Community-Based Eco Tourism in Cambodia
2/5/12 - 2/7/12 84 °F
For a small, somewhat isolated village in the southern Cardamom Mountain Range, getting to Chi Phat was suprisingly easy. From Phnom Phen we bought a bus ticket to Koh Kong but made sure to tell the driver we needed to be let off in Andong Tuk. We were dropped off at a small shelter where a sign advertised longtail boat rides or motorbike taxis to Chi Phat. It was 45 minutes and $6 each by motorbike or 2 hours and $22 total by longtail. We'd heard the boat ride was nice and figured we could take the motorbike on our way out of Chi Phat so we could experience both ways and it worked out well that way.
As we weighed our options, a woman took notice of us and said, "I am boat." We got the point. With a few nods and gestures we confirmed we wanted the boat ride. She disappeared for a few minutes and came back with our masked boat driver in tow. He didn't say more than a few words the entire trip but he got us there just fine. The boat ride really was nice and I'd say it's worth going that route on the way in to Chi Phat. Earplugs are a must. Two hours listening to the droning song of the longtail engine is guaranteed hearing loss Once we got our plugs in the ride was very peaceful. The scenery was classic cambodian countryside with a few clusters of homes jutting into the river along the way, probably nothing unique for the area but beautiful nonetheless.
We didn't exactly know where to go from the pier in Chi Phat, but it turns out there's really only one main road that tourists need to know. A few steps from the boat, a Community Based Eco Tourism (CBET) sign points the way to their office. CBET essentially runs tourism industry in this village. They've been around since 2004 if I remember right, giving the locals a way of making a living aside from poaching and logging in the jungle. It seemed like a stand-up organization and they made everything really easy. At the office we were greeted by a young woman who spoke pretty good English. She explained how they appoint tourists to the different guesthouses/ homestays based on a rotation so that all of the locals get in on some of the action. She also gave us a thick binder filled with possible itineraries for tours in the area. We chose a two-day mountain biking trip with an overnight in the jungle near O'malu Waterfall. Matt and Chris, a couple of guys from Portland, showed up just after us and wanted to do the same trip so we had a good group of four plus two guides for the next day.
The next morning we woke up early. Later than we should have due to an alarm clock failure, but still pretty early. We ate a quick breakfast of noodles, bananas and sticky rice and were given our backpacks for the trip. The packs were ridiculously huge, bigger than the 48L Osprey I brought for our entire 3 1/2 month trip in SEA. Each of them contained our supply of water, a hammock and a blanket. When we were ready to go we were introduced to our guide, Paeng. He gave each of us a mountain bike. They weren't anything special but they did the trick. The going was easy at first since we stuck to the main road but I was sweating anyway in the early morning sun. After about 10 minutes we turned off on a small trail. It was rough from there on out. Initially I was doing my best to power through the ruts and mud and sand and rock and brush expecting the hard part to end and an easy trail to open up, but it never happened. The next 1.5 - 2 hours were a steady incline on consistently rough terrain. It was hard work. So hard that I had to question whether I was really enjoying it. Looking back on it, of course I did have a good time, but in the moment it would have been hard for me to say why. Most of the time I was too busy biking to think of looking up, let alone snap a picture, but here are a few:
The ride was way more intense than we expected. It was listed in the itinerary as medium difficulty but Paeng kept describing the way ahead as "very difficult." Which we definitely thought was more accurate. After two hours or so of pedaling through hills, fields and prairie with the Cambodian sun bearing down on us relentlessly, Sam decided to turn back. I can't say I blame her. At that point in the ride the idea had probably crossed everyone's mind at least once. Sam turned around and headed back with one of the guides leaving Me, Paeng, and the two cousins from Portland to tear on.
Shortly after Sam left us, the trail and the trail got a little more interesting, although it didn't get any easier. We biked on, sometimes pedaling hard up-hill and sometimes cautiously descending on trails of loose rock, tree roots, sand and mud. The open hills and prairie gave way to dense jungle and bamboo groves. It was so thick at some parts the only way to get through was to crouch low over the handlebars to avoid hanging vines and shuffle through while trying not to get your foot snagged under a tree root.
A little under four hours in we arrived at O'malu Waterfall. Matt, Chris and I took to the water to cool off while the guides set to work on lunch and making our camp for the night. Camp consisted of a tarp with our hammocks slung below it. The food, some noodles with egg and veggies, was equally simple but satisfying after that ride. There wasn't much to do the rest of the afternoon but I was grateful for the opportunity to sit and take in the scene. Paeng joined me for awhile. His English wasn't the best and I don't speak any Khmer but we're both patient guys so we had some broken conversation between long stretches of staring at the water. We told each other about our countries and each learned a few new words in the other's language. It was a good way to spend an afternoon.
That evening we went for a leisurely walk in the jungle, had some more food and then just relaxed and chatted away the daylight. Cambodians tend to get up early so the guides were ready for bed by about 8pm. The rest of us (Me, Chris, Matt and a couple German girls who'd hiked to O'Malu for the night) played cards for a few hours by flashlight before calling it a day.
The next morning we had another noodle breakfast followed by one last swim under the waterfall before taking off back to Chi Phat. The ride was a lot easier this time. We took a different route from the way we'd come in so it was only 15 mins to the main road that took us all the way back to CBET. Sam and I spent one more night in Chi Phat and then got on our way to the coast for a little more island time.