Our first adventure back on the road was to be Chi Phat, a community based ecotourism (CBET) project set up by Wildlife Alliance. Chi Phat was once infamous for illegal logging and poaching, but seven years ago this village began its transformation into an ecotourism centre. We read about it in Lonely Planet, as a good place to visit the jungle in the Koh Kong conservation corridor. We booked a boat ride to the village and a night in a guesthouse hoping to sort out tours when we arrived. Just the day before, we took a look at the trekking options and discovered some fairly damning Tripadvisor reviews. In some, tourists compared the CBET centre to the mafia and spoke of villagers being scared to have their own businesses. There were also reports of a dirty village full of rubbish and no proper forest remaining. With these views in mind we were a little apprehensive about visiting, but we decided to go anyway.
The changeover from bus to boat at Andoung Tuek was seamless. Someone was waiting for us with a sign and along with another couple, we were led to the boat. The boats or motor sampan are long tail boats which sit fairly low in the water. It was certainly necessary to move slowly to prevent wobbling the boat too much. Our boat ride lasted around two hours and gave us some nice views of green forest lining the wide slow flowing river and the occasional house on stilts on the banks. The best advice we could give to make the boat ride a little more comfy is to sit on a lifejacket or cushion because sitting on a wooden plank with your knees above your hips for 2 hours gives you a slightly sore bottom. Other than that, we enjoyed the boat ride and arrived into Chi Phat safely.
Our first impressions of the village itself were how rural it seemed. There’s a mixture of concrete and wooden houses along the red dusty main road. Almost every house has chickens and dogs and some kind of business, from shops to restaurants to laundry to motorbike repairs. We walked along following our boat driver to find the CBET centre which is the only bamboo building in the village.
We were greeted by one of the staff who explained the options for accommodation, food and tours. Everything is centrally run, including accommodation, tours and even a restaurant which means that almost all the tourist dollars go through the centre before being shared on with the employees and accommodation (hence the mafia like feeling). Saying that, the lady we spoke to said we could eat in any of the places in town but needed to book to eat meals at the centre (so they can do they shopping).The most annoying thing for us is that the information on the Chi Phat website did not match the information we were given at the centre. It seemed the tours available had changed slightly and the prices had increased(by about $10pp). There was no pressure for us to book anything, but the question of what will you do if you don’t book a tour was a little rudely asked. They could definitely make some improvements to the service personnel at the centre.
Despite the slightly iffy service, we booked a 3 day tour of the area, which included meals, jungle accommodation and an english speaking guide. We also determined to spend our money for food in other restaurants in the village rather than the centre. We ate lunch in a small house front restaurant and dinner in the village restaurant and both were very tasty and the people very friendly. Since there isn’t much to do in the village and we had an early start the next morning, we retired early to our guesthouse. The guesthouse itself was located on the river bank with nice views. We had a private double and bathroom which were pretty good. The situation of the toilet in the centre of the bathroom was an interesting design feature and the lack of water from the tap meant the shower was more useful for hand washing. Despite the hard bed and cockerel cockadoodle dooing from 3am we both slept well enough. We got up in the dark at 5am to begin our tour.
At the centre, we met our guide Ngien and were given backpacks, rain capes and a packed breakfast. With our bags packed, we walked down to the river where a boat collected us to take us first downstream and then upstream into another tributary. The first part of our tour was some sunrise bird watching from a rowing boat, but to get there we needed to take a motor boat first. Starting in the dark with the moonlight reflecting on the water and watching the sky change through black, yellow, pink and blue was beautiful, with the deep pink sun rising it was stunning. As for the birds we had a few sightings from the motorboat. We saw hornbills, kingfishers, egrets and a few other birds our guide didn’t know. We transferred to a rowing boat for the last few kilometers. It was so much nicer to hear the sounds of the forest instead of the motor and the birds seemed less flighty too. Rowing helped us get closer to kingfishers, herons and hornbills along with some striking black and yellow birds. All too soon we were rowed ashore for our trek to begin.
