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Cambodia's jungle refuge a hit with ecotourists

Koh Kong is becoming a magnet for travellers seeking something a little off the beaten track

Photo by: STEPHANIE MEE

Rainbow lodge bungalows provides a peaceful sanctuary.

KOH KONG PROVINCE
Cambodia's southwestern province of Koh Kong is fast becoming a magnet for intrepid ecotourists eager to explore the region's vast array of flora and fauna in a remote part of the Kingdom once bypassed by the majority of travellers.

Koh Kong, a region often seen as merely a passageway to the Thai border, is home to lush virgin rainforests, waterfalls, mountains, crystal-clear rivers and kilometre upon kilometre of undeveloped coastline and islands.

The region has enjoyed relative sanctuary from poachers and loggers. This is no accident as the local communities have been working together with various NGOs and government agencies to preserve one of Cambodia's most pristine regions.

Located 7 kilometres from Koh Kong city, Pream Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary is a 25,897-hectare protected zone established in 1993 to conserve one of the world's last intact coastal mangrove forests.

The local community of Boeung Kayak, in partnership with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Cambodian government, has endeavoured to make the mangrove forest an environmentally friendly and sustainable tourist site.

Everything you see here was built by local villagers and is maintained by local people.

For a nominal fee of 5,000 riels (US$1.22) for foreign nationals or 3,000 riels for Cambodians, visitors can meander through the mangroves on a shady 1-kilometre stretch of locally built, Robinson Crusoe-like walkways and viewing platforms.

Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY

Beach life.

The intricate network of pathways traverses lush mangroves using elevated walkways and suspension bridges.

 At one point, a 15-metre viewing platform emerges, uncovering a stunning view of faraway mountains, while below the platform local fisherman harvest green mussels in the shallow waterways of an estuary.

The same fishermen offer boat rides, which provide an entirely new perspective of  Pream Krasop's mangrove system from a small canoe-like wooden vessel.

A chartered boat costs $25 and usually includes a trip to an old fishing village deep in the forest where fresh local seafood and vegetables can be purchased and prepared, or a trip along the coastline to search for various types of sea birds, fish and even dolphins.

"Everything you see here was built by local villagers and is maintained by local people. We sell the crabs to some of the restaurants in town, and catch fish and small squid to sell or to make kapei," said a local fisherman known simply as Chea.

Kapei is Koh Kong's unique version of prahok - a thick, pungent, plum-coloured fish paste, which can be eaten with rice, vegetables or sour fruit.

Tatai waterfall. STEPHANIE MEE

Jimmy the dog on the Tatai river. STEPHANIE MEE

Tatai waterfall

Tatai waterfall is another protected area 20 kilometres east of Koh Kong city. The turnoff to the fall passes a police checkpoint where officers act as both law enforcement officials and part-time park rangers.

Depending on the amount of recent rainfall, visitors can clamber over massive rock shelves, take picnics next to the falls or simply cool off under the thundering cascades of clear mountain water, streaming fresh from the Cardamon mountains.

Rainbow Lodge is Koh Kong's only eco-lodge, one of only two in Cambodia, the second of which is located in Ratanakkiri.

Owned by the friendly and down-to-earth barrister-turned-green business owner, Janet Newman, the lodge is located on a quiet, verdant patch of jungle overlooking the Tatai river.

The lodge can only be reached by boat and was built in 2008 using local labour - and whenever possible, local materials. It is powered almost entirely by solar panels and staffed by locals from the Tatai region.

"When I was researching how to build an eco-lodge, I learned that the most environmentally damaging structure is one that is built in a straight line, which forces people to make multiple paths directly to the building," Newman said.

"This is why the bungalows here are laid out in a rainbow formation, this way each bungalow has a great view of the forest and the river," she added.

For $50 a night, guests receive three meals a day, including a three-course dinner in the evening with different options for starters, mains and dessert.

Local involvement

"I buy all the food here locally at the markets," Newman said, adding that this way she can provide the freshest food for guests while still supporting the local community.

During the day, Rainbow Lodge guests can swim in the peaceful, slow-moving Tatai river, take boats and kayaks out on the river or take small nature walks around the property to enjoy the greenery and the ever-present and brightly coloured butterflies and birds.

The lodge also offers day trips to the Tatai waterfalls, guided treks and boat trips to a set of rapids one hour up stream from the bungalows.

There is also the option of spending the night deep in the forest, and while this may seem daunting to some, the opportunity to dine on local produce under the stars is one not to be missed.

The rapids offer a perfect example of the serenity and pristine nature of Koh Kong.

Virtually deserted, the rapids are made up of a jumble of huge boulders in the river that cause the water to pool and form a small lake before tumbling over the rocks and down the river.

Visitors can picnic on the small beach nearby, sunbathe on the large rocks or swim in the pure, natural pools with only the sounds of running water and chirping birds to be heard.

"I think I give visitors a lot of independence. People can do pretty much whatever they want during the day. However, the only thing I'm pretty adamant about is that people do not attempt to go trekking in the forest without a guide," Newman said, adding that people sometimes underestimate the fact that they're in a jungle and it's just way too easy to get lost or hurt.

The road to Koh Kong is now in good condition and can be accessed from Phnom Penh by bus with the Virak Bunthan bus company, or by share taxis, both of which take about five to six hours.

Alternatively, travellers can also reach Koh Kong from Sihanoukville by bus (five hours) or boat (four hours).

To contact Koh Kong's Rainbow Lodge, call 099 744 321, or check out its website at www.rainbowlodge

cambodia.com.

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