Flowing south from Laos, the Mekong River forges its way down through the rugged provinces of northern Cambodia, skirting islands and forming foaming rapids as it cascades over boulders. Further south the scrubby, wooded banks become softer, lined with the tiny vegetable plots of small farms. To the east lie the remote and forested highlands of the sparsely populated Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces. Although the lower slopes of the highlands have been heavily logged, some jungle cover survives, providing a haven for wildlife. The highlands are also home to the country’s chunchiet population who until recently were able to eke out a subsistence living, cultivating crops and foraging in the jungle. This centuries-old way of life is now threatened by the encroachment of the modern world and the loss of the forest on which they depend.
The gateway to the highlands is Kompong Cham, a quiet provincial capital that retains an air of faded gentility, easily reached by road from Phnom Penh; the province itself is home to several of Cambodia’s Muslim Cham communities. To the north, the rubber plantations of Chup, originally planted in the 1920s, have recently been extended. The big draw at Kratie, another old colonial town on the Mekong, is the chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the nearby rapids at Kampie. The most northerly town on Cambodia’s stretch of the Mekong, Stung Treng, is a quiet backwater which gets hardly any visitors now that the road to the border bypasses the town. Though there’s nothing by way of sights, it’s close to other spots where you can see dolphins, and a good place to explore by bicycle. You might want to make a stopover on the way to or from the border crossing with Laos at Voen Kham.
For misty mountains, cool climate, a stunning volcanic lake and scattered chunchiet villages, travellers generally head to Rattanakiri province. Far fewer make it to Mondulkiri province. Until recently this province was isolated from the rest of the country and it still lacks much of the infrastructure; now that it’s easily reached by a new road from Snuol, it will no doubt soon become quite developed along the lines of Rattanakiri. That said, in both these provinces, you have no choice but to slow down to the pace of life of rural Cambodia. The lack of decent roads, transport, and any other creature comforts outside the provincial capitals means that most tourists restrict themselves to making day-trips from Banlung (for Rattanakiri) and Sen Monorom (for Mondulkiri). Rattanakiri is geared up to travellers now, with eco-lodges, a fledgling bar scene and busy trekking industry offering overnight treks into the Virachey National Park. From Sen Monorom you can make forays out to a number of spectacular waterfalls, go trekking or make an expedition by elephant into the jungle.Read More
Between 2000 and 2005 Cambodia lost nearly 30 percent of its tropical hardwood forest cover. Since then even more has been lost (though there are no reported figures) and if you’re travelling through the provinces of Pailin, Kompong Thom, Kratie, Rattanakiri or Mondulkiri you’ll now scarcely see any forest at all, with the situation not much better around Koh Kong. Most of the forest has been cleared to make way for plantations of rubber, cashew and cassava, and sadly, this has all been presided over by greedy and self-serving government officials, many of them close to the Prime Minister, Hun Sen.
From 1995 to 1999 multinational conglomerates were awarded logging concessions and used earth-moving equipment to extract massive hardwood trees from deep in the jungle, frequently destroying everything else in their path. This timber was generally shipped on to Thailand or Vietnam, to be turned into garden furniture and sold to Europe. The revenue from this should have swelled the treasury coffers, but instead, high-ranking officials, many military personnel, suddenly became very rich.
Though being lobbied by environmentalists, the Cambodian government lacked the resources and the will to enforce the terms of its logging licences and it wasn’t until 1999, when the aid donors insisted on independent monitoring of logging as a condition of aid provision that the government reluctantly allowed a watchdog group, London-based Global Witness, to investigate the situation. But things were so bad that by 2003 Global Witness had been sacked by the Cambodian government who took exception to the frank reports that denounced it for poor management of the forests and associated corruption at the highest level. For a time the government seemed to be making some attempts to improve things; but no sooner were logging concessions terminated, than they were replaced by economic land concessions, which allowed for the wholesale clearance of forest and stripped the land bare.
Monitoring, although set as a condition of aid provision by the donors themselves – who include Asian Development Bank, World Bank and International Monetary Fund – has not been reinstated and no action has been taken by the donors to limit aid that is being poured into Cambodia at a rate of $1 billion per annum. Meanwhile, the Cambodian government has hawked the rights to the country’s other natural resources, including oil, minerals and even sand (with buyers such as Total, Chevron and BHP Billiton). Unfortunately for Cambodians, there’s no evidence that the money received for these rights has found its way into the treasury; instead it’s more likely to be lining the pockets of the country’s elite.