Michael Batson

Travel Writer

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Cambodia

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Travelogue

Mangroves and Mountains - Koh Kong - 27 April 2012

Koh Kong is about six hours by bus from Phnom Penh, part of it along Cambodia’s most dangerous road and the rest through some of the country’s most spectacular scenery, the Cardamom Mountains.

National Route Six heads west from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville across the flat expanse of Kompong Speu, a province known in Cambodia for its numerous palm trees, stretching off into the distance across endless rice fields.

Two bus companies usually ply the route, Sorya and the more dubious Virak-Buntham Express for $8 and $9 respectively. Road travel in Cambodia is dangerous, with almost four people on average killed on the country’s roads every day. Road accidents are now the biggest cause of trauma in Cambodia, having overtaken landmines and other various exploding ordnance.alt

A characteristic finale of any fatal accident is a report that the driver flees the scene, a trait shared in other Southeast Asian countries. After one such accident last year on a night bus from Siem Reap to Vietnam, which killed and maimed several tourists and locals, the driver duly legged it. Having seen photos of the vehicle after the accident, it’s a wonder how he managed such a feat given he would need to be Iron Man to have survived the impact.

Even by Cambodian standards Virak-Buntham has a battered fleet. The company advertises that its buses are equipped with toilets, a mixed blessing given you need be three-feet tall to use them, and have an industrial resistance to latrine odours to survive the facilities.

Phnom Penh to Koh Kong is a trip I’ve made several times, though due to vagaries of transport in Cambodia, no two journeys are usually the same. This time the 40-seat bus failed to materialise replaced with a creaking minibus complete with a whining drive shaft so loud that it rendered normal conversation impossible. This was, however, the first trip I'd made in Cambodia where the driver did not use the horn once.

Once off the main road to Sihanoukville the road narrows and deteriorates, surprising as the route was only sealed a few years ago. I once made the trip before the road was sealed and the bridges finished; in a battered Camry taxi where we waited for rickety ferries to make the river crossings and where we were forced to stop regularly to remove rocks from the track. Now there are four bridges between Sre Ambel and Koh Kong courtesy of foreign aid monies, with the journey through the Cardamoms taking about two to three hours.alt

The Cardamom Mountains, named after the spice and known locally as Kravanh and the Elephant Range (locally known as Dom rei) extends slightly across the border into south eastern Thailand. It is separated from the nearest other rain forest by the vast, dry Khorat Plateau in central Thailand to the north and east and by the Gulf of Thailand in the west.

Densely covered with lush virgin rainforest and rising to it’s highest point at 1813m, the Cardamoms extend over an area of just over 17,000 square kilometres covering a large portion of south western Cambodia. The Cardamoms are considered to represent Southeast Asia’s greatest natural resources in terms of virgin forest and wildlife habitats that have never been fully explored and or catalogued.  Eco system conservation projects have identified some 60 mammal species, more than 450 birds, 64 reptiles, 30 amphibians, and many other plants and insects.

Animals indigenous to this area would include elephants, tigers, clouded leopards and a variety of other mammals such as the Malaysian sun bear, pleated gibbons, and Siamese crocodiles all of which are high on the endangered species list and the only significant population thought to exist anywhere.

Several are now under threat from illegal logging operations and from adjacent concessions that encroach on the unprotected protected areas. The wildlife trade has also resulted in widespread hunting throughout Cambodia and Thailand, exacting a heavy toll from endangered wildlife populations. Antipersonnel landmines are widespread and pose a severe threat to both wildlife and humans (including researchers), so it pays to stay on the road.

Koh Kong “city” is a scruffy little town, home to Cambodia’s longest bridge linking the town with the Thai border crossing at Hat Lek. Even though the town is looked upon mainly as a border point and transit town it’s now developing a reputation for eco-tourism, though this is not without hitches, as tourists are still pretty thin on the ground.

altOne of the reasons for this is the border itself. To observe the goings-on there is to delve into the world of corruption. Every Cambodian crossing the border presents officials with 2000 riel (50 cents) inserted into their ID papers. Foreigners on the Cambodian side are often subjected to extorted visa prices of up to 1200 baht (US$40) for visas that officially only cost $25. Aside from that there are a posse of touts hanging about trying to skim a living by charging for anything from filling out your immigration card to hauling your bags and bargaining for transport, making for a poor introduction to Cambodia.

