This post was written in Cambodia, 2011.
The sky is electric with an approaching storm. Thunder booms closer, threatening lightning and heavy rain. Grey clouds cast a shadow over the humid, green landscape. Everything feels suddenly heavier, and more serious. Below, a frothing waterfall tips over sharp black rocks and falls into a wide pool that seems bottomless, abyss-like. On every side the jungle is tall and densely enveloping. And somewhere in the depths of undergrowth and shades of green fourteen elephants are tramping. Their footsteps are swallowed by the vastness of the rainforest. The thought makes a small shiver work its way down my spine.
The bus dropped us off in Andong Teuk – a village between Phnom Penh and Koh Kong – late on Friday afternoon, just as the hottest part of the day began to fade. Another public holiday had given us a chance to further explore Cambodia, and we were headed to the village of Chi Phat in the heart of the Southern Cardamoms Protected Forest. We waited for a while in a hastily constructed bus shelter/convenience store by the wide sparkling river, before jumping onto the back of a couple of moto-taxis. It’s about a half hour motorbike ride from the highway to Chi Phat – a breezy and sometimes bumpy drive through farmland, past brilliant green jungle and grazing water buffalo. The motos dropped us across the river from the village, where we waited for a young boy and his boat to carry us to the other side. Chi Phat at sunset was bustling – people, motorbikes, chickens and dogs went about their business. A family of skinny white cows ambled along the main street. The sound of distorted Khmer pop music from a wedding party filled the air. We ate large, steaming plates of fried rice for dinner, in a restaurant where a little girl played with a baby civet (sohm-bowet in Khmer). There was a friendly, small-town feeling: a pleasant change from the city.
Chi Phat sits on the bank of the Phipot River, and is made up of four small villages with approximately 550 families. In 2007 a community-based eco-tourism (CBET) project was set up in Chi Phat, assisted by Wildlife Alliance and other sponsors. The CBET project aims to provide villagers with income opportunities that are both economically and ecologically sustainable by developing tourism in the village and surrounding forest. According to the Chi Phat website, 80% of the tourism revenue goes directly to the service provider, while the remaining 20% supports the CBET project itself. The village has so far been very successful as an eco-tourism venture – about thirty tourists visit Chi Phat each day, and Lonely Planet listed it as the best community-based eco-tourism site in Cambodia from 2008 to 2010. Visitors can take boat rides, go mountain biking or trekking in the forest with local guides, and sleep in home-stay accommodation.
We chose a mountain bike tour from Chi Phat proper to the O’Malu Waterfall, a little over 30 kilometres as a round trip. Even at seven-thirty in the morning the sun was ferocious as we pedalled our way – uphill – across open farmland. Cows grazed in green fields, and above us a large bird of prey (kleng) circled carefully. The air was significantly cooler once we entered the forest and stopped for a break on a mushroom covered log. I asked our guide what kinds of animals lived in the forest:
“Some, but not around here.”
I was particularly excited about the idea of seeing elephants, and told my guide so. He shook his head – “dom-rey ot-loho”, he said, “elephant no good.” My Khmer wasn’t advanced enough to catch his explanation, and we cycled on deeper into the jungle. About a half hour later we heard gibbons (dooi) chattering to each other noisily somewhere in the trees. We left our bikes on the trail and headed into the bush on foot, trying (and mostly failing) to move silently through the undergrowth. We could hear the animals directly above us, calling out like birds and rustling branches. For a split second I saw something large and black leap from one tree to another, and then it was gone. “Oh, walking walking,” our guide said with a disappointed shake of his head. I was buzzing with excitement, however, after my first glimpse of a gibbon in the wild.
