I'm writing this from a hammock in the forests of the Cardamom Mountains Cambodia. I have a list of things I never thought I'd do in my life, and this experience is certainly up there. I'm not one for extreme comfort however this is certainly far, far out of my comfort zone. I decided to do a two and a half day jungle trek in the forests of the Cardamom Mountains. One, because I knew that the money is going back into the community based eco tourism project (You can find out more about how tourism helps the Chi Phat community here) and two, because I met a Dutch guy, and anyone who meets the Dutch knows their extreme yearning for outdoor adventure.
I was browsing through the list of activities that the Chi Phat community provides when a fellow traveller approached me and asked if I'd like to do a trek, as it worked out cheaper for more than 1 person. I was planning to do a trek anyway but he was looking at doing the 2-day trek and that seemed way out of my league. On any other day I wouldn't take one look at the 2-day trek, I would just head straight for the 'easy' section and my extreme need for self protection would have said a big 'no way', but for some reason I decided ‘what the heck, lets do it’.
After we booked the trek the careful protective side of me stared straight at the fearless and impulsive side as if to say 'look what you've got us into now', was I really going to trek and sleep in a jungle for 2 nights... Apparently so.
The trek started at 7:30 am from the Chi Phat Visitor Centre. I could feel the nerves already and quietly thought of excuses that I could make to get out of it. They were all fizzled out by the 'toughen up and get on with it' voice in my head. So off we went down the long dirt road out of Chi Phat. Walking past the basic wooden houses, children waving as you pass by, chickens running across the road and cows and pigs in the yards. You really get a feel that this is the 'real' Cambodia. People here don't have electricity, they don't have television, fast food, 4 bedroom houses, you know, all the things we take for granted most days. They just live a simple, happy life with the little they have and aspire to be who they want to be.
As we walked out of town we left the most part of civilization behind. We passed through banana plantations, open fields, farms and various small homes where Cambodians would sit away from the scorching sun doing whatever it is they do here out in rural Cambodia. We continued walking for a good 10kms through the various scenic ranges stopping for a number of breaks along the way. You really get a feel of how difficult it must be like for the rice farmers who spend most of their days working in the fields under the hot sun.
Lunch was by a small Cambodian shack, I assume one of the last before you hit the forest. Our meal consisted of a delicious chicken and vegetable stir-fry and there was an abundance of food, which was great for us on our long journey. The Cambodian people really know how to make use of what ingredients are on offer. After lunch we headed to one of the beautiful waterfalls for a cool down and oh how amazing it was. I think by that time I would have jumped into any pool of water I was so hot. It was a great way to recharge and get ready for the next leg of the trip, a venture into the jungle, which was where we would get our first glimpse of wildlife and also experience our first encounter with the vampires of the forest, the leeches. Luckily I had my leech free footwear on but anyone who has been in touch with these suckers knows they can get through anything!
After 15kms of walking leeches start to become the least of your problems. I went from checking my feet every five minutes to quietly saying in my head 'eat and be merry, just get me to the campsite already!’ The views of the jungle were beautiful, but after a long day like this I was happy to set up camp and rest my feet for tomorrow.
We arrived at the campsite after a long days walk. The site was a small wooden shack where we could hang our hammocks and there was an area for cooking, an area for eating and a toilet. It was very basic but you wouldn't expect much more in the middle of this beautiful forest surrounded by nature. Dinner was rice with chicken soup cooked by our wonderful guide Mr Knee, it reminded me of a home cooked meal and I almost forgot for a second that home was so very far away. As we devoured our meals and chatted amongst each other the sun went down and the lit candle began to be the only savior between us and the dark night. The forest began to fill with the roaring sounds of the cicadas, who would have thought a creature so small could produce a sound so large? Then again how could a large creature like the elephant live on a vegetarian diet? They will forever be some of nature’s most marvellous mysteries.
