Cambodia: Off the Beaten Track

IMG_0800AsiaLIFE’s Publisher Mark Bibby Jackson set off in search of the Heartbeat of the Nation for the Phnom Penh Post. Nearly one year on, Mark gives an insight into the three-month trip that covered the length and breadth of the country, as well as providing tips on the best and worst the Kingdom has to offer travellers who venture into the wild.

Northwest by North

The constant stream of battered tanks, carried on the backs of slightly less battered trucks, towards the border should have tipped us off that something was in the air.

The UNESCO-listed Preah Vihear temple had been the scene of fighting with Thailand a couple of years back, but since then peace had reigned.

The frenzy of military vehicles was in stark contrast to our first, altogether more tranquil, destination. The remote village of Tmatboey, close to Preah Vihear’s provincial capital of Tbeng Meanchey, is one of the few resting places for the endangered giant and white-shouldered ibis. World Conservation Society started a protection programme here with a single pair of white-shouldered ibis in 2002. By 2009, there were five pairs.

Despite our best efforts to lose our way, we stumbled upon the cluster of bungalows run by the Sam Veasna Centre. Our guide, Yen Sary, took us to the nearby grasslands where we waited by some wooden viewing huts as the sun began to set. About an hour later, six pairs of white-shouldered ibis swooped in from the skies to rest on a bare tree in the distance. As quick as they arrived the birds took flight again.

The progress of the platoon of tanks was more measured. By the time we reached the World Heritage site, Cambodian soldiers were entrenched in the side of the hill facing Thailand. Backpacks were jettisoned against the ancient temples with mortar rockets jutting out of them as a group of engineers played boules seemingly regardless of the impending battle.

Climbing up to the top of the hill and looking down upon the surrounding terrain, it is easy to realise the military significance of this outpost. Yet a few tourists walked around the rocks.

“Perhaps they would not put us here if they thought it was dangerous,” says Philippe Rigot, 30, from France. Perhaps, but perhaps not, I think.

We leave the temple to descend the tortuous road back down the hill towards the pleasant town of Anlong Veng, which lies across the provincial border in Oddar Meanchey. The former Khmer Rouge stronghold was home to Ta Mok, or Brother Number Five. Its landscape is dominated by a lake created on the orders of Pol Pot’s ‘Butcher’, yet our greatest danger lies with a colony of bees that have decided to lay their hive in the rafters of our hotel.

It was while looking across the lake that news of the latest fighting broke. Over the next few days, a reported 10 people lose their lives at Preah Vihear temple, including civilians on both sides. After a short conversation with Bernie Leo, the Post’s editor-in-chief at the time, we agree that discretion is the better part of valour.

Giving up all hope of becoming a famed war correspondent, I signal our troupe to beat a retreat towards the centre of the country, leaving the rest of the northwest for a later stage.

Indiana among the Flip Flops

The town of Kampong Thom is familiar to all who have travelled by road from the capital to Siem Reap. A few restaurants provide a rest for the weary traveller. Few stay for dessert.

Yet around 30km from Kampong Thom, half of which is along a dirt road, the pre-Angkorian remains of Sambor Prei Kuk possess a charm especially for those who prefer their temples to be devoid of caravans of Korean tourists. Some of the 290 temples date back to the 7th Century, although none are well preserved.

As we arrive a group of girls are performing the Sambor Prei Kuk high jump. Two girls hold up a series of rubber bands tied together in an elastic chord. A third runs towards them. Using a flip flop in her right hand, she forces the makeshift bar towards the ground and propels herself over it. All the assembled girls cheer as their friend emerges on the other side. On busier days the girls sell kramas to tourists for $1 a piece, only you suspect there are no busier days here.

We chance upon Frans Betgem, co-founder of Khiri Travel at one of the few homestays close to the temples. He believes that the area has a huge potential, offering the ‘real’ Cambodia that few visitors encounter on their whistle stop tour of the country.

“I love the temples, the forest, the whole atmosphere,” he says. “There are lots of structures still underground. It’s kind of the Indiana Jones experience that is always what people are looking for.”

