Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains region is one of the country's last true wilderness, and a new eco-camp is ensuring we'll still be able to see it for years to come...
Like a modern-day Noah’s Ark, the animals were delivered to a promised land free from the evils of man. The boatman tethered our craft to a muddy bank on the Preak Tachan River. The rangers and Cambodian Ministry of Environment officials hauled a menagerie of rescued wildlife ashore: eight caged macaques and rice sacks wriggling with pythons, monitor lizards and tiny tortoises ensconced within their carapaces.
Beyond the forest edge lay a natural grassland clearing called a veal. The macaque cages were heavy, and the rangers sweated as the monkeys within fretted wild-eyed at what might happen next. These animals had been rescued from human captivity and assessed for release at a government facility called Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, near Phnom Penh.
“They’re the lucky ones,” said a khaki-uniformed official. “They had been trafficked to become Chinese and Vietnamese ‘special food’.” He gestured to the head of a macaque. “Monkey brains,” he qualified.
We dispersed the animals to the four corners of the veal. Knotted pythons crawled from the sacks, uncoiling to reveal underbellies of golden rings. I stroked the silky back of the largest one as it rustled across the crispy fallen leaves. It turned and dared me to do it again. The monitors sprinted like a jailbreak escape and I placed the tiny tortoises under a tree, imagining they’d still be there by morning.
Finally, the macaques were released simultaneously and we stood back. The young females scrambled to the highest boughs to savour their freedom, as a heavyset male delivered a withering glare at his rescuers. I hoped they would never endure human cruelty again.
The release happened on the second of my four days inside the 1,712.5 sq km Botum Sakor National Park in south-western Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, an hour’s drive from the Thai border. The park is part of a network of protected areas spanning rainforests, cloudforests, grasslands, swamplands and mangroves. It’s a biodiversity hotspot, home to threatened species such as clouded leopards and the country’s few surviving wild elephants.
I wasn’t just surrounded by wild hilly forests and olive-green rivers, though. Visible, too, were signs of the capricious exploitation of one of Cambodia’s last wildernesses. But this was why I was here: to see how a few dedicated people and a new eco-camp are offering not only fresh hope to a remote area that has for so long been at the mercy of humans, but a chance for travellers to see it for themselves.
From the moment I set off for Cardamom Tented Camp I became part of the battle to save it. ‘Your Stay Keeps the Forest Standing’, cries their motto. In context, Cambodia has lost over 17,500 sq km of forest since 2000 as government and local corruption facilitated its exploitation, even within so-called ‘protected landscapes’ where concessions are granted to loggers and commercial ventures. Within Botum Sakor, the Cambodian government set aside 180 sq km of the JW Concession for tourism. But it’s not the only concession inside the park. JW lies between a Chinese block to the north that is being cleared for commercial use, while to the south a Thai businessman is developing rubber. On the park’s fringes, along the Gulf of Thailand, a new luxury Chinese resort also includes a casino and airport.
Cambodia’s wildlife is similarly besieged. If the possession of wild tigers – officially declared lost to Cambodia in 2016 – and the use of bear body parts in ghoulish remedies are historic problems, pangolins, which are also prized in Chinese medicine, are now firmly in the crosshairs of local poachers. It’s just one of many problems Cardamom Tented Camp hoped to address when it opened in November 2017 inside JW Concession.
“We were told by the government to do something for tourism or risk losing the concession, so the camp was built,” said wildlife crusader Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO and founder of the NGO Wildlife Alliance. I called by their headquarters upon arriving in Phnom Penh; they can arrange tours to the Phnom Tamao Rescue Centre, which wouldn’t exist without their expertise and funding, but then again, neither would much of the Cardamom Mountains’ wildlife that they have worked tirelessly to protect.
Suwanna recalled a time in the late 1990s when her organisation, which was already operating in Burma, was desperate to get into the Cardamoms after decades of war there: “It was being heavily logged and the wildlife situation was terrible. As soon as it was safe to enter, we persuaded the government to work with us on enforcing animal protection,” she explained. “Animals were being sold openly on the streets of Phnom Penh by poachers and traffickers.” She established a Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team in 2000 to enforce statutory law, and has since created a network of stations across hills patrolled by 114 rangers. “In the first five months we rescued 4,000 animals,” she told me. “We estimate now to have saved 65,000 animals and confiscated 30 tonnes of bushmeat.”
