Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains were once a stronghold for Khmer Rouge fighters. Now they're welcoming trekkers in search of trails and wildlife-rich rainforest
"Seventeen years ago, this was a battlefield. I never thought tourists would come here...”
Kan’s solemn words trailed off, leaving images of war and gunfire etched onto the lush hillsides before me. We were sitting on a rocky headland, overlooking flat emerald fields that rose to form gentle peaks in the distance.
Peace has now come to south-west Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, but the journey has been long and bloody. After the collapse of socialist dictator Pol Pot’s brutal 1970s regime, his followers, the Khmer Rouge, took refuge in these hills. For over a decade they fought bloody skirmishes: many locals were killed, villages destroyed.
The last bullet was fired in 1994, but the mountains remained home to pockets of defeated soldiers for another two years, a period that brought rampant logging and poaching. Remarkably though, the Cardamoms have remained a home to many rare animals. Siamese crocodiles lurk in the rivers; elephants and leopards roam the tropical broadleaf forests. Sightings may be rare, but the biodiversity is uplifting.
So while the crowds continue to flock to Angkor Wat to the north, tourism is just arriving in this quiet corner of Cambodia. It’s early days, but hopes are high that the Cardamoms could become South-East Asia’s next big trekking destination. I had come to see the potential for myself.
After a three-hour drive from the capital, Phnom Penh, and a two-hour jaunt along the Preak Piphot River, I hopped off a motorised fishing boat at the village of Chi Phat. This little community of 500 families is the gateway to the southern Cardamoms, and a real conservation success story. Here, the US-based organisation Wildlife Alliance has been working with locals on a range of eco-tourism projects. Some two million trees have been replanted, and walking trails in previously landmined areas have been carved across the slopes, including Cambodia’s highest peak, Phnom Aural (1,813m). Former soldiers, poachers and loggers are busy mastering English and training as guides and cooks, while many others have opened their homes to tourists, with profits ploughed back into the village.
My own hostess for the night, Ming Tha, welcomed me warmly. Her basic but cosy home was, like every other in the village, raised high off the ground on sturdy wooden stilts. She showed me into her second bedroom, mine for the night ahead of a two-day trek deep into the mountains.
From Chi Phat, a network of trails criss-cross the forests and flatlands to reveal sites of significant interest. Our 36km circular route promised a glimpse of rural village life and the region’s ancient heritage.
The darkness was still deep as we set off early the next morning. Yawning women in floral pyjamas attended sizzling woks as our small band of walkers, laden with bulging backpacks, passed through the town. Our starting point was 17km downstream, so we embarked on a river journey. Remote villages appeared fleetingly from beyond the swirling grey river mist. A lone fisherman smiled broadly, net in hand, cigarette dangling from his mouth.
We soon alighted at a small clearing in the mangroves – time to proceed under our own steam. It was barely 9am yet the sun was already flexing its muscles. Thankfully, the pace was slow, the terrain gentle.
Joined by our cook, Mr Crab, and Lok, another guide, Kan led the way. “My life in the army taught me how to be a tour guide,” he said, as we moved through mahogany trees and evergreens. “I learned how to be quiet in the forest to find animals.”
Above us was a giant beehive. The call of a gibbon drifted from afar. Evidence of the rich and varied wildlife was everywhere. Our narrowing path became peppered with mini craters in which rainwater had settled: the tracks of passing elephants. The Cardamoms – named after the aromatic spice found in abundance here – form part of one of the country’s last remaining elephant corridors. Herds cross these rivers, valleys and swamps as they migrate towards the coast.
Lunch – a feast of fried beef and spinach with a duck-egg omelette – was enjoyed in a dried-out and shady riverbed. There was just time for a quick paddle in the stream nearby, then it was straight on to camp.
There was no need for tents at Antong Prang, our base for the night. Instead we slept under the high ceiling of an open-sided bamboo hut, which took volunteers two years to construct – another testament to the change in local attitudes. Mr Crab busied himself peeling vegetables and boiling rice while Kan was on turndown duty: hanging nifty hammocks with built-in mosquito nets from the rafters.
Huddled around candles placed on the thatched flooring – the health-and-safety brigade are yet to reach these parts – we ate in appreciative silence. Before bed, Kan opened up about his former life. “I fought the Khmer Rogue for 20 years. I started when I was 17 years old.”
I wondered if he had been afraid, whether he ever thought he would become just another nameless casualty of war.“Sometimes,” he replied. “But I had no choice. To protect my village, I had to fight.”
Rocking back and forth in my hammock, I pondered Kan’s words and slowly dozed off to the sounds of the jungle: mysterious scratching, strange high-pitched barking from some unknown animal – and snoring from the next hammock.
We were woken gently at dawn. There was no time for a lie-in, a leisurely breakfast or even a coffee. No, Kan had other ideas. There was something he wanted us to see.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I set off, power-walking over tracks of withered leaves and hopping over giant fallen trees covered in saucer-sized mushrooms. Kan vanished ahead through giant ferns, which swung like natural saloon doors.
