We spent Easter in a rural village deep in the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia named Chi Phat. The village is not on the usual tourist route and due to its remote location can be difficult to access. We had to take a bus from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh and tell the driver to let us out at Andoung Teuk, part way between the two. This is not a town or a bus station but a small village marked only by a restaurant and a few road side shacks, but here is where we could arrange transport to Chi Phat. We had the option of travelling by motorbike or boat, we decided to take the boat which took around 2 hours. After waiting most of the morning for more passengers to fill the boat we were eventually led along the road and under a bridge to the river. After climbing over a large sleeping pig we clambered aboard the small boat and began our journey into the wilderness. As we meandered the wide river we could see the mountains and lush green vegetation around us, the sun was high in the sky and birds flew over head. After 2 hours we pulled up to a small crudely constructed jetty, got off the boat and walked a hundred meters through the village to the Chi Phat Visitors Center.
The area of the Cardamom Mountains is under threat from slash and burn farming and illegal logging and poaching. In partnership with the Wildlife Alliance, Chi Phat is a Community Based Eco Tourism (CBET) site which exists to counteract the deforestation and pollution which threatens the area. The ordinary rural village is now run as a collective eco friendly tourism site where guests can stay with local families and trek, bike or kayak through the jungle. Former poachers have been trained as tour guides, there are job opportunities for cooks and some families run guest houses. All of the costs are broken down for everyone to see and the locals get a fair living wage from the project. It is a wonderful way of seeing an unspoilt area of natural beauty, eating local food and getting to know some real Khmer people.
We elected to stay with a local family in their home which was one of several homestays in the village. These are allocated by CBET on a rota basis so that everyone gets an equal chance to be involved. We were picked up by our new dad on his motorbike and driven across the village, down a dirt track, over a bridge and through a field to our new home. Our family consisted of a Mum, Dad and three children who welcomed us into their home and showed us all of their animals; chickens, ducks, dogs and cows. Traditional homes in Cambodia are on stilts, with the bedroom upstairs and the shade underneath the house is used as a living space. Our family had quite a large home with two rooms for guests as well as their own and a kitchen area and toilet in the yard. Other than hello and bye bye, the family did not speak any English, although the father was learning and could say a few rehearsed phrases. The language barrier did not seem to be an issue and we managed to communicate well through a mixture of pointing and sign language. As soon as we arrived the children started talking to us in Khmer, showing us around, pointing out animals and playing with us. They brought us sour fruit which was growing on the trees around the farm and showed us how to eat it by dipping it in chilli sugar. They tried to teach us the names of the farm animals, the only one we remember is duck, which is dee-a.
Due to it being Khmer New Year, there were lots of parties, celebrations and religious ceremonies taking place. We had met three ladies who had just returned from a jungle trek and had been invited by their guide to join a celebration. Never wanting to miss a party, we tagged along. After walking around 2 miles in the pitch black, following the sound of a loud speaker we arrived at a field which had some stalls, bunting and flood lights, a bit like a village fete. There was a religious ceremony happening in a small wooden building and it was being boomed out over the loud speaker. Some of the locals were sat near the stalls drinking beer, we decided to join them. After the ceremony ended and people left the building, they all congregated on the field around a table with some flowers on, then the music started. Soon enough we were dragged up to dance with the locals and taught a traditional Khmer way of dancing: Everybody shuffles in a circle really slowly around the table, you take one step forward then half a step back then do the same with the other foot whilst moving your hands back and forth, akin to a lesbian two-step with Bollywood arms. This dance is repeated for every traditional Khmer song, but these are interspersed with rave music which can be danced to in whichever way you see fit. Another part of the celebration involved covering each other in baby powder. Needless to say, we ended up with much more on us than any of the locals did. We danced until around midnight and with no sign of the party ending, decided to make our way back to our family home.
The next day we spent exploring the village. We took a short bike ride and walked out to a river. We dipped our feet in the water and watched as the locals traversed the shallow rapids on their motorbikes. It was great to just be a part of the village life and chat to people at the small stalls outside of their houses. The children called out their hellos to us whenever we passed them. After the partying of the previous day, we had an early night at our family home in preparation for the next day of trekking.
Our 35km, two day trek into the jungle began on Easter Saturday with an early breakfast in the CBET centre. We were introduced to our guide Unpun, who was an ex poacher and spoke little English. We also had a cook with us who spoke even less English but was very smiley. We each carried a large pack containing our hammocks and water for the trek, the guides also carried all of the food and cooking equipment. At around 7.30 we began our trek, walking out of Chi Phat village and into the surrounding countryside. Although it was early, the sun was immediately hot and as we walked through the unshaded fields towards the jungle we were sweltering. Unpun pointed out more animals and we tried to learn a little more Khmer, Coo is Cow. After around two hours we stopped in a shaded area with a small stream. We were so hot and loved splashing the cool water on our faces and necks. All too soon the trek continued through a forest area which brought us the much needed relief of the shade.
