Cardamom Mountains – Chi Phat village

Deep in the southern Cardamom Mountains, beyond Chi Phat village, lies an untamed jungle, traversed by surging rivers and sheltering wildlife that, until recently, was little more than a commodity to locals.

The southern Cardamom Mountains were until very recently Cambodia’s Wild West, the centre of the country’s thriving wildlife trade and the hiding place of a few diehard Khmer Rouge communities, who are reported to have lived there until as late as 2002.

The lucrative wildlife and logging trades provided a much needed supplement to the meagre income earned by the rural poor in this area of Cambodia, a country where some two thirds of the population still work in agriculture, often at subsistence level.

Realising that any attempt to protect the Cardamoms would also have to involve the communities that depended on the jungle, Wildlife Alliance — a local charity — set up an ecotourism initiative, called the Chi Phat Community-Based Ecotourism Project (CBET) in 2007. Now, ecominded travellers and nature-lovers can visit the area, while also contributing to its preservation.

It is a hugely ambitious project. The first step was demarcating an area that rangers from the Ministry of Forestry would patrol. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation missions began soon afterwards. (If you visit the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge near Phnom Penh, which is also run by Wildlife Alliance, a number of the animals will have been rescued at Chi Phat.)

A handful of ex-poachers now work as service providers – including as jungle guides, guesthouse owners, garbage collectors, mototaxi drivers and cooks — and have begun to see the potential of a continuous income stream from tourists. Women in particular, who generally invest more in the health and education of their families than men, have been employed in reforestation efforts which provide an alternative, long-term source of income to logging or slash and burn farming.

One billion trees have been replanted so far, and the coveted rosewood tree — worth as much as $8,000 per cubic metre — is at last being protected to a degree. Since the ecotourism initiative began, wildlife trade in the region has been reduced by a remarkable 70 percent, and between January 2009 and May 2010, the project brought in $100,000 — 80 percent of which goes to the village. The remaining 20 percent of earnings go into a fund for maintenance and operation costs. In the future, the community intends to use the funds to make village improvements.

Chi Phat village is a pleasant place to relax with a book, rent a bicycle or go for walks, but getting out into the jungle is the real attraction. The Visitors’ Centre (T: +855 092720925; [email protected] ) can arrange a variety of guided outdoor activities, such as sunset dinners in a riverboat, three day trekking, rafting and mountain-biking adventures, sighting wildlife and visiting ancient burial jar sites in the jungle. If you’re relatively fit, an overnight trek in the jungle is a happy medium.

The staff at the centre prefer to arrange accommodation themselves because it makes it easier to fairly allocate visitors to guesthouses, so check in to the centre when you arrive. If you have any problems chartering a boat, the CBET staff can assist you via telephone.

Activities

One of the more popular guided activities is an 11 kilometre trek to a camp site near Veal Trapak, where you can spend the night in a hammock listening to the sounds of the jungle and the rushing river. Veal Trapak pond, a watering hole for wildlife, is a short walk away, and you may be lucky enough to spot gibbons, hornbills or even a bear if you arrive at sunrise or sunset.

The hike continues to O’Key village the next morning, which you’ll reach in time for lunch, before heading to O’Malu waterfall, 10 kilometres from the campsite, where a cool dip will refresh you for the final 14 kilometres out of the jungle and back to Chi Phat.

Prices for guided treks range from $8 to $20 per person per day. Equipment like canoes or motor boats normally bumps up the price. All treks include a guide, a cook, meals, a few bottles of water and a tent and/or hammock. Extras such as sleeping bags, backpacks and raincoats are available for a nominal fee.

Be aware that the ‘hut accommodation’ available on some routes is no more than a bamboo roof above a wooden platform on stilts. You really will be sleeping in the jungle, so don’t expect more than an outhouse and —maybe — a river to bathe in.

Although the water may be heavenly in the summer months, during the rainy season the river banks are as leech-infested as the trail. In the rainy season, take a bag of salt along to sprinkle on the many leeches that will attach to your skin; the salt makes them fall off painlessly. The smouldering end of a cigarette (any brand will do) also works a treat.

