The jungle book

Wild Cambodia

The jungle book

Entering the breathtakingly beautiful jungles of Cambodia may seem like a journey into the neverland. Ian Watkinson explores this green region of Chi Phat, where Khmer people welcome tourists into their homes and hearts.

The small wooden boat headed for the village of Chi Phat, hidden 20 km upstream in the Cambodian forest, is eventually ready to leave. It took a while to slowly rouse the boatman, then to find his boat. Here in the Cardamom Hills, the second largest rainforest in Southeast Asia, no one needs to be in a hurry.

Heading north along the wide, calm Phipot River from Andong Village, we are the only passengers the route has seen for several days. This is not a busy place. The morning’s tranquil mist begins to lift revealing endless, lush jungle on either side, the jungle pressing so close to the bank it seems intent on invading the river’s allocated space, a great green crowd spilling into the water. The creaking bamboo are enormous yellow fountains, topped with gargantuan geysers of green feathers; verdant volcanic eruptions still in progress.

Elegantly edged with swaying water palms, the silver river seems almost a landscaped aquatic avenue. It is impossible to maintain a sense of scale — the density and texture of the forest defies description or categorisation, amorphous layers of trunk and stem, vine and creeper contend for space and light with roots and shoots, pushing, shoving and choking each other in continual competition. It looks as if it has been spray painted in 3D.
Wild & beautiful

Man seems almost irrelevant in this space, and I wonder how long it would take to gain five metres foothold into this impenetrable organic matrix with a machete. There are no roads, no pylons, no people on either side as far as the eye can see. On the vertical rock, faces drift into view from time to time and split the forest. The bamboo continues to sprout from every crevasse on the vertical rock face, along with tall silvery grey stemmed trees with very high crowns standing taller then the rest, parallel to the immense sheer limestone faces. This is a huge expansive landscape, a great interwoven tapestry of wonder where Mother Nature encompasses all with her dense carpet of marvels.

It is said that over 30 per cent of the jungle here has been stripped over the last decade due to indiscriminate expansive development, including slash and burn farming, and corrupt logging and mining. The forest people are in essence hunter gatherers, and wild animals have always been their food. But now there are few wild animals left — the river is eerily devoid of any bird life, and the forest air is silent. Monkeys would be expected here in profusion — but there are none. The devastation caused to both humans and wild creatures by both the horror of the Khmer Rouge years and the subsequent need for raw materials to rebuild the shattered country has further added to this spiralling problem. This place is in danger.

After over two hours of entering the jungle, we alight at a small wooden jetty in Chi Phat Village. We have come here to experience Cambodian jungle village life, to be eco-tourists, to experience a taste of ‘real’ Cambodia. Here, in the Chi Phat area, comprising around 500 families, a unique project has been underway since 2007 — protecting the forest from further exploitation by men that has proved detrimental, yet allowing visitors to come and enjoy the forest, experience and learn from the natural environment, and from the locals.

Forest tourism

The small but steady trickle of visitors provides enough money for the whole community and removes the need for them to hunt or further decimate the forest. This is no easy task, and the village is being assisted in the project by an American NGO. A co-operative system of equality has been set up within the village, where all monies from visitors are shared between all.

Visitors can make trips into the jungle, often over several days, hire good quality mountain bikes to visit waterfalls, or go on naturalist excursions, all accompanied by trained guides, who are also paid via the co-operative scheme. Simple accommodation in wooden stilt houses with local families is provided via the community visitor’s centre. Since there is a fixed rate for accommodation throughout the village, there is no need for competition and all the proceeds are equally distributed on a rotational basis. There are no luxuries here, mind you — this is tourism for the intrepid. One thing that is not in decline is the vast plethora of insects.

This form of sustainable travel directly benefits local communities and provides independent travellers a rare opportunity to interact with local Khmer people, whose traditional way of life has been severely affected by modern developments, and where traditional forms of income are no longer sustainable or viable. It helps to sustain local heritage and culture.

In the previous year, the village had welcomed just over 1,000 visitors, and the community seemed content, settled and comfortable with unobtrusive transient outsiders living amongst them. Six years since its humble beginnings, this unique model of sustainability seems to be truly working. Eventually, people hope that the few remaining wild animals will recover their populations. Vast tracts of deforested land are being replanted with new trees. At last, nature may be reclaiming the jungle. It’s about time.

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