Cambodia was once described by their own Minister of Agriculture as “a nation of forests”. That was pre-Khmer Rouge. Since then lawlessness and corruption have created an environment in which both illegal and government sanctioned deforestation now occurs at alarming rates. Today it is estimated that only 3% of the country remains covered in primary forest. It is very common to see truckloads of logs being transported across the country and 2,000 square kilometers of ancient forest is estimated to be lost each year.
Caz was keen to “see mountains and jungle” and the most obvious from Battambang, although not by any stretch of the imagination a straight forward plan, was to make our way down to the Cardamom Mountains near the south coast. There is a Wildlife Alliance near the seaside town of Andoung Teuk (“An-dong Turk”) in Kaoh Kong Province who run an ecotourism project. Public transport would have taken days so we made our way to the so-called “taxis” at Battambang’s Central Market, where some hectic conversations and debates took place before a driver was allocated to us for the job. He insisted that Caz’s Google Maps route through the mountains was not an option but that he could definitely get us to Andoung Teuk.
An eight hour drive the next day following the length of Tonle Sap Lake and turning west not far out of the outskirts of Phnom Penh, saw us land on the wrong side of the river from the picturesque little town of Chi Phat. After standing on the dust-track boat ramp for about an hour, our ferry finally made it’s way over the water to collect us.
Chi Phat is one of the most captivating places I’ve ever visited. Once animal poachers, many villagers have retrained to become tour guides or rangers, thanks to re-education programs and a shift in the village’s economic structure as tourism has started to provide a stronger appeal. I have so many enchanting memories of this beautiful little village who looked after us with such precision and charm despite their limited resources. With no electricity in the village from 10pm to 5am we drove on the back of our bungalow host’s moto in pitch black along country lanes, our bags piled around us. The evening we arrived one of the girls drove her moto to meet us off the ferry. They were not expecting us and she heard we were dragging our cases up the spaghetti-western-style dusty high street and wanted us to know we were heading the correct way. Villagers cooked and served us meals at an open air kitchen in the One-Stop-Shop known as the Visitors’ Centre where we could chill in the bar, eat dinner at the long tables beside the kitchen corner, and book our accommodation and tours.
On our one full day at Chi Phat we walked a 20km round-trip to O’Teuk Vet waterfall accompanied by the most wirey, cute, funny guide I ever met. About 25yo and perhaps 35kg, he scuffed along in his plastic looking loafers asking us English questions and typing our answers into his phone. He cracked jokes with us, pulled fruit off trees for us to sample and escorted us over river crossings, under trees and down rocky slopes. Very early on in our day together he disclosed that he had been an animal trapper from a very young age, perhaps 10yo (he wasn’t sure). His family were poor and he was required to earn an income for their survival. He would spend many days or weeks in the jungle with teams of trappers. As the smallest he was responsible for setting the traps, “not killing the animals”. He talked about being arrested, escaping and running from the police, and that the same policemen who once chased him, now laugh when they see him walking through the jungle with tourists. He dubbed me “Teacher” within the first hour, took my number and has taken to calling me for English lessons which I am more than happy to be a part of because I am utterly beguiled! At one point he bent down to take a stone from his loafer and as he did so, he looked off into the trees beside our path. When he stood up he said “there are many traps in there. I told the police to go there and take them away. I don’t know if they did”. At another point he stopped Caz and told her to listen to a sound in the distance. Once she heard it he identified that it was a crying female gibbon and explained that the male gibbon does not cry. His knowledge and confidence in the (very denuded) jungle was as natural and easy as my knowledge and confidence in speaking English.
On our trek to the waterfall we detoured through someone’s property to view bats in a cave (but the bats had disappeared). Returning from the cave we sat at a wooden picnic bench beside the elderly man’s shack to have a drink and a rest. Our guide signed a book with the old man to mark that we had passed through, so that he could receive a small incentive for allowing us onto his property. We asked about the old man, curious about his apparently solo existence and was there some way we could help him? “Okay, if you want to help him that is okay. Why do you want to help him? The tourists do not do like that?”. Caz gave the surprised man a small token of our appreciation and our conversation moved to the neighbour of our guide, a 90yo man whose family were all killed in Khmer Rouge and he has noone to support him now. We suggested that we give our guide some money to support this man and he agreed. That afternoon he purchased a blanket, plate, cutlery and some food for his neighbour, returning to us with photographs to show he had done as planned and offering to give us our change back! That night our bungalow host came to pick us up and agreed for me to start walking while he dropped Caz home first. Out of the dark, our guide appeared, he had been sitting with our host and was ready to take me on the back of his moto so I didn’t have to walk!
One of the reviews I read about Chi Phat before we went said “this is the most amazing place I have ever been”. I concur – it was a highlight, not only of this holiday, but of my life, to experience a place where the local stories are so transformed, where wildlife programs and social programs are working alongside each other to improve their small patch of our planet. They have recently received two ASEAN awards, for community-based tourism and homestay. They deserve this and so much more. I will definitely return to Chi Phat and write more about it.
After two unforgettable nights in Chi Phat we took a two hour boat ride down the beautiful Piphot River, through seemingly untouched jungle, to Andoung Teuk. The bus picked us up here for our onward journey to beautiful Kampot, which I’ll write about separately. I try not to make this too much of a travel blog but our holiday is worth (for us), recording. It may also prove useful to other travelers, especially anyone interested in ecotourism who could be drawn to the relatively unknown Chi-Phat.