From the Cardamom Mountains in the west to the Mondulkiri highlands in the east, Cambodia still has much to offer those wanting to slip on a pair of sturdy boots and trousers and enjoy the last vestiges of the country’s natural habitat.
“That’s a cracking spider!” thrilled Gerard Chartier as we peered at the black and gold monster strung out across a forest trail along the Tatai River in Koh Kong. And no matter your normal arachnophobia, you’ll find yourself nodding enthusiastically as Chartier’s passion for everything that creeps, crawls or just hangs about sinisterly in Cambodia’s forests infects you like a snake bite. Cambodia’s forests are where you’ll not only find out more about Cambodia, you may also discover a couple of interesting sides to yourself.
And for those willing to don sturdy boots and long trousers, there are dozens of trekking opportunities around the Kingdom. While most of the interior tends to consist of little but flatlands punctuated by the odd rocky pimple, mountains and the forests that have thus far escaped the logger’s saw fill out the edges of the country with more dynamic terrain. They are also home to some rare wildlife that have escaped poachers’ knives and traps.
Chartier has been wandering Koh Kong’s wilds for more than eight years, and never ceases to find plenty to amaze. “If I’m out walking, it’s in the hope of finding something new [to me],” he said. “It still happens amazingly often. Guiding customers through the forest, their surprise and joy, when they see something for the first time or hear explanations of this weird and wonderful nature here, gives me a great feeling.”
This is where you’re guaranteed to spot dozens of birds, perhaps a hornbill whose huge wings make the air throb, colourful bee eaters, or just a wild chicken scratching about and making you think you can hear a mysterious cat.
And then there is the possibility of spying any of a range of wildlife including giant black squirrels, civet cats, gibbons, macaques, banteng, snakes, deer and wild pigs. Wild elephants still roam the Cardamoms, though we have undoubtedly long since seen the last tiger there. There will be millions of butterflies milling around streams, and there will be spiders. Plenty of spiders.
Hostile forces abound. Massive land conversions, illegal logging, poaching, climate change and the encroachment of development all play their role in an environmental death by a thousand cuts that has devastating consequences for communities and wildlife. Protected status provides little defence.
However, initiatives like the one established by Wildlife Alliance at Chi Phat help to create a bulwark against the destruction by educating and empowering communities, while also providing alternative sources of income to replace those lost as unsustainable forms of survival are set aside.
Yulia Khouri, ambassador for Wildlife Alliance, said the aims of the project were to create a positive and environmentally sustainable business model for the community. “It’s built on the idea that the villagers who used to destroy the natural environment by overhunting and searching for timber are now employed as trekking guides, guest house staff, hotel staff, drivers, restaurant owners, et cetera,” she said.
Wandering through the forests of the Cardamom Mountains with someone like Chartier opens up vast new worlds where everything becomes a wonder.
This huge mountain range spans the southern reaches of Cambodia, from the border with Thailand across to the Damrei Mountains near Vietnam. They can be explored from a number of locations, especially Koh Kong to the southwest and Pailin to the west, both on the border with Thailand, and Chi Phat to the east.
Pailin is for real adventurers. Not just because the remote border town is furthest away from everywhere, but the stunning hills that mark the border with Thailand make for a challenging climb in places. Taking a guide from Memoria Palace and Resort ($40 for one day), you can explore lush green hills that evoke a tropical version of Switzerland, ponder the fragility of existence as you climb steep cascading waterfalls and find an unusual peace as you picnic by the cool river.
In Koh Kong, a number of tour operators have set up shop, but the Rainbow Lodge is irresistible, not just because of its location on the Tatai River, but because their resident geek (and guide for between $10 for a night trek to $10 per hour for a specialised trip), Gerard Chartier is a man on a mission to discover and share as much of the surrounding wilds as he can, and his passion is utterly compelling. Before you know it, you’ll be eyeing up giant arachnids with (almost) as much boyish glee as he does. A splash in the Tatai River makes for a beautiful relief from the steaming jungle trails.