I set off the following morning for the camp, leaving behind Phnom Penh’s chaotic traffic. The four-hour road trip to Trapeang Rung village in Koh Kong Province initially crosses an unattractive landscape along an industrialised freeway that was littered with rubbish and Chinese factories. “They pay bad wages,” complained my taxi driver in broken English. “People stay poor.”
Closer to the Cardamoms, the journey brightened amid the increasing green of the forest. Out of my window I saw flourishing vines of peppercorns, buffalo in lotus ponds and wooden dwellings built high on stilts. Then the road split at a junction to the Thai border and Sihanoukville’s beach resorts. I was getting close.
At Trapeang Rung, camp manager and wildlife photographer Allan Michaud was waiting for me. He had been living in Cambodia for 17 years and his Francophone surname belied his Orpington origins. “I’m a serious tree hugger,” he proudly announced.
Guests access Cardamom Tented Camp via a 40-minute river journey, and we were soon careering around a looping meander by fast boat to join the Preak Tachan River. The shallow murky-brown flow prompted Allan to apologise: “It’s usually crystal clear but they have been clearing hillsides to the south, so the water is silty. The government is flogging off concessions to everybody and we’re sandwiched in between,” he said with all the venom of the cobras found throughout these forests.
But all seemed well here. We sped past densely forested riverbanks of spiky rattan palms and melaleuca trees with blotchy, peeling bark. “There’s been logging but the concession is well protected by the rangers. I’ve spent a lot of time in Cambodian forests and it had been a long while since I hadn’t heard chainsaws revving 24/7,” narrated Allan. As we sped through the water, I was eager to see just what had been created here.
A small jetty poking into the river marked where the camp lay secreted behind a veil of riverbank foliage. I clambered on land to find stone steps leading to an open-sided wooden restaurant-bar, from where boardwalks spread outwards to nine white safari-style canvas tents on wooden platforms. These were arranged around the forest edge, bordering knee-high grassland, and I felt as if I were in the African savannah. My tent housed a large, comfortable bed and came with an attached outdoors shower that had solar-heated hot water on demand. As my resident tokay (a spotted gecko) dined on light-dazzled moths, I stood on my veranda and imagined elephants moseying out of the forest to browse the grasslands.
Besides total solar power, the eco-credentials of the camp were impeccable: the boardwalk was fashioned from a local fast-growing wood, guests received refillable water flasks to avoid plastic, grey water was reused and sewerage was purified by soak-a-way ground filtering. The camp even sourced its own local produce, including plump prawns the size of langoustines. “If the camp packed up tomorrow, you’d never know it had been here,” noted Allan.
Utilising the genes of an ancestor who was a French chocolatier, Allan had even taught his local female chef to make desserts like gooey chocolate lava cake, which she made with aplomb one night to follow some more traditional Khmer amok (steamed-fish curry).
I spent little time in my tent, however, and was soon venturing onto the river and into the steamy rainforest as often as possible. The default activity was to visit Preak Tachan Ranger Station, which lay several kilometres upriver. To get there, we took our kayaks out onto the languid water. The route was an adventurous one, as we explored choked tributaries never paddled before. One unnamed channel constricted to just several metres wide, and we were in and out of our kayaks, hauling them over rocks and limboing under spiky fallen logs, as we made our way slowly upriver, while resident blue butterflies – swarms of them – fed on our gathering perspiration.
The slow-drifting kayak to Preak Tachan Station was effortless and we soon arrived at the ranger’s blue hut, staffed by a team of six on duty and led by head ranger Chum Sokheng. Dressed in his camouflage fatigues, Sokheng explained how the battle was being won to protect JW’s wildlife. He showed me netting used to snare pangolins as well as confiscated homemade wooden rifles – primitive, almost like flintlocks – spiteful wire snares and seized chainsaws. Covering 180 sq km, his team has been remarkably successful in tackling the persistent human menace.
“In the first year we confiscated over 2,000 snares, and by 2017 it was 300,” said Sokheng.” There’s no logging now and we rarely see poachers,” he added, as if lamenting the thrill of the pursuit. “If poachers have killed larger animals, we take them straight to jail.”
Sokheng had seen elephants here just twice. The NGO Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), who part-fund the rangers, estimate that around 400 to 600 elephants remain across Cambodia, with just 200 in the Cardamoms. A wildlife corridor has been negotiated with the Thai rubber plantation to try to mitigate damage to elephant migration routes. I wondered how he felt about overseas companies being handed his country’s forests: “We don’t like it, but what can we do when the government gives it away?”
