Friday, November 16, 2007

The next big thing

A few people in the know will tell you that the Cardamom’s are the next ‘big thing’ in Cambodia for eco-tourism, adventure and unspoilt wilderness. From 30 November thru 20 December, an exhibition of images and narrative by Wayne McCallum entitled Faces of the Cardamoms: A Journey across an Asian Wilderness, will take place at the Two Fish gallery café on Street 278 in Phnom Penh.

To give you a flavour of Wayne McCallum’s adventures in the Cardamom’s in 2005, here’s his report that appeared in the Cambodian Scene Magazine in their Mar-Apr 2006 edition.

A Cardamom trail - by Wayne McCallum
The Cardamom Mountains, in southwest Cambodia, comprise one of the last great wilderness areas of Southeast Asia. Their mixture of forests, rivers, tropical animals and indigenous peoples mark them as an area of exceptional biological and cultural value. Yet the Cardamoms remain largely a mystery to the outside world, with few non-locals venturing into its evergreen valleys or along its cooler pine-clad uplands. In December 2005 a party of Khmer and ex-pat locals (author included) sort to redress this situation by undertaking a survey of a potential eco-tourism trail across the Cardamom Mountains. Dubbed the ‘Hornbill Trail’, this route took us across from the eastern side of the Cardamoms (Kompong Speu province), over and across the range to the southern portion of Koh Kong province; our journey ending at National Route 48 and a main ferry crossing. We started our trek across the Hornbill Trail at a small rural village tucked beneath the sandstone escarpment of the eastern Cardamoms. Our party of five ascended slowly through the hardwood forest, accompanied by two guides; one of whom carried a live chicken for the evening meal. Here, in this portion of forest, old logging tracks were slowly being reclaimed by the forest, while the whining of chainsaws has again given way to the whirling of woodpeckers through the upper canopy. At one point, as we climbed, our party disturbed a large flock of hornbills feeding on the ripe fruit of a tall fig tree. The lonely hoot of gibbons echoed around us and an occasional troop of long tail macaques crashed through the undergrowth. Our climb ended after six hours, on the top of a pine-clad phnom; a cool breeze revived our exhausted bodies. In this colder environment, spaced forest and grass dominate the vegetation, with small deer feeding in the open areas. From where we now stood we were miles from any other humans, 1000m up, with a spectacular view of Kompong Speu before us; the panorama swept all thoughts of tiredness away.

On our first night we camped on the edge of the forest, using over-sheets and hammocks. As the sun disappeared, the loud growl of a barking deer rang out across the grasslands in front of our camp site, sounding more like a mountain gorilla than a small browsing animal. As the last light disappeared, night-jars appeared out of the trees, flying like bats, capturing insects on their wings. The night passed without any disturbance, save for a shower that forced some of our team to stumble in the dark to find covers for their hammocks. By mid-afternoon on the second day, our party was at the location of one of several ‘jar sites’ scattered around the Cardamoms. The jars are a unique feature of the Mountains, being about 60cm high and containing the bones of various long-deceased Khmers. The origins of the bones themselves are unclear, but local legend suggests they are the remains of Cambodian royals. From the cultural to the natural, we then descended down a steep cliff face to the site of a large cave in the side of an escarpment. From the top, a small trickle of cooling water cascaded down over the front of the cave entrance. Inside, our tracks quickly mixed with those of past animal visitors, including snakes, civets and pangolins. A pile of desiccated dung near the front of the cave revealed that larger visitors, in the form of elephants, had previously sought sheltered here as well.

Two days into our trek across the Cardamoms, our party remained largely unscathed by insects or injury. The occasional mosquito or tick searched for a free meal, but their low numbers barely demanded attention. At one point, one of our guides walked into the web of a large elephant spider. I watched the guide skillfully unwind himself, while the spider hardly seemed to notice the intrusion, staying mid-web throughout the incursion. Evening found us camping on the edge of the forest. In what had now become a ritual, we each set-up our hammocks and rain covers, washed and prepared our dinner before turning in early, very tired. On the third day, on our way down through the valley in the morning, we passed evidence of extensive logging that has scarred the region, removing many tall trees. Now, in what is a legally protected area, new trees are growing, each competing to out-shade the other. We also passed through remnants of the Cardamoms’ dark past, when we wandered through a derelict village forcibly abandoned by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s; open sites in the forest where houses had once stood, and the eerie skeletal remains of an old wat surrounded by re-growth forest, were all that remained. Descending down through the moist evergreen forest into a low-lying valley, we reached the banks of a beautiful forest-edged river. Its cool and deep water demanded a swim and a wash from each of us, before we set about cooking a meal and taking a rest.

The walking part of our trip was now over, as were our nights in the forest. We spent the third evening of our trek in a small rural village, sleeping on the deck of the commune chief’s house. During our stay, various locals dropped by to say hello and to see the ‘strange barangs’ who had walked across the mountain. Some recounted, through our translator, how they had once traveled over the Cardamoms, using elephants to take goods to markets in Kompong Speu. One village elder described how there had once been 50 domestic elephants working in the valley; animals which had disappeared during the Khmer Rouge era and the ensuing post-conflict struggle. In this community, as in other parts of rural Cambodia, it was easy to see that the family and rice bowl remained the center of life, with the village elders who visited us being regarded with special respect. Younger generations of village children also ventured past our overnight home, a lack of confidence preventing all but the most daring from coming closer. As it darkened, we started to drift-off to sleep, the echoes of the village and quiet Khmer voices following us into sleep.

We woke early, on the final day of the trek, village roosters and the Khmer morning routine making any thought of a lie-in impossible. After breakfast, we said farewell and thanks to our guides, who left us to return back across the mountain to their village. None of the remaining team envied the walk before them. We then negotiated and departed on a short moto-trip to a village down the river, followed by a longer two-hour ride to the penultimate stop on our trip and a final jungle town, this time on the banks of one of the region’s largest rivers. Again, as the day before, evidence of the area’s logging history were easy to see, forest re-growth struggling to heal the wounds left by man and machine. But despite this disturbance, we noted fresh elephant signs on the road, while two rare giant hornbills flew across our path as we headed southwards. The moto-trip over, we ate a quick meal before negotiating passage downstream to National Route 48 and the end point of our trip. As our boat pulled away from the dock the remaining three of our party felt privileged for the experience of the trek and for the secrets the trail had revealed to us. Our journey proved what we already knew though: that the Cardamoms have much to offer to the traveler seeking something different in Cambodia, where effort and perseverance can repay with dividends. Link: Cambodian Scene.

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