Tourists traverse a crossing made of tree branches and bamboo in the pitch black just a metre or so above a swampy creek, all of whom praying that the makeshift bridge is solidly built, not wishing to get up close and personal with the resident Siamese crocodiles below.
This is Siamese Crocodile Lake in Osoam Cardamom Community Centre located in the Cardamom mountains between Koh Kong and Pursat town, a protected crocodile habitat home to 40 to 60 of the largely fish-eating aquatic reptiles.
The Siamese crocodile is a species of small to medium-sized freshwater crocodile native to Indonesia, Brunei, East Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
As counter-intuitive, dangerous and unnerving as it seems, the local guide for this trek, 50-year-old Heng Chhun, is leading his group of tourists through the marshy protected habitat in the pitch black of night time – something he has done several times a week for the past five years.
He says despite the obvious risks, after dark is the best time to visit as “normally, the crocodiles are only active at night time, so it is the best time to see them.”
Even then, as Chhun and his group of tourists patiently sit beneath the star-filled sky above, there is no guarantee that the crocs will play ball and make an appearance – as this occasion bears testament.
Chhun believes that human activity has made the crocodiles more reclusive in recent years.
“Many people go fishing at this place at night time, while last month a group of people came to dig up a rosewood log they saw. I think the machine they used to pull up the log panicked the crocodiles,” he explains, as the group continue their hunt for a sighting.
The lake is a popular attraction among local and foreign tourists, with visitors often needing to camp out overnight to have the best chance of seeing a crocodile, with the reptiles most active throughout December and May.
“Most Cambodians and foreigners never miss an opportunity to see the Siamese crocodiles, among the most endangered reptiles in the world,” says Noun Lim, founder of Osoam Cardamom Community Centre, the most popular homestay in the community.
He says the crocodiles are considered sacred animals in the area.
According to World Wildlife Fund the Siamese Crocodile is considered one of the world’s most endangered reptiles in the wild. The Mekong River basin and wetlands in Cambodia appear to hold the only remaining wild populations, and even these are fragmented and depleted because of hunting, human disturbance, and habitat alteration.
Regrettably, the species has now disappeared from 99 per cent of its former range, and was widely feared to be extinct in the wild until its rediscovery during surveys in the Kingdom’s Cardamom Mountains.
You can find more information on the Osoam Cardamom Community Centre on their website (www.osoamccc.weebly.com).