It wasn’t the greatest first impression I’d ever made. Arriving at the small, dusty Cambodian village of O’Key, where dogs scampered around the handful of bamboo houses, I smiled and waved at the mother and daughter sitting in the shade of a banana tree. The young girl stared at me. Then, lip trembling, she burst into tears.
“Don’t take it personally,” my guide, Lok, reassured me. “She hasn’t seen very many Westerners.”
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.
The prospect of trekking here was an exciting one. “It’s world class,” said Lok, glancing toward the forested peaks that rise to heights of nearly 3,000 feet. Home to more than 70 species of mammals, including Malayan sun bears, clouded leopards and the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, the Cardamoms bring together 16 different ecosystems.
They also form part of the last elephant corridor in the world — a route that herds of the long-trunked creatures travel over several months toward the coastal resort of Sihanoukville. Sadly, the elephants’ numbers have plummeted in recent decades because of rampant poaching, and it’s thought that fewer than 100 remain in the area.
Joined by our cook, a man of few words nicknamed Mr. Crab — he never revealed his real name — we set off, making an exciting discovery within minutes. Scattered across the narrow trail, carving deep holes on the moist forest floor, were elephant tracks the size of dinner plates.
Kan, however, seemed more interested in a nearby tree. Hacking at the blood red bark, the thud of his machete echoing through the silent forest, he stripped away a clump and promptly rubbed it over his exposed legs and ankles. “For protection against leeches,” he said, over the loud call of a gibbon. Grabbing a handful myself, I followed suit as the bloodsuckers appeared seemingly from nowhere on the moist ground.
For hours we walked through untamed nature of inexpressible beauty: giant ferns growing beside delicate and exotic plants, small gecko snakes vanishing beneath fallen tree trunks. Best of all, though, there wasn’t another soul to be seen.
That evening we set up camp in the heart of the forest. There was little for us to do except tie our hammocks to the bamboo pillars of a special open-sided structure erected in a small clearing. Mr. Crab immediately set about rustling up a feast. Hunched over a sizzling wok on an open fire, he fried slivers of spicy beef as night began to fall. Suddenly, every animal call, every rustling of the trees, grew more mysterious and sinister.
There was little time to dwell on this, however. I was keen to learn more of the local history from those who had lived through it. Like many, Kan and Lok both bear the scars of recent history. Kan, born in Chi Phat and now in his 40s, started fighting the Khmer Rouge when he was just 15, while Lok, in his mid-30s, lost loved ones to the regime, as did countless other Cambodians. “I don’t seek revenge on those who killed the people in my village when I was a child,” he said. “My father was among the dead and my mother feared that we would all be separated, so we fled. I lost my father and my home.”
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of crackling firewood. Mr. Crab was serving breakfast, coffee bubbling away in his well-used tin kettle.
Day two of our trek had more wow factor: epic scenery and ramshackle villages hiding ancient secrets. We crossed vast plains carpeted with pale grass that crunched underfoot. Rising gently and majestically all around us were the Cardamoms. Out there somewhere was Cambodia’s highest peak — Phnom Aural, which stands at 5,948 feet.
Following the snaking route of a gushing stream, I peered into the murky water, looking for the rare Siamese crocodile, once found in abundance here but rarely seen today.
It’s hard to underestimate the cultural and natural significance of the Cardamoms to the Cambodians. The region has been home to pockets of people for centuries, and some of their customs have long been lost. Lost but not forgotten. While they no longer practice them, locals continue to respect the ancient rituals of their forefathers.
In the 13th century, during the height of the Khmer Empire, the deceased were not interred in the ground. A different final resting place awaited them. Bones and other remains were placed in ceramic jars and left in secret spiritual locations, some of which have recently been discovered.
Kan and Lok wanted me to see one for myself, so after meeting the locals at the village of O’Key — and reducing one to tears — we ventured deep into the forest, to a cavernous hole at the bottom of a cliff. Sitting in mounds of sand and dust was a collection of ancient and weathered pots and jars. As we gazed at them, our mood turned somber, yet at the same time, I felt a strange sense of excitement. There was no denying how fortunate I was to be in such a sacred and secret place.
Until recently, talk in villages such as O’Key had been of nothing but the Cambodian government’s controversial plans to mine the mountains for gold and titanium. Had the proposal gone ahead, it would have spelled catastrophe, destroying the elephant corridor and centuries of heritage. Opposition campaigners, led by the Wildlife Alliance and local environmentalists, put up a strong fight, and the plans, thankfully, were shelved last year.
We returned to Chi Phat both exhausted and exhilarated, but Lok had one last place to show off. I hopped onto the back of a motorbike, and we drove down a long bumpy track out of the village. We crossed a river, walking gingerly over slippery rocks near fizzing rapids, and came to a stop before a patch of woodland. “This is our tree nursery,” Lok said proudly. And he was right to be proud. Reversing the widespread deforestation of days gone by, the Wildlife Alliance has replanted about 2 million trees here — ebony, mahogany and sandalwood.
Mist lingered over the treetops; the faint chimes of cowbells rang from the distant flatlands. The past may have been dark, but the future’s bright.
Boulos is a London-based travel writer.