Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
First published 22nd July, 2012
Deep in the southern Cardamom Mountains, beyond Chi Phat village, lies an untamed jungle, traversed by surging rivers and sheltering wildlife that, until recently, was little more than a commodity to locals. The southern Cardamom Mountains were until very recently Cambodia's Wild West, the centre of the country's thriving wildlife trade and the hiding place of a few diehard Khmer Rouge communities, who are reported to have lived there until as late as 2002.
The lucrative wildlife and logging trades provided a much-needed supplement to the meagre income earned by the rural poor in this area of Cambodia, a country where some two-thirds of the population still work in agriculture, often at subsistence level. Realising that any attempt to protect the Cardamoms would also have to involve the communities that depended on the jungle, Wildlife Alliance — a local charity — originally set up an ecotourism initiative, called the Chi Phat Community-Based Ecotourism Project (CBET) in 2007, but the website for that project is no longer online, however a new site with far more detail is up and running at Chi Phat community-based ecotourism. Now, eco-minded travellers and nature-lovers can visit the area, while also contributing to its preservation.
It is a hugely ambitious project. The first step was demarcating an area that rangers from the Ministry of Forestry would patrol. Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation missions began soon afterwards. (If you visit the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge near Phnom Penh, which is also run by Wildlife Alliance, a number of the animals will have been rescued at Chi Phat.) A handful of ex-poachers now work as service providers — including as jungle guides, guesthouse owners, garbage collectors, mototaxi drivers and cooks — and have begun to see the potential of a continuous income stream from tourists. Women in particular, who generally invest more in the health and education of their families than men, have been employed in reforestation efforts which provide an alternative, long-term source of income to logging or slash and burn farming. One billion trees have been replanted so far, and the coveted rosewood tree — worth as much as $8,000 per cubic metre — is at last being protected to a degree.
Since the ecotourism initiative began, wildlife trade in the region has been reduced by a remarkable 70 percent, and between January 2009 and May 2010, the project brought in $100,000 — 80 percent of which goes to the village. The remaining 20 percent of earnings go into a fund for maintenance and operation costs. In the future, the community intends to use the funds to make village improvements.
Chi Phat village is a pleasant place to relax with a book, rent a bicycle or go for walks, but getting out into the jungle is the real attraction. The Visitors' Centre (T: +855 092720925; firstname.lastname@example.org) can arrange a variety of guided outdoor activities, such as sunset dinners in a riverboat, three-day trekking, rafting and mountain-biking adventures, sighting wildlife and visiting ancient burial jar sites in the jungle. If you're relatively fit, an overnight trek in the jungle is a happy medium. The staff at the centre prefer to arrange accommodation themselves because it makes it easier to fairly allocate visitors to guesthouses, so check in to the centre when you arrive. If you have any problems chartering a boat, the CBET staff can assist you via telephone.
Trekking in the Cardamoms: just a stroll in the rain.
One of the more popular guided activities is an 11 kilometre trek to a camp site near Veal Trapak, where you can spend the night in a hammock listening to the sounds of the jungle and the rushing river. Veal Trapak pond, a watering hole for wildlife, is a short walk away, and you may be lucky enough to spot gibbons, hornbills or even a bear if you arrive at sunrise or sunset. The hike continues to O'Key village the next morning, which you'll reach in time for lunch, before heading to O'Malu waterfall, 10 kilometres from the campsite, where a cool dip will refresh you for the final 14 kilometres out of the jungle and back to Chi Phat.
Prices for guided treks range from $8 to $20 per person per day. Equipment like canoes or motor boats normally bumps up the price. All treks include a guide, a cook, meals, a few bottles of water and a tent and/or hammock. Extras such as sleeping bags, backpacks and raincoats are available for a nominal fee.
Be aware that the 'hut accommodation' available on some routes is no more than a bamboo roof above a wooden platform on stilts. You really will be sleeping in the jungle, so don't expect more than an outhouse and —maybe — a river to bathe in. Although the water may be heavenly in the summer months, during the rainy season the river banks are as leech-infested as the trail. In the rainy season, take a bag of salt along to sprinkle on the many leeches that will attach to your skin; the salt makes them fall off painlessly. The smouldering end of a cigarette (any brand will do) also works a treat.
