Written by Tom Doig, a writer and editor from New Zealand who recently completed a PhD in Journalism on the lived experience of Climate Change in Australia. Tom has written several plays as well as the books The Coal Face and Moron to Moron: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure.
4th January 2018
And we’re off! A tuk-tuk whisks me and my partner Laura away from Paddy’s Guesthouse and plonks us down on the Koh Kong riverfront. Along with two jungle trekking guides, Prak and Rith, and three young tourists, we board a longtail boat and motor slowly up the Meteuk River. We’re in southwest Cambodia, near the Thai border. Until 2003, there was no bridge across the two-kilometre-wide river, and Koh Kong was literally an impoverished backwater. These days, Koh Kong town is a thriving trade outpost and ecotourism hub, describing itself on a triumphalist statue plaque as ‘the rising star of the southwest’.
We slide up the Meteuk River past thick green coastal mangroves, both beautiful and fragile; in coming decades, just half a metre of sea-level rise is set to destroy these pristine habitats. Prak guides the boat through a narrow gap in the trees, and we dismount. Two hours of sweaty grunting uphill later, we’ve made it into the fringes of the Cardamom Mountains – one of the largest unbroken mountain-to-ocean ‘wildlife corridors’ in southeast Asia.
5th January 2018
After a fabulous night’s sleep cocooned in army hammocks, we set off deeper into the Cardamom Mountains. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the genocidal horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, thousands of Cambodians fled through the Cardamom Mountains towards Thailand, braving dense, tangled jungle, huge rivers, steep ravines and wild animals – including elephants, Siamese crocodiles and Asian tigers. During those dark years, the wildlife population plummeted, as people were forced to hunt and eat bush animals to survive. Freshwater turtles and the local black bears (much smaller than the Canadian variety) were considered delicacies – and they still are to this day.
Our guides Prak and Rith tell us that they grew up 100 kilometres southwest, in the village of Chi Phat. As desperately poor teenagers in the 2000s, they both worked as hunters – that is, poachers. They spent weeks at a time in the bush, hunting wild pigs and deer.
After lunch, Prak unsheathes his machete and leads us down a faint, overgrown jungle track. Prak blazed the trail himself a couple of years earlier; he says he has only taken tourists on it four or five times before. Creepers and vines are thick across the path. The walking is hard, but the reward is worth it: a stunning creekside campsite perched on a miniature stone bluff, hammocks strung between bamboo poles. The sound of frogs from the creek is deafening: ‘honk’, ‘rolf’, ‘walt’, ‘bong’.
Prak catches a mountain crab from the creek and cooks it over the open flames. The crab flesh tastes subtle and delicious. Prak tells us the trees are much bigger in Chi Phat, and that gibbons and elephants still roam freely in the forests nearby. The elephants stay well away from humans, but you can see the rough corridors they trample through the bush – ‘the animal road,’ Prak calls it.
After hearing this, Laura and I vow to visit Chi Phat for ourselves. We fall asleep, the night stars visible from our hammocks, haunting animal calls echoing all around.
6th January 2018
“You can eat this,” Prak says, pointing to a thick bamboo stalk. He raises his machete and hacks into the trunk with a series of short blows, breaking off a one-foot length of bamboo. He peels the outer layer off and hands me a light brown cylinder, fibrous and solid. I stuff it into a pocket and wipe the sweat from my face; we keep hiking.
I am dubious about eating bush bamboo, but ready to be convinced. After 40 minutes of steady boiling, Prak serves up a surprisingly delicious lunch – organic bamboo jungle soup, seasoned with fresh herbs plucked from the edge of a rubber plantation.
10th January 2018
Up before dawn in Chi Phat village: it’s Jungle trek number two!
The morning begins with a sunrise boat trip up a tributary of the Preak Piphot River. A thick morning fog boils off, revealing a remarkably diverse forest with the odd long-tailed monkey and marmot in the tree tops. A flock of hornbills pass overhead, their flapping wings tearing noisy holes in the sky.
After four hours walking and a leisurely lunch break surrounded by neon blue and yellow butterflies, we make it to ‘the animal road’: a rough track about three metres wide with undergrowth trampled into the dirt. Our guide, Chhay, points out a pile of round brown elephant dung.
“Is that half an hour old?” I ask hopefully.
“Yes, yes, half an hour old – seven days ago!” Chhay quips.
Sitting on the edge of a waterhole, we stay as quiet as possible, holding our breath and willing the local animals to venture out of the trees. As we wait, Chhay tells us that when no animals come to the waterhole, he remembers all his years spent as a hunter. He worries that, because he caught and killed so many animals in his youth, there are now no animals left for tourists to see.
That particular dusk, no animals come, but the heartbreaking beauty and eerie silence of the Cambodian sunset more than compensates for the lack of company.