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Goat Mountain Offers Wildlife and a River Picnic

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: January-01-2006 in
Bronwyn Sloan

Once, Phnom Popay, or Goat Mountain, was a heartland of Cambodia's ethnic Muslim Cham people, who raised hundreds of the creatures in this secluded spot about 50 kilometers from the capital in Kampong Speu province.

The war changed all that, and by 1970, the area was a Khmer Rouge stronghold and all the Cham had fled or been killed. Today, this again a peaceful spot, a beautiful pagoda stands surrounded by forest at the peak of a hill. Down below a stream runs, making it a favorite picnic spot for Phnom Penh people and locals alike.

The goats may be gone, but dozens of wild monkeys have made the area their preserve, and local women are on hand to sell bread, sugar cane and bananas to visitors wanting to hand feed them - be careful, they can be pushy. A mahout with a very large, tusked elephant offers rides around the area on weekends, adding to the atmosphere. The elephant, too, gratefully accepts donations of sugar cane during his breaks.

Phnom Popay stretches across two sides of the river, linked by a slightly worrying suspension bridge. On the pagoda side, there is no entry cost, although the owners of the bamboo picnic huts will charge a rental fee for their space and you may want to pay someone to mind your vehicle to fend off curious monkeys. The other side has been developed a little more and has more sophisticated restaurant areas, statues for the kids to climb on, public toilets - and, on the downside, karaoke. There is a small entry fee.

But the pagoda side is peaceful, aside from the cheeky primates. Cambodians fish from the bamboo picnic huts right down on the river, or look out across the thickly wooded banks from huts further up the bank.

Food is fantastic, but bargain hard. A pot of M'chue-style soup, thick with ground herb leaves and pieces of pork, is around $5. Roast chicken and fish is also available, as well as beer and soft drinks. Hawkers peddle an abundance of fresh fruit and small Khmer cakes and sweets around the huts if you are still hungry after feasting on rice, soup and barbequed chicken or fish.

Kampong Speu is a place of magic, so you will see many Cambodians pour a little of their drink on the ground and place a small amount of rice and perhaps a chicken head or some meat at the front of their hut before they eat. Sometimes they will light incense as well. This is to appease the Neak Ta, or spirits of the place and offer them a seat at the table. Some will burn more incense as they get up to leave to help ensure a safe ride home.

Some foreigners may balk at swimming in the slightly muddy waters of the river, but Cambodian children take to it gleefully with rubber inner tubes and locals assure the water is good, clean mountain water. Whether you choose to swim or not, sitting in the shade of a simple hut with good food and watching the river go by is a wonderful stress buster.


Take National Route 4 towards Sihanoukville. Stop at Kampong Speu town. There are two routes - one is a left turn just as the road enters the town and is difficult to find without asking directions. The other involves a series of left turns - first, turn left at the town market instead of heading straight on the toll way. Take the road over a bridge, and turn left at the next main intersection through a pair of cement posts and a low overhead railing designed to stop trucks using the road, and make another left onto a dirt road. When you reach the pagoda, called Wat Phnom Popay (or Popay Phnom - the words are interchangeable) turn left again at the road at the very rear of the pagoda, and you are there. If you don't have your own transport, a taxi from Phnom Penh should cost between $25-30 return for the day, and your driver could provide welcome help translating. Few foreigners venture here, but the friendly people will make the day a memorable one.


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