Take your time. And water.
Published/Last edited or updated: 13th November, 2016
Virachey National Park is the largest national park in Cambodia, home to beautiful forests and an uncharted number of plants and animals. Explore a small part of it by taking an overnight or multi-day trek.
Covering 3,325 square kilometres, the park boasts semi-evergreen lowlands, cloud forests, upland savannahs, bamboo thickets and occasional patches of mixed deciduous forest. It is home to species such as guar, clouded leopard cats, elephants, gibbons, sun bears, and innumerable other mammal, bird, plant and tree species. They are literally innumerable, since so much of Virachey remains unexplored. It is also home to small groups of ethnic minorities.
The Ministry of Environment offers treks through the park, part of its work to protect the forest by financing rangers, and also providing villagers with an income to replace that lost to hunting prohibitions.
Which is not to say that the forest is safe from outside threats. The biggest it faces is logging. Aerial photographs that we saw in late 2015 showed great barren patches where there should be trees.
We joined a two-day/one-night trek organised through the ministry, with guide Sou Leam, who was recommended to us by several sources. And quite rightly too. They also offer longer three-day treks, and even longer seven-day ones, as well as excursions to O’Tabok Stream, nearer Banlung, which is a good spot for bird spotting, picnicking and a nice swim. You can also book homestays at Yorn Village, up the river.
Our journey started off early with a ride to Ta Vong, a mid-sized village on the River San, taking in vast cashew and rubber plantations along the way. These are the scourge that will kill off this part of the world, and all of its diversity, with little by way of reward for the local communities who once depended on the land and forests for their livelihoods.
At Ta Veng, we hopped into a narrow boat with a long tail, and a shallow, near flat, draft, once it had been bailed out, and took off at a steady clip up the wide river. The scenery was already lovely, but took another turn when we veered off left for one of the tributaries on to Steung Ta Pok. Here the river narrowed substantially, and the lush green trees cast dark shadows under the blazing sun — do not forget to pack sunscreen.
We stopped off for a light picnic of chicken and pork dishes with rice that we had picked up in Ta Veng. Our boatman, Thy, needed his especially. He was just about to prove how adept he was behind the tiller.
As Sou and I walked along the rocky riverside, Thy got back in to the boat, and headed back down river before turning around, revving the engine and mounting the shallow rapids. This was at the height of a drought, the second in a row, when the river was especially low. We were impressed. Hopping back in again, we sped off, scraping over several more rapids along the way, some of which were so shallow that Sou and I had to step out and walk along.
Almost two hours later — we really mean it about the sunscreen — we arrived in the village of Yorn. This sparklingly clean, neatly laid-out village took us aback at first. It was almost an archetype of how you might imagine a Cambodian village if you’d never actually seen one. Neat, stilted buildings were arranged in a spaced-out cluster rather than along “lanes”, kids were splashing about in the river having a whale of a time, chickens scratched about at will, pigs jealously guarded their offspring, cats lazed, and a workshop was taking place in the community centre. There wasn’t a drop of litter to be seen.
Once we’d dropped off our food for the next morning, we took off into the forest, passing more cashew tree orchards before the landscape started to transform into long thickets of bamboo groves. It should be noted here that we chose to undertake the last trip at the peak of a heatwave and drought, during the hottest part of the year. Cambodia is parched. And hot. We were parched and hot. While the trek itself was actually pretty short, about seven kilometres each way, it took us more than two hours to get through it.
The effect in the bamboo groves was quite surreal, as everything around us was converted from green to a beautiful, fatal, blonde. We hiked observed by birds, though we saw no wildlife, before the trail took a turn up and we scaled the plateau that was to be our camp for the night.
From here, we could take in the views to the east where huge thunder clouds hung, flashing quietly, ominously, in the fading light. It was dinner time, and we were starving. Dinner was pork and rice with pickled vegetables, one of our favourite Cambodian meals, washed down with lots more water. (By the time we got back to the village the next day, we’d worked our way through 16 litres of water before running out.)
Setting up the hammocks didn’t take long, and we have to confess to being relieved to climb in as the sun fell out of sight, not long after 18:00. Through the mosquito net, you could see the lightening getting brighter and brighter, then thunder started to break its way through, and a gusty wind started to kick up the leaves. Cambodia is in the middle of a massive drought and now we were in tents it wanted to rain.
We hauled out of our hammocks and in the dark, under the light of an iPhone, started to untangle the guy ropes and rainproof sheeting to shield off the rain, before crawling back in again. For some reason, despite all the practice we’ve had, we can rarely fall asleep in hammocks. That was not a concern this time. Dehydration is exhausting. As an indicator of just how much we were sweating, despite consuming all of my half of the 16 litres of water we carried, I only felt the need to pee twice on the whole trip, and one of those was just a precautionary bedtime trip that was barely worth the candle. We wouldn’t recommend these hikes in April or May in any year, heatwave or not.
The next day was far more interesting. Woken by the sound of gibbons calling in the nearby woods, we quickly broke camp, before heading eastwards back down from the plateau. This way, we soon passed the bamboo groves to land in more foresty-looking forest. Disturbing a few wild chickens going about their morning ablutions, our march was then broken by the sound of something grunting about in the nearby trees. Later we spotted a muntjac deer.
