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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Koh Kong gets ready to meet the planet

Koh Kong gets ready to meet the planet

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END OF THE ROAD: Steel Bridge has seen better days. Last year's flood washed it out

STEEL BRIDGE, Koh Kong Province - You can't get here from there...well, wait a

minute, that's a lie... actually you can, but to do so is a real pain in the back,

especially for us mid-centurians.

From Koh Kong Town you take a tiny skiff that whisks along -jarring the lower lumbar

region with every ripple of a wave - for about 40 minutes in and around a tangled

array of mangrove forests and tiny islets, eventually heading up the Trapaeng Reung

River before you reach what's called the GAT Landing. This is a rough hewn, now deserted

beach head where GAT International used to load tons of timber a day onto barges

for shipment abroad.

The loggers have packed up and gone home thanks to the timber export ban. There's

one bulldozer left and a handful of staff trying to figure out what's the next deal

and how to make use of the "dozer" while nobody from the home office is

watching.

Imagine this: nothing to do all day except drive around on a five ton piece of heavy

machinery. This reporter didn't suggest it, but it's likely that with a bit of dosh

up front a test drive could have been the order of the day.

From the landing, a 20-meter-wide dirt road knifes northward into the almost uninhabited

jungle. But if you don't have a car waiting to pick you up, you could find yourself

stuck on a giant pile of mud for a day or two. Regular taxi service has yet to arrive

in this corner of the Kingdom and cars are few and far between.

Signs of human settlement are rare for the next 55 kilometers north on the road to

Thma Beng. This is God's country and hope to hell you don't run out of gas.

While bracing for each new rut in the road, a fertile mind starts day-dreaming about

Conrad's Heart of Darkness, half-expecting to find some Western Civilization drop-out

at the end of the line trying to carve out a new life for himself in the bush. We

see them languishing all over Phnom Penh - why haven't they discovered Koh Kong yet?

The answer is just that: not yet, but they're getting closer with each passing day.

Koh Kong Town already has a few expat refugees from the intellectual Mecca of Pattaya,

who have set up guest houses to profit from the backpacker traffic now making its

way from Trat, Thailand, thru Koh Kong and then on to Sihanoukville by boat.

Thma Beng is what you'd call a one-horse town, only there aren't any in sight - just

a few hardscrabble chickens and a handful of pigs poking through yesterday's tossed

garbage.

Around 200 families live there, eking out a meager existence in a seemingly lush

valley, nestled comfortably at 1,463 feet above sea level, with the surrounding cool,

mist-shrouded hills evoking images of Shangrila.

The village has seen busier times. When the GAT operation was in full swing, Thma

Beng was home to another 400 soldiers and their families, with another 300 or so

Indonesians and Malaysians, all of them involved in working the forest concession.

Earth moving equipment, logging trucks, backhoes, winches and whatnot were in abundance,

and the timber flowed like water for a bunch of years in the mid-90s.

Thma Beng is quiet now, the sound of chainsaws a fading memory. With pressure from

the government, the soldiers were forced to leave, taking anything they could load

on a truck with them, houses and all.

The now unused logging road heads north out of Thma Beng and after another 25 kms

one reaches Steel Bridge. Nobody seems to know where the "steel" came from,

but whatever the implied strength of the log and dirt structure, Mother Nature has

taken the upper hand. During last September's heavy rains, flood waters washed it

out.

Winds of change

If the only sounds heard nowadays at Steel Bridge are those of birds, gibbons and

the river below, that may change in the not too distant future.

Sometime early next year, the rehabilitation of Route 48-linking Koh Kong to Sre

Ambel- should be completed. The Thai Army is at work on the near 200 km long road

project, which includes the construction of a new 500 meter bridge across the estuary

at Koh Kong Town that will enable travelers from Thailand to drive directly into

the city. Thai soldiers with their graders, dump trucks and steamrollers are already

working 70 kms east of Koh Kong Town. Locals say the Thais are on their best behavior,

hanky-panky is almost non-existent and that the Thais purchase at proper value whatever

local materials they need to get the job done.

Sources in Koh Kong say the cost of the effort is $10 million, with $4 million being

spent on the bridge and $6 million for the road re-hab. The funds are believed to

be coming from profits at the new casino and four-star hotel that sit smack on the

Cambodian side of the border. Business has been brisk at the roulette tables and

the casino, for all practical purposes, is the only game in town.

Once Route 48 is open for traffic, Thma Beng should be within a decent long day's

drive from Phnom Penh and Bangkok.

Koh Kong Provincial Governor Yuth Phouthang is bullish about the future. He sees

an abundance of opportunities everywhere he looks. On his desk is a spiffy architectural

drawing of a proposed Koh Kong Sea World, complete with a Dolphin Bay, Crocodile

Exhibit, Fancy Camp, Primate Enclosure, Mountain Goat Pen and a monorail to connect

all of them together so tourists don't have to work up a sweat as they take in the

sights.

His dream is to turn Koh Kong Island into the "Phuket of Cambodia". He

envisions the day when the island will have an international airport with direct

flights to Bangkok, Siem Reap and Saigon, while admitting that at present there is

the problem of how to deal with the well-connected smugglers who operate from the

area.

Phouthang has also, of late, become somewhat of an ardent environmentalist. He recognizes

that the Cardamom Mountains contain some of Cambodia's richest tropical forests and

fauna. He talks forcefully about his desire to attract both "forest tourists

and ocean tourists" who will spend a few days at the beach sipping Club Med

MaiTais and then head for the jungle to soak up the mysteries of double canopied

virgin splendor.

However, Phouthang is well aware of the potential influx of settlers once Route 48

opens. He says that the province's 100,000 population will double quickly and that

there is nothing that the government can do to prevent it. Pressures on land use

and the fragile forests will be enormous.

Environmental NGOs have already jumped headlong into the battle to save the Cardamoms.

US-based Conservation International is leading the pack and, in a joint effort with

the government's Department of Forestry and Wildlife, the Cardamom Conservation Program

(CCP) has been set up.

With a team of 55 already on the ground-including rangers, armed military police,

a doctor, nurses and trainers-the primarily Thma Beng-based operation is conducting

from one to seven day patrols in the jungle to try to stop illegal poaching. During

a recent three-day patrol 23 wildlife snares were confiscated.

Longer term, the overall goal is to turn a 300,000 hectare zone into a "Protected

Forest" that would link the existing Phnom Samkos and Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuaries

into a 1,000,000 hectare "World Heritage Cluster".

Logging concessions already exist in the area, including GAT's, but all timber cutting

is on hold until further research is conducted to determine the viability of continued

cuts and what impact these would have on watershed, fauna and the entire ecosystem.

The government is scheduled to make a final decision by March, 2002.

But even if the forests are "saved" on paper, that's just half the battle.

Long-term funding will be required to manage the forests with one estimate as high

as $400,000 per year. Where these funds will come from is still in question.

As well, organized gangs of poachers currently operate in the region which maintain

close connections with corrupt officials on both sides of the border.

As one conservationist put it, there is another sound coming from around Steel Bridge

and elsewhere: "It's the great sucking sound of the last elephants and tigers

on their way to Thailand."

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