Founded by Thearak Muong, Asia Nests aims to introduce camping activities to Cambodians since most of the tour operators here target foreign tourists and expats
The night is pitch black and cold. The only noise is of the winds that howl far above in the sky and make the sides of my tent shiver.
Through the canvas, a flickering, bright white light appears outside. A deep voice screams. This is it, I think. Brandishing a meat cleaver, a fellow camper emerges, saying he felt someone brush his neck. He scans the forest but there’s nothing there.
We go on to live another day.
Equipped with my overactive imagination, I had joined a camping tour in the middle of Kirirom National Park’s lush jungle on a trip organised by brand new tour company Asia Nests. The group’s first trip set off from Phnom Penh last Saturday morning, headed for the park two hours away in Kampong Speu.
Founded by 28-year-old Thearak Muong, Asia Nests has the aim of introducing camping activities to Cambodians. Most of the Kingdom’s existing camping tour operators target foreign tourists and expats rather than Cambodians, she pointed out.
“I really want Cambodians to join in with camping, because a lot of them have heard of it but they don’t know where to go and find it”, she said. Muong, a bubbly Cambodian with impeccable English, a chirpy sense of humour and practical sensibilities, added: “It’s a way for foreigners and Cambodians to exchange stories about their different cultures – and to make friends.”
There are some pretty good reasons why people might be reluctant to camp in Cambodia. There aren’t designated campsites like in Europe, meaning there isn’t as much of a sense of security, not to mention a lack of toilets and showers. Snakes and leeches are a far cry from the odd sheep you might find in a British field. But Muong has found a way around this. At the beginning of this year, she and her Norwegian boyfriend stumbled upon Tentsile Tree Tents, a UK-based company that produces tents that are raised from the ground.
Where we camp in Kirirom, the floating cocoons looked like bright orange UFOs that had landed in the forest.
Equipped with ropes that hold 400kg in weight, they are tied between three trees and accessible by a detachable ropeladder that swings so precariously you have to lean your weight forward and let it almost throw you inside the tent.
The tents are tied together, and are equipped with a shelter, leaving a decent space to sit on the ground below. “We don’t sleep on the ground, so there aren’t insects or snakes that people might worry about,” said Muong.
It took us the best part of two hours to set them up, measuring the correct distances between trees; the tightness of the ropes. But a lack of metal pegs, used to tie ground tents to the floor, was welcome.
I’ve always found myself standing on them accidentally, causing my feet to sear in pain, and at the end of camping trips, they always seem to get lost, enveloped into the earth somewhere.
Despite this – and the night terror – mostly it was like a rainy camping trip in Blighty: the smell of wood smoke; the muddy shoes; the small yet significant pleasure of working communally to build a campfire or boil water on the stove.
The dark clouds, threatening rain, blew cool winds onto our hill, and we found comfort clinging onto cups of hot chocolate as we huddled in jumpers and scarves.
As well as the novelty of camping, Asia Nests aims to give people the opportunity of exploring the natural surroundings. On the Sunday, we cleared up camp and drove from the west of the park to the north – a good half hour along bumpy, red dirt roads – to a covered path that meandered through the jungle and ended at a glorious
waterfall that gushed over rocks into the racing stream below. Though it was raining, the cool air made the hike surprisingly pleasant.
Back in Phnom Penh after the trip, Muong put most – if not all – of my fears to rest. She said that national park officials knew how many of us there were, and she had a number to call in case anything happened. She also said that local villagers had assured her the area was perfectly safe.
In a country where deforestation is rapidly wreaking havoc on natural beauty, Kirirom National Park is a pocket of paradise. There are no plains of scorched tree-stumps here. Instead, waterfalls rush into streams and the lush forest is abuzz with the sounds of birds, lizards and crickets. The proximity to Phnom Penh makes for a perfect weekend getaway.
Next, Muong has her sights set on the beaches of Rabbit Island: a completely different terrain, but just as accessible for a weekend. For adventurous Cambodians, expats and tourists, Asia Nests is bursting with promise.
Asia Nests’ next trip is next weekend, June 28-29, to Kirirom National Park. Trips cost $39 for transport, food and tent hire and can accommodate up to 10 people. Visit www.asianests.com for more details.