Writer Joanna Mayhew and photographer Conor Wall enter the Cardamom Forest to discover the natural beauty of the mysterious Areng Valley, an area facing an uncertain future.
Clinging to the capsized kayak, I block out thoughts of the many crocodiles that share the murky water with me. Twenty metres away, a herd of aggravated water buffaloes pace the sandy bank, trying to intimidate the now-sodden intruders to their natural habitat.
As dusk turns to night – and with clothes, bags and an expensive camera drenched – my fellow kayakers and I navigate onto a protruding log, and brainstorm how to get back to camp. It would be just one hiccup of many while exploring Koh Kong province’s isolated Areng Valley.
Tourism for a Cause
With development and agro-industrial economic land concessions common across Cambodia, few, if any, places remain as untouched as Areng. The area is home to approximately 1,300 indigenous people, rich in biodiversity and inhabited by 31 endangered animal species, including the world’s second-largest population of wild Siamese crocodiles.
Though life in the valley feels stable, the long-proposed and controversial Cheay Areng hydropower dam threatens change in coming years. The undertaking would flood the area, eradicate key species and lead residents to lose homes and livelihoods, according to Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of local non-profit organisation Mother Nature.
Mother Nature’s Wild KK Project is promoting tourism as a way to preserve Areng’s pristine landscape and diverse wildlife, while providing visitors with a rare glimpse of the valley through action-packed trips that include kayaking, mountain biking and trekking.
The founders hope that increased tourism, along with community advocacy and the creation of social and environmental research sites, will draw enough attention and alternative revenue streams to the valley to give developers and officials pause for thought.
True to its name, the project’s jungle outings are nothing if not wild, with our group encountering crocodiles, bears, monkeys, snakes, spiders and colourful Great Hornbills during a week-long trip. Though not for the faint of heart, the excursions offer rich rewards if you’re game for putting your muscles to work.
Into the Deep
Getting into the valley makes visitors appreciate just how remote it is. From Phnom Penh, we travelled on two local minibuses and an SUV to get to the town of Thma Bang in Koh Kong province. From there, entering the valley consists of a steep 16-kilometre-long, mostly downhill, bike ride.
We each took a good-luck capful of local rice wine before setting off down the carved up and winding path, lined on both sides by thick forest. The three-hour ride was made more challenging due to half of it taking place after dark. With a procession of headlamps, we attempted to light the dusty path – blocked at one point by a venomous green pit viper – until arriving safely at camp.
Once in the valley, excursions differed by day and were often unplanned. Groups are encouraged to stay at least five days, and our time only allowed for scratching the surface of what there is to see.
Appropriately, most action revolved around the Areng River, whether following it via trails, swimming, kayaking, bathing or taking a break on its shores. The river is shallow and impressively diverse. It transitions from clear sandy stretches to pebbled rapids and mossy patches strewn with trees. The waters teem with soft-shell turtles, Oriental Darter water birds, Kingfishers, and the endangered green and silver Asian arowana, or dragonfish. Gibbons can be heard howling in nearby trees.
Kayaking takes you through calm waters surrounded by mango trees and sand banks covered with crocodile footprints and tail marks. You can occasionally spot a “blessed tree,” ordained by monks and wrapped in saffron-coloured material, representing Mother Nature’s intention to catalogue and preserve the forest’s most precious species. But you will be hard pressed to see another soul, aside from the infrequent lone fisherman sporting Lexus-branded underpants.
Intrepid visitors can search for the elusive Siamese crocodiles in Areng’s oxbow lakes, rumoured to house 50 crocs. Led by our three reliable and passionate Khmer guides, we attempted to hike quietly over the crunchy leaves underfoot. After an hour, our efforts paid off in a rare and abbreviated sighting of a small three-foot specimen.
But the most spectacular scenery is discovered while mountain biking. Tight trails scattered with thick branches wind madly through jungles dense with Bayon trees. Narrow, flimsy bridges dot the rides, with one 30-metre-long crossing only three planks wide. Forests give way toz rutted paths that lead you across dusty fields of high reeds and past bored buffalo under pale pink sunset skies.
Camp is portable and differs each night. When not set up riverside, we camped at the abandoned village of Sre Khuanh, where residents were exiled under the Khmer Rouge. Today there is little evidence of life in the expanse of burnt fields that have replaced the town, but the surrounding mountains and large watering hole offer a stunning backdrop to the absence. Evenings were spent under starry skies, eerily quiet aside from the sounds of crackling fires and – perhaps too stereotypically – a strummed guitar. Dinners by firelight were accompanied with a hot cup of traditional, amber-coloured “medicine water” and followed by nights in mosquito-netted hammocks, with a nearby fire to combat the cold.
Throughout trips, visitors dine at local homes to make the logistics easier for guides and provide additional income for community members. All food is locally grown, which results in eclectic dishes like eel curry and peanut and lobster paste, as well as fish soups and unending piles of rice.
Villagers – the majority of whom are Khmer Daeum ethnic minorities – have deep ties to the valley, with ancestral stories going back hundreds of years. They are overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable – and in a country where the majority of people are, it says something to stand out.
Locals seemed in equal parts pleased and amused that tourists would make the trek to their remote villages, and at their urging we attended a lively village wedding, a rice festival where monks received grain offerings, and a mid-day Chinese New Year feast replete with pork, noodles and warm Anchor beers. With no electricity or cell phone access, life seems reminiscent of a simpler time, down to the natural resin torches, or chon loh, used to light homes. Disconnected from the outside world, you’re forced to slow down. Communicating has its challenges, though, as villagers’ dialect proved a stumbling block for even the most fluent Khmer speakers among us.
The Journey Back
The last night, our group hiked a steep hill above Chumnoab village, following our guide’s flaming torch over rustic fences and through thorn-laden fields sprinkled with animal traps. We shared a final late-night feast of two chickens before sleeping under a triangular wood shelter used for storing crops.
Following a 6am wakeup, the misty valley seemed hesitant to release us. The vehicle slated to save us the uphill bike ride out was stuck in a ditch. After passing hours in the village, we were carted on motorcycles over the bumpy path and, eventually, out of Areng.
I emerged from the jungle with a smattering of bruises, a kilo less of weight, and a renewed appreciation for showers. But, like the rust-coloured dust that stubbornly coated my backpack, clothes and the insides of my ears, thoughts of the valley stuck with me long after departing.
Whether or not the dam proceeds, other threats will inevitably arise, and the valley will not always remain as it is. But at least for now, the opportunity exists to explore Areng in its majesty, and to provide support as it faces a fragile future.