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.
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.
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.
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).
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.