After five hours on a bus, a stretch on the back of a motorbike and another on a boat, I felt quite the pioneer as I arrived in Chi Phat, Koh Kong. I had been drawn there by dreams of climbing forest-covered mountains and escaping hyper-connected modern life.
Then I saw the Wi-Fi password. It was taped to the bamboo visitor centre. I hadn’t anticipated jungle broadband – it was the first, and not the last, surprise of what would turn out to be a highly unpredictable trip.
Located in the heart of the Cardamom Mountains, Chi Phat is one of the more popular community eco-tourism ventures in Cambodia. Most activities involve trekking or mountain biking into the surrounding wilderness. Eco-lodges and guest houses offer accommodation, while homestays are an alternative choice for those after a taste of local living.
The adventures started immediately. Upon arrival at the visitor centre, I was presented with a bike and pointed down a 2km dirt track to reach my $10-a-night bungalow. One somewhat intimidating suspension bridge and an overgrown jungle path later and I was safely ensconced. But not for long.
My second trip down the path – returning to the bungalow after dinner – was even more interesting. Cycling along in the dark, I was haunted by the mealtime conversation about a recently sighted dog that “froth then die”, as stray mongrels ran after the bike.
Plucking up my courage the next morning, I joined a mountain bike trip with a Dutch man and his Cambodian wife. It proved short-lived. Due to relentless rain and impassable tracks, we turned back after only a couple of hours; lightning had diluted our enthusiasm. The couple, perhaps sensibly, decided there was nothing left to do and called a car.
In my sodden clothes, and with my adventurous spirit cowed, the offer of a private taxi back to Phnom Penh was tempting, but still I had a niggling sense I hadn’t done Chi Phat justice. I saw the couple off with a wave and asked the woman at the HQ about a $5 homestay.
Not long afterwards, my host, 22-year-old Sok Sino, picked me up on her scooter. She was armed with an umbrella and an adorable toddler. Little Lee-Mayne was quite the character, scrambling to stand upright as we bumped along the road to the Blue-eared Kingfisher homestay. It was spotless and spacious and I had a lovely large double room to myself with a rail for my soggy clothes, about which I was jubilant in my drenched state.
Once clean and warm, I sat in the kitchen with Sino and watched Lee-Mayne plunging his arm into the soft heart of a loaf of bread to trophy raisins. Despite the language barrier between his mother and me, there was no awkwardness as we giggled over our confusion, and she cooked dinner on her coal stove. It was around then that Rachel, a fluent Khmer-speaking American Peace Corps volunteer who lives with the family, arrived. She translated for me as we all got to know each other.
Eating together was a highlight of the trip. We sat cross-legged around a tray of tempting dishes - pork soup, spiced cucumber and peppered pumpkin – and chattered away. The dinner ended in a photo shoot of Lee-Mayne playing on his trike.
Sino is a 22-year-old with a family living in the Cardamom mountains, I’m a single 22-year-old wandering around with a rucksack. It really didn’t matter. I wrote my journal while she lulled Lee-Mayne to sleep and we both half-watched the telly. My jungle adventures may have been limited, but the small slice of local life I experienced had proved an unexpected delight.
For more information, visit chi-phat.org.