Accommodation

You’ll find a selection of guesthouses ($5 per room) and homestays ($3 for one person/ $4 for two) along the main road. All have shared bathrooms with cold or bucket showers, sit down toilets and mosquito nets. Currently, the CBET centre is the only place with WiFi access. The village’s ecolodge ($20 for twin accommodation) has bungalows with modern ensuite bathroom facilities on a small island about 1.5 kilometres from the CBET centre.

You’ll find a handbook in each guesthouse with amusing pictures to assist communication, including a foreigner pointing at a dirty bathroom, requesting it be cleaned. There is also a section about what you can expect from your guesthouse (towels, a bottle of mineral water) with a code of conduct for both parties to follow; guesthouse owners should respect your privacy and you should dress modestly, for instance. As with all aspects of the Chi Phat project, these are often ideals, not realities.

Electricity in Chi Phat only runs in the early mornings and evenings, except at the CBET centre, where it is available all day, as is WiFi. The lights promptly go out at 23:00 every evening, by which time you are expected to be in your guesthouse.

Eating

A couple of eateries line the main road with basic, mostly vegetarian food. The CBET centre also cooks local or Western lunches and dinners for a few dollars if you order half a day in advance. Homestays can provide meals ($5 for one person, $8 for two including accommodation).

Getting There

Transport to Chi Phat starts in Andoung Teuk, which is served by all buses to and from Koh Kong. Tell the driver you want to get out at Andoung Teuk and you’ll be dropped off at a bridge beside a few small shops. If you’re coming from Thailand and reach the Hat Lek/Koh Kong border by mid-morning, you can make it to Chi Phat before nightfall. Note the Khmer side of the border is known for overcharging. Taxi drivers double as touts and try to handle visa applications themselves. Thefts during the confusion have been reported.

From Koh Kong’s central bus station, buses to Phnom Penh (via Andoung Teuk) leave a few times a day, starting from 08:00, and take three and a half hours. From Andoung Teak, you have the choice of following the Preak Piphot River or a dirt track to Chi Phat. Take a boat up the river.

The boat ride to Chi Phat is one of the highlights of a visit. Wooden longtails make the journey in a little under two hours ($20), gliding past mangroves, mountains covered in thick vegetation and an occasional group of swimming children. It is a slow, peaceful journey. Noisy speedboats make the trip too, and charge US$50 for the 30-minute journey. There is also the option of chartering a more comfortable, large wooden boat for groups of up to 20 at a cost of $35 for the two hour trip.

The locals at Andoung Teuk Bridge may think you’re mad not to choose the cheaper, faster motorbike taxi option, even in the rainy season when the track is almost pure mud. It will cost around $7 for the 90-minute journey along a forest track.

Cockroach Corner – May 2014

Freedom parked by the wayside. For the fifth time in a month (probably more by the time you read this) Mu Sochua was denied entry to Freedom park by security guards. During the ensuing scuffle seven people were injured. Why the hell isn’t the park renamed? Baton Park or Clubbing Park spring to mind. Blame ping pong Meanwhile talks between the CPP and CNRP broke down with each side blaming the other. The three main leaders of CNRP were unavailable for comment as Rainsy is in Europe, Sokha was in the US and Sochua was busy with security guards at Freedom Park. Surprised there was anyone left to negotiate with!

Only in Cambodia Yes they are considering the appeal from Australia to accept refugee boat people! I thought Australia had criticized Cambodia’s human rights record on numerous occasions. Obviously forgotten conveniently as happens in politics, and their only boat people after all! Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia, said. “If you scan the entire region and look at different governments, who would be most likely to take, basically, Australian blood money, it would be Cambodia.” Sister Denise Coghlan, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, agreed. “Cambodia has enough poor of its own to care for without taking in Australia’s.” The deal will probably go through once “compensation” has been upped. So if you don’t want to pay 75k for Khmer citizenship get on an old boat to Australia now!

What! After a high profile court case Onha Khaou Phallaroth took out a full page advertisement in the post to explain his position. Apparently Lay Houng was not his second wife but his mistress. Basically it goes on the say what and evil conniving bitch she is and has made off with most of his properties! Talk about doing your laundry in public!

