The path to Preak Tachan ranger station, in Botum Sakor national park, Cambodia, snakes through dense, silent forest. It crosses bubbling rivers and clearings where luminous butterflies flit around gargantuan hanging vines and tall wild grasses. It’s The Lost World, Indochina-style. I half expect a dinosaur to come crashing through the foliage.
The 1,712 sq km park – in the Cardamom mountains in the south-west of the country – is home to rare wildlife such as the pileated gibbon, Asian elephant, clouded leopard and Bengal slow loris. But with the triple challenges of poaching, logging and sand mining, these critically endangered species, and the jungle they live in, are under threat.
I’m staying at Cardamom Tented Camp, a new eco-tourism concession in the park that is on a mission to help preserve this wilderness by providing visitors with a great holiday while funding conservation efforts. A partnership between two NGOs – Wildlife Alliance and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation – and responsible travel company Yaana Ventures, it helps pay for 12 rangers plus camera traps and tracking devices – all vital in the battle to preserve ecosystems and communities. The camp has been nominated for a Tourism for Tomorrow award (winners announced in April).
From Thailand’s Trat airport it’s a three-hour journey across the border to the camp by jeep and boat. Around 10km from the nearest village on a savannah-like patch of grassland on a bend in the Preach Tachan River, Cardamom Camp feels enticingly remote – but it’s not a place that scrimps on creature comforts.
The nine luxury safari tents have proper beds and rain showers (powered, like everything else by solar panels). There’s a riverside bar and restaurant where I eat squid with peppercorns, and oozy chocolate lava cake. But the best trimmings are provided by nature: the stars that illuminate the night while I savour a beer on my porch, and the absence of manmade sounds.
Days here can be spent just enjoying the chilled setting, or exploring by foot or kayak. But for a deeper understanding of the challenges the area faces, guests can join a trek with the rangers. Poachers, illegal loggers and smugglers are a familiar scourge in the wider Cardamom region. Pangolins are hunted and sold for food, while their scales – and creatures from snakes to flying squirrels – are sought for traditional Chinese medicine. Swathes of jungle have been cleared for rubber or oil palm plantations – another disaster for wildlife – and there’s also small-scale theft of valuable timber like rosewood. Deforestation in Cambodia is accelerating faster than in any other nation.
At the ramshackle station, a two-and-a-half-hour hike from the camp, chief ranger Chum Kheng talks of the ongoing battle with poachers in the park and beyond. Shelves are laden with nets and evil-looking snares with rusty, jagged teeth. “The fact that we have confiscated these is a good thing,” says Kheng. “The poachers know that we are dedicated to our jobs and will do our best to stop them.”
Anyone wanting full immersion in the rangers’ world can tag along on an overnight patrol – which involves sleeping under the stars, lessons in survival skills and hard treks of up to 20km. But there’s also plenty for those who prefer their jungle odysseys with a degree of comfort and relaxation. After my trek, I spend the rest of the afternoon hurling myself from the camp’s deck into the cool, inky river and floating face up to watch macaques in the trees above.
Things are equally somnolent the following day. With my guide, Sinam, I kayak along a limpid, winding tributary of the main river, our progress sound-tracked by the constant whirring of cicadas in the green walls of jungle on either side. A set of rapids stops us in our tracks, but the chance to bathe in a deep forest pool provides a refreshing full stop to the adventure.There are self-guided trails through the jungle too, but mostly I follow a sedate pattern of kayaking, plunging, eating and reading.
“It’s the chance to be amid beautiful nature as much as the wildlife that attracts people,” says camp manager Alan Michaud. “We can’t ensure that you will see a monkey, let alone a gibbon, a bear or some of the rarer birds, but we can guarantee peace and quiet.”
Indeed, the drama of the encounters with poachers recounted by Kheng seems hard to fathom given the idyllic nature of life here (and there’s no fear of poachers coming close to the camp, I’m assured). But there is serious work going on behind the scenes. As the camp’s literature reminds visitors: “Your stay keeps the forest standing.” A win-win for everyone.
Credit: The Guardian