Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains Get Their First Eco-Resort
By Brian Calvert
Wall Street Journal Asia
January 16, 2009
Koh Kong Province, Cambodia – In a wild range of forested peaks tumbling into the mangroves of Cambodia’s western coast, tigers and Asian elephants still roam the woods, fishing cats hunt puddle frogs, Malayan sun bears ransack bee nests and highly endangered Siamese crocodiles ply the streams.
These are the Cardamom Mountains, and when I first visited them in 2000 — the year of the conservation organization Fauna and Flora International’s wildlife survey — they were a challenge just to reach. My journey with a World Health Organization expedition from Phnom Penh began with a punishing two-day journey via trawler and motorboat, followed by a long ride on a bumpy logging road.
But when I finally arrived at my destination, deep in the jungle at the end of a neglected logging road, the Cardamoms didn’t disappoint: Clear streams tumbled from the mountainsides, mist cooled the early mornings and the forest’s canopy and undergrowth cloaked the valleys in quiet. Accommodations were nil, and we slept on hammocks slung from trees in hardscrabble mountain villages.
I was in one of the most pristine forests of Southeast Asia. Inaccessibility during Cambodia’s civil wars and the Khmer Rouge reign — the mountains were a stronghold for the group — had helped protect the area. Peace had brought problems that include illegal logging, but it remained a wildlife haven. The trip became one of my Cambodian favorites.
So it was with much anticipation in August that I made reservations at Rainbow Lodge, which had opened in January 2008 at the base of the Cardamoms. The mountains’ first eco-friendly resort — one of very few lodgings at all — promised all of the serenity of my first trip with little of its hardship. My old destination remained an incalculable mental distance from Phnom Penh’s bustle, or, for that matter, the crowded temples of Angkor Wat, but a new road and series of bridges had put it within five hours (by air-conditioned bus) of the capital.
Apparent isolation is the Rainbow Lodge’s main feature. We — I was traveling with Min Lieskovsky, a writer and anthropology student — were told to call the lodge from the third major bridge, have the driver drop us at the fourth, and wait there to be picked up. This we did, and we suddenly felt very alone as the bus vanished over a ridge. It was a fleeting feeling, however, because even as we slung our packs on our backs, Janet Newman, the owner of the lodge, was waiting for us at the water’s edge.
A 41-year-old barrister from Birmingham, England, she had tired of a career dealing with violence and abuse and decided to put her energies to another use. A short stint as a volunteer for an organization called Frontier, in the Cardamoms’ nearby Botum Sakor National Park, persuaded her to move to Cambodia for good and set up a green-friendly resort. She introduced us to a friendly russet mutt, Sunny, and a taciturn Cambodian guide, Prom Sa Lei, who ushered us onto a river skiff and launched us from shore.
After a short ride, the Rainbow Lodge came into view through thickets of water palm and stands of bamboo, a cluster of seven bungalows and a breezy, thatched bar. It was early on a Saturday afternoon, and within an hour — following a briefing by Ms. Newman on water and power conservation — Ms. Lieskovsky and I were swimming off the dock in the languid currents of the Kep River and sunning ourselves on the bow of the moored skiff, the Cardamoms looming high and verdant upriver.
Natural jungle is already coming back to the resort, built on former farmland. Ms. Newman says more species of wildlife appear all the time.
“We’re trying to show the local people that protecting wildlife can bring in an income,” she says. “Tourism can actually be a benefit to them, some financial benefit.”
The jungle has been incorporated, not subjugated, and a stay at the lodge, though quite comfortable, requires an acceptance of nature on its own terms. Rainbow Lodge isn’t a luxury resort. It’s solar powered, with backup generators, which is why Ms. Newman encourages visitors to turn lights off when not in use. The thatched bungalows — clean, but rustic and sparsely appointed, with mattresses a little saggy in the middle — are shared with denizens of the jungle; our room was home to a large noisy type of gecko called a tookay and a rather meaty spider.
As recent guest Bronwyn Blue puts it, “It’s absolutely basic — except for the food.” (Our weekend menus included steamed lemon-grass fish, prawn curry, sautéed squid and pineapple fritters in chocolate sauce.)
Ms. Blue, who runs an interior design company in Phnom Penh and who spent her 32nd birthday at the lodge, was glad she’d thought to bring shampoo, though the lodge does provide soap, towels, blankets, a fan and an electric bug swatter, which resembles an electrified tennis racket. The hot water is just lukewarm, though that tends to suffice in the tropics. “Maybe you want to bring your own creature comforts with you,” Ms. Blue says. “Bring your own Champagne.”
Entertainment is provided mostly by the Kep River and its tributary, the Tatai. Sunday morning Ms. Lieskovsky and I borrowed the lodge’s kayak and paddled upriver until we came upon a small stream — hidden behind a curtain of water palms — that fed the main channel. Stowing the kayak, we spent hours swimming and walking, exploring the stream’s spills, pools and boulders.
Sights along the way included many butterflies; with help from a field guide compiled by Ms. Newman and other volunteers at Frontier — the only one in print specifically for Cambodia — I was able to tentatively identify two species, the common banded demon and the glass tiger.
“A large, diverse butterfly population indicates a good diversity of habitats and environments,” says Emily Woodfield, who is now the country director, based in Phnom Penh, of Fauna and Flora International and who worked on the field guide. The ones around the Rainbow Lodge are likely to be a mix of types that flourish in lowland agriculture settings and others coming out of the forests, including rarer species, she says.
“In Cambodia, it’s actually quite difficult to get into that kind of forest, so the Rainbow Lodge offers you a taste of that,” Ms. Woodfield says. An entire day could be spent spotting butterflies, and, field guide in hand, attempting to make identifications (Ms. Newman keeps a copy at the lodge that you can borrow for excursions.)
Ms. Blue says they enthralled her: “Black and white butterflies, yellow butterflies, orange butterflies, green butterflies. There were butterflies everywhere.”
Other activities include guided treks through the jungle and trips in Mr. Lei’s skiff to waterfalls, rapids or the nearby Gulf of Thailand; boat rental runs $12 an hour, including Mr. Lei’s captaining. There’s also an overnight camping trip, which the lodge’s Web site cautions is “truly for the adventurous.”
Sunday afternoon, we hired Mr. Lei and his skiff for a trip up the Tatai to Tatai Waterfall, a masterwork of Mesozoic sandstone — wide, high and pristine. We clambered up the rocks, ducked our heads under powerful cascades of translucent water, and, after prudent discussion, plunged into the eddies and chutes of the rapids at the base of the falls. A banged-up ankle notwithstanding, the afternoon was close to perfect. This weekend was overtaking my first trip to the Cardamoms as a favorite.
Monday morning we had one last trip on the skiff — a return to the bridge to catch the bus that would take us away from all this. We said goodbye to our hostess and Mr. Lei, the bus arrived, and in a cloud of exhaust and a burst of air-conditioning, we headed back toward the city.