Another week trashed Remember it’s the kings birthday mid month and as it falls on Tues, Weds, Thurs you can write that week off for achieving anything apart from holidays.

Bits From The Beach – May 2014

How quickly can you get from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong? Now you can do it in just 20 minutes. Just book on the speed boat looks the part and can even get to Saracen Bay on Koh Rong Samloem in 15 minutes. You can book a ticket from their booking office at the beginning of serendipity pier. Price is $30 return but numbers are limited so book in advance. The first boat leaves Sihanoukville at 9am the every hour except lunchtime till 3pm.

A new Indian restaurant has opened up next door to Olive & Olive. Kama sutra offers your usual array of curries, Dahls & breads. The quality is very good, flavour punching curries at good prices always goes down well.

Khmer New Year came & went official figures showed a 5% increase on foreign & local tourists. All hotels & GHs reported that they were full. The big attraction for the Khmers is the big concert on Ochheuteal sponsored by Anchor this year and the Khmers certainly get stuck in and quaff down as many beers as possible and the fall asleep every where. So definitely one spot to avoid.

Otres beach and The Barn had special nights over Khmer New Year which was well worth the trek down there. Always dodgy coming back down the long dark road and would definitely advise if you have to get back from Otres go in a group.

Fire hit Sihanoukville again when a bar on Victory Hill went up. Luckily the fire brigade are based on Victory Hill and were able to extinguish the blaze before it spread. Unfortunately the foreigners living above the bar lost all their belongings. Some expats on VH organised an auction and raised money with gifts donated by other business owners.

Sihanoukville now has its own Ranch. Down on Otres (near the Pagoda) you will find Liberty Ranch where adults & children can ride thru the beaches and country side. All levels accepted.

Buggy tours all of a sudden have popped up everywhere: Fun Buggys Sihanoukville, Cambodia Adventures off road tours, Quad tours & Adventures and now the ultimate buggy with an 800cc engine and looks the dogs bollocks. Mad Max Tours can be booked at their office on Ekereach Street near Lucky Ocean Mart.

There’s an Aussie guy offering budget trips around the bay and islands in his yacht. The boat is very basic and has a few leaks top and bottom. The fun loving owner drinks continuously. Not for the faint hearted.

New alcohol wholesale supplier in town next to Charlie Harpers, Bodgea is western owned and supply all wines & spirits and now they are official supplier of Bruntys Cider. Look out for Bruntys promotional nights where the cider is sold at good discounted prices.

Back Packer heaven is a new GH on Victory Hill new building nice rooms nice sea views but VH is not the usual destination for the dread locked warriors unless they book on line. The wonder of the internet.

Phnom Penh Prison Diary – Part 1

Introducing a serialised story of the judicial system and its processes in Cambodia. A work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to people alive, dead or locked up is purely coincidental.

March 21st – Phnom Penh Following a brief overnight business trip to Sihanouk Ville, I am returning on my motorbike to my home in Phnom Penh. Its around midday, I am hot and dusty after the long ride. As I approach my street, I pass a number of police who appear to be waiting for something or someone; what I don’t realise is that someone is me.

I pull up outside my house, cut the engine and a large number of police rush out of my neighbours house, arrive in speeding 4×4’s, rappel from the roof and appear from under rocks. Many are brandishing the latest in video cameras, others have vintage automatic weapons, are they really heading for me? I am arrested in broken English, and I am shown what I assume must be an arrest warrant, in Khmer. The first officer grabs my motorbike, a black DRZ400, one of only two I know in Phnom Penh, did I jump that red light? Was the light even working?

My girlfriend opens the front door, in her night clothes. Its 12:30 dammit, did she just get up! Clearly she is as puzzled as I am, her younger sister arrives, yes, dressed not in her night clothes – but her sisters. Now things get scary, both girls are dragged from our home, in their night clothes and bundled into a waiting 4x4by a number of male officers, who I notice are wearing a uniform with a badge depicting an adult holding the hand of a child. All of this is captured in HD by the camera toting cops. I am pushed into a separate car and watch the first officer struggle to ride off on my motorbike, which is far too big for him.