We stopped for lunch in a small clearing and Unpun and the cook set about preparing our meal of rice, meat and vegetables. It was interesting to see them make the fire for cooking, chopping up wood with the axe they had brought. We were also surprised to see they had full sized pots and pans in their backpacks. The meal was delicious and gave us a much needed boost to continue our trek. After eating we crossed a large open field area and when we reached the other side Unpun and the cook started looking around at the trees above us. After a little discussion the cook climbed up the tree like a monkey and threw down several pieces of fruit. The green skin opened up to reveal bright orange, sour tasting segments with a large pip inside. The fruit was so sticky it left a glue like residue on our lips which we could not get rid of for hours! Unpun also showed us a plant, he pulled off a closed leaf and tore off the top then drank the contents. We eagerly tried it, the dew like substance was refreshing but we we would have needed to drink a whole bush to quench our thirst.
We had heard from some other tourists that the jungle was home to lots of leeches. Sure enough when we reached the outer edge of the jungle Unpun made us pull our socks up and covered us in insect repellent which unfortunately did not stop the leeches. Hundreds of them lay in wait, standing on end on the jungle floor, ready to attach themselves to our feet. We tried to move quickly through the undergrowth, finding our way over tree roots and through swinging vines. Every time we made a stop we looked down at our feet to see at least ten leeches trying to make their way through our shoes. Unpun was very quick at pulling them off us, but in some instances it was a little too late. Emily had one crawling up her leg, although it did not draw any blood and Sian looked down just in time to see two leeches disappearing through the eyelet of her shoe. We consigned ourselves to the fact that we would be leech food no matter what, so we tried not to think about it and just carried on with the trek. Aside from the leeches we saw very little other wildlife, but we did hear a lot of animal noises. Unpun tried to explain some of them to us but it was difficult with the language barrier.
Late afternoon, after a whole day of trekking we arrived at our camp site, situated at O’Malu waterfall. The campsite consisted of a wooden structure on stilts with open sides and a thatched roof, the was also a small cooking space and a jungle toilet. Tired and filthy from the trek we were more than happy to cool off in the pool bellow the waterfall. After putting up our hammocks, we had another great meal prepared by the cook and as it started to get dark (around 7pm) we settled in for the night. The gentle swing of the hammock and the sounds of the jungle lulled us to sleep.
Unpun had told us that we would be walking in an area with little shade the following day, so the earlier we left the better. Luckily we were awake around 6am, had our breakfast of noodles and egg then set off walking at around 6.45 in the cool of the early morning. We headed out of the jungle and through a banana plantation, back towards Chi Phat village. The cool morning breeze lasted around twenty minutes before the sun rose above the jungle canopy and beat down on us once again. After a few hours we reached a dusty red dirt road, although it was flat, this was the most difficult part of the trek. There was absolutely no shade, the sun was high in the sky by now and it difficult to keep ourselves going on the repetitive route. We turned off the road and went to another waterfall, again enjoying the much needed cool down of a swim. By late morning we were back on the road to Chi Phat and beginning to recognise familiar surroundings. We were a little confused as we had lunch included in the trek but as we seemed to be getting close to the village and had not yet stopped we thought perhaps we would have it when we got back. Then Unpun lead us through a gate, up a short path and into his home. We sat on his wooden porch and shared a meal with his family. It was a lovely thing to do and great to see a different home to the one we had been staying in. He had pigs, chickens, ducks and two tiny kittens which his daughter was playing with. After eating we thanked Unpun for his hospitality and the trek then walked the short distance back to the village. We were exhausted and filthy, coated in red dust and clay, our bodies were aching all over but we felt so proud that we had accomplished the trek.
Back at the CBET centre we elected to stay in a guest house for the evening rather than back with the family. Although we had had a lovely time with them, we really, really, really needed a shower! Our guest house was in the centre of the village and quite basic, but it had running water so we could not have been happier. We arranged to leave the village the following day and take a bus to the Cambodian capital city Phnom Penh, of course first we had to get the a point where the bus could pick us up. We decided to take the motorbike ride back to Andoung Teuk, which was an exhilarating 40 minutes. First we had to get the bike ferry across the wide river, which was a crudely constructed catamaran, made of two small fishing boats and a plank of wood. Once we were safely on the other side, we jumped onto our motos and sped through the countryside. The road was rough and bumpy and the bikes were quite old but our drivers took good care of us, pointing out fields of sugar cane and plantations along the way. After a short wait in Andoung Teuk we boarded our bus to Phnom Penh. Soon the countryside gave way to buildings and the urban sprawl of the capital took over our view. Chi Phat was an excellent experience and well worth it. Although the trekking was hard going at times it was wonderful to see the rural side of the country and experience life in a small village. Even if trekking or biking is not something you enjoy, just staying in the village is an excellent experience in itself and we would recommend it to everyone.
For two days of trekking with food and a jungle stay the cost was US$50pp. The homestay was around US$4 per night for both of us, with an en-suite guest house room at US$6. Meals at the CBET were US$2.50 for a big breakfast and US$3.50 for a buffet lunch and dinner. The food was quite repetitive and there are other options, however a lot of the small businesses were closed for Khmer new year whilst we were in the village. In total our whole stay for four nights including all meals, trekking, mountain bike hire and ongoing transport to Phnom Penh cost just under $200 for both of us.