The rangers maintain forest trails that were once used by poachers and loggers but are now signposted for guests. One trail wound back to camp through a squeeze of vine-snagged trees and spiky palms buckling under bromeliads and throttled by climbing figs. Golden orb spiders – huge ones, like small plates in diameter – spinned saffron-coloured webs and the birdcall was redolently sweet from unseen songsters amid the denseness.
“You won’t see a lot of wildlife, as much of it was slaughtered during the war, but it’s out there,” reminded Allan.
His assertion was backed by images from camera traps set up in the Cardamoms. Rare treasures have been recorded here, from near-mystical clouded leopards to endemic wild dogs that resemble foxes and are known as dhole. I was even shown claw marks on a tree trunk scratched by an Asiatic black bear.
After the wildlife releases, my next two days were spent kayaking and looking for suitable sites to build bird hides. Allan and I departed camp one morning at 4.30am to track elusive green peafowls, driven expertly up the river in the pitch dark by Mr Hit. The camp has a strong commitment to local employment.
“Mr Hit is one of the poorest members of the local community, and when I employed him, his face lit up,” remembered Allan.
The peafowls remained elusive but we encountered a large serpent eagle. “I once saw one try to take off with a two-metre snake in its talons, but it could scarcely get off the ground,” Allan continued.
On another jungle hike along the river’s opposite bank, we got close to some pileated gibbons uttering unnaturally high bubbling whoops that sounded like they were calling underwater. Mind you, I wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic about the leeches and decided at the end of the sweltering trail to swim – fully clothed – across the refreshing river and back to camp in an attempt to drown them. Leeches, I discovered to my dismay, have a tenacious capacity for holding their breath.
With no compulsion to seek larger, showier mammals, I found intense satisfaction in the minutiae of this sparkling forest. We explored a trail around the camp by torchlight one night, to a throaty cacophony of barking sambar deer. Beetles glinted like metallic broaches, bracket fungus bore patterns like the rings of Saturn, a curious planthopper nymph resembled a magnified snowflake and pinprick eyes left me wondering what exactly was watching us.
I’ve stayed in many eco-camps and lodges over the years and sometimes felt that the wilderness they inhabit would have been better off had they not been built. Yet this small camp on the river encapsulated hope; a chance that the future for Cambodia’s wildlife and forests might be brighter than its past. For travellers going from Thailand to Sihanoukville, it is an essential stopover, and as we sped back to Trapeang Rung by riverboat, Allan’s words rang in my ears: “We simply have to succeed here.” For all our sakes, I hope they do.
Cambodia has high levels of biodiversity, particularly in its forest mammals. However, it has also lost key species over recent decades, including the Indochinese tiger, which was last seen in 2007, and the Cambodian wild ox, known as kouprey, last sighted in 1988. But the Cardamom Mountains is one of the last refuges for its rare Big Five…
These tree-climbers are the world’s smallest ursine. With their trademark black fur and distinctive markings, making it look as though they sport a gold necklace.
The dhole is a small wild dog with vulpine features that weighs less than 20kg. The WWF classifies them as rare in Cambodia, though their biggest threat is not from poachers but domestic dogs.
This elusive cat is relatively small and nocturnal. The IUCN considers the species to be vulnerable but it has been caught on camera traps in the Cardamom Mountains.
Around 400 to 600 Asian elephants remain across Cambodia, but they are now classed as an endangered species here. Typically, they are smaller than their African counterparts but still weigh in at a pretty hefty 5,000kg. Sightings are rare.
Traffickers are hammering this small, scaly anteater into extinction, driven by the profits to be made from Chinese medicine. It’s an ongoing tragedy that it is now considered rare in Cambodia.
The author stayed at Cardamom Tented Camp (+855 966 410783), which offers three-day packages and four-day trips including round-trip transfers, all meals and activities. The camp is a collaborative project between the Wildlife Alliance, who have provided ranger patrols for the past five years in the JW Concession; YAANA Ventures, who designed it and are responsible for its operations; the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), who part-fund the rangers; and a Thai-based hotelier, the Minor Group.
Tours of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre are offered by the Wildlife Alliance. They also run a ‘Be a ranger for a day’ programme to see life on patrol; prices given on request.
Vacation Boutique Hotel (Phnom Penh) epitomises good value, although it’s hardly boutique. Still, the large, modern rooms are located close to the riverfront.
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