists who come or go from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville know Sre Ambel only as an involuntary bus stop, because all the long-distance buses have a stop here at one of their contract restaurants, where the passengers are getting dropped to leave some money.
Sre Ambel Bridge
Sre Ambel Bridge, a Thai construction built in 2008. In the past there was a ferry service over the river. First time when I came along here in January 2007, the whole road what is now the NH48 was a very, very rough dirt road, built by the Thai military. Certainly the asphalt pavement is also a contribution of Thailand. Wherever I look it seems very much that the neighbours and the so called 'international community' give and give and give, and Cambodia takes, takes, takes. The foreign investment therefore has the interest to improve the Cambodian infrastructure as a precondition for their own business expansion inside the country.
Image by Asienreisender, 4/2015
These restaurants are situated directly along the national road NH48, east of the new Sre Ambel bridge. The actual village of Sre Ambel lies, however, a few hundred meters south of the road, along the river. It's a typical Cambodian place, a small town or a big village if you want so. It's a neglected, dirty, noisy, slumlike place with no charme whatsoever. Sre Ambel's economy is traditionally based on fishing, smuggling, piracy, rice farming and, since a few years the river is exploited by the construction industries for dredging sand. Southwest of the little place are the industries also eating up slopes of the mountains, and a sign at the NH48 indicates a concrete factory 14km away inmiddle of the green.
Interestingly and very unexpected I found the remains of a medieval Angkorian temple, Prasat Chas, overlooking Sre Ambel River. Merely heaps of laterite stones are left of the old sanctuary, a few stupas built in laterite stone. Around the spot there has been a contemporary buddhist temple built, a greater areal with a number of new temple buildings and some bigger stupas. However, the ruins indicate that the settlement is centuries old, maybe more than thousand years. Certainly it's placed at a favourable site for a natural harbour, close to the Gulf of Siam, but covered from heavy weather in the calmer waters of Sre Ambel River.
The biggest stupa which is left of Prasat Chas, built in laterite. Image by Asienreisender, 4/2015
Since the place is so dreary, there is practically no tourism here at all, apart from the mentioned drops of bus loads for a lunch. Nevertheless there are four guesthouses in town; two are old and run-down, two others are brand new, situated along the parallel road of the NH48 which splits off five kilometers east of Sre Ambel. They are probably for Cambodian business travellers. In the past there was a ferry service from Sre Ambel to Koh Kong, but it was ceased years ago. The only reason nowadays for Western tourists to come here is the very unknown Stung Phong Roul Waterfall, roughly 16km northeast of Sre Ambel.
The Village of Sre Ambel
Sre Ambel Ferry
The former ferry service at Sre Ambel. Image by Asienreisender, 1/2007
The main road of Sre Ambel. It starts at a roundabout and stretches a few hundred meters a hill upwards, towards a big temple gate. It looks all neglected and is very dirty. Society is not well organized. The middle image shows the market place (left). More and more motorbikes are around, the rise of traffic is immense these days in whole Southeast Asia. The traffic increase in Cambodia in 2014 alone was at 17%. One is forced to observe over the months that the roads get filled with ever more vehicles. The driving skills therefore remain extremely low.
The photo below shows part of the stilt houses who form an expanding settlement at the southern part of town. That's where the fisher families live. It's clearly a slum insofar that the land isn't owned by the dwellers but taken over, that the buildings and building materials are all of very low quality and the infrastructure is very weak (water, electricity, no waste disposal, no wastewater drainages...).
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, April/2015
Stung Phong Roul Waterfall
A Cicada Pupae
The pupae of a cicada on a stone of the dry waterfall. About a centimeter long. Image by Asienreisender, 2015
This waterfall is a huge natural monument in the slopes of the Cardamom Mountains, surrounded by tropical rainforest. Stung Phong Roul Waterfall is one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive waterfall I personally have seen in Southeast Asia. A mountain river, gathering waters from small tributaries, is approaching the steep mountain wall. The fall itself stretches over dozens of meters downwards several levels. The scenery looks like a huge sandstone quarry. Since there is the naked sandstone exposed due to the low water level I assume that the mountain massive substantially consists of this material.
The Way to Stung Phong Roul Waterfall
The way to the waterfall starts as a broad dirt road; the second part of it gets increasingly bad. In the background are parts of the Cardamom Mountains. The scenery was certainly covered with tropical rainforest a couple of years ago; the dirt road respectively the dam was then built for the lumberjacks. Remarkable, the two forest trees are left for whatever reason. A reason for that could be an encounter of the loggers with the 'forest spirits'. Image by Asienreisender, April/2015
A Peasant's Shack
A simple peasant's dwelling on the way to the fall. Image by Asienreisender, 2015
Stung Phong Roul Waterfall is not easy to find. As usually in Cambodia, there are no signs at all, and the way to the spot is in a very bad shape. North of Sre Ambel is a small hill chain, interrupted by the river; between this chain and the mountains north is a wide plain which is to cross. The way goes for several kilometers along an old dam which cuts like a simple highway the surrounding countryside. The dam is in a bad state, partially overgrown by vegetation, partially collapsed. Where it is interrupted, one has to leave the dam, following small paths parallel to it and find a way back where the dam is passable again, crossing creeks, streams, once a river on a wooden bridge. The surrounding scenery is now savannah, but must have been lowland rainforest in the past. The underground is partially white sand what shows that the sea level once was higher and the area was flooded. Very few wooden shacks are to see here and there, but little agriculture is done here. No rice paddies or vegetable cultivation here. Some water buffalos are around. It's exceptionally quiet here.
View over the Plain
The view over the plain from the mountain side. The dam and the pass of Sre Ambel are well to see. Image by Asienreisender, April/2015
One can go the way from Sre Ambel to Stung Phong Roul Waterfall on a conventional motorbike (mopet) in dry season, but it requires driving skills above average. The off-road challenges are here and there considerable, and the unexperienced drivers will fail. In rainy season the drive is much, much more difficult; I am not sure if it is actually possible.
A bit streamupwards from the fall is a little forest lake. Image by Asienreisender, 2015
When one has crossed the plain, the path leads up a steep slope. Big stones and rocks make it difficult for a motorcyclist to go up. It's a good idea to leave the motorbike down and to walk the last two or so kilometers through the jungle. The sounds of the rainforest aren't killed then by engine din, and it's very worth to listen. Many birds are to hear and my visit was continually accompanied by the impressing cries of monkeys. Uuuuuuuiiiii - uuuuuuuiiiii - uuuuuuuiiiii - that's certainly the sounds of gibbons. They are nice fellows, and they are shy and hard to see. Clever of them, because the locals certainly have a great appetite for the nice animals. Poaching must be as rampant here as everywhere in the yet remaining nature, I suppose. Any road access into forests is an invitation for poaching and illegal logging.
Due to the difficult approach, the site is seldom visited. It's absolutely not touristic, what is indicated by the surprisingly little rubbish around. In the forenoon I spent there I didn't meet a soul.
Stung Phong Roul Waterfall
A waterfall with almost no water... in April, the hottest and driest time of the year, Stung Phong Roul Waterfall is almost fallen dry. Only a single stream is making it's way downwards, falling from the upper part over some ten meters deep to the next level and continuing there. The exposed skeleton of the fall reveals somewhat of the geological consistence of the surroundings.
One can walk up the stream now easily, which separates into several branches who come together further up. Furthermore up there is a dam built which queues much of the water in an artificial lake. Due to the dam there is even less water reaching the waterfall.
The dam also means a risk for the fall's visitors. When climbing here, following the dried-out creek upwards or having a bath, there could a sudden flood appear, when the dam's gates are opened.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2015