The river appears without warning as we race through the jungle and emerge in a sandy meadow of swaying golden grass. Carving its way lazily through the foliage with the mid-afternoon sun sprinkling diamonds of light over its surface, the water would look seductive in any circumstance. The fact that I have spent the last six hours negotiating the network of bumpy tracks that penetrate the Cardamom Mountains on a bike makes the idea of a soothing dip seem even more alluring. My legs are bearing up, but my battered haunches are in dire need of some attention after a day on a saddle with the dimensions of a small garden trowel. As I prepare to envelop my aching muscles in the water’s cool embrace, my reverie is disturbed by my guide Lee: “You can’t swim there,” he shouts. “Too many crocodiles.”
Sinister undercurrents are never far from the idyllic surface in this part of the world. Nestled next to the Thailand border, the region is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in mainland South-East Asia – the Cardamoms shelter globally threatened species such as the Indochinese tiger, the Asian elephant and the Siamese crocodile. More nefarious elements have also found solace amidst the virgin jungle. It was from these remote border areas that Khmer Rouge guerrillas kept alive Cambodia’s civil war while, in recent times, impoverished locals have plundered the protected forests to boost their meagre earnings.
Such activities have exacted an environmental toll on this wondrous landscape of emerald forest, wild flowers, rushing streams and meandering rivers, but the arrival of tourism in the area is at last providing an affirmative alternative.
My guide is testament to this fact. A rice farmer and one-time hunter, Lee Heng is forging a new career for himself thanks to the community based eco-tourism project that is now attracting a steady trickle of intrepid adventures to his home commune of Chi Phat.