Keo Rattana had to trek through thick bamboo jungles, climb steep inclines and snake his way up mountain cliffs by using a rope to make his way to the top of Kampong Speu province’s Oral Mountain – Cambodia’s highest peak.
Rattana is among thousands to have made the same arduous journey this year, with 3,500 people having already overcome the same challenges in order to conquer Oral.
“We’ve noticed that the number of tourists visiting has jumped dramatically compared to previous years,” says Srae Ken Community chief Chhoeun Chhim.
“Our community has provided services to about 3,500 visitors in the first half of this year and we expect at least 500 more [climbers] by the end of 2019,” says Chhim.
Local guides recommend visitors spend at least three days and two nights in the forest, which is enough to discover hidden treasures, explore haunted sites and bird watch for rare and exquisite species which call the far eastern edge of the Cardamom Mountains home.
There are a number of rare birds, including the chestnut-headed partridge (identifiable by white strips above its wings and white stripes below its belly) and Cambodian Laughingthrush – both of which are only found in Cambodia, according to Chhim.
Rattana says that almshouses nestled in the bamboo forests served as an oasis of sorts. The first one – about 3km into the trek – had a small space for cooking and access to enough water to satisfy up to five to six people.
Often climbers choose to quicken their pace and skip the first almshouse in order to recover at the Hermit Stop almshouse – which is not only larger, but also has more water (particularly in the rainy season).
“Most climbers leave behind supplies and water for people behind them,” reveals Rattana.
Eight kilometres from the first alm house is the final rest area – where visitors who prefer not to camp outside spend the night in a cool, solar-powered wooden hut with additional structures adjacent to them centring a shrine. Be warned, however, as temperatures there can drop as low as six degrees Celsius.
There, visitors make it a point to see the remains of a Cambodian International Airlines plane which crashed in 1974.
“Even though it was overrun by plants and moss years ago, the quality of the metal is still good,” says Theang Soth – who has been guiding climbers since 2002.
“You can even see remnants such as clothing and aircraft debris that still remain because Cambodian’s believe that it’s bad to take belongings from the dead,” adds Soth, 47.
It’s experiences like this that make people stop in their tracks and forgo the frivolities of snapping selfies in order to appreciate the preciousness of their journey.
Always the adventurers, Rattana and his friends didn’t pack any camping equipment – preferring to drink water through natural sources, filtered through small filtration devices, and dining on dried and ready-to-eat meals.
“We didn’t have to bring many things, even clothes; we only brought a few changes, one to wear and one to keep in by backpack. As I ascend, I wash the used clothing and put on a fresh T-shirt and shorts,” says Rattana.
Aside from Srae Ken Commune, where Rattana and his friends chose to begin their climb, additional tours are offered in nearby Outou and Trapang Chhrey communes.
Commune chief Chhim recommends hiring local guides to help navigate the potentially treacherous terrain and to help carry supplies. The service costs $35 per day for international tourists, who can also pre-order food for their climb.
The road leading to Srae Ken can be bumpy – with large rocks and potholes leading to the commune – visitors should allot at least half a day for a tractor ride to reach the foot of the mountain.
Those intimidated by the thought of undertaking the feat should know that it was the first time Rattana had ever tried mountain climbing.
“It was my first experience and now I have reached the highest mountain in country with my friends,” boasts Rattana.
He added that the most difficult part of the journey was the 3km trek through bamboo forest.
”It’s hot and stuffy because it’s dense. If possible, it’s best to begin early in the morning.
“If we had begun our summit in the late morning, we would hardly be able to breathe and it would prevent us from reaching the mountain’s peak.”