In the Cardamoms
An early start to our second day saw us take to the atmospheric misty river at 6am and a combination of motorized and traditional rowing boats for 3.5 hours and about twenty kilometres before we left the boats at Domnak Kom to begin our trek through the forest. Needing to keep our wits about us to avoid the overhanging branches and foot-tripping vines on the ground as well as the leeches that were lying in wait with every footstep. As it turned out I think I was the only one not to suffer a bite from one of these blood-suckers. Accompanied by five guides including Mee, the project co-ordinator, they cooked us lunch before we took a rest at a small riverbed at Chunlea Pran, which was scheduled to be our overnight stop. However the pace of our hike was so quick - I'd liken it to a forced march - we decided to carry onto stay overnight at Veal Ta Prak, a clearing with a nearby stream, which is where camp was set up by the guides, with everyone assigned a hammock and blanket. I was knackered and whilst a hammock isn't my preferred choice of bedding, it would have to do.
Both dinner and breakfast the next morning was cooked by Engly, a fomer soldier and kick-boxer turned guide and was pretty darn good. Our other guides included a twenty-year old female guide Manet. Some of the group went hornbill-spotting before bedtime and first thing in the morning in the nearby grassy clearing. We left camp just before 9am for the final three-hours of trekking back to Chi Phat, along a much-easier path through the forest and finally across rolling open grasslands, arriving back at the guesthouse at noon. My feet were in agony - trekking certainly does not rank amongst my most pleasurable pursuits. Whilst the others took mountainbikes to a cave and waterfall after lunch, I had forty winks before catching up with Ka and her family again for my final sunset across the river. I was in bed by 9.30pm after another delicious dinner at the CBET office.
Another early departure the following morning at 6.30am, meant we were back in Phnom Penh a little after 11am. The community project is designed to provide an alternative livelihood for the former hunters and loggers in the four villages of the Chi Phat commune and though its still in its infancy, it seems to be doing just that. On our 1st night in the village, there were twenty visitors, which is the maximum occupancy they can cope with at the moment. Coverage in the latest Lonely Planet guide has alerted the backpacker crowd and they are already making their way to Chi Phat to enjoy the trekking, cycling and natural resources that the area has to offer in abundance. Don't expect herds of elephants and the like, though there are a group of 10 in the area, and you'll do well to spot monkeys, wild pigs, deer and a variety of birds, though remember the area was heavily logged by the Khmer Rouge and the wildlife is only just beginning to recover. The hospitality and food we received was excellent, on the trek and in the village, and as long as you don't expect 5-star facilities, you'll see a very different side to Cambodia compared to Angkor and the beaches of Sihanoukville.