Located deep in the Cardamon mountains faraway from the tourist track, is Chi Phat. This small rural village is one of the first in Cambodia to introduce a community-based ecotourism project, initiated as a way of tackling illegal poaching and logging in the area by providing sustainable jobs for the community.
Its a great place to spend a few days if you’re looking for a little recovery time after the debauchery of some of Cambodia’s more well-known destinations. We decided to stop there on our way from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville for a couple of days of trekking and to let our livers recover.
Its certainly not an easy place to get to, especially when coming from Siem Reap. The first leg is an overnight bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and I can honestly say it is the worst bus I have EVER been on. Bear in mind that I travelled around the majority of Southeast Asia by bus so for this to top the list gives you some idea of how awful it was.
The bus consisted of two levels of hard ‘beds’, the lower level was below the windows and reminiscent of a small, dark cell. I took one look at it and instantly felt claustrophobic and anxious. There was absolutely no way I could even bring myself to climb into that tiny space. Luckily the ticket seller must have sensed my anxiety and took pity on us, allowing us to swap to the top bunk. At the very least, we now had windows.
That brutal journey took seven hours – a very long and bumpy seven hours – at the end of which we were spat out somewhere in the middle of Phnom Penh. Cue a few more hours of waiting before finally being piled onto another bus headed for Koh Kong. This bus was completely full. And by that I don’t just mean that every seat was taken. I mean the kind of full you only find in Asia, with people sat on plastic stools in the aisles and crammed into every available space, munching away on all manner of weird snacks (think: foetus eggs and other such delights).
Another five hours later we were dropped off at a hut on the side of a dusty road in the middle of nowhere. We still had more travelling to do to get to Chi Phat. We were now in the village of Andoung Teuk (although I use the word ‘village’ loosely as there was not one other building in sight).
From there we either had to get a boat or motorcycle to Chi Phat. We were all wanting the journey to be over by this point so chose the quickest option – the motorcycle. Despite having to cling on for dear life as my ten-ton backpack tried to drag me off the back, the ride itself was gorgeous and the scenery stunning. A taste of what awaited us in Chi Phat.
Before arriving there I had no idea of just how isolated Chi Phat was. And just how small. It was a basically one long, dusty road lined with a few houses and shops. It didn’t even get round the clock power, with electricity only available between the hours of 5am and 9am and 5pm and 9pm. But I didn’t mind one bit – I was more than happy to disconnect from the World for a few days.
We found a great little homestay with a super friendly owner, dropped our bags off and then went off to the main office to book our activity.
The whole eco-tourism project is run by one office. That office is where you book tours, eat and arrange transport. It also regulates the pricing of all homestays in the area so they cost the same no matter where you stay.
Trekking was our activity of choice in Chi Phat, but you can also go mountain biking or take a more relaxing boat trip down the river. After going through the various options we settled on a two day, one night trek, staying overnight in a hammock in the middle of the jungle.
So we ate and got an early night before rising early to set off on our trek. There were five of us and we were accompanied by two guides and a cook. The main guide, Boun, had excellent English, great knowledge of the local area and kept us entertained with tales of his life and funny stories for the whole two days.
The trek itself was incredibly beautiful, particularly on the first day. We walked through forests, fields and meadows with grass up to our waists. At lunchtime we settled on some rocks and the guides built a fire and whipped up a delicious meal of vegetables and noodles. I am constantly amazed at the effort to rustle up proper meals in Asia, even when in the middle of nowhere. I am even more amazed when the food is as tasty as it was here.
The weather was glorious at the start of the walk – dry and sunny. But shortly after lunch we started to see dark, heavy storm clouds rolling in fast over the hills. Before we knew it the heavens had opened and we were being pelted by heavy rainfall. Within seconds we were soaked to the skin…we couldn’t have gotten any wetter if we had jumped into a pool of water.
But if I was under any illusions that the rain was our main problem I was wrong. We hadn’t factored leeches into the equation. And so, with the rains, came the first of my many leech encounters.
I was always terrified of seeing a leech for the first time. Being incredibly squeamish I struggle even getting an injection, let alone having something attach itself to me and try to suck my blood. And yet I wasn’t too concerned at the possibility of leeches on this trek. I had been warned of them many times before in Southeast Asia and never come across even one. But that was all about to change.
After spending most of the day walking through meadows and open spaces we finally entered rainforest. Prime leech territory! Almost as soon as we entered one of our group got the first leech. The guides acted quickly, spraying it with insect repellent which made it immediately shrivel up and fall off (it seems leeches hate deet as much as the rest of the world). But it was an almost futile effort. They were everywhere!
We were in dense rainforest in the middle of a thunderstorm, brushing past trees and bushes, so it was inevitable that we would be covered in them. And we weren’t handling this whole scenario particularly gracefully. Every few steps another bloodcurdling scream would rise from one of the group as we looked down to find new leeches attached to our skin or trying to make their way up our shoes and into our socks. After a while even the guides stopped coming to our rescue, preoccupied instead with keeping the leeches off themselves.
There was no option but to keep walking. After a while we had to stop checking every time we thought we felt one wriggling inside our socks or we would never have reached our destination.
Eventually the rain died off and we emerged from the rainforest into leech-free terrain so we took the opportunity to stop and do a ‘leech check’. We were mostly clear except for Boun. He took off his shoes only to find an absolute beast of a leech stuck to his foot. This leech was the size on my index finger so it had clearly been feasting away for a while. Even Boun turned a little grey at the sight of it.
After de-leeching we continued on the trek, reaching our camp for the night a couple of hours later. The camp was basic but a real experience. Its not often that you get to sleep in the middle of the rainforest in a hammock with nothing but a mosquito net between you and the outside world.
There were two bamboo platforms where we each strung up our hammocks, a little hut where the guides did the cooking and a couple of toilet huts (which believe me, you did not want to use).
Nearby was a beautiful waterfall where we could have had a swim but, given that we had spent most of the day soaking in a tropical thunderstorm, most of us gave it a miss.
Instead we got settled into the camp, changed into dry clothes and chilled out whilst the guides lit a fire and cooked up a delicious meal of noodles and egg.
There’s not a huge amount to do in the middle of the jungle with no electricity so it was an early night for all of us. We climbed into our hammocks (a lot more difficult than you would imagine) and fell asleep to the sounds of the insects and animals all around us in the jungle.
The next day we woke early to start the trek back to Chi Phat. The first half of the walk was arguably more beautiful than Day One (and decidedly more leech free), trekking through streams and remote rural villages.
We took a detour to see some ‘burial jars’ tucked away in a nearby cliff. They weren’t exactly what I was expecting. I was thinking huge life-size jars like the ones I had seen photos of in Laos. But these were tiny pots that looked like something you would find on someone’s fireplace. No wonder Boun looked irritated at the fact we had requested that little detour.
After a bit more trekking we found ourselves on a long, straight road leading back to the village. It was a new road under construction that was unfortunately in the way of the previous trekking route.
This part of the walk was pretty uninspiring so after finding out we still had another 6 kilometres of walking along that road we got Boun to call a tuk tuk for us.
And its lucky we did because just as we got back to the village the heavens opened again and before long there was a river running down the centre of town where the road had previously been.
And that was the end of our two days of trekking in Chi Phat. After an amazing experience (leeches aside) we hopped into taxis to take us to Sihanoukville, back to civilisation and the land of restaurants, wifi and 24 hour electricity.