MOI police station, Phnom Penh. I am taken to the central MOI police station, not far from the Intercon, though my suite is not quite up to the same standards. Its an empty 4m square cell, with filthy beige walls, a filthy checked tile floor, a filthy hole in the floor toilet with a filthy empty plastic water bucket. Oh, and hundreds of mosquitos, I make a mental note for trip-advisor. I am alone, but through the bars I can see several officers rifling through my overnight bag, which was strapped to my bike. This isn’t a forensic activity, more of a police free for all, I see my new Sony digital camera disappear into an officers pocket.

After an hour, I see my girlfriend and her sister emerge from an office on the far side of the police station courtyard. Still in their night clothes, they walk straight out of the station, alone and without money or even a phone – 5km from our home, which has been sealed by the police. Later that night, the two girls return with their aunt, the first issue is that they cannot get into our house and they have no money or clothes. My wallet was taken by the Chief of Police on arrival, but after a little negotiation, it is agreed that I can take $100 for my family, if I pay $20. I have no choice.

The big issue though, is that the police have been asking whether I have been sleeping with my girlfriends sister, she is around13 (and she is my girlfriends sister) – I am horrified. My girlfriend leaves to buy some clothes and to sort out a place to stay with her aunt. I am then ushered into an office, an anti human trafficking police officer is sitting at a computer, he is playing solitaire in a window that is small enough to reveal a desktop featuring a naked western girl – perhaps she has been trafficked. I am asked to sit at a dirty wooden table, joining two police officers, and a man in a white shirt, who, in broken English, introduces himself as a a local school teacher. He tells me that I have been arrested for purchasing prostitution from a minor, he says that he can help me, but I must pay him $100 to start.

I am in a state of total shock, perhaps panic but my normal instincts regarding good judgement, process and problem solving seem to have gone missing. I have no idea who this man is, he may be a motodop, a police officer or a NGO worker; but, at the time, none of this crosses my spinning mind, he is the first guy to speak to me in English – I pay $100 and I ask if I should call a lawyer. He informs me that I am not allowed to call a lawyer, at least not for the first day, but my newly appointed, school teacher and translator, just happens to know a lawyer who may be able to help.

March 22nd – house search My girlfriend arrives with breakfast, which not only did she have to buy, but she had to pay $5 to the police, to allow me to have. She tells me that she will come along with me when the police search our home.

After breakfast, we are bundled into a police truck and we head out as part of a convoy of around 20 officers, sirens wailing as if we are heading for some major international incident. Our noisy convoy attracts a large crowd to our small street, the Chief of Police is dressed in his best and pulls on a pair of surgical gloves as he unlocks our front door. Once again, the video cameras roll as some kind of misguided attempt to document something, but not police efficiency, or competency. The chief starts in the master bedroom, he heads straight for the bed, stripping the sheets wearing his latex gloves. Another officer is searching a chest of drawers and with a sense of victory, pulls out a condom. There is a gasp, cameras flash and 20 officers push forward to catch a glimpse of the offending rubberwear. Silence. “That’s ours”, my girlfriend informs him, “and it is still in the packet”, I add. Crestfallen, the officer returns the condom.

The crowd blunders down the hall into the second bedroom, where my girlfriends sister had stayed. The Chief repeats his strange bed stripping routine, but again, doesn’t seem find whatever he is looking for. Then trouble. We reach the living room, where the police are trying to figure out how a new flat screen TV can be taken into evidence. In the kitchen, officers help themselves to my cold Anchor as the Chief of Police discusses with my landlady how much money, she needs to pay, in order to avoid the house being sealed as a potential “crime scene”. After some negotiation, I watch my landlady hand over $400 in cash. The house search nets a significant haul, a laptop computer, an old playstation and a karaoke CD (there may actually be a positive here).  We return to the police station, where I am to be confronted with the allegations against me.

