After 8 days on the Cambodian tourist trail, we were ready to get back off the beaten track and somewhere a little more…uncommercial. I have a clear memory of picking this eco-tourism village called Chi Phat while sitting in a Kyobo bookstore in Seoul. It is located in the Cardamom Mountains, and I though, “Cardamom…I like cardamom…especially in cakes and coffees…let’s go there.” Sometimes, I admit, my motivations are not always that intellectual.
The website told us to take the Koh Kong bound bus, get off at Andong Tuek…which is about ten buildings squeezed between the road and the river. As the bus drove off, we walked into the first hut we came to and asked about Chi Phat. After some confusion and people all yelling to each other in Khmer, we were placed onto the back of two motorbikes for the 40 minute ride along dusty red gravel roads winding down into the river valley. Sugar cane fields and indigo hued mountains painted the perfect backdrop for our wild ride into the Cambodian boondocks. We arrived at a raft, which ferried us across the Phi Phat River into the Chi Phat settlement. We checked in at the Center and were taken to our homestay…which had no electricity or plumbing, but plenty of chickens.
On our first morning, we decided to walk the 3km to the nearby rapids to swim and…stare at the clouds. On the way, we met a friendly young man who happens to know the local Korean missionary and speaks a few words of Korean! After a swim in the water, we sat around in the shade, watching the locals wash their hair, clothes, and motorbikes in the shallow rapids. Out of nowhere, one of the guys sitting around with his buddies invited us to share a couple rounds of rice whiskey with them. Two whole bottles worth of rounds. Later, this turned into an offer to be our guides for a “motorbike trekking” adventure the next day, at a lower price than the one offered by the Center…so we said yes.
The following morning, we showed up at their house and hopped on the back of the brothers’ motorbikes and headed out into the wilderness…the path we were following with the motorbikes quickly turned into a single, bumpy rut, riddled with soft sand, tree roots, large stones, and other hazards to motorbikes. However, our excellent drivers negotiated the terrain like pros and first brought us to a private house deep in the bush. We were met with a pack of barking dogs that were called off once the owners recognized our guides. Crashing through the underbrush behind their property, we found a hidden waterfall cave that was home to a large family of bats…we could smell the guano from far off! The owners also let us eat the fruit off their trees…including a jackfruit, which we had to hack open with a machete.
Our next stop was the Teuk Vet Waterfall, which we had all to ourselves on a Tuesday morning. Since the three boys were not serious swimmers, I had the whole pool and the waterfalls to myself. I swam right under one of the smaller falls and under the rocks of the bigger ones…I really had to fight the current. It was an exhilarating morning, to say the least. Afterwards, we headed back for some well-deserved rest. And noodles.
The next day, with great trepidation, I agreed to renting bicycles for the morning. Last summer, we had a few Sunday sessions of Sangbyeong’s project of Get Marion on a Bicycle. Which resulted in me being able to ride for about 100 meters before screeching to a halt. So there we were, along the dirt backroads of rural Cambodia…but after three hours, I had managed to bike a total of 12km. The next day, we rented a kayak…something that I could teach Sangbyeong (as a side course to Marion’s project of Get Sangbyeong to Swim). It brought back a flood of family memories of canoeing in the summers, stopping at sandbars and making drippy castles. Except without the two meter long black water snakes. Neither of these adventures had photo evidence, so we made sure to pack the camera that Saturday when we went back out on the bicycles. We biked until there was no more road…the river cuts it off. So we sat about watching butterflies and looking at the reflections of the sky in the water, enjoying our last full day in Cambodia.
As we headed back into town, we ate lunch in the market and we heard a huge cacophony of Khmer techno pop from the main street. Apparently, there was a wedding happening in the village, which meant 11 hours of deafening doof-doof music and a large tent set up in the middle of the central street to the village. The only time there was a pause in the music was during the afternoon downpour, which temporarily flooded the streets.
The next morning, we awoke with the roosters and by 10pm we were back on the raft across the river, then back on a couple motorbike taxis through the (very muddy and wet) gravel roads, and then spent an hour and a half waiting on the side of the road for the right bus to flag down. In the meantime, we ate a couple mangoes with beer and talked about our feelings from the village. The Wildlife Alliance involvement seems to have really improved and saved the village. Chi Phat was a Khmer Rouge holdout until 1998…almost twenty years after the regime fell! In that time, they illegally logged almost the entire surrounding rainforest to sell the lumber for weapons…and illegally poached most of the rare species there for cash. Now the village is trying to rehabilitate both its economy and its destroyed forest. Fifty percent of the villagers are involved with and benefitting from this project, and they are 70% self-sufficient. But there are others who are unhappy…like the brothers who were our unofficial guides to the waterfall and bat cave. They spoke of their resentment from the foreign oversight and the politics of getting involved. Easy to see both sides, hard to say who is right and wrong here. When the bus swooped in and carried us to the Thai border, we left Cambodia with a strange mix of positive impressions, odd experiences, and an idea of just how far the country has to go before it is whole again.