Posted by: Richard Marshall | April 19, 2011

The Cardamoms

River in the Cardamoms

When I first went to Cambodia a year ago I read about the Cardamom Mountains in the south-west of the country and though I wasn’t sure I’d ever make it the idea appealed to me. The name alone was so wonderfully exotic that just saying “oh, I went hiking in the Cardamoms”  seemed a good enough reason to visit. Also, as the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge the area is remote and reputedly one of South East Asia’s last real wildernesses – apparently tigers and elephants still lurk in the depths of the forests, and even if I didn’t see those at least there’d still be birds. Not having plans for Tet, I decided to set off…

I had to spend the first night in Phnom Penh as the bus south left early in the morning. I had intended to explore whatever attractions that city had to offer, but when I got there I actually couldn’t summon the strength. The fact that on my last day in HCMC some idiot had clipped the front wheel of my motorbike trying to get through a gap that was too narrow and pitched me over the handlebars onto the tarmac didn’t help. And it was really hot. And I just didn’t fancy trouping off with a mob of other tourists in dirty Thai fishing pants and dreadlocks to gawp at heaps of human skulls or pictures of murdered children grinning fatuously or staring blankly at their captors. I know that it’s important to take the Cambodian tragedy seriously, but this was a bird-watching trip. I didn’t feel like visiting the various palaces the French had built for the Cambodian kings to make them feel better about losing their country either.  Phnom Penh just gave me the creeps – the whole place is desperately poor and rotten with corruption and cruelty. The contrast with Vietnam is really striking – Phnom Penh makes HCMC seem like Paris. So instead of sight-seeing I went and drank beer at the Foreign Correspondants Club. The FCC is supposed to evoke the “glamour” of the 70s when young westerners looking for adventure could come and take photographs of South East Asians actually killing each other and not just their remains. That said, it is an attractive colonial building with a wonderful view of the Mekong, cold beer and good food, so I was happy just to relax there.

Getting to the Cardamoms turned out to be a bit of a pain. I was supposed to catch a bus to Koh Kong and then get off at a place called Andoueng Teuk half way there. After tramping around several bus stations I eventually got a ticket rather later than I hoped. Naturally the bus was over-crowded and full of children vomiting in the aisle so I wasn’t unhappy to disembark at Andoueng, hot, dusty and desolate though the place was. A foreigner comes there only for one reason, though, so it didn’t take long to find a motorbike to drive me to Chi Phat, half an hour away down a dusty road surrounded by sugarcane. Chi Phat the village where the hikes into the Cardamoms begin. The hiking is arranged by an eco-tourism NGO hoping to generate an income for the locals, and it was good to see a steady stream of tourists willing make the effort to actually get there. That said, the village is still pretty wretched. My first meal there was the worst I’ve had in Asia – some foul soup with honeycomb tripe and some thick black stuff that was – more tripe? Congealed blood? I wasn’t sure…The local guesthouse was basic but clean and private, though, and the next day I headed into the forest.

The River

I was annoyed that I seem to have forgotten how to pack for a hike. I only brought one t-shirt, which after three days not inconsiderable exercise in tropical heat was in a dreadful state. Also, my trusty boots finally let me down on the last day and I had to walk back with one sole bound up with the shoe laces. The guides cooked way too much food and after eating it for two days out of politeness I ended up a bit sick, which is pretty unpleasant in the middle of the jungle in the middle of the night. But the forest was absolutely magnificent. I was initally a bit worried as the long boat trip intially passed through areas that were decidedly settled, but eventually we genuinely were in the wilderness. I didn’t see any animals, and very few birds (though I did see the huge Great Hornbill), but the beauty of a vast expanse of forested hills was absolutely worth spending four days travelling for a three day hike. I also had very pleasant company on the first day of the trip and didn’t mind being on my own for the last two.

The trip back was as trying as the way there and I also ended up losing my binoculars on the bus which left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I was also stuck in Phnom Penh for a morning again when I was itching to get back home. I think I’ve had my fill of Cambodia, but that was also the most adventurous trip I’ve done here so I’m glad I made the effort.

Forest stream

Grassy clearing

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