Stretching across Cambodia’s southern flank, the Cardamom Mountains extend in a lush, green expanse from Koh Kong Province on the border with Thailand up to Pursat in Central Cambodian and across to the Damrei Mountains near the border with Vietnam. Cloaked in dense rainforests (that can see rainfall up to four times heavier than that seen in Siem Reap), the mountains are the home and refuge of a huge variety of plant, animal and insect life.
While most of the wildlife here has not yet been fully documented or described, it is thought that more than 450 bird species and 100 mammal species make their homes here. Yet even though the human population in the mountains is small, these animals face grave existential threats arising from poaching, illegal logging and land conversion. Of the mammal species that inhabit the forests, 62 are globally threatened, including pangolins, Malayan sun bears, gaur, clouded leopards, bantengs and pileated gibbons.
The mountains also contain the secrets of long ago human communities, including a number of 15th and 17th century sites containing ceramic jars and wooden coffins perched on remote, natural rock ledges in the middle of the forests. The burial jars are a unique feature of the mountain, and reflect a practice that is not found anywhere else in Khmer culture.
Exploring this gloriously rich environment can be done from a number of leaping off points, including Koh Kong, Pursat and Pailin. But for initiates, and residents of Phnom Penh, one of the easiest and exceptionally well-run is Chi Phat, an ecotourism project set up by Wildlife Alliance in Kampong Speu, just 180km southwest of the city.
Ecotourism is a principle that sets out to connect communities with specific conservation goals. Born in the 1980s, it recognised that the communities that first and most often posed a threat to a species or environment could also be its best stewards, provided the incomes lost from arresting activities such as poaching and logging could be replaced. Community-based ecotourism sets out to do exactly that. Adopting the principle of “poacher turned gamekeeper” not only replaces lost incomes, it gives people a deeper incentive to protect the area around them, and all its dependent wildlife, as their own wellbeing becomes entwined with that of their wild neighbours.
Chi Phat is a beautifully maintained village stretching out from the Preak Piphot River, just 7km inland from Route 48. The entire village seems to be oriented towards the ecotourism operation, with families deriving incomes from renting out rooms in home-stays, setting up small restaurants, hiring out bicycles and providing the gallons of water that keep hikers into the mountains afloat.
Visitors can choose whether to hike, bike or paddle the trails, hills and rivers, or simply kick back and unplug. And if adventure doesn’t appeal, there are other options such as cooking classes, community gardening, fishing, night time firefly river rides or, the best treat yet, head out to the wildlife release station for a chance to see conservation at work, and spend a night in one of the eco chalets miles away from anyone.
These adventures are unique, and offered in a tremendously professional way. The trails are mapped, and even as you’re dining out under the stars, legs weary and hair starch-stiff with dust, the fire-cooked meals are delicious. For more information on getting to Chi Phat, booking accommodation and tours, check out their website: www.chi-phat.org.