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Author's doctorate a fun romp

The author visited Ratanakiri Province several times to research his book. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

Gregory McCann sets out noble intentions in his introduction to this book about the Halang-Halang mountains in the north east of Cambodia where the border lies with Laos.

It is, he insists, one of the last great wildernesses of Asia, a region not yet surveyed and largely unexplored with rugged mountains covered by rich jungles and open grasslands.

He explains in his opening to Called Away By A Mountain Spirit: Journey To The Green Corridor that his Taiwanese wife and father-in-law supported his endeavour to explore this region in several journeys as part of his PhD.

But the PhD he was learning was about English literature, not the Cambodian wilderness in the Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri Province.

It was an area the US airforce flew over from Thai bases during its secret carpet bombing of Cambodia during the 1970s, but has remained a wilderness inhabited by intriguing tribes of both humans and endangered animals.

It is an area where illegal loggers operate, and at one time gemstone miners descended on the area but found there were few there to make their riches.

McCann writes that it is a fascinating area, and he is particularly captivated by the animists who live there, people who believe each and every animal and even plants and trees are spiritual entities.

So what begins as a seemingly deep and meaningful anthropoligical piece of non-fiction then surprises.

McCann is an obviously gregarious and beer loving bloke who turns what could be a turgidly worthy work into an entertaining travelogue which puts the reader right into the remote villages and jungles with him.

And that is largely due to a coterie of local cohorts he befriends to lead him through the region, especially the now under-resourced park rangers who have suffered after massive aid cutbacks by the World Bank.

We learn as much about their culture and behaviours – much based around beer and rice wine - their animist beliefs and a consistent sense of humour despite many hardships they face.

The terrain can shift from jungle to dusty red roads and open grasslands.

Reading about the animist philosophy is an eye opener. For instance, finding the dead carcass of a wild pig is a huge bonus as their teeth are believed to bring great luck to the finder.

An enjoyable, but sometimes shallow, read which opens the north east in an enjoyable way to the uninitiated.

Called Away By A Mountain Spirit: Journey To The Green Corridor, by Gregory McCann. Published by Deep Jungle Books.

To contact the reporter on this story: Marcus Casey at



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