A Change of Guard

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Friday, 26 February 2010

Cambodia has an eco project with bite

‘Cobra!’my Cambodian guide Leeheng yells. The warning comes just in time: I leap sideways as the oil-black snake slithers past and continues oblivious along the riverbank.

Village life: Local women get down to some planting Village life: Local women get down to some planting

By Graeme Green
26th February, 2010

I’d nearly trodden on another cobra earlier in the day but that – a mere two-footer – was a tiddler in comparison; the snake that just passed within easy biting range was two metres long and thick as a bodybuilder’s bicep. It was the kind of deadly, ‘isn’t she a beauty?’ monster Steve Irwin used to wrestle. The local ‘joke’ is that if one of these bites, you have just enough time to make one last phone call to your loved ones.

If you like plush hotels, then the jungle village of Chi Phat in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains isn’t for you. During my time here, I’m caked in mud, snacked on by mosquitoes and regularly watching leeches fall from my body, bloated on my blood. But for the committed traveller keen to genuinely get off the beaten track, this is an authentic slice of rural Cambodian life. The people in the village are welcoming and curious, the trekking through pristine jungle and meadows is a world away from mundane realities, and the big draw, which I’m here to test out, is a 57km mountain-biking trail that takes in an ancient burial jar site.

All this has a purpose: Wildlife Alliance is working on a reforestation project here to replace large areas of trees lost to logging; the Chi Phat Community Based Ecotourism Project provides alternative sources of income for locals (as guides, mechanics, chefs…) to reduce poverty and help stop illegal logging and hunting.

The riverside village has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. In the mornings children walk or cycle to school along the muddy main road, calling out ‘hello’ as I pass; at night, people gather in bars to watch kick-boxing on TV or sit on porches talking with family and friends.

I stay with a local family in one of six homestays. Facilities are basic (the ‘shower’ is a barrel of cold water and a plastic saucepan) and the lack of a shared language makes conversation difficult but I spend a pleasant evening on the porch with my hosts, sharing their locally made rice wine, which has a hefty kick in any language.

The near-cobra experience aside, my two-day trek with local guides Leeheng and Sok is incredibly peaceful. The only sounds as we hike through dense wet jungle are bird calls and gibbons whooping in the trees. We camp overnight in hammocks, under a piece of tarp, before returning to the village, where Sok (below) cuts three coconuts down from the trees – we stick straws in and they’re good to go.

We start out early to beat the heat. Like most good fun, the mountain biking is diverse, adventurous and a bit dirty. The circuit follows old logging trails through jungle, open fields, grassy meadows and thigh-deep streams. At the top of Khnang O’Ampov mountain, we park and climb a slippery path, gripping on to overgrown vines. We’re halfway through a pitch-black tunnel when I realise the thick layer of sludge under my hands is made up of decades of bat droppings; I can hear the winged beasts flapping overhead. Emerging at the other end, Sok points out small coffins in a thin gap in the rock. Further down, perched on rocky ledges, are several mysterious ancient burial jars containing skeletal remains thought to be more than 500 years old, possibly Khmer heroes or royalty, though no one knows their exact origins.

The Chi Phat project is still rough around the edges – there were a few glitches with arrangements and local staff are still getting up to speed in terms of providing tourism services. The level of English spoken is also low, which is a real shame as the guides are unable to share their vast knowledge of the local area. All that should change with time, though, as more visitors come here for a raw, real experience of life in an unspoilt, little-known Cambodian village. One day travellers might even boast they were in Chi Phat before it became too touristy.

* Asia Adventures (www.asia-adventures.com) offers four-day packages to Chi Phat from Phnom Penh from £110 per person. Travellers can book homestays and activities at Chi Phat (www.mountain bikingcardamoms.com). To get to Cambodia, we used Expedia.co.uk (Tel: 0871 222 9483) which has return flights with Malaysian Airways from Heathrow to Phnom Penh from £574pp. For more on Wildlife Alliance, visit www.wildlifealliance.org

* Phnom Penh: Cambodia’s capital means dodging motos on the city streets, sampling fish amok (coconut curry) on the riverfront and walking alongside orange- robed monks in front of the Royal Palace. Check out the huge emerald Buddha in the Silver Pagoda’s treasure room.

* Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is housed in former school buildings that were used for detention and torture. Nearby, the infamous ‘killing fields’ are grim reminders of the atrocities committed under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

* Angkor temples: A World Heritage Site, the massive temple complex of Angkor Wat is one of many archaeological sites worth checking out in the area. Angkor Thom, featuring large-scale face designs, and Ta Prohm, where parts of the Tomb Raider films were shot, are also must-sees.

* Tonlé Sap: The Tonlé Sap (Great Lake) is the biggest lake in Asia, covering up to 16,000 sq km during the wet season. It is home to traditional floating villages and the remote twitcher’s paradise, Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary.

* Kep: Unwind in this small, quiet seaside town, where there’s little to do but rest on the beach and scoff fresh seafood, washed down with a cold glass of Angkor beer.

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