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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ... and onward to the coast

... and onward to the coast

The medium grinned wildly and pretended to shoot into the surrounding forest as he

channeled the spirit of a dead warrior chief.

Villagers began to chatter excitedly as more imaginary shots were fired. When the

medium grabbed a lit candle, everyone strained forward to have hot wax dripped onto

their palms and heads as a blessing from the spirit.

The shooting motions were not meant to be hostile, just the spirit reminiscing about

his favorite past time when he was of this realm - hunting in the jungle.

In early February each year, the villagers of Ou Som, located at the base of Phnom

Kromoy, or "Ghost Mountain," on the southern flank of the Cardamom Range,

commune with their ancestors.

The indigenous people of the Cardamoms are still found in remote Ou Som and a few

other scattered villages. While they managed to survive the Khmer Rouge years with

their way of life intact, the fate of other villagers who used to inhabit the hills

remains unclear.

Due to war, the Cardamoms has been a region of Cambodia forbidden to foreigners for

nearly 30 years. This is only the second dry season that outsiders have been allowed

into the area, let alone explore it.

The forest is still thick and wild, home to tigers, elephants, and possibly the highly

endangered Java rhino, and the mysterious khting vor - a sheep-like creature known

to science only by its horns.

Conservationists say wildlife sanctuaries in the Cardamoms, which now exist only

on paper, could qualify as World Heritage Sites if the Cambodian government establishes

a system of management and protection for the forest and its creatures.

Reaching Ou Som isn't easy. The first stage of the trip is an eight-hour ride, as

brutal on vehicles as it is on passengers, from Pursat to Pramouy village in Veal

Veng District.

Pramouy is one of the villages being settled by the former KR and lies within the

Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary. If the sanctuary is established in reality, Pramouy

might one day be the gateway to one of the most important wildlife reserves in Southeast

Asia.

If lucky, one can bounce all the way to Pramouy inside a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Otherwise it is a $20 one-way trip on the back of a moto hired in Pursat. The bruising

discomfort of the trip is compensated for by the stunning forest scenery along the

way.

The dry season is the only time Pramouy can be reached without having to slog through

mud for days on foot. Accommodation can be found at the newly-built pagoda where

a lone monk will happily provide floor space in exchange for a small donation.

In the dusty little village there are a few shops selling basic supplies, but travelers

to the Cardamoms should carry their own food and mosquito nets, as well as lots of

repellent. The malaria in the mountains can be a killer.

Until a year ago there was fighting in the area. Although roads around Pramouy have

been cleared of mines, the forest beside them is still a deadly place to walk.

Pramouy's moto drivers looked dismayed when asked about the chances of reaching Ou

Som. They said it could take seven to eight hours. In fact the journey might not

be possible, they agreed, as the road was all but impassable. But for $15 they would

try.

After leaving at first light the following day, prepared for a long ordeal, it took

only three hours of puttering along relatively smooth track and well-graded logging

road climbing a low pass over the range, to reach the outskirts of Ou Som. The rigors

of getting there had clearly been overstated.

Ou Som had never had a westerner spend the night, said the headman. He graciously

offered accommodation under a tin-roofed shelter next to his house and arranged for

a tour of the village.

The 135 families of Ou Som live along a low ridge with a view of Phnom Kramoy. The

forest around the village has been cleared for rice cultivation and a large area

of land, which all the people share, is planted with bananas.

Near the village is a beautiful stream which tumbles over a small waterfall before

widening to make a fantastic swimming hole. It is a favorite spot for the villagers

to cool off, and also catch water bugs which, when fried, they eat by the spoonful.

Villagers said there were crocodiles further along the stream, a three-day round-trip

journey on foot through the jungle from Ou Som. Until recently, one villager hunted

the crocodiles with nets, but he blew himself up with a grenade while fishing.

If the crocodiles are there, they are likely to be of the Siamese variety, a species

thought to be extinct in the wild. Their discovery would be of tremendous importance

to conservationists now surveying the mountains.

Hong Ngeng has lived his entire life in Ou Som. He said nothing much had changed

there in his 69 years. The only exciting thing to happen, said Ngeng, was the visit

of the King in 1955. The villagers spent two weeks constructing a landing strip for

the King's plane, the one and only time the airfield was used.

The King brought each villager a set of clothes, a mosquito net, and 50 riel. He

also brought money to build a school and a pagoda, but the district chief pocketed

it all and the fearful villagers didn't dare complain.

After more thought, Ngeng said the day the Khmer Rouge confiscated his three elephants

was also memorable. He was given a choice of death or handing his stock over to the

KR. "They only left us with basic things," he said with a sad smile.

Ngeng lost his elephants, but he and the other villagers managed to keep their traditions

alive.

During the ancestor worshipping ceremony, Ngeng interpreted the mumbling and gestures

of the mediums possessed by spirits. The first spirit to make an appearance, a former

elder of the village, spoke through the medium in a high-pitched voice, warning the

villagers that a processing plant near Ou Som was endangering their health.

At the plant, ooa rormiet vines gathered from the jungle are ground up then placed

in vats of chemicals to be turned into a bright yellow paste. When dried and beaten

to a powder by club-wielding women, the paste becomes a medicine used for fevers

and other ailments. The spirits, however, were gravely concerned that seepage from

the chemical vats was poisoning the village's water supply.

After a long day of whiskey, dancing, and prayer, the celebrants said they were content

as the spirits had promised them a happy year.

Travelers making it as far as Ou Som can either back-track over the Cardamoms, or

continue through the hills and jungle to the coast. The road from Ou Som to Koh Kong,

built by the You Ry Sako logging company, is a two lane, perfectly-graded scar through

what was recently virgin jungle.

After leaving Ou Som, there are no settlements until one reaches the outskirts of

Koh Kong some five to seven hours later. The sense of isolation can be overwhelming

when contemplating the vastness of the jungle - especially while standing beside

a broken down moto.

There is clearly enormous potential for eco-tourism in the Cardamom Range. With wise

management, the forests and its creatures will remain for later generations of Cambodians

to enjoy.

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