Jungle bike - Asia - Travel - The Independent

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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
News
i100
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week