A trip to the Tatai river in Koh Kong province offers a unique embrace with nature and adrenalin. Words and photographs by Bridget Di Certo.
Curving softly through the world-famous Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province, the Tatai River is clear and warm. Stretching from the dramatic mountains in the province’s northeast to the picturesque mangrove flats of the western seaboard, it occasionally splits into tributaries and lake-like shallows.
The tidal waterway, which is several hundred metres wide and about 20 metres deep for the majority of its course, alternates from salt to fresh water through the course of each day — creating a layered phenomenon with cool water at the surface and warm water running beneath. A mild current makes it a perfect place for water-based activities.
“It’s pretty unique here. There are only two places with mountain ranges in Cambodia, and Koh Kong is one of those,” says Lois Woodward, a wilderness activities expert based at local eco-resort Rainbow Lodge.
“We are on the edge of the Cardamom Mountains, which is the largest surviving rainforest [in Southeast Asia] now. The community is very reliant on nature here; still very in touch with fishing and farming,” she adds.
With accommodation limited near the weaving Tatai, Rainbow Lodge provides access to a range of activities. Expert guides can lead visitors through primary rainforest, pointing out birds, wildlife and rare flora along secluded tracks.
A wide variety of berries and fruit line the way and trekkers can even spot the jungle’s namesake — the cardamom spice — in bright green, finger-length pods. It grows wild alongside green ‘jungle chillis’ that mature naturally in the soft, fertile soil.
With paths about one-person wide, trails often succumb to the overwhelming power of aggressive tropical jungle and guides carry machetes to clear bamboo or new branches. While there are some tricky root obstacles and the odd low-hanging branch to scramble under, a hike through the Cardamoms is suitable for almost every age and level of fitness, apart from a short, steep climb at the beginning of the trek.
“In reality we don’t know how much longer it will be here,” Woodward says of the wild forest that sees poachers and loggers alike coming to claim spoils. “There is a wealth of different wildlife you don’t find in other places. I spotted a baby sun bear once, but didn’t hang around for mum to come back.”
There is also a large variety of snakes, some venomous, in the area during wet season. The golden tree snake, part of a family of ‘flying snakes’, has the ability to jump from tree to tree.
Lasting for two, five or eight hours, the treks conclude at the Tatai waterfalls — a series of steep rapids that intermittently pool in naturally formed jacuzzi-like hollows. In wet season, the rocky enclave is bursting with gushing rapids and is a popular spot with local visitors. Nestle into one of the smaller falls for a one-of-a-kind back, neck and shoulder massage.
For bird enthusiasts the Cardamoms prove a rare haven for precious wildlife, while a guided or unguided kayaking adventure along the gentle flow of the Tatai can reveal secret inlets and tributaries perfect for exploring.
Woodward’s background is in wilderness therapy, a form of social intervention for young and at-risk people that helps them develop confidence, trust and social skills in an outdoor environment. From this experience, she is developing a range of activities in the Tatai area focused on children and young adults, such as rock scrambling and orienteering courses.
Along with kayaking, swimming and boat cruises, visitors can camp in hammocks at the Tatai waterfalls during overnight treks run from
“We set them up with a BBQ and bottle of wine,” Woodward says, accenting the ready availability of creature comforts, despite the wild setting. “Because it’s less developed, you can have that experience of being in nature. It’s quiet — you can come away and have a good night’s sleep. The animals are the first sound you hear, not the traffic.”