Coming the other way, from Phnom Penh the bus deposits you outside of town where the moto riders circle like waiting seagulls to pounce on their prey. “The town is very far” one said as I walked off to the hotel. Actually the town is quite close, unlike the road to the Thai border, a distance too far to walk.

Koh Kong has other issues too. For one electricity is intermittent; during one movie I gave up counting the power interruptions, albeit of short duration, after six of these so it would pay to have some surge protection on any electrical device you may be using. The Cardamoms and the Koh Kong province are also rife with illegal logging. Lately, National Resources Protection Group director, Chut Wutty was shot dead at a clash at a checkpoint by military police when he refused to hand over a memory card containing photos of illegal logging. Apparently, the officer responsible then turned the gun on himself managing to inflict two fatal shots from his assault rifle.alt

Two journalists accompanying him were detained for questioning and Amnesty International has called for a full and independent investigation, as it transpires that Chut had been receiving threats for some time. International agencies like Global Witness claim illegal logging in Cambodia occurs under the protection of government agencies or prominent people.

Koh Kong attracts other violent episodes including of late a general, the head of a high-ranking Cambodian official's bodyguard unit, asaulting a man all of which was captured on the hotel's security cameras, see 'Cruelty General' on You Tube.

Land rights are a problem for the locals after two land seizures for sugar plantations deemed illegal by NGOs and human rights groups, and the huge US$5 billion Chinese tourism development by the Union Development Group covering 36,000 hectares on a 99-year lease, though on land subject to claims from 1100 families. Other issues include large sand dredging operations on provincial rivers causing pollution and dirtying the river.

The Dugout Hotel on the main drag is owned by a New Zealander. Previously the hotel went by the name of the Moto Bar and was built and owned by another Kiwi, Douglas, a man of immense physical stature. Almost two metres tall and weighing in after a diet at about 150 kilos, Big Douglas had been in Koh Kong for several years when I was introduced to him.

He revelled in tales of the Wild West nature of Koh Kong, with its cross-border smuggling, elephants roaming to outskirts of town, and of all the illegal weaponry about the place, vestiges of the bad old days under the Khmer Rouge. I was told about a foreigner keen to buy a Humvee from a local, when the foreigner turned up with some cash, he was quickly marched down to the local ATM at gunpoint where he was told to withdraw as much as he could; he never did get the vehicle.

Back then Douglas was suffering a wound inflicted by a local Khmer on a motorbike, whose foot peg had cut his shin to the bone. The injury was taking an age to heal, and when Douglas unveiled the cut to me, though much improved, it still looked at mess. Compensation had been forthcoming from the boy’s family, a deal brokered by the police for a share; but the climate combined with his other co-morbidities proved to be Douglas’ undoing, and I’ve heard he died not long after from blood poisoning.

Currency in Cambodia often confusing to visitors at the best of times is even more so in Koh Kong as in addition to the heavily dollarised economy; riel and Thai baht are in circulation, making for a number of dubious exchange rates at the local market.

Trips through Koh Kong from Cambodia can be done in a day, albeit a 14-15 hour day, but to come back the other way involves staying in town as buses to Phnom Penh leave in the morning. So if you’re staying diving and snorkelling in the Gulf of Thailand can be organised locally, as can kayaking, fishing, sunset boat trips and for dirt bike lovers there some rides in the surrounding bush, and trips to the various waterfalls. Gamblers can go to the casino, a huge garish white building complete with neo-classical Roman statues adorning the building.

About eight kilometres outside town are the mangrove forests, part of the nearly 25,000-hectare Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, with 1000 metre-long mangrove walk, with elevated cement and wooden platforms winding through the mangrove forest.

By the border is the special economic zone, and area dominated by its only inhabitant, the Camko car plant, a joint Cambodian Korean venture backed by the world’s seventh-largest vehicle manufacturer, Hyundai; part of an attempt to economically develop one of Cambodia’s more impoverished provinces.

If you’re entering Cambodia or leaving for Thailand, Koh Kong can make an interesting stop along the way; or just a good weekend trip from Phnom Penh.

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