Again, the trip was short, but shattering thanks to the heat. Arriving back in Yorn, we fell on our 3-in-1 coffee with cries of joy. Incidentally, Nescafe 3-in-1 coffee, which is an abominable mix of instant coffee, sugar and powdered milk and known as jungle coffee in our world, tastes amazing when there isn’t a barista to be found for several hundred miles.
The journey back down the river awaited us, accompanied by our very own water-bailer, and was as glorious as the day before. The river trip alone makes this journey worthwhile. The chance to crash about in the woods is a beautiful bonus.
The one downer for us was that Sou, while young and strong, carried a huge backpack with all the gear in it, while we had just our little one with not much more than an unnecessary change of socks, a pair of flip flops and half of the water. A much fairer system would be for the ministry to provide everyone with their own backpack, carrying their own hammock and rain sheet, and water. It is, after all, part of the adventure.
The Virachey National Park office is in Banlung, but they will come to collect you from your hotel if you email or call them to book a trip. For the trip, you don’t need to bring much, especially if you’re only going for one night. A clean T-shirt might be considered polite. We would thoroughly recommend packing few sachets of Royal-D (an electrolyte drink), not just for its vital salt-replacing capacity, but also because it turns out being thirsty makes you crave sweet things. It’s nice to have a change from water from time to time too. A couple of pieces of fruit will go down a bomb at the end of the day as well. Mosquito repellent is useful, as are long socks for those wet months when leeches like to feast, and a torch. Aside from that, all you need is a sense of adventure.
To the west of Virachey, the jaw-droopingly beautiful Veal Thom grasslands are the location for an interesting project. Habitat ID has set up several camera traps in the area, near permanent swamps, wallowing holes and game trails frequented by leopards, clouded leopards, elephants, gaurs, and maybe even Javan rhinos which are thought to be extinct, but which locals have reported seeing on the border with Laos. This is still some of the most unexplored part of Cambodia.
Joining a tour gives the park rangers the opportunity to service the cameras, and check the memory cards for what they’ve picked up, so furthering the conservation cause in this beautiful but highly threatened park.
There’s also a trek connected to the classic Veal Thom grasslands trip. Instead of spending the night in grasslands itself, you can pass through and then head into the northern forests (where only a handful of outsiders have ever been) and camp out at a serene waterfall swimming hole on the Gan Yu River known as D’dar Poom Chop. The swimming is unreal.
The Veal Thom grasslands are unique in Southeast Asia — it’s an inexplicable savannah that, according to Brao legends, was once the home of giants. You can help ensure that today’s giants of the forests — elephants and leopards — will always have a home in Virachey by doing a camera trap-checking trek here.
The best time to visit is from late November till late April and the price usually works out to about $50 per person per day, which includes food, hammock rental, boat ride, and village home-stays at the beginning and end of the trek. A moderate to strong level of fitness is required for this trek.
Those interested should contact Park Ranger Sou Soukern at +855 9733 34775 or on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/sou.soukern. Or email Greg McCann (“Mr Virachey”) firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Several tour operators have sprung up in Banlung, all of which offer trekking tours of varying descriptions. Many of them say they take you in to Virachey National Park, but none of them actually do, as the only people who are allowed to take you into the park are guides from the Ministry of Environment.
The longest-running operator is DutchCo., who participated in the gibbon trek described below. Our guide, Bouny, was one of the best we’ve come across in Cambodia. They have long experience of the routes in and around Banlung, and were safety conscious.
One extraordinary tour, which your researcher took part in in 2012 on a press trip (not for Travelfish.org) that was substantially funded by the tour company, is the Gibbon Spotting Cambodia trip, out to the Veun Sai-Pang Conservation Area to the northwest of Banlung.
At the time, the trip was a three-day, two-night affair, though that has now been reduced to two days, one night. Incorporating a river ride, a reasonable hike through some lovely terrain, tribal villages and a nature walk when you arrive, all of which is wonderful but pales beside the main event. Before dawn, the group (maximum of six people) is up and marching for about an hour to get to the prime site. Then there is a short wait for the first morning call that gibbons sound out to greet the day and, more importantly, define their territory. What follows is one of the most exhilarating experiences we’ve enjoyed in Cambodia.
The guides take off at a run through the dense, still dark, forest and you belt after them. They don’t have long to find the gibbons who’ll be tucking into a fruity breakfast 30 metres up a tree somewhere.
The gibbons are used to humans thanks to the work carried out by a team of scientists who spent a couple of years studying the role of gibbons, or more specifically gibbon poop, in seed dispersal in the forest. This involved a lot of standing under fruit trees waiting with test tubes for the gibbons to defecate so they could catch it. One can only imagine what the gibbons thought of this.
The tour isn’t cheap, starting at $279 per person for between four and six people, $299 for three people, and $359 for one to two people, but the experience is exceptional.
If you’re in Siem Reap, you could drop in to the managing tour operator, See Cambodia Differently, to talk to them directly about the trip and any queries you may have.
Virachey National Park Office: Street 33, Banlung; T: (097) 300 979; www.virachey-ecotourism.jimdo.com.
DutchCo: Street 78a (just up from Tree Top), Banlung; T: (097) 994 8168; www.trekkingcambodia.com.
Gibbon Spotting Cambodia: T: (063) 966 355; email@example.com. www.gibbonspottingcambodia.com.
* The last three photos were taken by Greg McCann.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.