Having spent five years as an environmental activist, Pheng Sreysor has proven her dedication to protecting Cambodia’s natural resources through volunteering and taking part in wildlife conservation missions since she was just a teenager.
Sreysor, who also volunteers as an eco-tourism guide in the Rolerk Kang Cheung region of the Central Cardamom Mountains, says her first true wilderness experience was at the age of 18 when she travelled to Prey Sangkruk Voan in Oddar Meanchey province in 2014.
In addition to camping in the forest, Sreysor, now 26, also explores the rugged landscapes of many of Cambodia’s eco-tourism areas across the country – from the highest mountains to the deepest forests.
“For the last five years or so I have travelled around Cambodia a lot, especially in the mountains,” she tells The Post. “With all of the beautiful places that I have been to now, I doubt I’d even be able to count them all.”
Recently, Sreysor spent 10 days travelling to the waterfall called Chay 100 – ominously called “Death Falls” by some of the members of nearby villages – on her latest adventure exploring Cambodia’s wilds.
Chay 100 is located in the middle of the deep forest of the Cardamom Mountains, bordering Koh Kong and Pursat provinces, and it is reached by travelling from Khnong Phsa in Kampong Speu.
“We aimed to find the waterfall called Chay 100,” she says. “I heard old people say that there was a beautiful high waterfall hidden out in the middle of the forest. So we wanted to find out if it was true and if we could find an easy way for eco-tourists to visit the area.”
Sreysor and a group of four other friends set out to find Chay 100 accompanied by three guides from the local community. They had an unforgettable experience as a result – but not entirely in the manner for which they’d hoped or planned.
“Before setting out, everything was prepped for a maximum of seven days of hiking before we expected to return to the village, including our food, water and essential items,” she recalls.
“Setting out, we immediately discovered that the terrain was very rough. It went uphill and downhill, sometimes crossing streams. We did not rest our feet much. After scrambling over hills for more than three hours we arrived at the upper-stream of Stung Anties as expected,” Sreysor recounts.
Kbal Stung Anties was their second overnight stop. Rest was essential in order to have the stamina to reach their destination without exhausting their water supplies by pushing themselves too hard while hiking in the sun, especially in March – the hottest month of the year in Cambodia.
The adventurers ate breakfast and then trekked up the mountain until noon. After their lunch break, they were scheduled to continue for another three hours of hiking.
“After our 15-minute break, we rushed forward and we were walking for about an hour when the guides stopped everyone and told us that we had somehow lost our way. So we walked up and down, in circles, until we saw an old trail,” she said.
“We kept walking up and down the mountain until about 5:00 pm and still not hearing the sound of water we hoped for. It was already dark when the guides – who by now looked as worried as we felt – told us that we were going to go all the way back to Kbal Stung Anties,” says Sreysor.
On the fourth day, the party walked until 5:00pm and there was still no sign of Chay 100. They made camp at a spot on the slope, pitching tents on a small plateau covered in rocks and tree roots where they spent the night having come to the realisation that they were still just as lost as they were a day ago.
The group began their search more carefully this time, stopping for water every two hours while crossing through jungle infested with land leeches, which had to be periodically checked for and removed.
The group arrived at the lower-stream of Chay 100 and then realised that the upper-stream was not at all where they expected it to be and it would take further uphill hiking through forests and fording streams to reach it.
“The more we walked the further away the destination seemed to become. The sun was going down and the guides began to think about finding a place to stay the night, because if we went ahead any further it would be pitch black and we’d be exposed on the mountainside and any step we’d take in any direction would potentially be dangerous, but we’d have no place to rest,” she explains.
Sreysor recalls walking around one bend in the trail and then another and another, passing through valleys, one after the other, through waist-high water, clinging to vines and rocks to scramble over narrow trails until she was so tired that her legs were shaking and after seven hours of hiking every muscle in her body ached.
“The guides went ahead of us and began searching for the trail but when they returned they told us that they had not seen any sign of Chay 100. I then began to despair,” she admits.
Sreysor says day seven was the hardest of them all and they spent it climbing rock walls and clinging to vines and every step was a battle of wills, with her body screaming at her to quit but her mind telling her she must keep going.
“We somehow succeeded in climbing over one big rock to another, over and over, higher and higher, so high that I no longer dared to look down,” says Sreysor. “When we reached the ridge, I felt relief, but then we had to walk up to the top of the mountain.”
“I heard someone shouting and thought ‘what now?’ and expected the worst, but after a moment I understood that the guides were shouting that they had spotted the Chay 100, this time for certain. Just seeing it from a distance eased my pains and my heart began to fill with joy again,” Sreysor relates.
“After eating, we walked about an hour downstream to Chay 100 and we took pictures at the upper level and the second section. We wanted to get down to the base of the waterfall, but we couldn’t find a way down so we could only take pictures of that part from above and then it began raining so around 5:00pm we headed back to our last campsite,” she says.
In the morning, after taking more pictures of the waterfall, they started their journey up the mountain to head down the other side of it and return home. The guides said that they had to walk for one day to Stung Anties and camp for one more night before returning to the village.
“We thought we were going the right way,” she says. “We thought we’d try going to the top of Khnong Srouch on the way but we walked up and down for four and a half hours and it was almost dark out and we hadn’t found Khnon Srouch. We couldn’t continue in the dark so we camped for yet another night,” she says.
Sreysor says the day started out fine but then in the afternoon one of the guides shouted that he had just reached Stung Trang – a lower part of Chay 100.
“I heard him and I couldn’t believe it, because it was 3:00pm and we had very little food left,” she says. “If we rested in Stung Trang, it was clear that we would not be able to reach the village by the next day.”
They spent the ninth night camped in the jungle with very little to eat aside from rice porridge, which the guides rationed to everyone out of caution since it was essentially the only food they had remaining.
“At about 7:00am, we started to walk up to the top of the mountain and we continued to walk until Anties, then we stopped to get rid of more land leeches and have lunch. After eating, we continued on to Khnong Phsa and we finally returned to the village just before dark, which was a relief because no one wanted another night camping or another minute hiking.
“Our adventure lasted for 10 days – three days longer than we’d prepared for – and we hiked the entire time. Every step was a struggle and towards the end there wasn’t enough food or water and the land leeches wouldn’t stop biting us because we were bleeding all over from scrapes.
“My physical strength as a woman maybe less than that of men, but my inner power enabled me to overcome these obstacles because of my love and affection for nature. I feel like after this experience I’m ready for anything, because now I know that no matter how tough the journey is, I have what it takes to make it back home again,” Sreysor says.
The young adventurer can’t wait to set out and see new and different parts of the Kingdom’s natural wonders, but anyone intent on following in her footsteps needs to do it responsibly, she warns.
“Hikers can explore safely without disturbing nature and wildlife,” she says. “Limit the number of tourists who can visit and don’t let crowds of them flock to one place at the same time. Make sure they are educated on proper behaviour while in the wild and always send local guides with them who will keep them safe – while also keeping the wildlife and environment safe from them,” she advises.