Into the Cardamoms

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Chi Phat

Flag of Cambodia  , Kaôh Kŏng,
Thursday, January 6, 2011

We have come to Chi Phat, a little village in the southern Cardamom Mountains region, part of the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor. The Cardamoms are a 20,000 sq km area of wilderness, comprising of pristine forest and rivers and home to around 60 endangered species including tigers, Asian elephants, pangolins, Siamese crocodiles, tortoises and freshwater turtles. One of the largest remaining areas of virgin rainforest in SE Asia and containing high levels of biodiversity, the Cardamoms are a region of great conservation importance. Fortunately there are a number of NGOs working to protect these forests from loggers and poachers. There are also a few community based ecotourism schemes that have been set up to generate an alternative and sustainable income for local people thereby discouraging them from logging and poaching and instead encouraging them to value and protect their forests. We spent a few days in Chi Phat, where such a scheme has been set up with the help of an organisation called Wildlife Alliance.

After arriving at the village we walked to the ecotourism office where we arranged our trek for the next day and were allocated to a guesthouse on the edge of the village. The guesthouse was fairly basic with an Asian style shower (scoops of water thrown over the head) but it was spotlessly clean and we had a comfortable bed with mozzie net. The owner was also very friendly and kept plying us with a strange but delicious fruit from one of the trees in her garden. After lunch we took a walk down to the river where we found a nice sunny spot to spend the afternoon swimming and sunbathing. Late in the day as we were about to leave, we discovered that our swimming place was also the local water buffalo bathing spot as a farmer brought down two of his buffaloes to the water for a soak. Watching them in the water, with a look of absolute bliss on their faces we now know that they are called water buffalo for a good reason!

The next morning we rose early and reached the ecotourism office by 5.50am where we met our guide, the forever smiling Leeheng, along with two other trekkers, Dan from England and George from Australia. We walked to the river where we boarded a small boat for our sunrise birdwatching trip. The Stung Proat river is lined with trees and the greens and blues looked particularly beautiful in the glow of the early morning light. We saw many kingfishers, one of which was the same as the one we get at home, and the other was a royal blue colour. We also saw herons and numerous smaller birds. After an hour or so we changed into an even smaller boat powered by oars rather than a noisy motor and continued on until we eventually reached our stopping point and the start of our trek.

It was blazing hot and we were glad when the path soon led into the relative cool of the forest interior. Along the path we saw numerous elephant footprints and dung and signs of wild pig and deer. We had to stop every few minutes to check our socks for leeches which are plentiful in these forests. A few times we found them just in time as they were crawling over our socks trying to find a way in.

We were expecting to have many hours of walking ahead of us so were surprised when we stopped after just one hour and were told that this would be our camping spot for the night. It was certainly a lovely place, a rocky river that was partially dried up with the remaining water contained in deep pools where we could swim. The guides and cooks spent the afternoon making camp (a row of hammocks under a plastic awning), fishing for small fish, catfish and prawns, and cooking, while we explored the river, swam and generally relaxed! At one point we heard a great whooshing sound and looked up to see a greater hornbill flying overhead.

The guides fishing attempts were very successful and we ate many tasty fish and prawns for dinner along with great mounds of rice and veggies. As it grew dark the mosquitoes became active and we were all glad of Tom's fire to keep them away. None of us were looking forward to spending the night in a hammock and all agreed that we were unlikely to get much sleep. Seeing a tarantula like spider scuttling along in the leaf litter under our hammocks didn't help! When the fire died down and there was no escape from the most voracious mosquitoes we have ever experienced, we reluctantly clambered into our hammocks and zipped up the mosquito cover. It felt hot and claustrophobic inside and soon our ears were filled with the high pitched whine of hundreds of mosquitoes gathered around us desperate to get inside. At first we thought we were safe from their attentions and would just have to cope with the constant high pitched noise but soon we realised we were getting bitten through the bottom of our hammocks and clothes! After several bites on my bum I manoevred the blanket in my hammock so that i was lying on it and avoided any further bites. Tom thinks he had mozzies inside the hammock with him as he continued to get bitten through the night! The mosquitoes combined with the general uncomfortableness of the hammock and the fact that both George and Dan snored loudly meant that neither of us slept more than an hour at the most. It was an experience that we will never forget and I am glad we did it but not one that either of us wishes to repeat!

The next morning we set off feeling very groggy. We walked through the forest accompanied by the haunting whoops of gibbons calling from the treetops. After a couple of hours we reached a grassy area with a small pond where we saw a couple of stork-like birds. According to the trek itinery which we read the day before in Chi Phat's ecotourism office, we were supposed to have spent the night here so that we could watch animals and birds at the pond at dusk and dawn. I'm sure there would have been less mosquitoes here too. I'm not sure why the guides decided that we camp by the river, so that they could catch fish perhaps? After crossing the grassy area we said goodbye to George and Dan who were doing a 3 day trek and going in a different direction to us. From here we took a path that lead back towards Chi Phat. We thought we had just a few more kilometres to go and were surprised when Leeheng told us it was another 20km! Another reason why it would have made much more sense for us to have camped at the grassy area and evened out the distances between the first and second days.

When we stopped for lunch I removed my boot to find my sock was soaked in blood! I took the sock off expecting to find a swollen leech but the leech had long since departed and left behind a bite mark which was bleeding profusely (they secrete an anticoagulant) despite cleaning and covering with a plaster.

Continuing on after lunch we both soon ran out of energy due to the lack of sleep and for the last few kilometres we crawled slowly back to Chi Phat, crossing an open area where thousands of trees have been planted to help with reforestation. Needless to say we slept like babies that night! All in all we thought the trek was brilliant and felt priviledged to be able to visit such a beautiful area, so rich with life. It's good to know that by being there and supporting their ecotourism scheme, we are helping in a small but important way to protect the area.

From here we travel on to Koh Kong, near the Thai border, from where we take a bus to Bangkok. We have to get to Bangkok as quickly as possible to get our Indian visas sorted. It's a real shame that we have to leave so soon. This is a really special part of Cambodia, an untouched wilderness that we could spend weeks exploring. Another place that we will have to come back to!

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