Beyond the baray

A plethora of innovative and responsible tourism projects showcase Cambodia’s less well known alternatives to Angkor.

Story by Nicky Sullivan and Marissa Carruthers

Preah Vihear

This monument’s sense of serenity comes coupled with the views from the 625-m summit of Dangrek Mountain: the sweeping ocean of green takes in neighbouring Thailand too, interrupted only by the smooth rise of hills on the horizon.

Unlike at its celebrated sister, the at-times claustrophobically congested Angkor Wat, only a handful of locals mill about on the stone plateau of Preah Vihear, taking selfies in front of the breathtaking backdrop. Some lay incense at the small shrine, while others simply seek solace from the heat, enjoying a picnic in the dappled shade.

Until 2015, this site was deemed unsafe with an age-old dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over ownership of the ancient temple complex bringing sporadic outbreaks of fighting. Now open to the public, visitors are trickling back, taking the exhilarating drive in an open-back jeep along steepling dirt tracks that snake through small villages and past battered army barracks, up to ear-popping heights. The more daring can tackle the 2,242 stairs.

Despite the declared end of conflict, soldiers remain posted at the nearby border. However, they remain jovial, and, perhaps unwisely, happily hand over their weapons to visitors wanting to pose for a picture.

An impressive testament to the confident architectural and engineering skills, and exquisite landscaping of the Khmer Empire, Prasat Preah Vihear (‘Temple of the sacred mountain’) is a series of structures constructed in the 9-12th Centuries. Extending for more than 800m up the gentle slopes of the mountain in question, the archaeological feat is spread across four levels.

While time has taken its toll, conservation efforts have started though are, as yet, in their infancy. However, this adds to the rustic charm; being able to ramble across boulders that block narrow corridors, teeter down uneven worn steps, and soak in the surroundings from crooked stone windows – all pretty much alone.

Remaining under military control, the undoubtedly stunning sunsets and sunrises are off limits for now, with the site only open between 8.30am and 4.30pm.

SUPAsia, Kampot

The call to prayer from a mosque at a small Cham fishing village just off the banks of a slender, winding waterway sounds in the distance. A chorus of birds sing from the mangroves that line the spider’s web of tributaries that feed the Kampot River. Other than that, the silence is only broken by the soothing swish of the single oar used to set your paddleboard gliding steadily through the still Cambodian countryside.

It was during a three-week break in Kampot in 2010, that American Anne Pizze discovered this idyllic way to catch a glimpse of rural Cambodia. Back then she was one of a group of paddleboarders who were relaxing in the area after a 23-day, 430-km epic ride down the Mekong from Laos to Phnom Penh.IMG_2656

“We’d planned to chill out like backpackers,” Pizze recalls. “Instead, we came down with a terrible case of paddle fever.” Desperate to get back on their boards, they lingered and explored. “We went into the mangroves, out to sea. We saw fireflies and phosphorescence. I fell in love with Kampot.”

Within a couple of months, Pizze had launched SUPAsia, which offers stand-up paddleboarding tours along the Kampot River and beyond. And paddling is proving popular, with tourists, expats and Cambodians using it as a way to get close to Irrawaddy dolphins on the Mekong, explore mangrove forests, visit islands and discover floating villages.

“Paddleboarding is cathartic,” Pizze says. “It’s the act of standing on water, along with the deep relaxation that comes when you connect with your balance that’s mesmorising. We get to do something we never dreamt of; we get to walk on water.”

SUPAsia offers 2.5 hour lessons and tours, with the morning great for bird-watching and the afternoon serving up a stunning sunset, as well as longer tailor-made trips. Paddleboarding yoga is also available.

For more information, visit www.supasia.org

Betreed, Kampong Thom

100km northeast of Siem Reap, and 5km from the nearest village along a boggy track that is mostly defined by its absence, is a unique project dedicated to exploring and preserving the surrounding woodland, and all those who live in it.

Betreed was created by Adventists Ben and Sharyn Davis who have lived in Cambodia for more than 20 years, during which time they’ve fully integrated the culture and a passion for Cambodia’s diverse yet little regarded wildlife.

