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Saving the Cardamom Mountains

March 21, 2012

Our Guesthouse

“When the Khmer Rouge were defeated,” our guide told us, “all the villagers came here to celebrate.”

We were sitting on the huge rocks crowning Phnom Trangol (Bald Mountain), gazing out at the 360 degree vista of the Southern Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia, feeling the day come to a close.

The Cardamoms are a treasure that was almost lost. One of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, the mountains were covered by a vast area of rain forest, home to many threatened species such as tiger, pangolin, langur and long tailed macaque. It contained one of the last seven elephant corridors of Asia. But during the 1990s the forest in the Southern Cardamoms was being cleared and the wildlife hunted for the meat, medicine and pet trade. Assailed by both corrupt officials and desperately poor villagers, the ecosystem was being destroyed.

The Wildlife Alliance worked with the Cambodian government to reduce the wildlife trade and habitat destruction. Teams of rangers were set up to enforce the law, but the Alliance knew that villagers needed alternative ways to earn a living, and worked with local communities to create agricultural and tourism enterprises. The village of Chi Phat became the centre of CBET, a community-based ecotourism project.

The boatmen depart, leaving us to begin our jungle trek.

We travelled to Chi Phat by bus, moto (riding pillion on motorbikes) and river ferry. At the CBET office, the friendly, efficient secretary greeted us, organised a guesthouse and arranged a two day jungle trek. Villagers welcome guests into their houses, either in the form of homestays (one room and the option of eating with the family) or guesthouses (two or more rooms). There is also an ecolodge on an island in the river.

Early the next morning we were taken by motorboat and traditional row boat up the Stoeng Prat (Leather Cord River) into the heart of the jungle. There were four trekkers plus a guide and a forest cook. The main wildlife was leeches, and it was exhausting walking in the heat, but we loved being in the forest. We lunched by an idyllic stream, and by late afternoon reached our campsite beside another beautiful creek. We slept long and well in hammocks slung up in a bamboo shelter.

We woke early and made our way through the pitch dark jungle to a wildlife hide beside a clearing and water hole. Gradually the forest and the birds awoke. A Great Hornbill flexed and extended his neck, producing a deep gruff bark. The beats of this big bird’s wings sound like a steam train.

The best swimming pool near Chi Phat

There are many other activities at Chi Phat. We rode by moto to a waterfall with a gorgeous swimming hole. We hired mountain bikes to peddle up Bald Mountain. And we enjoyed just walking around the village, being greeted by the friendly locals. Chi Phat has a good vibe and we would have liked to stay longer. I imagine it was very different in the logging and poaching days.

Villagers are earning money working as guides and providing transport, food and accommodation. The secretary is very strict about allocating the work equally so that all receive a fair share. We liked our trek guides, and asked if we could use them again, but the secretary said no, it was someone else’s turn. Part of the income from travellers is reserved for a community development fund. The quality of village life is growing, while the forest and wildlife have been given a second chance.

What would it have been like without the Wildlife Alliance and the participation of the village community in this creative project?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Beverley permalink
    March 21, 2012 8:22 pm

    Thanks for the lovely peep into that corner of the world, Bryce.


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