The Kingdom offers a host of eco adventures for up-close experiences with pristine nature and rare animals. Writer Joanna Mayhew explores the country’s wild side. Photography by Peter Yuen and Anne Tenne.
While tourism is booming in Cambodia, the vast majority of visitors still stick to the well-trodden destinations of Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and increasingly the outlying islands. But much of the country’s true draw is found in its more remote locales, where the long-held traditions of ethnic minorities still thrive, and wild animals and birds abound amidst untouched landscapes.
With many of these areas under threat of deforestation or agro-industrial development, it has never been more important to plant them on the map. And many operators are working to do just that, through adventure and wildlife tours that showcase and seek to preserve all that makes the Kingdom unique.
In Cambodia’s remote Areng Valley, tucked in Koh Kong’s Cardamom Mountains, the Wild KK Project hosts four-day tours encompassing mountain biking, kayaking and trekking, topped off with camping atop cliffs or alongside the winding river. The project, an offshoot of grassroots environmental movement Mother Nature Cambodia, was started to help provide an alternative income source to the valley’s approximately 1,300 indigenous people, and to raise awareness about the beauty and vulnerability of the area, under threat from a long-proposed hydropower dam.
“Participating in a Wild KK Project tour is much more than just being a tourist,” says Mother Nature Cambodia president Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported last year for his environmental activism. “It is about helping send a clear message to the local communities that they are not alone in their struggle to protect their nature and livelihoods from destruction.”
Home to some of the world’s last remaining Siamese crocodiles, the biodiverse area also boasts 30 other endangered species, with guests able to spot green pit vipers, hornbills, dragonfish and slow lorises. “[It’s] the chance to see Cambodia in its most raw form,” says expat Amy Collins, who joined the tour in May, adding the most rewarding aspects were experiencing village life and learning about the local culture. “I would recommend it to anyone willing to risk comfort for an amazing chance to see an untouched part of Cambodia.”
Nearby, Chi Phat is one of the longest-running eco-adventure outposts. Started in 2007 by Wildlife Alliance (WA) to provide alternate income for residents, the programme is now community-run and offers trekking and biking through dense jungles, where elephant and wild boar tracks can be spotted. Guests explore traditional burial sites and caves, and can sleep in hammocks atop the raging O’Malu waterfalls or opt for village home stays.
Also in Koh Kong, WA provides overnight stays at its Wildlife Release Station, where visitors can feed resident wildlife and see small animals up close before their release, gaining insights into how rehabilitation and release sites work. “[It’s] not a five-star resort or zoo experience, but a true escape to nature,” says WA conservationist Emma Pollard, adding that all proceeds go directly back into the organisation’s programmes, which have helped more than 62,000 animals.
The country’s northeastern provinces offer not only a respite from the heat, but also strikingly different landscapes. Amid Mondulkiri’s rolling hills and stunning waterfalls – now just five hours’ drive from the capital – elephants are the main draw. The Mondulkiri Project, started in 2013, provides tourists with face-to-face experiences with the endangered Asian elephants, of which only 48 remain in eastern Cambodia, according to founder Hong Ngun, who goes by Mr Tree. The project rents a large area of forest to protect it from being logged, and to provide a sanctuary for its six female elephants.
“[The tour was] an insightful experience into the effective transition of unethical elephant riding towards ethical eco tourism,” says Simone Cavell, who took part in the project’s two-day trip in May. “The project not only rescues elephant from tourist riding and farm work, but provides alternative, sustainable means of income for the villagers.”
Visitors are able to feed and help wash elephants, and have the option of staying overnight in hammocks in the jungle. “There is nothing quite like being up close and personal to these majestic creatures,” says Mr. Tree. “They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is, you will never forget an elephant.” Other outlets offering visits include Elephant Valley Project and Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary.
In Kratie, tourists can encounter critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphins through Cambodian Rural Development (CRD) Tours. Visitors learn about the dolphins’ conservation, history and characteristics during a half-day trip to the largest dolphin pool in the Mekong River, where Ibises and turtles can also be spotted. “Dolphins can be considered a tourist attraction, but it is critical to understand that they are endangered species,” says CRDTours operation manager Dy Somborath. CRDTours has been operating these excursions since 2010, with profits funnelled back to protecting the dolphins.
Even closer to the capital, WA offers personalised behind-the-scenes tours at nearby Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, where visitors can interact with elephants, macaques and sun and moon bears.
“The tours provide guests with the rare opportunity to see Cambodia’s unique and endangered animals up close,” says Pollard. “They can take pride knowing they are helping us keep wildlife in the wild, where it belongs.”