Going Up River

Our revised route takes us up country, through Kampong Cham towards Kratie and the north. Having the reputation for being one of the most fertile provinces in Cambodia, even in the height of the dry season, Kampong Cham comes as a welcome relief from the arid northwestern plains.

Set on the banks of the Mekong, Kampong Cham town rivals Battambang and Kampot for the title of the most pleasant provincial capital. There is a real bustle that is seldom found outside of Phnom Penh. Many tourists choose to break their journey here, dining on the banks of the river.

Smile Restaurant is one such place, a non-profit restaurant run by the Buddhism and Society Development Association. Staff take us to a local pagoda where the association has a series of educational and training programmes for disadvantaged youth. A rewarding day ends with a free dance performance at the pagoda.

The much improved National Highway 7 snakes its way north along the path of the Mekong. Further upstream, Kratie is famed for the much endangered Irawaddy Dolphin. As we motor out to the rapids at Kampi, a few kilometres north of Kratie town, it is hard to imagine that the freshwater mammal was almost wiped out by the now outlawed gill nets.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are probably less than 100 dolphins alive in the river. Although the dolphins are visible from the banks, $7 to hire a boat for an hour is a small price to pay to get a close to these creatures.

A short boat trip across from the town of Kratie, the island of Koh Trong is totally devoid of cars. The only way you can get about the 6km island is by bike, foot, or one of the few moto dups that plough the dirt road. Now home to Sala Koh Trong eco-lodge, the isolated island is the perfect destination for those wishing to get away from it all.

Into the Hills

The road east from Strung Treng to Ratanakiri was hard, red and bumpy; a journey which failed to deliver on its promise. On either side, isolated trees suggest the beauty that once stood here before the loggers ravaged the area. Apart from the beautiful cleansing waters of Lake Yaklom, said to be over 700,000 years old, there seems little to see in Cambodia’s most northeasterly province.

What Ratanakiri lacks, Mondulkiri possesses in abundance. Its smooth and winding paved main road cuts through the type of virgin forest that Vietnamese lumber companies can only dream of. Although Sen Monorom is very much a one-road town, it has an altitude scarce found elsewhere in the country and a landscape which if not Alpine certainly possesses a rolling tranquillity.

The area is dominated by the Bunong minority. In the heart of the town, the Bunong Centre organises trips to local villages and the Busra Waterfall. Their traditional culture is fast becoming eroded by the twin perils of tourism and agribusiness.

“Busra Waterfall is a very spiritual place. Now it’s not anymore because a lot of people are coming there. The people say the gods will not live there anymore,” says Bun Ly, a tour guide at the centre.

Like Bunong culture, the local elephant population is becoming endangered. Jack Highwood is the founder of the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri.

A short drive across country from Sen Monorom, Highwood established the sanctuary for domestic elephants four years ago initially to carry out research and veterinary care. Before long he realised that the project was doing little to alleviate elephants’ main problem – overwork. He decided to construct an eco-tourism site to provide a steady income for the project.

Tourists eat and sleep at the Elephant Valley as well as volunteering through helping wash elephants, construct lodges and plant trees. They also “hang-out” with the elephants. Watching the elephants in their natural environment is a highlight of our trip. One made more pertinent by the mistreatment the elephants have experienced.

“All the elephants you see here are highly abused animals who have suffered horrific injuries,” says Highwood. “You can make an elephant sick in a week, but it takes a year to heal it up again.”

Down South

Apart from those wishing to take a flutter, there are few reasons to linger in Svay Rieng province or neighbouring Prey Veng. Conversely, Takeo is a little gem. Both the wildlife rescue centre at Phnom Tamao and the pre-Angkorian ruins of nearby Ta Prohm are an easy day trip away from Phnom Penh, while those wishing for a weekend break can go to the provincial capital.

Takeo may be a sleepy town, but the 20km boat trip to the 11th Century temple of Phnom Da is spectacular. Water buffalos take turns with ducks to swim in the vast canals as local villagers grow rice in the nearby fields. This is rural Cambodia at its most idyllic.

From Takeo we took a bone-rattling drive across to Kampot province. While the town itself, the hill resort of Bokor and its coastal sister of Kep are familiar to travellers, less is known about the surrounding countryside.

