Cardamom Mountains

After yet another infuriatingly inefficient Cambodian bus journey to a small town called Koh Kong (this time the bus visited the Thai border before turning around and dropping us off in the town which we had already driven through once – presumably to try & confuse us enough that we ended up having to pay a tuk-tuk at the border to take us back there), we ended up in the right place. Koh Kong has nothing really going for it – there are a few excursions you can do from the town to local waterfalls or mangroves, but we had already seen plenty of both and weren’t in town long enough to really want to go and have a look.

Instead, 24 hours after arriving, we were off to the Osoam community in the jungle – a small village in the middle of nowhere which is trying to turn itself into an eco-friendly tourist centre. Annoyingly, the bus into town arrived at about 3pm, but the taxi to Osoam goes between 1-2pm so, typically for Cambodia, we had to spend an entire day sitting around waiting!

We’d heard of Osoam through someone we met on Don Det. There is a bigger & more well known tourist centre in the mountains called Chi Phat, but it’s pretty expensive and well developed. It features in all the guide books & is a bit of a major destination on the backpacker route so Osoam, being much newer, less developed and less well known had more of an appeal for us. It also sounded like somewhere that genuinely could use some help from visitors to get it set up to achieve it’s aim of supporting the local villages with income which would be spent on building schools and other community resources.

To get there from Koh Kong, there are 2 options: hire a private taxi for about $60 or jump in a shared one for $10 per person. We later found out that there are currently only 3 taxis which do the route (in rainy season), so the private one wouldn’t have been an option for us anyway. Our shared taxi was fairly simple – 4 passengers in a 4×4 with a boot full of stuff that the other passengers were bringing up to their homes in the mountains.

Cardamom mountains dam
One of the dams in the Cardamom mountains

The journey was simple & pleasant to start with, with the first third on paved roads weaving through all the dams (we passed about 4 I think) that have been built by the Chinese hydro electric companies in conjunction with the Cambodian government and deeper into the hills. The next portion was on dirt roads as we had now gone past all the dams & therefore the proper road was no longer required. The final third (i’m breaking this up by time by the way) was the last 7km of the 6 hour journey, along something that I don’t think we can really call a road, rather a clearing cut through the jungle which becomes a mud bath featuring massive lorry-eating holes. It was pretty fun though!

We did eventually make it, only to be told that we hadn’t been expected (despite the email conversation we had literally the day before saying we were heading up & would be there then) so we’d need to go out for dinner rather than eat in with the rest of the guests. This was actually quite nice as we went to a local restaurant (which is really just the family’s front room) and they made us some food – fried pork, fried eggs, rice & some chilli sauce which was really tasty. We also discovered the wonder of a banana wrapped in sweet sticky rice bound up in a banana leaf, which is delicious!

When we returned, we had a chat with the 4 other guests who were there. It turned out all of them were stuck there due to the road north being closed due to the bad weather – 2 of them had been there for 10 days & had planned to stay for only 4! There are only 2 roads in & out of Osoam, the south road which we had taken in (the “good” road) and the road north which is a significantly more convenient way to reach north-west Cambodia than having to navigate the entire way around the mountain range but is in much worse condition. They had arranged for a tractor to take them & their motorbikes out the following morning, so were busy planning their escape route.

We spent the first night on the brand new “Lake Bungalow”, which is a bungalow on the lake and had been finished earlier that day so they were keen to try it out. This led to a poor nights sleep, with the windy, wet weather coming slightly through the bamboo stick wall & the water lapping fairly aggressively under the floor. The evidence of the local rat population didn’t really help either. Again though, it was a bit of fun so we had no problem with it. Our remaining nights were spent in a more comfortable room however!

Osoam Lake Bungalow
The brand new lake bungalow at Osoam

We’d headed to Osoam hoping to see some of the jungle, the mountains and help out with setting the place up. Sadly, most of this wasn’t possible due to the continually terrible weather. We spent most of our first day (after seeing off the Canadians on what looked likely to be an absolutely horrendous journey) sat around chatting to Mr Lim, who runs it, or playing with his daughter, unable to really do much until the evening when we went around one of the villages and had dinner (named “Beef up a Mountain”) at one of their houses. This was cooked by Mrs Lim who is an excellent chef! It was quite interesting to chat to him on various topics & it became clear he is genuinely trying to help the community of farmers by building schools, teaching English & bringing in some income to the area. This also would serve to prevent the practices of poaching and slash & burn agriculture which are both very damaging for the area.

It became clear while we were up there that the weather was not improving and the good road south was on the verge of closing as well as the north road – which after 2 days of the locals trying to fix it had become so churned up by their tractors that it was completely impassable. This would have left us totally stuck there, which was not ideal as we were starting to run a little low on visa time and still wanted to go to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat before we left Cambodia. After a little discussion, Mr Lim suggested we should combine a trip through the jungle with our journey back to town (which sadly had to be Koh Kong doe to the roads. This sounded good so the following day we set off for some trekking and a night in the jungle.

About 30 minutes into the journey – after requiring to hop out of Mr Lim’s pick-up & push it up out of the holes in the road a few times – and roughly halfway along the terrible 7km stretch of road, the truck broke down in a pretty serious way. We spent the next 3 hours waiting for the mechanic sitting around in in hammocks in the local equivalent of a corner shop. Eventually we got going and the journey from there consisted of a couple of stop offs to try & find some wildlife (not very successfully) on the tracks near the road before finding a camping spot for the night.

Mr Lim, an ex-ranger, & co set up the campsite (a tarp, some sticks, his truck & some hammocks) while we were sent away to find some firewood and entertained his daughter – who had (aged 4) insisted that she come along too for the experience – while Mrs Lim prepared the food. We had a nice night that featured some lovely food, a “shower” in the river nearby and an excellent nights sleep in the hammocks.

The next day, we went for a guided walk in the jungle while camp was packed up which was good fun but fairly hard work and featured a fair bit of falling over. This included my graceful fall down the bank of a stream & very nearly face first into the water below, via unintentionally sitting quite heavily onto the stump of a bit of bamboo which was, let’s say…. uncomfortable!

We then headed into town to meet up with the taxi driver we had arranged to take us onward (which was done as a result of a chance meeting as we drove past each other the night before). The trip up to Osoam, though a bit frustrating due to the weather, was actually quite nice. It would have been excellent in better weather & I’d definitely recommend others head up there if wanting some time in the area. Mr Lim is great & genuinely is trying to do some good, while his family are lovely and the actual place is really nice, if expectedly simple.

Now we just had to get around the mountains & up to Siem Reap. Mr Lim had called the taxi driver crazy for attempting what he was about to attempt. We may have been crazier for going along with the idea…!

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