Travel

Where once poachers hunted animals in the jungles of Koh Kong, Cambodia, ecotourism has offered the legal, if gruelling, option of working as trek guides. By Laura Jean McKay.

Cambodia’s Koh Kong jungle

The view from the top of a waterfall in Koh Kong, Cambodia.
Credit: Laura Jean McKay

I’m walking through the Cambodian jungle behind an ex-hunter-turned-eco-guide armed with a machete. Kiri uses the rusty blade to hack at the snake-like vines that have grown over a path only he can see. Sometimes he turns with a soft smile and passes a chunk of green plant matter back to me or my partner, Tom. We’re supposed to hold on to it. Who knows what we’ll need it for. Kiri has already pointed out the small shelters that other survivalists have cobbled together from bamboo and branches, as well as the scratch marks of the diminutive sun bears that he used to poach. The endangered animal’s gall bladder fetches more than $1000 for use in traditional medicine throughout Asia. Sometimes he stops in his tracks, staring at a fallen tree or impenetrable net of creepers that have altered his reading of this environment.

“We’ll go another way,” he says.

He leads us from the complex river system that carves through the Cardamom Mountains, uphill towards the waterfalls that feed them. The sweat is steaming off my body in the “cool season” heat. We have separated from the rest of the tour group – a gaggle of muscular young women, including one who told me she hopes she’ll still be backpacking when she’s “as old as” I am. (I’m 39.) Now it’s just Tom and I following Kiri further and further up into the Cardamoms.

Koh Kong captured my imagination when I first arrived in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in 2007 – a fresh aid worker ready to help the country one communications brochure at a time. Effectively Cambodia’s wild west, Koh Kong is jammed between Thailand on one side and the ravaged tourist hell that is Sihanoukville on the other. It felt too sketchy to go to Koh Kong alone in 2007; there were reports that Khmer Rouge guerrillas were still hiding in the hills. The closest I got was a work trip to neighbouring Pursat Province, a place that was as riddled with landmines as it was with precious gems. I sat through drawn-out consultation meetings with community leaders and wondered at the hard faces of people in the local teams.

“Ex-Khmer Rouge,” my colleague whispered. “Some of them were child soldiers. Now they’re just doing what it takes to survive.”

Koh Kong Province was still a rumour of deforestation and poaching back in the 2000s, but in recent years the local government and environmental groups saw potential in the pristine river valleys. Entrepreneurial trekking companies started recruiting poachers and retraining them as ecotour guides. The Cambodian hunters were risking a five-year prison sentence – and their lives – in the poaching business and had seen firsthand the decline in species they were paid to capture or kill. The ecotourism industry offers paltry pay – about $A14 a day for guides – but at least it’s legal and steady. The offices of the trekking company that Tom and I chose sat in a grey haze of marijuana smoke, but the booking agent agreed on a trek where we could veer off into jungle so deep that even the camp dogs slowed, panting and whining, before eventually turning back.

We push through the last of the snarled vines, duck under the shimmering web of a golden orb weaver and come upon a waterfall clearing that offers views over the Meteuk River and Koh Kong Island, all the way out to the hazy brilliance of the Gulf of Thailand. Kiri is already making a fire. My ill-advised white T-shirt is brown with jungle-grit, sunscreen and sweat. In one of the rock pools, the fish and shrimp swarm at my feet and proceed to feast on dead skin cells. Within half an hour Kiri has fashioned our collection of vines and shrubs into a gourmet bamboo soup that sings with garlic and mystery herbs. Come the end of the world we’ll need Kiri on our team.

Cambodia, of course, has already been through its own version of the apocalypse. Thousands tried to escape the Khmer Rouge regime through these very jungles to seek asylum or wait out the years in Thai border camps until the war ended.

“How long do you think you could survive out here?” I ask Kiri.

He shrugs thin shoulders. “Two weeks. I used to stay out for that long when I hunted.”

I regard his slight frame. He’s fit and smart. He takes to yoga in minutes when Tom offers a lesson on one of the boulders – memorising and perfecting body-knotting moves. He seems as though he could keep himself and a whole community alive on that bamboo soup indefinitely.

We trek further, deeper. Kiri hacks and strides through the bush, faster now. I’m carrying the camp kettle, so when I trip on one of the vine tendrils and plunge face-first into a tangle of leaves the whole of Koh Kong hears about it. Tom calls back, worried but still jogging. If we lose sight of Kiri, we’re done. I scramble up, unhurt, and forge on.

Kiri offers guide-like information over his shoulder – don’t eat that or you’ll get diarrhoea; that’s a spirit tree there, if you cut it down your whole family will get sick; hear those hooting gibbons? – but he’s on the trail for our camp. He pauses only to hack at another plant and lift it to the sky. I tilt my mouth open like a baby bird and he drips green-tasting water on my tongue.

“If you get lost, you can drink from this one.”

I pretend to see how this plant is different, but suspect I’d end up with diarrhoea and a cursed family from cutting up the wrong one.

Kiri pushes through to another river clearing and stops, drenched with sweat. I’m overjoyed – he’s tired out, finally. There are limits to this person. He points to an overhanging rock topped with whittled branches knitted together with twine. We’ve arrived at camp. The frogs start up a bulbous refrain. We set up our fake US Army surplus hammocks complete with padding and mosquito nets. A thin, patterned snake slides into the camp and hides its head under my bag. I show off my bushcraft by leaping around while Kiri gently shoos the snake into the hollow of a tree.

“It wasn’t poisonous,” he says with a wry smile.

I eye the tree hollow while Kiri makes another big fire. After cooking a sumptuous meal using gathered bush vegetables, rice, seasoning and pure magic, he stokes the flames higher.

“That’s to let the wild pigs know they can’t come here,” he tells us.

Kiri hands out cigarettes. We forgot to bring any booze. I’m at the edge of my hiking ability. Our bodies and our very survival are dependent on this person and his machete.

“Do you have a gun?” I ask hopefully.

He looks insulted. “I don’t use a gun anymore,” he says, into the fire.

Kiri is quiet the next day. He was awake half the night stoking the fire and up before dawn making us breakfast, but still sets a cracking pace. We make it back down to the Meteuk River by sunset, filthy and staggering. The camp dogs sway their tails as they watch us climb gingerly into the boat. The mangroves grip the mud on either side of the river and the water rolls like mercury beneath us. Within minutes, the neon lights of Koh Kong City flicker and gleam along the riverside. It’s shocking how quickly we move from the middle of nowhere to central-somewhere. The boat smashes against the pier; Kiri looks embarrassed – and exhausted. We crawl up the rocky bank and emerge into a full-blown kids’ techno party on the foreshore, complete with bouncing castles, ear-splitting music and fried fish stands. Kiri seems drawn and out of place in the neon lights.

“What are you doing tomorrow? Are you going to rest?” I ask, half hoping he will invite us on another adventure.

“I’m going out again. Trekking.”

“With another group?”

He shrugs and smiles. Of course with another group. It’s work. He won’t go back to poaching and so this is “doing what it takes to survive” in south-west Cambodia in 2018. The lights and sounds of Koh Kong City bleed over the water and fade towards the hills. When I turn back to ask for Kiri’s email address, he’s gone.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 7, 2018 as "Stare trek". Subscribe here.

Laura Jean McKay
is a writer and the author of Holiday in Cambodia.