Breaking free of the busy traffic in Phnom Penh required patience, but we were heading for the Cardamom Mountains for 4 nights staying with the Chi phat community so I was excited, even if the morning would be spent on the road travelling.
After three hours of driving on roads undergoing reconstruction, we reached the turn off – a dirt track which lead 17km deep into the jungle to the Preak Piphot River where we hopped onto the boat to cross to the small village of Chi Phat, on the other side.
This was my first time in a rainforest and I hoped for a great introduction to the Cardamom mountains and also to staying in a jungle community. I wasn’t disappointed.
Chi Phat as a community is an interesting place. Originally wealthy from illegal logging the community was supported by Wildlife Alliance in 2007 to set up community based environmental tourism (CBET) in the Cardamom Mountains, one of Asia’s last untouched rainforests. It is run as a commune in which all the money generated from tourism goes directly to the village and where everyone in the village has a role in the success of the community.
Families deliver a specific set of services running guesthouses, or being guides, cooks, or taxi drivers on their mopeds; while CBET runs the community’s reception area, gear rental for trekkers and coordinates service management. Wildlife Alliance continues to provide international marketing and on-the-job training in the community, based around the forestry project.
It felt great to know I was contributing to the success of the village and the protection of the local environment at the same time as having an adventure.
Whilst in Chi Phat I stayed with a family in a basic but lovely room and in the afternoon the grandson came to play and ask for the bananas his grandmother had left for us.
Having found myself in a nice home with a nice room, I thought this jungle malarkey was going to be lovely. Especially when that afternoon we were take to see the community’s forestry project to learn about the reforesting taking place in the area.
The Wildlife Alliance is still working in the area, supporting the community to ensure that the lost woodland is replaced and the workers here earn more money raising saplings than construction workers in Phnom Penh; ensuring people are not lost from the village to the bright lights of the city.
I had been warned though that it wasn’t entirely going to be tranquil as this little fella and his friends get quite loud at night in the woodland.
We then went up to see the area of land which is planned to be reforested; it was only then that it became clear the extent of the damage that had been done to the Cardamom Mountain area as logging was underway and how vital communities like Chi Phat would be to the future protection of the landscape.
My idyllic time quickly ended though. It was a hot night in the house under my mosquito net and even the rain in the night didn’t cool the temperature. I also had a fright when a huge flying beetle swooped into the room like a helicopter and stopped on my net for a while. But that was nothing compared to what was to come.
The following morning we had a tasty Khmer breakfast on the boat as we headed up the Preak Piphot River for over an hour. It was early and the idyllic morning was just a cover what was to come.
Once we disembarked the jungle consumed us. The humidity was unbearable and in no time at all we were all dripping in sweat. By 11am when we stopped for lunch I was feeling well and truly tortured by the jungle, having spent all morning flicking leeches from my feet. There is only one way to reduce number that climb up your boots (there’s no avoiding them!) and that’s walking quickly – incredibly difficult in high humidity. I understand now the idea of a jungle driving you to madness. I’ve never been so happy to stick my feet in a river while lunch was cooked.
Leech bites are like being stung by a wasp; only gross. One had managed to latch on for long enough that it had grown from its tiny size to that of a slug. I didn’t get an after picture; I was too busy flicking him off and looking horrified at the blood all over my socks. Yes, boots and socks are no challenge to a leech. The foot photo is from the day after when I’d regained my composure and could consider myself sane.
After bathing my feet and a lunch cooked by the guys consisting of ample rice and vegetables, washed down with coffee; we trudged on. The path was drier and we kept the pace fast to try to avoid the leeches getting on us.
It was around 4pm when we arrived at our hut for the night at Antong Prang – a small clearing in the jungle where there was a long drop toilet and two huts for hanging hammocks to sleep.
After the terror of the hike we threw off our inhibitions as quick as our clothes to be able to wash in the river, hidden from the guides.
As the rain arrived at 5pm we were having dinner; it didn’t take long for us to end up zipped into our hammocks and attempting to sleep early. As fast as the rain came down, the thunder boomed: it was going to be a long night.
As it was I slept surprisingly well; though I did slip into the middle of the hammock a few times. As we had breakfast we compare leech bites and continued our quick march to get back to Chi Phat village.
The walk took us past a clearing which might be good for wildlife spotting, but we didn’t see anything.
Later that day we did find these critters!
We finally made it to the waterfall near the village where it was a joy to swim with our clothes on and feel refreshed again. Despite the mental torture I loved visiting Chi Phat and would recommend it to anyone – they organise a lot of different activities you don’t have to trek with the leeches!