July 2014: As part of a larger two-week trip that included an expedition into the world’s largest cave-Han Soon Dong/Vietnam and Thailand, I visited Cambodia on a weeklong trip for the 2nd time. I returned to Cambodia to see how the country had advanced since my first trip over a decade ago and I also wanted to visit the largest primary rainforest in Southeast Asia-Cardamom Mountains before it is decimated by illegal logging and poaching. The only problem, and it was a big problem was my timing was bad. I was visiting the Cardamom mountains at the peak of monsoon season and my plan was to go on overnight patrol with the park rangers in some of the worst torrential rains I had ever experiences in my life. This is the story of my trip to Cambodia and the Cardamom Mountains.

 

 

location of Cardamom Mountains

The Cardamom Mountains are the epitome of wild and are the last sanctuary for many of the most endangered animals left in Southeast Asia such as the tiger, elephant, gibbon and Siamese crocodile. In a region where most of the forests had been felled and wildlife poached, the Cardamom mountains had been preserved because of its mountainous geographical isolation and because of the Khmer Rouge, which used the remote mountains as their last stand until they were finally defeated in the mid 90s. A sad legacy of this war are the many landmine fields in the forest of the Cardamom Mountains that still continue to afflict harm on local villagers. The Cardamom Mountains are a protected area on paper but in reality, poaching and deforestation is a big problem but there are increased efforts to protect the forests and wildlife mostly by education, integration of eco-tourism and some enforcement action by park rangers to collect traps in the forest. I volunteered to go on the first known overnight patrol into the forest of the park with the rangers to help them collect traps. I arranged this via the foreign organization, Wildlife Alliance that assists in the operation of the park with the Cambodian government. I also paid for the salaries and food for rangers for the few days I was in the forest with them. This was an ecotourism idea that the park and myself hoped to promote. To get to the Cardamom Mountains, I first flew to Phnom Penh from Hanoi and spent a night exploring the city. Unlike bankgok that had modernized and gentrified so much over the decades, I was kind of happy to see that Phnom Penh was still the same wild west like capitol city it was when i first visited in 2000.

 

 

Phnom Penh Market

Phnom Penh still had the southeastern charm to it and it had yet to be overrun by modern skyscrapers. I walked the streets of the traditional markets, visited the raucous Gogo girl bars where I played a traditional Cambodian rock song that I had downloaded to my phone from the movie City of Ghosts, one of my favorite movies with a setting in Cambodia. The girls in the bar loved the song and danced on the bar tops to it. I visited the cheap eateries on the street and stayed in a budget hotel for about 40USD, I splurged. I also ate dinner at a North Korean restaurant hosted by let’s face it enslaved North Korean women who perform on stage songs like the Titanic song, “My Heart will go on” among other karaoke classics in order to send badly needed foreign currency back to the DPRK. Later I learned that the restaurant had a tough time holding on to employees because they kept defecting. Phnom Penh was largely still the same city I remembered. During this trip I decided I was going to visit someplace I didn’t during my first trip, one of the genocide sites of the Khmer Rouge. It wasn’t something i looked forward to but one of my main motivations for travel is to learn about the history of the countries I visit, good and bad. In this case evil.

Tower of skulls murdered by Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge was a communist movement that swept across the country in the 70sdividing Cambodia by class between the un=educated and educated classes. The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone of the previous government and vowed to return the country to its agrarian roots believing that all intellectual jobs and educated elites were exploiting the poor classes and needed to be exterminated. As a result, millions or half of Cambodia’s population was killed in the exterminations and war that followed before the Khmer Rouge were eventually overthrown by the Vietnamese. I hired a motorbike taxi and visited one of the genocide sites and prisons where the Khmer Rouge tortured and exterminated thousands of Cambodian civilians called the killing fields of Choeung Ek.

 

Killing tree where babies of parents that were exterminated were killed by being swung against the tree. The belief was that the babies would grow up to want to avenge their parents so they like ther parents were killed. 

After the killing fields my motorbike taxi driver took me to a shooting range where I could pay to shoot AK47’s and much more powerful weapons for a prize including an RPG. I kiddingly asked if i could shoot a cow and my driver and the shooting range guy didn’t flinch and said of course do you want me to go and buy one, we can have it delivered. I of course declined.

The next morning, I took a shared van jam packed with as many Cambodians as possible and with live chickens dangling from the tail gate. After a day of traveling in rain-soaked slippery roads and switching vans a few times and motor taxis, I arrived in the rural village Chi Phat, where the Cardamom HQ was located. To reach it, I had to take a motorbike taxi ferry across a rain swelled river.  I stayed in a guesthouse in a rustic guesthouse in the village.