We came to a stop at another thatched structure but this one was low, long and narrow, and not nearly as imposing as the camp. This wildlife hide was built overlooking Veal Ta Prak, an area of vast flatlands bordered by forests. Eager for a glimpse of its denizens we sat – and waited.
Tick followed tock followed tick. Kan scanned the vista for any tell-tale signs of lurking animals. The only movement came from the long blades of grass swaying in the breeze. Then, the bushes rustled. “Wild pig,” Kan whispered.
I held my breath and peered forwards, eyes wide, as the sound grew louder with every passing second. The sight was an unexpected one. It wasn’t a pig, wild or otherwise. It was the rest of our group bounding out from the foliage.
Even with the disappointing lack of wildlife, quietly savouring this beautiful spot was the perfect way to begin the day. After packing up, we set off on the 22km walk back to Chi Phat. But within minutes we came to an abrupt stop. Kan was baffled by the set of tracks before us.
“A kouprey!” exclaimed Mr Crab, referring to a extremely rare ox, not spotted for years and possibly extinct.
Lok disagreed: “It’s clearly a panther.”
Kan crouched down and examined the mysterious prints embedded in the sandy trail – he had come to his own conclusion.
“No, a tiger. It was here last night,” he said with authority.
A debate in Khmer ensued between the three of them, each arguing their case.
The matter raged on as we ventured deeper into the forest. We snacked on bitter puja berries and passed tarantula holes covered with webs that looked like delicate white veils. Soon, the jungle started to thin and the blazing sunlight bore down on us once again as we neared the village of O’Kay (population 200).
A swamp lay between us and the small community. The good news was that there was a bridge. The bad news? It consisted of two-dozen loosely laid, ramshackle logs.
Heart pounding, I slowly negotiated the bridge and its gaping gaps. The planks wobbled wildly, but I made it across.
As we entered O’Kay, a motorbike roared towards us, and out of nowhere, a lady in mismatched pyjamas rushed out to block its way. She held out her hand and the biker deposited 50 cents – the toll to drive across that rickety bridge. Rather him than me.
Bags unshouldered, I sat on the shady porch of a farmer’s house and admired the subtle slopes rising gradually across the horizon. The Cardamoms may lack dramatic peaks, but the beauty here is a softer one.
And there’s historical intrigue hereabouts, too. During the medieval Khmer Empire, human remains were placed in ceramic jars and left in sacred locations across the peaks.
The first discovery – burial jars, glass beads and two finger rings dating back to 1437 – was made seven years ago. And as luck would have it, another such site was unearthed close to O’Kay.
Through fields of chest-high grass and bamboo shoots, Kan cleared a path with his machete. A small clearing emerged from behind giant ferns with nothing in it but
a handmade wooden ladder resting idly against a tall sandstone cliff. Up we climbed, until we were perched on a narrow ledge three metres above the ground.
“No foreigner has ever been here,” stated Lok as I inched along sideways, clinging to the coarse rock face and trying not to look down. In a shallow opening sat four clay jars: chipped, dusty, untouched for centuries.
The final path back to Chi Phat took us via O’Malu waterfall. Here, a mountain stream plunges into a large natural pool encircled by trees. Assured there wouldn’t be any Siamese crocodiles lurking within, I slid into the tepid embrace of the dark teal water and swam through invigorating hot and cold currents. I scrambled up the jet-black rocks and found a spot where the water pounded around me. There I sat for several minutes, admiring the emerald peaks, and the relics hidden inside.
I’d had a glimpse of the Cardamoms, but many questions lingered. I still had no idea which animal those tracks belonged to, and I wasn’t sure the guides knew either. There is still a sense of innocence here, of people finding their way. For now, the Cardamoms retain a heady scent of mystery.
The Cardamom Mountains are home to hundreds of species – but how many will you see? While the roster is long and varied, many are critically endangered and odds of a sighting are low.
The headline act is the Asian elephant. While reports of their numbers vary, a study by Fauna & Flora International found that 25-40% of Cambodia’s total population live in these mountains. Numbers are estimated at 150, with two-thirds concentrated around Chi Phat and Kamlot.
Some 450 species of birds, including the yellow-bellied warbler, swoop over the Cardamoms’ forest canopy. Siamese crocodile are found in the rivers, but hunting and loss of habitat has seen the population fall to only 250 worldwide.
You stand a better chance of seeing a pileated gibbon. Numbers are estimated at 20,000 in the Cardamoms; experts believe that the area could ensure the species’ long-term survival.
Leopard and tiger also prowl these parts. Kouprey, a type of wild oxen, are among the rarest and most elusive species in the Cardamoms.
The author travelled with Mountain Kingdoms on its 16-day Cardamom Mountains Trek