Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains and its endangered flora and fauna may well be under threat from illegal logging and poaching, but the vast blanket of tropical rainforest remains one of Southeast Asia’s most pristine expanses of wilderness. Thanks to recent improvements to access and the development of community-led projects, visiting the area is getting easier.
Spanning more than 4.4 million hectares of rainforest in southwestern Cambodia, the Cardamom Mountains remains Southeast Asia’s largest remaining rainforest. Inhabited by a swathe of endangered wildlife, the expansive woodland is also home to about 25,000 people, many of whom are ethnic minorities.
As with the rest of Cambodia, the area comes with a bitter recent history and was not so long ago one of the last strongholds for Khmer Rouge soldiers. After the fall of the Pol Pot-led regime in 1979, many of the soldiers fled to the forest, continuing to fight their battle with the few pockets of locals living there.
The mid-1990s brought with it peace, with the final Khmer Rouge fighters giving up their battle in 1994. However, many remained living in the remote jungle for several years. With peace restored, this paved the way for the start of rampant logging and poaching – issues that continue to threaten the future of the forest today.
Despite this, the Cardamoms remain home to a vast array of rare animals and tropical flora. And thanks to the recent upgrade of roads and more community-based tourism projects cropping up, the tourist stream is starting to slowly trickle into the remote area.
It’s all about nature
While much of the dense forest remains off limits to tourists – or humans in general – there are plenty of pockets to explore that showcase the area’s biodiversity in all its glory.
Its rugged landscape, which takes in mountains, marshes, plains and gushing rivers, make it the perfect stomping ground for the vast collection of rare and endangered species that call it home. These include elephants, tigers – although spotting one is highly unlikely – sun bears, Siamese crocodiles, gibbons and clouded leopards.
If you want to get up close and personal with some of these incredible animals, then nature organisation Wildlife Alliance (WA) offers a special experience.
Working in the Cardamoms, as well as across the country, to preserve and conserve Cambodia’s wildlife, WA rescues animals from the clutches of poachers and traffickers, and rehabilitates them at Phnom Tamao Rescue Centre, outside Phnom Penh.
Once ready to return to their natural habitat, WA sends them to its wildlife release stations in the heart of the Cardamoms and guests are invited to join rangers on their mission. Sun bears, gibbons and clouded leopards are regular guests.
WA has also spearheaded another pioneering project in the form of Chi Phat. As one of the area’s first community-based tourism projects, villagers at Chi Phat have come together to operate a network of homestays where visitors can really live like a local and immerse themselves in rural Cambodian life.
Activities include a variety of treks through the jungle, kayaking, mountain biking, cookery classes and swimming in waterfalls.
A fantastic recent addition to the Cardamoms offerings is Cardamom Tented Camp. The nine-tent eco-camp is set inside Botum Sakor National Park and was the brainchild of The Minor Group, YAANA Ventures and Wildlife Alliance, who feared an 18,000-hectare of land concession would fall into the hands of loggers, poachers and sand dredgers that plague the jungle.
Instead, they snapped it up and created a glamping wonderland, ideal for those who want to make a difference. Activities include accompanying a ranger on his patrols of the forest, checking camera traps for animal sightings, kayaking and hiking.
The Cardamoms have suffered in recent decades, with illegal logging and poaching rife. In the wake of the Khmer Rouge, locals living in dire poverty often relied on this as a way to survive, and slash and burn farming was rampant.
Home to a swathe of endangered animals, hunters commonly prowl the forest to find rare catches and lay snares. Their prizes are often sold on for hefty sums – often to be used in Chinese medicine.
Another issue is locals relying on hunting to feed and simply not realising the importance of their prey.
While poaching remains a serious threat, recent years have seen it slow down, thanks to the tireless efforts of a series of organisations. Several initiatives have equipped former poachers with new skills and ways to make money so they can leave their past behind. Chi Phat is one example.
With many villagers dealing in animal trafficking, WA decided to equip them with new skills in tourism. Former poachers now act as guides to lead guests through the jungle – who knows them better, right? – and families can make their cash through guesthouses and other businesses tapping into visiting tourists.
Education has also dramatically helped, with many organisations visiting schools and villages to explain the importance of keeping the Cardamoms intact. Patrol stations have also been set up in areas that are rife with hunters, with rangers trained to patrol the areas.
Illegal logging is also a major issue for the jungle. In April 2012, environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot dead while investigating illegal logging in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest.
For decades, the area’s precious woods, including rosewood, which sells for $5,000 to $8,000 per cubic metre, have been targeted, with vast expanses of the forest cleared.
Again, efforts are being made to stamp out the large-scale logging operations by campaigners and environmental NGOs, but it continues to be a problem today.
What to pack
Let’s get one thing straight. This is the jungle. There is no luxury, no wifi, no hot showers or hospital. There is scarce generator-powered electricity and in many places, no phone reception.
There are insects, malaria-riddled mosquitoes in some areas, strange creepy crawlies, spiders and other odd-looking creatures.
Don’t let any of this put you off, but be prepared for the simple life and pack accordingly. DEET spray is a must, as is sun cream, and a basic first aid kit is recommended. Take a torch and fully-charged power bank, and make sure you pack a light raincoat and something to keep you warm at night.
Stock up on snacks and ditch the flip flops for something sturdier. Take some toilet paper – there are no toilets in the middle of the jungle and most homestays will only have a bum gun – and wet wipes, and remember to charge electrical items whenever you can so you can record the stunning natural beauty that surrounds you.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.