The shared taxi I took to get to the village where the Cardamom HQ was located. 

The little rustic town of Chi Phat with its bamboo houses on stilts over the river and small bars was an interesting place to stay for a few days. The people were friendly and not accustomed to receiving foreigners. The Cardamom Mountains was not yet on the backpacker circuit but as much as I despise mass tourism the future of forests and wildlife of the cardamoms might depend on tourism.

I met with the national park HQ and a director for wildlife alliance and some of the 5 rangers that would be joining me on patrol. All of the rangers were ex-poachers from local villages. While i sat and had a coffee a wild rhesus macaque monkey dropped in from the forest and raided the kitchen earning him a swift broomstick beating from the kitchen worker. The monkey I was told was rescued when he was young in the forest, rehabilitated and has lost his fear of humans and now that he has been released into the forest, he still returns to the village for food raids.

The rangers did not speak English and to communicate with them I was provided a pamphlet with some key translations from Khmer into English. The translations were for emergency phrases that I may have to use such as help I have been bitten by a cobra or I am sick help me to return back to the village.  I was told we would patrol the forests that have not been flooded and that there would be a possibility we could encounter elephants. Our goal would be to look for poachers and immobilize poacher traps in the forest. We wouldn’t follow trails and we would sleep in hammocks in the forest. I knew the experience would be challenging because the rain was coming down in torrents and there was not going to be any let up for months. it was the heart of the monsoon season.

I went to sleep in a small guesthouse with a ceiling fan and a cold beer that I bought at the nearby bar. I noticed in the ceiling outside my room the presence of the largest gecko I have ever seen in life that was approx. a foot long. it was fighting with another monster gecko. They were both very colorful and when I tried to grab one it aggressively defended itself and bit my hand.

 

 

Huge gecko attacking my gloved hand

Monkey raiding the kitchen

Villagers

The next morning the rangers and I set off on foot into the jungle. We first had to cross a small river via a ferry operated by a father and his naked young son who was controlling the propeller. 

Naked boy powering our ferry

We started by hiking along a small trail where we encountered a couple of intoxicated villagers on a motorbike that were collecting honey from the forest. They were drinking homemade hooch that they shared with me and also had some sacs, but the rangers didn’t check the contents leaving me wondering if there was any real enforcement, especially since the rangers didn’t have guns and elephant poachers are always heavily armed.

Villagers collecting honey in the forest

We hiked deep into the forest walking through terrain with no trails. 

Rangers leading the way

Crossing a stream

Mer bushwacking through the jungle

We trudged through the jungle in the rain through thick vines and thrones. I constantly pulled leeches off of me but on the most part just surrendered to them and the wet. I was on the constant look out for snakes, but it was too miserable in the jungle even for them and I didn’t see any. There was also the possibility of washed away landmines or ordinances from the war that I was told happens on occasion. Stepping on a landmine here was not on my to do list. We crossed knee high streams and the rangers somehow managed to find small traps or snares set to catch small deer that they seized. At one point a lightning storm passed us striking several trees nearby and we had to take shelter but there was nowhere to shelter except for under a tree. Trees were shredded by lighting and the forest erupted in the resonating boom of the thunder. It was an awesome sight and even though I was miserable I was in my element.

Then in the evening the rangers stopped and sign languaged to me that we would camp here. I looked around and wondered where because we were surrounded by jungle. Then they went to work with their machetes and the jungle was cleared in ten minutes and our hammocks hung up on to the trees and a tarp placed over them-home sweet home for the night. They started a campfire, and we cooked rice and fish. My hammock was dry, and I slipped into dry clothes, my mosquito net and stared into their fire while listening to the rain and fell asleep to some pretty bizarre dreams that night.

Night camp

Me in my hammockk at Night camp

I patrolled the forest for one more day with the rangers before returning to the village. The rangers however weren’t finished and resumed their patrol for another week in the forest. I stayed one more night in Chi Phat Village and the next morning I hired a small motorboat to travel upriver into the Cardamom Mountains to spot wildlife. I spotted a group of gibbons and macaque monkeys, but I didn’t have my SLR with my good Lense to photograph them since it died in the cave in Vietnam.

Boat ride to look for gibbons

In the afternoon I continued on to Bangkok via motorbike taxi and public bus transport before catching a standby first-class ticket on United Airlines back home on my last flight in a Boeing 747.

 

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