It had been a long day and a part of me was quite proud I made it. I sat into my hammock, zipped up the mosquito net and got comfortable in a completely unknown environment to me, the music of the forest putting me fast to sleep like a natural lullaby. Nothing between me and the wilderness but a tin roof and a mosquito net, nothing but complete serenity.
I woke to the calls of Gibbons and Hornbills in the trees. We weren’t lucky enough to catch a glimpse but just the sound of these marvellous creatures filled me with excitement. I had survived one day in jungle and had a sense of adventure for what the next day would bring. We packed up and started our journey deeper into the forest. This time I coated my shoes and socks with soap, a trick that my old Dutch friend had tested with a successful leech-free outcome. Did I mention I only had 2 bites yesterday, and felt like a bit of a pansy worrying so much about these tiny creatures that barely leave a mark on you. I'd assume that blisters or cuts would be much worse. We were a few km’s in and the soap seemed to be working, I had much less of the forest vampires trying to attach themselves to me for a meal.
We followed the sounds of the Gibbons with the hope that we might catch a sneak peak. So far our animal sightings were minimal but as with any trekking experience the sightings of the creatures of the animal kingdom are really based on luck, given that many of those creatures are continuously moving through this great terrain, and generally fear the sounds of humans due to a long history of predatory encounters. I did however ask the guide which month would be the best for animal sightings, to which he answered March/April when the summer heat directs them to the water holes throughout the forest.
We arrived at our stop for lunch a little early, a beautiful stream that had attracted an abundance of butterflies to the area. It didn't bother me though as I sat to cleanse my feat in the clear springs and a butterfly rested its pretty self right on the top of my hand. I've been surrounded by numerous butterflies just in the small time I've been writing this, and there’s something about these creatures that fills me with great euphoria. This seems like the perfect place to stop for lunch as our guide’s head into the lake with fishing nets and begin to catch our lunch to be, splashing in the water imitating the hunter and gatherer lifestyle that once was.
The meals on this adventure have been much more than I had expected. In Cambodia they have a saying “Eat full, not hungry, Sleepy, not scared everything.”
I certainly experience this each time Mr Knee prepares our meals. He is an expert in the forest, having been a soldier in the Khmer Rouge, a dark history I could never imagine. He doesn’t speak English but I can see in his eyes a strong soul, and one that would look after us in this forest had anything unfortunate happen. He taught us some of the tricks of life in the forest, for example a tree that you can break that allows you to drink water from the roots. He also found an old piece of bark where a Witchetty Grub was hiding, and cooked it up that night (and yes I ate a tiny bit).
We finally arrived at our last destination overlooking the river and reminiscing about an eventful 2 days in the jungle. For dinner, Mr Ratt our wonderful guide, had mentioned to My Knee that I was quite fond of Sweet Potato and to my surprise there was a whole plate waiting for me to indulge in. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we are in the forest, it doesn’t feel like we are sleeping in a hammock, and it doesn’t feel like we are so far away from civilization. For a few days I had no sense of time, just sunrise and sunset. What a different feeling it was to my usual life.
That’s the thing about traveling. You can choose to put yourself out of your comfort zone to gain one of the most marvelous things in life - experience. I started my list of things I'd never though I'd do just because it amazed me how in such a small amount of time my life's experiences had increased in the least expected ways. Some things I'd do again in a minute, some things I'm happy to keep as a single memory (I'll have to get back to you about sleeping in the jungle), but all in all they add value to my life no matter what. Which makes me feel like I've gained so much.
We ended the trek with bird watching along the river. Hornbills sang at the tops of the trees, we witnessed the occasional sight of a vibrant Kingfisher and heard the Macaques bickering throughout the trees. I had survived 2 days in the jungle, added to my list of things I never thought I’d do and also actively contributed to the wellbeing and development of the Chi Phat community. All in all a great 3 days and I would definitely recommended it to anyone looking for a unique Cambodian experience.
You can find a list of all Chi Phat activities available here.