Heading east to Chi Phat, you’ll discover a huge range of possibilities that take you into the Cardamoms for treks ranging from a half day to 10 days. Taking in hills and open savannahs, you’ll also find the Plain of Jars, where a long-ago civilisation left behind some unusual remains. Among all the genuine ecotourism projects in Cambodia, this is by far the most impressive and well-managed.
Siem Reap doesn’t offer much for those looking for 10 days of wild adventures (depending on how you define them), but you could take a walk on the wild side on Phnom Kulen and grab a chance to spot some silver langurs, whose small population here was only formally scientifically described two years ago.
There is a beautiful trail, carefully kept and cleared by the local community, who are being supported through this initiative to move away from illegal logging. The trail takes in dense forest, weaves through a series of huge boulders, meanders through bat caves, and brings you up on to an immense rock with glorious views across Siem Reap.
It also happens to be the favoured hangout for the aforementioned langurs. Indochinex Adventures provide tours that are luxuriously managed, but strive to ensure conservation goals are a part of the package (prices depend on the number of people).
Kampong Thom is home to a surprising project created by a family that has taken to the forests north of the Boeung Peae Wildlife Sanctuary (and Preah Khan Kampong Svay temple). Here, 5 kilometres away from the nearest village, Ben and Sharyn Davis created Betreed, carving out trails that climb the nearby hills, including long-abandoned temples, stringing up a couple of zip-line with spectacular views, and building a collection of treehouses where you truly sleep to the sounds of the jungle.
They have spotted a huge array of wildlife out there, capturing many on the camera traps they have also staked out. Their knowledge of the local area and its inhabitants is vast. Ben also takes part in patrols looking for loggers and poachers in an endless battle to protect what’s left of the forest’s valuable resources. For them, the treks are part of that dynamic too.
“To poachers, any moving animal is a good target, no matter how endangered it is,” explained Sharyn. “And so the wildlife is, rightfully, a little wary. Sometimes, we take people out and don’t see a thing. But often the animals are there, when we’re not too noisy. When we stop and take time to be silent, we often see the canopies slowly come alive.
“We need to have a greater number of trekkers traversing the forest to outnumber all the poachers and make sure that they know the area is being well patrolled.”
Rolling hills define Mondulkiri’s terrain, though the forests that once carpeted them are getting thinner on the ground.
There is still a lot to explore though, ably led by guides from the indigenous tribes who have lived off this land for millennia. It’s nowhere near as challenging as Pailin, but there’ll be plenty of sore bottoms after a day on the trails outside Sen Monorom.
A dozen tour operators have set up in the provincial capital offering trips through the forests, and taking in some lovely waterfalls along the way. It’s hard to define the bliss of snoozing alongside a waterfall, underneath a tree whose branches are bursting with butterflies, with a belly full of bamboo soup (a deliciously spicy Phnong specialty) but it’s definitely worth a try.
Further north, Ratanakkiri is home to the Virachey National Park, as well as the Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area, both accessed by the Sesan River, a stretch of water whose stunning approaches make a trip up here worthwhile in its own right.
Most tour operators in the provincial capital Banlung claim to bring trekkers into Virachey, but only the Forestry Administration actually has the right to do so (two-day trips start at $90, depending on the number of people).
Trekking through vast bamboo forests, as well as gently dispersed deciduous dipterocarp forest, you can overnight on an elevation that affords views across a seemingly endless land.
Heading west to Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area, you’ll find an interesting project that’s really about protecting a group of northern yellow-cheeked gibbons, whose presence was only formally described five years ago.
However, to get there, you’ll need to journey up the Sesan, hike to the rangers station, and get up long before dawn for another hike to the forest where the gibbons hang out – one of the most exciting adventures I’ve ever had in Cambodia.
Originally created by Conservation International in partnership with Gibbon Spotting Cambodia, this project aims to protect the forest from loggers, and poachers, and through protecting the forest also protecting the creatures that depend upon it.
If there’s one thing that trekking in Cambodia will teach you, it’s how interdependent everything here truly is.