Not all villagers in the Areng Valley, a remote community in the southeastern Cardamom Mountains, were happy when news that the Chinese-funded hydroelectric dam project had been cancelled in 2017. They had been promised land (and all important land titles) to relocate, with schools and electricity and roads — all largely unavailable in the community at the time.
Yet three years later and the victory of environmental protection is clear; today Areng Valley is a growing ecotourism attraction, drawing Cambodians from across the country to hike, boat, bicycle, and camp amid flora and fauna now increasingly rare in other parts of the Kingdom.
And surprisingly, there are roads and electricity and schools being built by the government. Maybe it’s still possible in Cambodia to ‘have one’s cake and eat it’.
While nearby Chi Phat is a more popular spot for foreign tourists (aided by listings in travel books), Areng is a more local affair, explained Steung Areng Community Based Ecotourism Project (STAR-CBET) director Ly Tith.
“Cambodian people are increasingly understanding the importance of protecting the environment. This can have benefits, as the standard of living increases in the cities, they can come here and share their understanding with the local people.”
With the STAR-CBET handling homestays as well as forest activities including hiking, camping, mountain biking, motor adventures, and boat trips (and the necessary guides, porters, and equipment) visiting is a relatively stress-free experience; it’s just the getting there that presents a challenge! Public transport (buses between Phnom Penh and Koh Kong town) can stop at Veal Pi on road 48, from where motorbike taxis or minivans can make the remaining two-hour trip along burnt-orange roads up into the Cardamom Mountains.
And it’s worth it, I promise.
During my two nights hiking and camping I saw gibbons, hornbills and signs of elephants (that would be um…poo) and the loud calls, songs, screeches, and general buzz of a habitat somehow surviving the ravages of logging and poaching that have decimated other forest areas across the country. Camping on night one at Mrech Kongkep Mountain, with its fresh breeze and the view of endless trees, it was clear why local social media celebrities (and an increasing number of young Cambodians keen to emulate their idols) are drawn to this place.
But for me, a night spent next to the roar of Chhay Tapang Waterfall, after a trek through a far less visited area of the valley was the highlight. This was a glimpse of Cambodian nature seemingly untouched by the destructive hand of homeo sapiens –- the steep-sided valley, giant trees, the whoosh of hornbill’s wings flying overhead, and the pounding of the waterfall was a treat only for me (and my guide Rith).
As domestic Cambodian travel continues to grow (fueled by covid-19 international travel restrictions) it is fantastic to see more and more people exploring the country and experiencing what remains of its natural beauty. Whether this is enough of a motivator to slow the ceaseless destruction of forests and wildlife is of course unclear, but at least in the short term the fight to save the Areng Valley seems to have been worth it, for locals and visitors alike.
Steung Areng Community-Based Ecotourism Project (STAR-CBET)
Open daily, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Chumnoab Village, Cardamom Mountains, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia [map]
T: +855 97 35 55 638