The Cardamom Mountains
Exploring nature by destroying it
The adjectives are always the same – pristine, unspoiled, largely unexplored, rich in biodiversity – and the place they’re describing – the Cardamom Mountains. And about the only way to see these pristine, unspoiled, etc. mountains is on a most environmentally unfriendly 250cc motocross bike or reasonable facsimile. I tried to ride through them last April but ran into rain and ran out of time and ran into a whole lot of other things I wasn’t supposed to, so the trip got put off until later. Finally, in mid-January I got through the Cardamoms – or half of them anyway.
Important background – the Cardamoms, so named for the spice we can assume must grow in there somewhere, top out at 1771 meters, the tallest in Cambodia. Covering the provinces of Koh Kong, Pursat, Kompong Speu, and a little bit of Battambang the region is comprised of the Mt. Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, the Mt. Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, and a big chunk in between called the Central Cardamoms, sections of it conveniently parceled into logging concessions.
Don’t get too excited about the prospect of having wildlife sanctuaries in Cambodia as these things exist on paper only. King Sihanouk decreed in 1993 that these sanctuaries should exist but nobody seems to have found the resources to actually take care of them as sanctuaries – but in the village of Veal Veng somebody did manage to erect a sign proclaiming one house as the Mt. Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary Headquarters – at least it’s a start.
A lot of environmentalists have been chomping at the bit to get into these mountains and see what’s crawling around in there. In early 2000, UK-based Fauna & Flora International (FFI) did get in, conducting an extensive biological survey in partnership with the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Protection Office. They identified at least 30 species of large mammals, over 450 birds, 64 reptiles, 30 amphibians, 30 small mammal species and scores of plants and insects. Threatened species include the tiger, Asian elephant, Asiatic wild dog, gaur, pileated gibbon, clouded leopard, and perhaps of greatest importance – the Siamese crocodile – as no significant populations of this species exist outside of the Cardamom range. It’s even been suggested that Javan and Sumatran rhinoceros may inhabit this region. Threats to these species come from several fronts – poaching, illegal logging, and settlers.
Helping to allow these wildlife populations to flourish is that for several decades hardly anybody ever got into the Cardamoms. Even during the French protectorate only a handful of explorers and hunters got in. In subsequent years nobody was there except the Khmer Rouge who controlled much of this territory through the 80s and 90s, at times skirmishing with the logging companies that began moving in during the mid 90s.
Aside from logging concessions, the area is also under pressure from numerous settlers. The region now has a population of about 25,000 people. Several ethnic minorities have been identified. The Pearr and Chong, residing in Battambang and Pursat provinces in the north of the Cardamoms and the Suoy, living in Kompong Speu in the region of Mt. Aural. Meanwhile, a rush exists to claim land where and when possible. Slashing and burning, the settlers move in – some to work with the logging companies, others to farm previously unsettled territory.
While I did see plenty of jungle, mountains, and wilderness, regrettably there was also plenty of evidence of logging and settling.
We were supposed to start our Cardamom journey in Battambang, entering in the north near Pailin, but my riding partner, coming from Phnom Penh, never got further north than Pursat. So I arose at the crack of dawn, left Battambang and headed down to Pursat. My early arrival was pointless as my partner wasn’t ready anyway but that didn’t matter as there’s a brand new road from Pursat to Veal Veng (the small village in the middle of the Cardamoms) that could have been covered in two hours had somebody not smacked the metal plate of a bridge really hard blowing out his rear tire.
A friendly local was real helpful in getting the blown tire sorted out and after getting the bike moving again he implored us to stop at some roadside shrine just up the road and pay our respects to the Buddha and ask for guidance on the rest of our journey. Seemed like the least we could do and probably the next best thing to having a monk bless your bike, something I’m still meaning to get around to doing. Oh, stop laughing, people do it here all the time.
Getting closer to Veal Veng, land mine warning signs were as prevalent as trees. In one settlement they had most of the area roped off, except for one narrow walkway to the local school – certainly must make recess interesting.
Veal Veng is habituated largely by loggers and CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) workers. CMAC is clearing alongside the road south to Koh Kong to allow construction of a new road to facilitate getting the trees out faster and the settlers in quicker. A friendly place is Veal Veng, everybody wanted to invite us for dinner. We ate three times before pitching hammocks under one house.
We got a very early start the next day; nobody sleeps late in Veal Veng. A quick bowl of noodles and coffee and we’re off. CMAC workers had warned us to stay on the road at all times, lotsa mines down there. And it didn’t take long for the road to turn to crap.
At least the road is dry – almost. We hit a rough section of road – hey, there’s a flat spot. Oh, it’s mud. Somebody’s bike gets stuck.
We passed a few minute villages and locals on motos heading to Koh Kong for supplies. All the locals we met were very friendly – except one. We reached a wide river where somebody had constructed a small dodgy bridge. He wanted money. Fair enough. How much? Two barangs with big motos, he asks for 200 baht! We offered 20. He starts to throw a tantrum, holding up his bag of money. He lowers his price to a 100 baht for both of us. Still too much. We cross the bridge giving him nothing. He’s probably still complaining. Hopefully next time two barangs turn up he’ll think to request something a little more reasonable than 200 baht. But to every local’s credit, he was the only asshole we met in two days.
Before long we hit some hill climbs up some dastardly rocky, rutted roads. Yours truly got stuck a few times but it made for great opportunities to stop and listen to the sounds of nature. Birds, bugs, chainsaws. Yes, almost without exception nearly every time we stopped, somewhere in the distance we could hear chainsaws. Later we met up with a pair of loggers out on the road taking a break with their large tools. The only wildlife we would see was the occasional snake or lizard that darted across the road, but then again what do you expect racing through the jungle on noisy 250s?
Once out of the mountains the road vastly improves except for the bridges – dodgy as ever. Nearing Koh Kong we encountered a large clearing that was being burned out to make way for more settlers.
Finally we reached Koh Kong. Civilization. Lunch at 4:30 p.m. Schnitzel at Otto’s.
Visiting the Cardamoms:
There are no tourist facilities in this region. The only way to access the area is by four-wheel drive truck or motorcycle. You could also do it on a Honda Dream but I can’t imagine enjoying it all that much. The journey starts or ends in Koh Kong to the south and either Pursat, Battambang, or Pailin to the north. It’s possible to cover the entire distance in a day but it’s better to bring a hammock and spend the night in Veal Veng. Basic noodle dishes can be purchased there, but expect locals to invite you in for dinner and give you a place to put up your hammock. Some stretches of road are heavily mined on either side. The roads themselves are fine and present no danger but unless there are visible signs of human activity, do not step off the road – not even by one foot. There is little human habitation between Veal Veng and Koh Kong, and there is one stretch of 75 kilometers where there are no villages whatsoever. The motorcycle ride is not terribly difficult, but one should have at least some experience with off-road riding. Road quality varies. Most level areas are built of laterite and are fast. However, erosion has created some tricky climbs up and down some rather steep mountains. Although the road is traveled daily, it is still inadvisable to undertake this trip alone – not for security reasons, but so as to have someone with you should you have an accident or breakdown.
The FFI website is at: http://www.fauna-flora.org
The Cardamom Project website is at http://www.cardamom.org
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