The village of Anlung Pring looks just like any other country village. A small dirt path passes through paddy fields with occasional sugar palm breaking the landscape. It is also the nesting ground for the Sarus Crane.

As we arrive a few of the endangered birds are feeding in the fields. From a distance they look like water buffalos. A 217-hectare conservation area was created here in 2006 and according to protection officer Buth Sambath the population of the birds has grown from 30 in 2003 to 238 last year. It is also relatively unknown and we are the first visitors the sanctuary has received that month.

Sambath allows us to look at the birds through his binoculars as more swoop in from the horizon. They land like paratroopers. On leaving I am struck by the eco-potential of this area where there is neither homestay nor guest house.

South Western Beauty

Cambodia’s southern coastline and the islands off it are said to be the country’s tourism future. However, it is the southwest of the country that has the greater appeal.

Largely due to the efforts of Wildlife Alliance, Koh Kong rivals Mondulkiri for the province of most outstanding beauty in Cambodia. The village of Ta Tai has the most beautiful setting. Both Rainbow Lodge and Four Rivers arrange trips up and down river, with the former also organising treks in the surrounding countryside and to the waterfall.

Like most provincial capitals, the greatest charm of Koh Kong lies on its doorstep. Peam Kaosoap Wildlife Sanctuary consists of 23,750 hectares of dense mangrove forests. The recent construction of a walkway has opened these up to domestic tourists. We took a boat to the floating fishing village of Kaosoap, passing through the mangrove forests through to the open waters.

It’s Grim up West

The road from the capital to Pailin is long and one we covered many a time. Though the spectacular riverfront and early morning bustle as people visit the market or take the boat to school in Kampong Chhnang is interesting, apart from that the journey is best made with a good book.

Battambang is easily the best place to break the journey. Cambodia’s second city has accommodation for all budgets, and in Phare Ponleu Selpak has one of the most interesting community arts projects in the country running various projects from graphic arts to music. However, it is the circus that Phare is best known for. Much more than something to take the kids too, if you time your visit for one of the performances you are in for a treat.

The terrain becomes more interesting the closer you get to Pailin with paddy fields yielding to hills. Pailin is about two things: diamonds and casinos. The latter are low budget affairs where farmers from across the Thai border arrive with 20 baht notes to wager. Diamonds are fast becoming a thing of the past. A dwindling number of traders have their stalls at the foot of Phnom Yat where they process the precious mineral. One of the traders, Mut Sary, informs us that some of the miners have turned to farming, although he says he will continue his profession as long as there is a market.

At the top of Phnom Yat is a pagoda built in 1922 and dedicated to grandmother Yat, a Burmese nun who was the first to meditate here. Stonemasons are working on restoring the old stupa, while security guards try to protect the holy mount from illegal diamond digging.

Instead of backtracking to Battambang we take the road north to Poipet. As the sun sets and the heavens open we realise the folly of our decision. Our vehicle skids along the glistening surface like Bambi on ice. Eventually the lights of Cambodia’s north western frontier town appear in the distance and tired we drag ourselves to a basic hotel.

We wake to receive two pieces of bad news. Last night’s journey proved too much for our not so trusty steed and our driver will have to take it back to Siem Reap for repairs. Also, fighting has once more erupted, this time further along the border near O’Smach in Oddar Meanchey province – our final destination. Over the next few days, a reported 17 people will die on both sides.

Poipet is not the sort of town that you have tears to depart early. Casinos and second hand clothes stores seem de rigueur here. My final war conference with Bernie Leo is held in Sisophon in Banteay Meanchey province. Once more discretion won out, a decision made much easier by Sisophon’s lack of charm and the pessimistic prognosis for our vehicle that will take several days to repair.

I hail a taxi and return back to Phnom Penh, almost three months to the day since we first departed. We have travelled to each of the country’s provinces and on two separate occasions narrowly avoided fighting.

My outstanding memory, apart from the willingness of the people to tell us their story at all times, is of the tranquillity of the country. The beauty of the far northeast and southwestern corners, bird sanctuaries established in the middle of nowhere and boat trips through deserted waterways. It is a path I feel most fortunate to have trodden.