Covering more than 6% of Cambodia, The Southern Cardamoms Protected Forest is recognised as a bio-diversity hotspot due to its rare wildlife and eco-systems. The forest is home to more than half of Cambodia’s 2,300 bird species and 14 globally threatened mammal species, including the Indochinese tiger and the Pileated gibbons. It also supports one of the last elephant corridors in the Indo-Burma region – there are reported to be 100 elephants in Chi Phat alone. An important archaeological site was also recently discovered in the forest – clay jars and wooden coffins containing 300-year-old human remains (the Jar Site can be visited from Chi Phat with a local guide). The biodiversity of The Cardamoms is threatened by land concessions as well as the wildlife trade – Cambodia remains one of the five main source countries for wildlife exported for traditional Asian medicine, pets and meat. However, organisations such as Wildlife Alliance are working hard to protect this area. According to Suwanna Gauntlett, who has worked in Cambodia with Wildlife Alliance for over ten years, the organisation has succeeded in repressing the wildlife trade by up to 70%, while also fighting land concessions. It is no easy task, however, and one that seems to be without end. While a proposal for a titanium mine in the area was recently rejected by the government (after campaigning by Wildlife Alliance), an Australian funded banana plantation is now threatening the elephant corridor. It is hoped that initiatives like CBET in Chi Phat will help to protect Cambodia’s largest remaining intact forest, a place that Suwanna Gauntlett likens to “a smaller version of the Amazon”.
As we moved deeper into the forest the real mountain biking began. The trail was much more overgrown, strewn with rocks and fallen trees, some of which we bumped across and some we were forced to stop and lift our bikes over. Trying to watch where I was going became a struggle as vines and encroaching branches whipped at my face and tried to grab at my helmet and pedals. The dips and hills became deeper and higher. At one point I lost our guide at a fork in the road, and gave out a good old Aussie “cooee!” in an effort to find him again. After about an hour of bone-rattling riding we emerged into open country, and crossed a concrete bridge into an area edged with banana plantations and small wooden houses. Chickens and children darted across the trail here and there, and people watched us pass from the shade of their homes. We stopped at one such house opposite a large banana plantation. A woman lay in a hammock, and an older man sat puffing on a cigarette. A little girl stared at me but wouldn’t speak. The sky was starting to grow darker as thunder rumbled in the distance. The storm was unsettlingly close. There was another, less-identifiable tension in the air, however. As I stared out at the banana trees our guide explained it to me in a mix of English and Khmer. Just a few hours before we arrived, he said, fourteen elephants had walked out of the jungle and feasted on the family’s banana crop. There was nothing the family could do but sit back and watch. I finally understood the phrase “dom-rey ot-loho”, and though I was exhilarated at the thought of elephants I was also a little ashamed of my excitement. To me, as a visiting barang, the jungle is mysterious and beautiful. To the people that live in the Cardamom forest, however, it is an often harsh and unpredictable environment.
As I walked with our guide to the waterfall – the sound of thunder growing louder behind us – I asked him if we might see the elephants that had been at the plantation. He nodded. I asked him if he was scared. “Yes”, he replied.
We climbed down uneven, slippery rocks to reach a large pool at the bottom of the beautiful O’Malu Waterfall. I quickly submerged myself in the cool water, but was too intimidated by the depth of the pool and the approaching electrical storm to swim. We walked back to the house through the eerily silent jungle just as the rain started, lightning forking across the grey sky. As we ate our lunch in front of the ravaged banana trees a huge centipede (meum–breh) crawled across the ground toward us. I stared at it, at once fascinated and repulsed, and pulled out my camera. “Can it bite?” I asked, and our guide nodded. “Same-same snake,” he replied. Nobody else moved as the giant, poisonous insect rippled its way closer to the wooden platform on which we sat, stopping to suck grotesquely on a dropped fruit pip.
Back at the CBET office later in the afternoon – covered in mud with a sunburnt nose and aching muscles – I felt exhausted and elated after my jungle ‘adventure’. The CardamomsForest is a beautiful, fragile and (sometimes) frightening environment. And while the relationships between the jungle and the modern world, the dom-rey and the farmers, are complicated, projects like the one at Chi Phat are helping to mediate these issues. It is hopeful that elephants will continue to tramp through this forest, and that people will too, for many years to come.
A day of mountain biking in Chi Phat costs around $26 per person, including breakfast and dinner at the CBET office, a packed lunch, and a donation to the project. Guesthouse accommodation costs $5 per night, while a home stay in the village is $4. A moto-taxi from Andong Teuk to Chi Phat cost us $5, while from Chi Phat back to Andong Teuk we paid $7 each. The Virak Buntham bus company runs from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong, and will drop you off at Andong Teuk (make sure you let the bus driver know where you want to go). See the links below for more information.