Jungle bike

Robert Turnbull tackles the perilous path through one of the world's last great wildernesses - Cambodia's remote Cardamom Mountains

I wasn't sure what I had done to deserve it, but the village chief with the red khroma and tombstone teeth was, I thought, fondling my knee in a particularly lascivious manner as our vehicle sped towards Koh Kong in a cloud of dust. I had chosen a "Cambodian taxi" to get close to the locals: these old pickups never budge until every atom of space is taken. Cheek-by-jowl with us on that breezy February morning were at least a dozen bundle-bearing villagers, a cranky sow and several sacks of stinking durian.

I wasn't sure what I had done to deserve it, but the village chief with the red khroma and tombstone teeth was, I thought, fondling my knee in a particularly lascivious manner as our vehicle sped towards Koh Kong in a cloud of dust. I had chosen a "Cambodian taxi" to get close to the locals: these old pickups never budge until every atom of space is taken. Cheek-by-jowl with us on that breezy February morning were at least a dozen bundle-bearing villagers, a cranky sow and several sacks of stinking durian.

The winding road reeked of moist earth and burning vegetation. We passed one village of bamboo huts after another, and rice paddies dotted with nesting egrets and storks. And then, on the horizon, a purple silhouette appeared. It was the Cardamom Mountains, two million hectares of wilderness and our final destination.

This remote corner of south-west Cambodia has a troubled history. Here, well after the fall of Pol Pot's regime in 1979, recalcitrant Khmer Rouge fighters battled Vietnamese and Cambodian government forces. The conflict ended in 1998, some 19 years later, and, in the rush to reconciliation KR soldiers swapped their black pyjamas for the ubiquitous green jackets of the Royal Cambodian Army.

The onset of peace only sparked more trouble. Some soldiers laid down their guns and went home; others took up chainsaws in orgies of destruction, supported by powerful businesses in Phnom Penh. As high-quality wood crossed into nearby Thailand, much of it destined for European or American living rooms, elephant tusks and the lucrative parts of tiger, rhino and bear began appearing at markets from Hanoi to Hong Kong.

Over the last decade NGOs have stepped in to relieve the various pressures on the Cardamoms, with varying levels of success. Halfway to Koh Kong, just shy of the watery town of Andong Thuk, we dismounted the taxi at the point where the environmental organisation Wild Aid has set up its experimental settlement of Sovanna Beitung. A school hall and a series of nurseries dominated, but, with its stilted homes arranged in rows, the place felt more like a refugee camp than an organic Cambodian village.

Over lunch, a consultant on irrigation volunteered an explanation. Deforestation in the foothills of the Cardamoms had reached unacceptable levels and was adversely affecting wildlife, he said. Families moved there in the 1990s following logging concessions, randomly slashing and burning until the last nutrients were washed away during successive monsoons.

Reaching the virgin forest meant accessing the difficult Mount Samkos region in the central Cardamoms. To do that required a pair of strong bikes and some tough drivers to boot. Having continued on to Andong Thuk the following day, we set about bargaining with the local motorcycle drivers. Luckily a pair of local lads seemed willing to oblige us, if a little unsure of what lay ahead.

Turning off the Koh Kong road, we decided not to stop until we were surrounded by thick jungle and the squawking of parakeets. However, the journey was plagued with setbacks; a series of bridges lay in ruins, leaving us no choice but to traverse their frighteningly precarious wood and bamboo replacements. These obstacle courses had been knocked up by military generals who had the temerity to extract the same toll as Manhattan's midtown tunnel for this dubious rite of passage.

Thereafter, the solid dirt path deteriorated into ox-cart ruts and stretches of pure sand. Our drivers Pat and Panh performed with panache. Able to conquer any challenge, they would race up sheer banks. "Ott panyaha" ("no problem") screamed Pat, his gold fillings glinting. It became our rallying cry. We reached Osom caked in mud, with blistered hands and crippled by backache. A group of teenagers huddled round a pool table broke off play to join the party of onlookers as we slunk off exhausted into a guest house.

All sorts of travellers have beaten a path to Osom, it seems. Colonial French explorers in the 1930s found the area exclusively inhabited by the Samre, a tribe practising a form of animism. Decades later, King Sihanouk flew in and was greeted by 28 domestic elephants.

The wars changed all that. Few of the current inhabitants avoided the mass migrations during the war years. Most have no link with the area but decided to resettle there during the 1990s to exploit fresh land. "We had to grow crops to survive," said Eich, a local elder. "We lived in constant fear of mines before they started clearing them, but we had to catch animals, if only to eat."

In Cambodia they say all wildlife was consumed during the famines of the Khmer Rouge, or hunted to extinction by their Vietnamese successors. But rare Siamese crocodiles have survived around Osom on account of old Samre beliefs about forest spirits protecting them.

The journey down to Veal Veang, the reptiles' natural habitat, involved a steep descent through dense fog. Forced to abandon our motorbikes at leech-infested waters, we hitched a ride on a water buffalo and cart. There was little hope of finding a crocodile judging by the lack of concern from the local fishermen who share the same marshy waters. We eventually abandoned all hope after a couple of hours of eyeballing the water's surface with no luck.

The next day we set off for Pramaoy, the Cardamoms' northern exit post. On our way back we had scheduled one last stop. From its local station, the British NGO Flora and Fauna International is trying to enforce the 1999 ban on logging in the Cardamoms and combat poaching. They have been training former Khmer Rouge soldiers as rangers. Ex-KR commander Aich Sophal came forward. "Without the forests no life could exist. The forest brings rain, which we need to grow rice, and stops soil erosion," he said in perfect development-speak. "I say to my villagers we must believe in the alliance of nature. We can't kill tigers, we need them to eat the pigs, which would otherwise destroy our crops."

Sophal met Pol Pot twice in 1973, two years before the fateful day in 1975 when the capital was "cleansed", as he puts it. He was impressed by the dictator's charisma. "He taught me how to fight the rich and gain independence." After the wars, Sophal was dispatched to the Thai border and knew nothing of what took place during those grim years until returning to his village in 1979. We were about to jump into the truck, to join Route 6 to Phnom Penh when out of the blue Sophal asked: "How are your English jungles?" I was taken aback. "Oh, we destroyed our forests hundreds of years ago," I replied awkwardly. He shot me a look of complete incomprehension. The irony was lost on him.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Cambodia. The main gateways are Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Bangkok is served from Heathrow by British Airways, Thai, Qantas and Eva Air . Singapore Airlines (0870 608 8886; www.singaporeair.co.uk) flies from Heathrow via Singapore and Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysiaairlines.com) flies from Manchester and Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur. Connections to Phnom Penh, Cambodia are available with Thai, Eva Air, Malaysia Airlines and Siem Reap Airways (00 855 23 723 962; www.siemreapairways.com). While no companies are yet operating tours into the area, agents in Phnom Penh such as Hanuman Travel (00 855 23 218 356; www.hanumantourism.com) will help get you part of the way there and can usually provide guides. British tour operators include Mekong Travel (01494 674456; www.mekong-travel.com).

GETTING AROUND

250cc dirt bikes can be rented for between $7-$10 (£3.70-£5.30) a day at Lucky on Monivong Street in Phnom Penh.

STAYING THERE

Guesthouses in the Cardamoms cost around $4 (£2.10) per night.

RED TAPE

British passport holders require a visa for Cambodia, which is issued on arrival at the airport. It costs $20 (£11) and is valid for 30 days. MORE INFORMATION

Contact the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in London (020-7483 9063; www.tourismcambodia.com).

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