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.
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.
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.