You'll find a selection of guesthouses ($5 per room) and homestays ($3 for one person/ $4 for two) along the main road. All have shared bathrooms with cold or bucket showers, sit down toilets and mosquito nets. Currently, the CBET centre is the only place with WiFi access.
Jungle cook at work.
The village's ecolodge ($20 for twin accommodation) has bungalows with modern ensuite bathroom facilities on a small island about 1.5 kilometres from the CBET centre.
You'll find a handbook in each guesthouse with amusing pictures to assist communication, including a foreigner pointing at a dirty bathroom, requesting it be cleaned. There is also a section about what you can expect from your guesthouse (towels, a bottle of mineral water) with a code of conduct for both parties to follow; guesthouse owners should respect your privacy and you should dress modestly, for instance. As with all aspects of the Chi Phat project, these are often ideals, not realities.
Electricity in Chi Phat only runs in the early mornings and evenings, except at the CBET centre, where it is available all day, as is WiFi. The lights promptly go out at 23:00 every evening, by which time you are expected to be in your guesthouse.
A couple of eateries line the main road with basic, mostly vegetarian food. The CBET centre also cooks local or Western lunches and dinners for a few dollars if you order half a day in advance. Homestays can provide meals ($5 for one person, $8 for two including accommodation).
Transport to Chi Phat starts in Andoung Teuk, which is served by all buses to and from Koh Kong. Tell the driver you want to get out at Andoung Teuk and you'll be dropped off at a bridge beside a few small shops. If you're coming from Thailand and reach the Hat Lek/Koh Kong border by mid morning, you can make it to Chi Phat before nightfall. Note the Khmer side of the border is known for overcharging. Taxi drivers double as touts and try to handle visa applications themselves. Thefts during the confusion have been reported.
Take a boat up the river.
From Koh Kong's central bus station, buses to Phnom Penh (via Andoung Teuk) leave a few times a day, starting from 08:00, and take three and a half hours. From Andoung Teak, you have the choice of following the Preak Piphot River or a dirt track to Chi Phat. The boat ride to Chi Phat is one of the highlights of a visit. Wooden longtails make the journey in a little under two hours ($20), gliding past mangroves, mountains covered in thick vegetation and an occasional group of swimming children. It is a slow, peaceful journey. Noisy speedboats make the trip too, and charge US$50 for the 30-minute journey.
A public boat is also available ($2.50 per person). It leaves at midday from the eastern side of the river, below the bridge, but does not run the whole year round. The trip takes around two and a half hours. There is also the option of chartering a more comfortable, large wooden boat for groups of up to 20 at a cost of $35 for the two-hour trip. The locals at Andoung Teuk Bridge may think you're mad not to choose the cheaper, faster motorbike taxi option, even in the rainy season when the track is almost pure mud. It will cost around $7 for the 90-minute journey along a forest track.
About the author
Claire van den Heever is the author of Sold Out, a book about Chinese contemporary art due for publication later this year, as well as an overland travelogue about her journeys through the Old World.
Story by Claire van den Heever
Related readingA Cambodian Eco-lodge
PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
Read 6 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (19)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Gibbon Rehabilitation Project
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Khlong Toey Music Program
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (24)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Why you should stay longer in Siem Reap
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (20)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Northern Laos or Southern Laos?
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (10)
- All stories
- 10 great hostels in Singapore
- Singapore on a budget
- Singapore's best happy hours
- Singapore's Hip Haji
- Singapore: Escape the urban jungle
- The best hostels in Singapore: 2013
- The best places to stay in Singapore
- The Festivals of Singapore
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 1
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 2
- Thailand (87)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Chang's east coast
- Ko Lanta's best budget guesthouses
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Loy Krathong in Thailand
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket for kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Songkran festival in Thailand
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The changing face of Ko Lipe
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (38)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Budget Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- DIY Ha Long Bay
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Mid-range Ha Long Bay
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which Ha Long Bay tour is right for you?
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (22)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi 2015
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (18)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Great river trips in Southeast Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- Where is the best place in Southeast Asia for ...
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.