It is now24 hours since my arrest, however,  I am still not allowed to speak to a lawyer, but my school teacher translator, assures me that I will be released soon. I learn that two book girls from the riverside area, who are in the custody of an NGO , have made allegations against me. The first girl claimed that she met a man named John in 2005, he paid $50 to $100 for sex, she was alone and there were no witnesses. The second girl stated that she also met John, who, on the same day, paid her $50, before paying $100 to the first girl for sex. She added that a third girl was a witness. The third girl stated that nothing happened. These are very serious allegations, but clearly there has been some kind of mistake, my name isn’t John, I first came to Cambodia in 2006 and clearly, not only did I not commit these conflicting crimes; I couldn’t have.

After making a brief statement to this effect, I return to the holding cell, where my girlfriend is waiting with some lunch. We are joined by an Attorney at Law, he is slick and quickly informs me that he is an expert in this area. He adds that he knows these girls, they have done this before and if I hire him, it will all be resolved quickly. I agree to sign his power of attorney and he quickly moves on to the subject of his fee of $2,000. As he is leaving, my lawyer informs me that I will be going to court in the morning, but this is just a formality.

March 23rd- First Court, Phnom Penh It’s 8:00am, I am loaded onto the back of a police pickup truck, the type with a wooden bench on the back. There are four empty seats in the cab, but it seems the police want me to sit outside. I am cuffed to the metal roof bar and we drive off, sirens wailing, through the stationary early morning traffic. We arrive at the Municipal Court, for my first meeting, with the prosecutor. My lawyer is waiting, he is wearing a black robe, which makes him look like a crow, rather than a wizard. The court building is much the same as any public authority building in Phnom Penh, dirty, hot and disorganised – we wait.

After what seems like hours, I am lead into the prosecutor’s office. My lawyer informs me that he is due in a hearing, but he tell me that I can trust the prosecutor, who is now trying on my Omega watch, which somehow became “evidence”. With my lawyer absent and my teacher translator missing, we manage to cover the basics, being that I am not John and I was never in Cambodia in 2005. Next I have a meeting with the Investigating Judge, this takes place at a small school desk, in a busy corridor. The boy who takes my statement has barely left school himself, he has bad acne and rotten teeth; as a result, he hides his face behind a manila file and bounces his knee nervously as he asks questions. My lawyer is returns in body but he is on his phone, another guy joins us at the small desk, he is clearly very, very drunk. He struggles to read as the young investigating judge hides his face. After a few minutes, a police officer arrives, handcuffs the drunk man, and escorts him down the corridor.

After I answer the same questions several times, another man dressed in a black crows costume comes out of a nearby office and picks up the young investigators notes, my lawyer hangs up the phone. This is the Investigating Judge and I have just been interviewed by some kind of student intern. The Investigating Judge signs the boys work and without saying a word, leaves. My lawyer, informs me that I will be sent to Prey Sar prison, just a formality – no more than a few days.

I am returned to the MOI police station, this time, inside the cab of the pickup truck after my girlfriend paid the requested $20 to the police. The deputy chief speaks to me regarding my motorbike, which even though it was manufactured two years after the alleged crime, will be taken by the court as evidence …unless. If I were to pay the chief $200, he would allow me to sell the bike, else the bike might disappear at the court, or it might be stripped of parts. I am left with no choice, so reluctantly, I agree to the deputies plan, we complete the sale documents, which allows a local bike dealer to take the bike. I pay $200 to the deputy chief, who carefully changes the date of sale, to the day before my arrest – the perfect crime.

My girlfriend is upset, she has been to the house, but the landlady has changed the locks. My girlfriend and her younger sister, having been protected by the Anti Human Trafficking police -are now homeless. Tomorrow, I will be sent to Prey Sar.

To be continued.

Phnom Penh Pub Page – May 2014

It has been another quiet month for the Pub Page – the New Year’s holiday puts a bit of a damper on my pub crawling activities – especially given how many hostesses head back to the provinces. I was actually surprised this year that a few of the hostess bars stays opened – particularly given how many businesses and restaurants were closed, but there were at least a few hard working, although bored, souls trying in vain to keep customers spirits up over the New Year break.

