Chi Phat, 12-14 January
12.01.2009 - 14.01.2009 29 °C
The Lonely Planet advised us that one of the only ways to penetrate the Cardamoms was to go to Chi Phat – where the Wildlife Alliances community-based ecotourism project is well underway, to protect the Cardamom ecosystem from poaching, logging, and encroachment. After a lovely 1.5hr bus ride through the forest we are dropped off by the Preak Piphot River to fend for ourselves - Chi Phat waiting 21km upriver. We negotiate a ride for US$5 on a long tail boat, laden up with bricks and locals. A very scenic but 2.5hr slow journey – only breaking down once and resorting to hand pumping as the boat water pump dies, but no real set backs.
Once there we wander along the dusty dirt road trying to converse with the locals to find a guesthouse, until a lady wearing brightly coloured pajama's (which all the women seem to wear around here) finds us and takes us to the Wildlife Alliance office. One of the project organizers gets the chef to cook us up a huge feed while he explains the project to us, and introduces us to the English teachers and Project Coordinators - very organized! Today we're the only visitors at Chi Phat, but tourists are starting to trickle through here most days now. We settle into our guesthouse and meet the others – a guy who works on the reforestation project, an architect to assess the infrastructure requirements for ecotourism, the volunteer coordinator for the Israeli English teaching project, and the rest of the volunteers. The projects have only recently been set up and internet and cell phone reception have arrived accordingly (last week). Once the projects are successfully up and running smoothly, the goal is for the locals to continue unassisted, creating a source of jobs and income through ecotourism, and protecting the environment. Very noble initiatives indeed!
Down at the pier the local boys play volleyball, the children play in sandpits, and parents seem wary of our presence. We walk down the main road past the coconut palms, abandoned houses past their use by date, houses on stilts with chickens, pigs, cows, cats, dogs, children, and adults all seeking shade beneath their homes. Ox carts and bicycles, and tiny children who follow us down the road yelling out "hello" and "bye bye". Cute! We find the river after many games of charades along the way, trying to convey to the Khmers that we want to find the river. Once there we find the river to ourselves however – so peaceful swimming among the boulder rocks and shallow drops, then dozing in the sun on the hot rocks.
Back home for dinner cooked with love by our lovely old Khmer lady cook who keeps bringing out dish upon dish of food – and it's only for us two! While we eat we watch the night English lessons being taught to an open air classroom of children; the children chanting English at the tops of their lungs – so enthusiastic. Inside the main "office" Vishna is teaching English to the adults of the community - even the chief is learning which is very encouraging. We join them and have great fun and laughs introducing ourselves to the class, running dialogues with one another. Today has been the first day of lessons, it's now 8.30pm and they're still going strong. They are shy but actually pretty good! We write our names up on the board, and then get asked "do all people in your country write with their left hand?" haha (both of us are lefties). The whole village of 500ppl is getting behind these projects; it's great to be here supporting them in the initial stages, already showing such positive developments. They have set up mountain bike trails and walking treks, with further activities on the cards.
We decide to do the mountain bike trek and get up close and personal with the Cardamom forest. Our cute cook gives us packed lunches wrapped in banana leaves, packed into little flax baskets. Our guide, a young Khmer boy with no English (yet), takes us on a great track -despite the sand which we spin out on constantly. We ride through dry plains with wild ox running past, many streams and forest cover, steep and technical sections through dense jungle and see a large red centipede cross the track. After a good few hours we ditch our bikes for the ascent through the forest, to view the burial jars. These were once used for the heads of the dead which were always buried on the peak of a mountain – a sacred site according to Hindu beliefs. The jars sit amongst the large limestone rocks, and although discovered in the 80's, are just beginning to be studied (by a kiwi who came here recently to carbon date them). As soon as we arrive at the jars we hear a large animal crashing through the jungle – an elephant or a black bear according to our guide who frantically points at his picture cards. We walk around the corner to see more jars but something spooks our guide and he hurries us back down to our bikes and exclaims "tiger".*
Back on our bikes as Guido comes across a large porcupine lounging on the path. 0.5m high, black with golden spikes, it careers down the track as he almost cycles into the poor fellow. Then it's down to a nice stream for lunch before coasting it back through lush forest, wind in face, bird life chorus, butterflies, hot sun, and…. then surrounded by forest fires, burning either side of us along the plains. A scorching heat as we cycle through, our guide radio's them in… Close to the village we cool off with a dip at a waterfall before returning the bikes. A mammoth 42km ride it has been – and only our second time mountain biking ever! We relax our achy bodies and drink coconuts freshly chopped down for us - divine! Then it's that inevitable time to brave the barrel showers, pouring buckets of cold water over ourselves to clean off. We join the rest of the crew outside for yet another mammoth dinner, green tea and good times.
Next day we bid farewell to our new friends, and wave goodbye from the back of our motobikes. A 45 minute sand slide ride back to the main road lies ahead, constantly spinning out in the sand on a joke of a "road", thankful to be alive when we arrive!
- Later on we queried Vishna on what exactly our guide got spooked by (as tigers haven't been seen around here since the seventies). Smirking, Vishna explains that rural Cambodians are naturally very superstitious and that our guide saw a shadow sweeping over the jars, thought to be a bad spirit (bringing bad luck to those who see it and their families). Eek!