Cambodia appears to have come a long way, even in the 11 years since my first visit, with new roads linking towns across the country putting tourism opportunities on the doorsteps of even remote villages; but at what cost? In 1970 70 % of Cambodia was covered in rainforest, now it’s just 3 %! As soon as we crossed the Thai boarder until we reached Phnom Penh, the view from the coach window was a vast expanse of rice paddy. Trees scarcely make an appearance such is the level of conversion of land to agriculture. Britain, a island of field systems is undernourished of forests and is one of the least wooded areas in Europe at around 12 % compared to the continental average of 20 %. However, temperate forests that stop photosynthesising for half a year each autumn contribute little towards moderating our global gas balance and are home to a mere 10 species per hectare at best. Rainforests accommodate an average of 300 species per hectare, store over half of the world’s rainwater and keep a close check on the atmospheric gases that we require to survive. In short, we can destroy as much forest beyond the tropics with little consequence to the world, but remove the rainforest and Gaia may well react against us!
Our journey to the northern town of Banlung promised rainforests and tribal communities although the rows of geometrically aligned rubber trees we passed on the way kept us sceptical! The journey itself was a treat, with our minibus bursting at the seems, the lads on the back row hitting the lagers (we left at 8 am!) and handing out fried bugs (one was enough) and led to us meeting French traveller Lou! We decided to partner up and as with our last Anglo-French encounter things happened from the off as we hired mopeds and toured the local attractions.
Yeak Laom, or volcano lake was first, where it’s clean warm waters beckoned us in for a mid-afternoon dip and stroll around the three kilometre perimeter lined with small huts that play host to picnics and parties. From there we set off for one of the many waterfalls in the area. But Tarmac led to sandy road which turned to muddy track and soon we were see-sawing over ruts and bumps. Enough was enough as Lou was dislodged from her moped and daylight began to run out!
The next day we enlisted the help of guide Norman who suggested we head off to some waterfalls…and it was back to the same dirt lanes! But with better light and the previous day’s warm-up, we made it, and well worth the effort it was too! Then back on the bikes and off to the nearby gem mines with the added bonus of filling up the moped with fuel from a coke bottle on the way. The mines are an uncomplicated affair, a thirty metre hole straight down with hollows dug into the sides of the shaft – used as the steps for descending, no need for ropes and ladders (the hand winch is just for the buckets of earth). As with all attractions we were duly offered the local produce, small chunks of amethyst for a mere $5 (£3 from the Rockshop, Ambleside, and that’s polished!).
Another dirt track later and we arrived at a minority village. We were welcomed into a home in which were gathered ten men (some only just) who were convening to settle a dispute with an unhappy spirit through the medium of drinking rice wine and eating a sacrificial pig (once again chaps, it ain’t no sacrifice if you eat it, that’s simply animal slaughter for consumption!). Still, in the hopes of calming the spirit’s mood, we did our bit and to my surprise the liquor was not half bad, and the banana pork dish pretty good. Norman then lead us to his family’s farm, complete with mum, dad, six siblings and drunk uncle who never once stopped talking in the hour we were there. The family prepared the fish we had bought earlier at the market and Norman gave us an insight into the important things in the life of a 21 year old aspirational Cambodian (Smartphone, motorbike, money, beer then girls, though I think the assertion was the first four were required before the fifth could be achieved).
Another bus journey that started with an hour spent touring the town in search of extra punters to accompany us, a motorbike and 200 oranges on the backseat and we arrived in Sen Monorom, the smallest of Cambodia’s provincial capitals and home to just a few thousand people. After an afternoon of great cake, coffee and pizza and a night spent on yet another foam mattress that my back will never forgive me for, we were heading out to the jungle. Of the 50 shops in Sen Monorom that don’t sell mobile phones or motorbikes the rest send tourists on elephant experiences. We teamed up with a couple of Germans we met on the bus and Bruno from Italy and headed into the jungle with our guide Hong.
We’ve spent many hours in jungle and rainforest by now, and this one seemed to contain the fewest animal species of the lot so far, but it did try and make up for it with some nice waterfalls perfect for a dip. However, the piece de resistance was lunch, cooked by Hong who has made the same lunch for Gordon Ramsey no less! Up and down countless hills and at 5pm we arrived at the tiny Bunong village of Punong where we said our farewells to our trekking buddies and hello to the rest of Hong’s family as we opted for an overnight homestay in a tradition thatched hut. To pass the time until dinner (which was a really long time) I showed off my magic trick to Hong’s son Chen; then to Chen’s brothers, then the sisters, and by the time I performed it for tenth repeat I must have had the entire school (of course, it is a very small village).
As the fire died down we strung our hammocks inside the smoky hut and thought about an early night, but Hong had other plans. It was time to break out the rice wine and bless his latest newborn who is the reincarnated spirit of his grandfather! Helen and I teamed up our shot of wine to each of Hong’s, enough to send us to bed with a warm feeling inside. There was little inside Hong’s house which stood next to the hut we shared with Nan; a few photos, a small stereo and curtains concealing the bedrooms for the family members, but the star attraction was the four day old Samsong Galaxy S5 – family life will never be the same!
The next day we headed back into the jungle to meet Baku and Happylucky, two Asian elephants who we followed as they meandered through the jungle paths, eating at every opportunity. Led by their Mahouts with little more than grunts they were not shackled, poked, prodded or hit at any point. Neither were we allowed to ride the heffalumps; feed them and pat them was as far as the contact went. We felt like we’d chosen well at the hands of Torn and his small Bunong Elephant Project, set against all the competition of the international NGOs and other locals giving more interaction with the elephants. Returning to town we bumped into Lou once more and spent our final night in Cambodia in a small shack eating noodles and drinking local beer, all that remained was to get up early the next day and cross the border into Vietnam, easy peasy!