Being a long time comic geek – of course I had to go to Spiderman bar on 136 st once I saw the sign –I was somewhat concerned about supporting an institution that makes such cavalier use of other’s intellectual property but I was assured that Marvel – which is owned by Disney (which is well known for its hostesses) – has given authorization for the use of its intellectual property in this commercial venture – after all what better advertisement is there for the global release of Spider Man 2 (although if the villain had been Dr. Octopus it would have worked better with the multiple staff massage shtick at the bar…). The bar itself is the latest to take over from Casa Lika restaurant – you may remember I reviewed Skippy a while back and was not that thrilled. Spiderman is an improvement (lots of points for the name) with a relaxed atmosphere, reasonable music volume and friendly staff who were careful not to cross over to being annoying. There is a pool table and the bar area feels spacious. It was not quite my cup of tea but my friend seemed to enjoy and I will definitely be back – but I am looking forward to seeing some of my dearer characters get better treatment – thoughts of She-Hulk/Scarlett Witch bar are making me droll.

M & Me bar on st 130 was more fun than I expected. It has been around for quite a while, but I never seen to get over to that section of the street – normally Fire bar has exhausted both me and my wallet (and yet I can’t stop myself going back there) but on fear of being put down or having my head cracked open by the Hunchback, I dragged myself across the street with a few dollars in my wallet (twice) so I could get a review done. I was pleasantly surprised. But this really seemed like the kind of bar where your mileage may vary. It was very laid back, comfortable, felt spacious and had a very friendly vibe. For many, I suspect the .75c draft would be a huge draw – that may be the lowest draft price I have seen in a hostess bar. I saw a few guys having a grand time in there but they left shortly after I arrived (guess watching an investigative journalist at work was too much for them), but for the most part, on the two times I went, it was pretty dead customer wise. My two cents – come for a quiet relaxing time (and cheap beer) or bring your own party.

The pub page hit a few room tops along the river this month. We have already hit FCC so we started this month a block up the street at Le Moon which is the rooftop bar of the Amanjaya Hotel. I had never been up there before and had expected to enter from Kwest but it turned out that you enter through the hotel lobby. Given its location at the north corner of the death intersection in front of Wat Ounalom it is no surprise that this bar has an amazing North/East view over the city and river – it is a large terrace with small tables set up along the edge to enjoy the view and comfortable couches set up in the middle area. Service was friendly and finger foods were on the menu at reasonable prices. Prices were in the high reasonable category – Tiger mugs were $2.5 with a lot of the beers about 5,000 riel dearer and most cocktails at $4.5 – be warned VAT was added to the bill. Overall a really nice place to relax and enjoy the view. It is open from 5pm – 1 am. No evidence of a happy hour – which was a surprise given the excellent one downstairs.

We next crawled up to the Quay. Nice if narrower view (the walls on three sides basically restrict you to a river view – which I still think is pretty sweet) despite being a bit higher than Le Moon. Great happy hour – from 5:30 – 7 it is 50% off almost everything – I was told coffee, water and bottled beers were excepted. Actually I want to praise the staff who thought to inform us that our bottled beers were not happy – much better to find out while we were ordering (so we could change to cheaper drinks) than to find out when you are paying your bill). Without the happy hours drinks were a bit pricy – draft was a very reasonable $1.5 but a lot of the cocktails seemed to be in the $6-8 range and the imported beers were about $6. A full menu was available and while I have not eaten there lately, I have done so a few times before and the food was always excellent.

Last up before we ran out of steam and went to Sharky (which was reasonably busy with a bunch of people enjoying a pool tournament on a Weds night) was Frangiapania which is the rooftop bar of the Bougainvillier Restaurant/Hotel. It was a very nice rooftop – good view – very relaxing – and I was surprised as the evening went on to see it get a few more tables of customers (we were about it when we arrived during their happy hour) because you have to walk up five floors to get to it – yup no elevator, The walk down was much easier than the walk up but I would not want to try it if I was too polluted. It is worth the walk though – happy hour was 5 to 7 and it was 2 for 1 on draft beer, wine and cocktails. Draft was a very reasonably $1.5 for Angkor and $2 for tiger and cocktails for $4-5.5 – so you can really make the climb worth your while. A full menu was available for dining and the bits I saw brought to other table looked good.