On the first day, we had 12km to cover through the jungle. Our guide told us to put our socks on over our trousers and spray deet on our socks to keep the leeches at bay. Not wanting to meet any blood sucking worms, we applied the deet liberally (we had already read about the leeches). We were walking through dense dark damp jungle with hanging vines to duck around and trees to clamber over. It wasn’t long before Zoë toppled over one of the larger tree trunks and ended up on the ground. Thankfully nothing hurt and we continued deeper into the jungle. Within an hour our guide stopped pulled off his welly and plucked a leech from his foot, warning us that we would feel them as itchy cold patches on our skin.
If avoiding the leeches and bugs wasn’t enough to deal with while clambering over trees, then nature had another surprise for us. We noticed large skid marks on the soft ground and then some large circular ones. Our guide stopped and told us they were elephant tracks from last night, so we were essentially following an elephant through the forest. He seemed at little worried and understandably so, he had never seen an elephant and only rangers are allowed to carry guns in the area. We made several stops while he hooted loudly to see if any elephants would reply. Thankfully none did, and the recent tracks ran out. Instead the bugs came back and Matthias received two painful bee stings as we passed around a large tree.
We arrived at a river for lunch and had some time to relax and bathe our feet while the cook made a fire and prepared lunch. Just as Zoë took her shoes off, she found a brown striped leech making it’s way up her shoe and thankfully flicked it away with a stick. Bathing our hot feet in the river was a welcome break from the sticky heat of the jungle. Lunch was a pork and pineapple stir fry with plenty of vegetables. The longer we sat, the more bees we seemed to collect. Our guide explained that they are attracted to our sweat and are harmless as long as you don’t swat them. Unfortunately, as we packed up and put on our backpacks, Zoë managed to trap one under the strap and get a nasty sting on the shoulder.
For the rest of the day of trekking we had only a few more kilometers to cover until we reached camp. Our guide took time to explain several of the useful plants of the jungle such as natural rubber trees and mushrooms that could be used as medicine. We also heard the calls of the gibbons as they chatted away noisily in the trees above us. It’s really awesome to overhear a gibbon conversation. We arrived at camp in record time and had our hammocks set up for an afternoon nap. The jungle shelter was a platform on stilts with a roof but open on all sides. The camp also had a toilet and a kitchen shelter which was more than we had been expecting. We took a rest during the hot part of the day and agreed we would visit a nearby waterhole that evening.
The waterhole was a short walk from camp through a grassy plain and some more jungle. As we walked along a sandy path our guide shouted and jumped backwards towards Matthias with his knife in his hand. Zoë caught a glimpse of the snake on the ground and ran backwards too. The snake had already slithered away as we all breathed a sigh of relief and started laughing. We hadn’t expected there to be a greater danger from the guide jumping at you with a knife than from a snake. We had no idea what kind of snake it was but it was brown with diamonds and fairly chunky. Probably nothing to worry about even though there are many venomous snakes in Cambodia. In need of a little refreshment, our guide cut us some water vine so we could drink from the wood.
As we continued, we saw signs that elephants slept here and made their way to the waterhole. Maybe this should have been a warning to us for later, but we carried on to the waterhole. The waterhole was a large open grassy swamp where we saw quite a few swallows and herons along with hearing the sounds of hundreds of frogs. Sometimes adjutants and storks visit, but we didn’t see any. After an hour of watching and listening we started walking back to camp. Around the edge of the forest we heard the noise of bending and breaking trees. We could see the trees moving about 50m in the distance. It could only be an elephant. We turned and hotfooted it back into the jungle. There really was nowhere to run to and be safe from an elephant. As hurried back to safety, we heard a loud buzzing noise in the trees above us which made it all the more eery. We quickly got back to the viewing platform safely without an elephant in pursuit. Our guide chopped down a hardwood stick and made it into a drum stick which he then put to good use against some board-like tree roots. After a few minutes we went back towards the elephant with our guide beating the large trees with his stick. The large roots of the trees made a loud and thudding noise like a giant drum. Our guide told us to hide behind a large tree if the elephant came. We still wonder how we could have hidden from an elephant but luckily we didn’t find out. Back at the clearing we waited for any movement or sounds but heard nothing. All the drumming and shouting had worked, and the elephant allowed us to leave his home and get back to our camp. Phew!
