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Introducing Chi Phat

In an effort to protect the southern Cardamom Mountains from poaching, logging and land grabbing by turning the rainforest into a source of jobs and income for local people, Wildlife Alliance has launched a multiphase project to transform the Southern Cardamoms Protected Forest (1443 sq km), whose southern boundary is NH48 between Koh Kong and Andoung Tuek, into a world-class ecotourism destination.

Once notorious for its loggers and poachers, the river village of Chi Phat (population 630 families) is now home to Wildlife Alliance’s pioneering community-based ecotourism project (CBET), offering travellers a unique opportunity to explore the Cardamoms ecosystems while contributing to their protection.

A variety of outdoor adventure activities are on offer. Visitors can take one- to five-day (four-night) treks through the jungle, go sunrise birdwatching, explore the local waterways by kayak, hire motos or mountain bikes to visit several nearby waterfalls and shoot (with a camera) monkeys and hornbills with a former poacher as a guide. Destinations include an area with mysterious, ancient burial jars and the Areng Valley. On overnight trips it is possible to sleep in hammocks or at one of five campsites set up by Wildlife Alliance, equipped with ecotoilets, field kitchens, and comfortable hammocks with mosquito-proof nets.

Of particular interest are the multiday mountain-bike safaris deep into the Cardamoms and the sunrise birdwatching trip. The latter involves an early wakeup call and a 1½-hour longtail boat ride before you jump in traditional stand-up rowing boats (with rower) and silently paddle along the placid Stung Proat, an unlogged tributary of the Preak Piphot River. Silver langurs, long-tailed macaques, greater hornbills and other rainforest creatures can often be seen along the banks of Stung Proat. Gibbons are hard to spot, but can often be heard calling to each other through the forest canopy.

It is also possible to visit Wildlife Alliance’s million-tree nursery, where it nurtures saplings for its impressive reforestation program. This is a very educational experience and involves the chance to make a lasting mark with a plant-a-tree initiative. Adventurous travellers can spend several days roughing it in the forest on patrol with the local community rangers.

All of this is controlled through the exceptionally organised CBET Community Visitor Center, a two-minute walk from the river pier in Chi Phat. The visitor centre has free wi-fi, 24-hour solar-powered electricity and a good restaurant serving both meat and vegetarian Khmer food.

Prices for all tours are extremely reasonable at less than US$35 per person per day for groups of two or more, including lunch, transport and equipment. All- inclusive multiday trips cost a bit more per day. Prices include a voluntary contribution (US$10 per person) to the community conservation fund. All tours require guides, most of whom once worked as poachers and loggers.

On arrival in Chi Phat, head to the visitor centre in the evening to join in a pre-trek orientation. You will meet the guides and other guests returning from treks. This is the time to get information about activities, the condition of the trails, and learn how the local community is now a force to protect the forests it once plundered.