10 February 2015

Areng Valley: modernization, the Cambodian way?

The Areng Valley from above
After visiting some tourist hot-spots like Bagan and Angkor Wat, I wanted to go a little bit more off the beaten track. By accident, I stumbled upon a short mention of the Wild KK Project on wikitravel. I checked out their well made homepage. The project has been founded by a Cambodian NGO named Mother Nature to support the communities living in the remote Areng Valley in their struggle against a Chinese conglomerate intending to flood the whole valley to generate hydroelectric power.




Getting to the valley
Don't get me wrong, hydroelectricity is not per se a bad thing. So agree both Mother Nature and the local communities. But this particular construction project a) wouldn't generate much energy as the valley is quite flat and b) other - well hidden - reasons are anyway more dear to the Chinese investors. But more about that later.

The Wild KK Project needs money in order to support the local communities in their struggle. To raise those funds, they offer four day jungle tours into the Areng Valley. Almost on the border with Thailand, the Areng Valley is remote even by Cambodian standards. Reaching the area is not particularly easy and until the mid 1990ies it was basically a no-go zone for anyone except residents as the valley was still controlled by some of the remaining Khmer Rouge forces.

Camping next to the river
While the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge were horrible and beyond description, their control of the Areng Valley (and similar territories) proved not a bad thing for the traditional lifestyle of the local communities and the flora, fauna and ecosystems of the region. Other areas of Cambodia have been systematically plundered by both foreign and Cambodian companies. Most wild animals have been extinct or are critically endangered, precious woods  have been logged and smuggled to China, Vietnam, Japan and the West. Only in pockets like the Areng Valley could rare species like the Siamese crocodile and the dragonfish survive.

Local food
But in 1997 the last remaining Khmer Rouge surrendered to the government and the little remaining areas of primary jungle are threatened by logging, poaching, mining and hydroelectric power plants ever since.

Thrilled about the prospect of supporting an environmental conservation project and explore a remote region of Cambodia I got in contact with the Wild KK Project and once they confirmed that they would offer a jungle tour during the time we were in the area, I wired them the 150 USD (120 EUR) participation fee. Lisa was a bit more skeptical about spending four days in the jungle, but after pondering for a couple of days she decided to join anyway.

Cycling in the Areng Valley
The first day we spent almost entirely with getting to the Areng Valley. We left Sihanoukville in the early morning with the bus to Koh Kong, the border town with Thailand. Five hours later, the bus dropped us at the bridge over the Ta Tay river. Almost immediately Alex, the responsible for the political side of the struggle picked us up with his jeep. Across the bridge, we met up with our guide Somnang and Phary, a young lady from Phnom Penh who wanted to discover the area like us.

After a quick lunch, we set off for the next part of the journey. A bumpy three hour jeep ride across the jungle and muddy pools of red water brought us to Thmor Bang, the last village that can be reached by car. We got rewarded with the best coffee in Cambodia ever! Strong and super sweet. We left most of our luggage with a local family and continued by motorbike. Our drivers did an awesome job navigating narrow jungle tracks, log bridges and muddy creeks at up to 60 kph. Lisa was closing her eyes more than once.

Warning sign
Finally we arrived at our campsite for the night. We all helped setting up our tents on the bank of a small river and, once done, jumped into the refreshing water to wash off sweat and dust. We enjoyed our first dinner with the sounds of the nighttime jungle and a cracking campfire while Somnang told us some stories about the forest.

The next morning, we packed our things in the mist rising from the river. Soon, we set off by bicycle to the next village. They welcomed us with a delicious breakfast and we set up our camp for the next night. Lisa's back was in pain from the bumpy rides the day before and sleeping on a rock. So she needed to relax her back and couldn't join us for the afternoon hike up surrounding the Areng Valley. A pity, but better given the situation. The hike was sweaty, but that's what you'd expect from a jungle hike. A guy with a machete was walking in front of the guide as the path doesn't get used that often. After half of the way up, we stopped at a river to get rid of all the leeches we collected along the way. At the top, we got an awesome view of the whole Areng Valley. We ate a delicious lunch while watching majestic hornbills flying past.

Plants in the jungle know how to protect themselves
On the way down, we chose a shortcut which saved us quite some time, but involved a not too safe climb of about twelve meters. It was fun, but maybe not the best idea if you suffer from vertigo. Back at the camp, Lisa welcomed us together with some palm wine drinking locals that kept her company.

The next day we cycled all the way to the end of the valley and back. We watched the locals produce rice wine, plant rice in flooded rice fields and grow vegetables. Except for some motorbikes and one or two TV sets per village, not much has changed here during the past centuries. In the late afternoon, we were back in the village, picked up our luggage and camping gear and went on to camp on the sandy banks of the Areng river.

Rice wine production
Once the tents were up, a part of our guides set out to fish for dinner. We - Lisa, Phary, Somnang and myself - took two kayaks and paddled along the gentle river, admiring the forest and spotting hunting kingfishers. At night, we all sat around the fire, indulging on freshly grilled fish and listening to the sounds of both river and forest.

The last morning arrived with a beautiful sunrise above the river. We managed the previous three days without seeing any snakes. But no jungle trip with Lisa would be perfect without spotting some snakes. (As some of you might know, she has a proper phobia). Three snakes within the last morning. But she managed to stay calm and patient until the snakes disappeared into the jungle.

Coconut ice cream!
And then the trip back commenced. A bloodcurdling ride on the back of a motorbike. A bumpy jeep ride to the intersection on the main road. But we made it in time for the last bus to Phnom Penh that day. And even though the bus broke down somewhere in the middle of nowhere and it took them three hours to send a replacement, we made it to the capital the same day. Tired and happy, with a lot of new stories to share. And some new friends we made, sitting next to the road eating watermelon and drinking beer while waiting for a working bus.

No, this jungle trip was not a leisurely Sunday afternoon in the park. But yes, we extremely enjoyed the intimate insight into the life of rural Khmer. And we hope that we could contribute to protect and conserve the natural beauty of the Areng Valley.

Kayaking on the Areng river
The hydroelectric power plant Chinese investors would like to build there would flood tenthousands of hectares of primary forest along with fertile agricultural lands, fragile ecosystems, displace thousands of residents for a ridiculously small amount of energy. Because in reality, hydroelectricity is just a pretense. The real interest of the investors are in logging and mining. Because once they get a permit to build a dam, it certainly wouldn't hurt to cut those trees and extract those minerals, right?

After spending some time in this beautiful valley, we're extremely happy to see that both Mother Nature and the local communities fight together to keep the Areng Valley the way it is. Hopefully for many more years to come.

More pictures from the Areng Valley

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