After the adrenaline rush of our short trip to the waterhole we were getting hungry. Thankfully our dinner was almost ready, so we had time for a quick jungle shower in the stream before we ate. Refreshed, we tucked into our soup and rice. After dinner we watched the stars appear above the forest canopy and the sounds of the night begin. We settled into our hammocks and fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle.
With such a clear night we woke early and a little chilly. Our breakfast was ready and the coffee was hot to warm us up. Packing up our hammocks took no time at all and then we were ready for day two of jungle trekking. It promised to be a short day as we only had 7 km to cover visiting a ‘mountain community’ and arriving at O’malu waterfall. We set off back towards the waterhole and hoped the elephant wasn’t waiting for us. We found his footprints and dung but thankfully he had woken hungry and gone off in search of breakfast. There wasn’t much at the waterhole, so we walked off across the grassy plain. Our guide showed us pitcher plants and the jungle tea vine on the way.
Through a little more jungle we saw rubber trees, mahogany, jungle ginger and rattan growing. The jungle ended and we found ourselves in banana plantations, pineapple plantations and our guide found a cashew nut tree. Believe it or not part of the cashew fruit can be used as an explosive. At the end we met the road where we paused for a drink before continuing to the waterfall. The mountain community as advertised was a joke; it was more of a collection of houses along a road and not really on a mountain. O’Malu waterfall is a big waterfall with a great plunge pool to bathe in. We really enjoyed our swim and our guide did too, especially the bathtub halfway up the waterfall.
Our camp for the night was in the bamboo forest near the waterfall and after another good dinner we were ready for bed. The noises here were much louder, there were owls hooting, insects buzzing and a concert of frogs down at the river. It was also colder on the edge of the forest so our cook decided to sleep in the kitchen next to a fire.
The next morning we rose early to make the most of the cool part of the day. We had 14 km to walk back to the village and most of it would be along the road with the sun beating down on us. Our first diversion away from the road was to the jar site. The jar sites in the area are ancient burial sites of the people who lived here from the 15th-17th centuries. The site we visited had obviously been looted and the jars replaced with new versions. A little less impressive, but still an important part of the cultural heritage. Maybe the larger jar site with over 70 jars is more impressive, but we didn’t get the chance to visit it.
After another 2 hours along the scorching red road, we turned off towards the river and the final waterfall. The waterfall was smaller than O’Malu but had a big overhang and a shallow pool for swimming. It was refreshing to cool down in the pool and dry in the sunshine. Our final lunch was a khmer speciality of fish stew with rice and mango salad. Stuffed, we dawdled back to the village in need of a restful afternoon.
Our tour had been great fun and our guide and cook were fantastic. We got back to the CBET centre, but there wasn’t much of a welcome. Only later did the lady ask if we wanted to stay in the same guesthouse and if we wanted breakfast and dinner. We opted to stay in the same guesthouse but find our own food.
We watched the sunset from the guesthouse boat jetty and the egrets flying to their roost for the night. Then we went in search of dinner and found a friendly family offering pork and rice. We asked for some vegetables and the wife went off to the market to buy some. The food was delicious and the kitten to share our meal with and cuddle was a bonus. We even got to try some local rice wine too. Ready for bed we went back to our guesthouse in preparation for another early morning to catch our motorbike ride and bus journey back to Phnom Penh.
Chi Phat is certainly worth visiting for the forest and friendly people. The CBET maybe needs better management and small changes could be made to improve the scheme. Even with its drawbacks, tourism is helping people in Chi phat have a better life and helping to protect the forest and wildlife. And as for the rubbished mentioned earlier: yes there is rubbish lying around, but considering what the rest of the country looks like we would say Chi Phat is clean. Also we think visitors should not try to fight the system but accept that most things are arranged through the CBET office. Overall they have some 240 people working for them (guides, cooks, drivers, guesthouse hosts, and even rubbish collectors). There are plenty of options to spend your money directly with other locals. Since the CBET was set up by Wildlife Alliance, the money also pays for the rangers as well as other projects like reforestation and animal care and release centers. Activities are not super cheap but we think they are fair considering how visitors are supporting the area and community.