Leaving Phnom Penh, National Route 4 makes its way through a typical Cambodian landscape of rice fields and sugar palms. South of Kompong Speu the views alter dramatically as the distant blue peaks of the Cardamom Mountains to the north and the Elephant Mountains to the south begin to loom on the horizon. A detour will bring you to the pine-clad hills of KIRIROM NATIONAL PARK, often ignored by travellers, but well worth the effort of reaching for its almost alpine scenery, crisp mountain air and Chambok (wwww.chambok.org), a community-based ecotourism site.
The rolling hills of the park are zigzagged with well-trodden trails and dotted with waterfalls, lakes and abundant wild plants. An important wildlife sanctuary, the park’s slopes are home, despite illegal logging, to forests of Pinus merkusii, a pine tree not found anywhere else in Cambodia. Although poaching has taken its toll, species of deer, wild ox (gaur and banteng), elephant and leopard still inhabit the depths of the park. In a 1995 survey, tiger tracks were found, but the lack of subsequent sightings gives little hope that tigers survive here today.
In the 1940s a road was cut through the forest, and the development of a hill station began following a visit from King Norodom who named the area Kirirom, which means Happiness Mountain. Building the hill station was hard work, with construction perpetually hindered by the Khmer Issarak guerrilla troops who prowled the forests until the 1960s. The completed resort was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge years only to become accessible again as an attractive holiday destination, which included two royal residences, in 1996.
From the entrance, the road climbs steadily for 16km to a rolling forested plateau, where you’ll find the majority of the park’s attractions and its few facilities. About halfway up the hill, a signpost points down a narrow path to Outasek waterfall, a series of cascades just a short hike off the main road. There’s always some water for splashing about in here, except during the very driest part of the year.
One of the first things you’ll see when you arrive on the plateau is the Kirirom Guesthouse; a side road beyond here leads to a cluster of derelict buildings, including the newer of the two royal residences, a fairly well preserved white-ish building with a red roof. A bit further on, the other, older royal residence, is also derelict, and you can scramble through the overgrown garden for views over the forest and out to a magical lake, Sras Srorng, which can be reached by heading downhill along a rough track from the palace. About 1km beyond the guesthouse is the park office; unsurprisingly, it has no information for visitors, although a nearby notice board has a useful map and shots of various park locations, as well as displaying photos of dead animals illegally caught here.
After another 500m or so you reach the only major road junction in the park, from where signs point towards various sights. The most appealing option (particularly in the rainy season) is the track north to a series of three waterfalls, I, II and III, numbered according to increasing size, and located roughly every 2km.Read More
The shrine of Yeah Mao
The shrine of Yeah Mao
South of Kirirom, there are regular traffic jams on National Route 4 at the Pich Nil pass, where most Cambodian motorists break their journey to make offerings at the shrine of Yeah Mao, or Black Grandmother, who is believed to protect travellers and fishermen. The most popular version of the tale is that she perished in the waves after setting out to find her husband who had left to fight at sea. To pick out her shrine, follow the eye-watering haze of incense – a smoke-dimmed image of her can be found within it. The rows of spirit houses are recent additions and are a bit of a scam by local stallholders, but Khmer are often superstitious and most would prefer to make an offering rather than risk offending the spirits.
With proper, sustainable management, Cambodia’s forests could represent a valuable source of income for the country, not just in terms of providing timber, but also as a focus for eco tourism. Regrettably, the last few decades have seen forest cover in Cambodia decline dramatically, with the most recent survey by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggesting it has decreased by nearly a third over a five-year period. Initially the forests were logged, mainly illegally for timber, but more recently they have been cleared in vast swathes to make way for plantations, such as rubber in Kompong Cham province, and more worryingly, for the illegal production of the drug MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, in the Cardamom Mountains.
In 2001, the Cambodian government (forced by the World Bank) began to take action to reduce some of the most glaring environmental abuses. However, the government soon fell out with Global Witness (wwww.globalwitness.org), the environmental watchdog appointed by the Bank to monitor Cambodia’s forests, when its findings were not to its liking. Their most recent spat is a result of a damning report issued in June 2007 by Global Witness in which it named a number of high-ranking government officials as using the country’s resources for personal gain; the government responded by calling for heads to roll at Global Witness. In the meantime, more than a decade after a cessation in logging was announced, little has really happened and the country’s natural resources continue to diminish at an alarming rate.
Cambodia’s forests are home to a vast, diverse wildlife population, including globally threatened species like the tiger. Ironically, the improvements in infrastructure that followed the establishment of the country’s national parks have sometimes made it easier for poachers to capture wild animals, which are either sold in local markets for the pot or used to produce medicines and charms. Until a government clampdown in 2001 it was possible to buy game taken from the park, particularly venison, along National Route 4 near Kirirom, while restaurants specializing in rare meats such as pangolin were easy to find in Phnom Penh. Nowadays, most of this appears to have stopped and you’ll see anti-hunting posters along National Route 4 instead, though the message certainly isn’t having much impact on the poachers, who continue to see the profits from hunting as too enticing to relinquish.
So, while Cambodia has made some of the right gestures, banning logging and outlawing trafficking in wildlife under the international CITES convention, it lacks the will to implement sound conservation policies. For the foreseeable future, wildlife organizations working in Cambodia will continue to face a severe uphill struggle, producing useful surveys while generally being unable to affect government policy.