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An eco-lodge in the Cardamoms

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Witness breathtaking greenery amid exotic species of flora and fauna and on of the last remaining free-flowing Mekong tributaries.

Extreme measures have aimed at protecting the mountain ranges from poachers and illegal settlers; now one of the region’s first eco-lodges confronts a different type of intruder in the protected reserve

The name, translated from Khmer, meant simply “New Village”.

“The men were waiting for us with machetes,” says my dinner companion – a French ex-paratrooper who now patrols the Cardamom Mountains for the conservation group Wildlife Alliance.

We are talking over a meal of chicken kebabs with spicy peanut marinade in the open-air dining room of Koh Kong province’s Rainbow Lodge. Birds trill in the jungle backdrop, part of the South Cardamom Mountains protected area; beyond the rooftops of seven guest bungalows, the Tatai River flows by at the speed of soup.

Until recently, the Cardamoms were a fly-over kind of place. The Khmer Rouge retreated into the range in 1979, leaving a trail of land mines; isolation and guerrilla-warfare discouraged visitors for two more decades. When then-King Norodom Sihanouk decreed two wildlife sanctuaries in the Cardamoms in 1993 – Mt Samkos in the western part of the range and Mt Aural in the east – he did so solely on the basis of aerial photography.

The protected area comprises the two sanctuaries and the link between them – the Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF). Together, the sanctuaries and the CCPF form one of the last corridors of virgin rainforest in the world and one of Asia’s seven remaining elephant migration routes.

After two months holed up in Phnom Penh, I can’t say I’m not in a rush to get there: During a 7am high-speed motodop ride to the Virak Buntham bus station, my only pair of walking shoes – tied in haste to the outside of my backpack – disappears forever somewhere along Sisowath Quay.

Unlike Phnom Penh, the Rainbow Lodge is the kind of place you can go barefoot without a tetanus shot. The property, which opened its doors in 2008 – one of only a few “eco-lodges” in all of Cambodia – is situated in the waterworld of one of the last remaining free-flowing tributaries of the Mekong. As part of its “Green Policy”, the lodge relies on solar power, employs only local Cambodians, and procures foodstuffs at market in Koh Kong. I pass my pre-dinner hours kayaking the remarkably unpolluted waters of the Tatai River – perfect for swimming – and exploring nearby waterfalls. My feet rarely touch the ground.

Janet Newman oversees operations of the Rainbow Lodge. She discovered the Cardamom region during a volunteer stint in Botum Sokor National Park.

“I fell in love with Cambodia,” Newman tells me. “I decided that there was real potential for an eco-lodge that aimed to protect the animals and the habitat while benefiting the local community.”

Measures of extreme precaution have been in place to protect the Cardamoms.

In 2002, the Cambodian Forestry Administration asked Wildlife Alliance for help in protecting the Cardamoms from poachers when 32 elephants and 12 tigers were killed over 18 months. And this is where the ex-paratrooper’s story about the machetes comes in. Last year, when a squatter village of 48 new houses sprung up seemingly overnight in the protected area, my dinner companion had orders: burn it to the ground.

Janet Newman is an English lady who used to be a lawyer. Janet has a distinctive personality that can be categorised as type A. When night falls, Newman can be found at the helm of the high wooden bar in the center of the lodge’s dining room, looking out toward the Tatai River with all the vigilance of a ship’s captain.

“I was horrified,” she tells me. “They should have found this when they did the legal title searches.”

“They” are her property lawyers. “The horror” was the news she received only days after putting a deposit down on the Rainbow Lodge property. An article had caught her eye: a Chinese hydropower company had just won the rights to perform a one-year environmental impact assessment [EIA] on dams in the Cardamom protected area. One of the EIAs was slated for the Tatai River.

According to the conservation watchdog NGO International Rivers, Chinese companies are moving forward with three large hydropower projects in the Cardamom Mountains.

Construction has already begun on the 140-megawatt Stung Atay Dam. A feasibility study into the 260MW Stung Cheay Areng dam points out that the dam’s reservoir had the possibility of displacing about 1,500 people, extending into the central Cardamoms and flooding the habitat of 31 endangered species– including the world’s most critical breeding grounds for the endangered Siamese crocodile.

The 80MW Stung Tatay Dam that is studied and explored by the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation has a reservoir likely to extend into the protected areas of the Cardamoms.

The proposed site for a hydroelectric powerhouse is a rapid where Newman frequently takes guest of the Rainbow Lodge. “It is a glorious spot,” she tells me, “cascading water over huge time worn boulders, mountains, jungle, small sandy beaches and a natural formed ‘lake area’ perfect for bathing and wildlife spotting”.

“All,” she adds, “in the heart of the protected reserve.”

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