Here, you can spend an entire day exploring trails through the forest led by local guides whose hunters’ eyes are keenly alert for giant black squirrels, muntjac deer, wild pigs, snakes and other wildlife. The forest also conceals ancient temple ruins, most likely built during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the warrior king who built some of Angkor’s most iconic temples, including Bayon, Ta Prohm and the stunning Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, just 20km away from Betreed.

You don’t have to be satisfied with exploring just from the ground either. The Davises have rigged up ziplines across a nearby valley that afford stunning views across a forest that seems to stretch all the way to the horizon, belying just how vulnerable it really is.Betreed-22

The adventure is compounded by the accommodation, with the choice of a treehouse – handily equipped with its own toilet – or a beautiful wooden building that includes a kitchen if guests prefer to cook for themselves.

For more information, take a look at www.betreed.com

Tropaing Sangke Fishing Community Eco-Stay, Kampot

A wooden boat slices through the still waters that wind from Kampot to the sea. To one side, thick mangroves flank the river, their knotted roots protruding sharply from its surface. To the other, a bed of orange clay stretches to the horizon; the freshly-ploughed ground showing no sign of life after its forest was felled to pave the way for development. The contrast is stark.

“This river was once surrounded by mangroves,” says Sera Him, village chief and leader of a conservation group formed to preserve the dwindling mangroves in the fishing village of Tropaing Sangke. “It’s very sad. Most of the community are fishermen and need these natural resources to survive.”

Decades of tearing up these forests has taken its toll on the area’s Cham minority fishing communities. The mangroves offered protection in the form of barriers to break coastal waves and prevent flooding, as well as providing a home to fish and squid. Now they have gone, the fishermen are stripped of a steady income and families have been plunged into poverty.

To help cope, in 2009, Sera launched Tropaing Sangke Fisheries Community-Based Ecotourism group. Under the initiative, guests can plant mangroves, go kayaking, swim in the lake, take trips out with local fishermen or simply watch laid-back, rural Cambodian life lazily pass by. Four purpose-built wooden houses serve as accommodation and sit next to a basic restaurant serving local food, perched in between salt plains and mangroves.

With visitors’ help, the mangroves are slowly being reinstated. To date, more than 1,200 trees have been replanted, providing communities once again with a sustainable form of income. Fishermen today earn on average US$5 a day compared with US$0.60 in 2009.

Book an eco-stay at tel: (855) 69 306 505.

Chi Phat, Koh Kong

Ecotourism is a term that has become more honoured in the breach as unscrupulous tour operators seek to cash in on travellers’ genuine desire to benefit the places they visit, but at Chi Phat it is real, and it is effective.

Chi Phat is a small village off Route 4, three or four hours south of Phnom Penh. Much of the population is involved in some way with a project created by Wildlife Alliance, whether as homestay hosts, guides, shop owners or service operators with the organisation, so that most families benefit in some way from the tourists drawn to this remote part of the Cardamom Mountains.

The objective of the project is two-fold – protecting the forest and its dependent wildlife by giving locals alternative, sustainable sources of income so that they are no longer dependent upon practices such as poaching or illegal logging; and secondly to protect the community itself by educating and empowering the people to resist the kind of ‘development’ that seems to benefit a few at the expense of the many – for example the sugar plantations to the east of Chi Phat.

Here, you can explore the hills and waterways by foot, bicycle or canoe,  on expeditions of varying difficulty. One word of advice: when they say a route is hard, it’s wise to believe them. Back in the village, you can recuperate at one of the restaurants, or try the rudimentary massage parlour if the trail has been especially punishing.

For more information, see www.chi-phat.org

Elephant Valley Project, Mondulkiri

In the hilly northeast of Cambodia, is Sen Monorom, dusty, three-street provincial capital of Mondulkiri Province. After years of waiting, they got 24-hour electricity a couple of years ago, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the extraordinary work that Jack Highwood and his team put in to help Cambodia’s working elephants.

The project started back in 2005 and they now provide a home to nine happily retired elephants, requiring a huge area for them to roam in, as well as the social and legal support needed by the families that own the elephants and their keepers.

