Details, Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia
Although the mighty jungle-clad temples of Angkor have put Cambodia firmly on the tourist map, very few visitors venture to the country’s remote and mysterious southwest region. Until recently, the Cardamom Mountains were simply off-limits. War raged in these quiet emerald peaks, named for the heady spice that grows here, until the mid-1990s. The area was the last stronghold of Khmer Rouge rebels who retreated here after the 1979 collapse of Pol Pot’s brutal regime. For more than a decade, bloody battles continued to break out between the guerrillas and local villagers.
When the guns finally fell silent, the locals had lost everything. Forced to exploit their natural resources to survive, they hunted wildlife and destroyed the forests. But despite their dark past and a back story worthy of the Hollywood treatment, the Cardamoms remain a place of astounding beauty. And with peace has come tourism.
Only 1,000 or so travelers a year make the journey to this region, which is a three-hour drive and a two-hour scenic boat ride from the capital, Phnom Penh. Their efforts are rewarded with world-class hiking and local interaction that’s a far cry from the commercialized “cultural” treks found elsewhere in Asia.
With the help of the Wildlife Alliance — an American nonprofit organization that works alongside national governments to promote conservation and alleviate poverty in Southeast Asia — the communities here have reclaimed their destiny. Landmines have been cleared, former battlefields have become prime trekking territory, and the men who once fought the rebels now lead guided walks along deserted trails. The women, meanwhile, have opened their homes as guesthouses, with all in the community benefiting from the profits.
One housewife-turned-hotelier is Ming Tha, who proudly showed me into the second bedroom of her humble home, built on wooden stilts, in Chi Phat, the main village in the mountains, where my trekking adventure began.
Settling in, I could see Ming below me through the gaps in the floorboards. There she sat, busily picking coriander leaves as dogs and ducks, chickens and children ran around the courtyard. The cicadas sang sweetly as the rain clouds moved in, the heavy droplets falling like bullets on the iron roof. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
The next morning, I strolled along Chi Phat’s main road, a ruler-straight avenue where petrol and potent rice wine are sold in identical plastic bottles. My guide from Phnom Penh, Lok, introduced me to Kan at the community center that doubles as the town’s only restaurant. Kan, born and raised in Chi Phat, was to lead our trek. We planned to walk about 22 miles over the next two days, although, with so many trails of varying lengths and difficulty, choosing our route proved to be a challenge. More than 87 miles of trails have been carefully carved through the mountains, with a number of thatched structures erected in clearings for camping in comfort. Well, relative comfort.