Watching ‘the girls’, Ruby, Ning Wan and Mae Nang, come down from their night in the forest for their daily morning bath, while the volunteer guide fills in their backstories, personality traits and development, then following them as they meander through the woods plucking figs and other fruits as they go is infinitely more intimate and rewarding than clambering on the back of one of them. Learning how they have grown back into themselves, back into being elephants unencumbered by human cruelty, is a special kind of thrill.

Visitors can stay for a day, or stretch it out and volunteer for a couple of days, or more. There are comfortable, airy dorms or a private room with a beautiful view across the valley. The attached restaurant serves up great food.

For more information, see www.elephantvalleyproject.org

Adventure Adam, Koh Rong

Koh Touch on Koh Rong looks a little like how you might imagine a pirate-infested bay, but the rest of Koh Rong is pure tropical island, with palm-stitched, white-sand beaches backed by hills under heavy forest cover. If you’re looking for the archetypal paradise, this is it.

So it’s understandable that the Adam behind Adventure Adam is somewhat obsessed with it. The Englishman arrived here just two years ago, and has scarcely left since, devoting his time and energy to exploring and understanding everything he can of this beautiful little patch of the world. And he has condensed that knowledge as best he can into the one-day boat tours he runs out of Koh Touch.

These trips take you up Koh Rong’s stunning coastline with stop-offs for spells of snorkelling, fishing, swimming, food and forays into one of the villages along the way. There are plenty of other boat operators who offer similar packages on Koh Rong, but few have the passion or the safety awareness demonstrated by Adventure Adam. Also his business partner is a DJ, so the on-board music is awesome!

Adam has partnered with the residents of a small village along the way where more adventurous souls can choose to spend the night in a homestay, eating local food, hiking through the forest or canoeing along the river, and maybe learning a local craft or how to make coconut oil.

For more information, see www.adventureadam.org

Indochinex Adventures, Siem Reap

Cycling the highways and byways around Angkor these days can seem daunting to initiates, not surprisingly. The traffic is not just dense, but occasionally looks homicidal. The roads to and from the Angkor Archaeological Park, and even the Grand and Short Circuits around it, can be dangerous and unpleasant to follow on two wheels.

Which is why Indochinex Adventures have indulged their passions for cycling (and canoeing and hiking and conservation and pretty much anything to do with activity and nature) and found some of the loveliest backroads in and around Angkor. Winding through beautiful villages, by ancient canals and reservoirs, and alongside tucked-away temples that almost no one ever sees, it’s possible to take a day-long tour of the area with them and not see a single other tourist of any kind.

Indochinex cycle tours blend adventure and comfort – luxury even – with a range of choices to suit fitness and curiosity levels. They range more widely across Cambodia too, including a recently developed route along the banks of the East Baray, once a huge reservoir that is thought to be directly accountable for the success of the Khmer Empire. Today it sits, almost ignored, surrounded by paddy fields and plantations of Cambodia’s national tree, the sugar palm.

For more information, see www.indochinex.com

Gibbon Trekking, RatanakiriGibbons

In the grey, pre-dawn light, you try to catch your breath after a heart-pounding race through the forest along trails scarcely visible. As you scan the canopy for movement, fire ants begin crawling up your legs but you try hard to ignore them for fear of frightening away your own quarry.

In Cambodia’s remote northeast, a recently identified species, the northern yellow-cheeked gibbon, and their fellow-forest dwellers, live under enduring threats of poaching and illegal logging. As part of an initiative to protect the forests by creating a different kind of ‘value’, gibbon tours were created by Conservation International, benefiting from the fact that the gibbons in question have become accustomed to humans thanks to extensive research conducted by scientists, who basically spent years standing under trees trying to catch gibbon poop.

That project has been taken over by Gibbon Spotting Cambodia, who run professional tours with qualified guides. The two-day, one-night trips take you along the Sesan River, through local villages and some of the loveliest scenery in Cambodia. The night is spent at the Forestry Administration camp in appropriately rudimentary, but comfortable, accommodation.

But you forget all of that once you hear for the first time the mournful call of a gibbon staking his claim, and starting his day. Then, with your guides now locked into the gibbons’ location, you begin the chase as they swing from treetop to treetop in search of breakfast. Simply unmissable.

For more details, see www.gibbonspottingcambodia.com AA

First published in Sep/Oct 2016 issue.