Updated: Aug 9, 2020
A country being steadily mortgage to the Chinese
Cambodia has a special place in the hearts of south-east Asia lovers which is at once urgent and timeless, graceful and horror-filled.
The first time I was in Cambodia was in 1981, not long after the Vietnamese had invaded to drive Pol Pot and his genocidaires out of power. I rode on a supply truck on a bone-shaking 13-hour journey from the Thai border past small North Vietnamese Army encampments to the outskirts of Angkor Wat where an Indian NGO had started clearing mines and begun restoring the great Khmer temple citadel.
It was in a sense the symbolic start of the long road back from the unimaginable horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
What is well known is that the war(s) that ravaged Cambodia (including of course American wars) took millions of lives. What is less often mentioned is that by the time the fighting was over the country's wildlife population had also virtually been wiped out.
There are pockets of wildlife left here and there. Some of it was devastated by napalm and agent Orange. But most of it was simply eaten by a people on the edge of starvation during Pol Pot's attempts to drive his country back to a kind of agrarian stone age.
Tigers, Asian elephants, leopard, Siamese crocodiles are all endangered some critically.
My second visit to Cambodia was in 2003 when Victoria and I travelled from the Thai border through the Cardamom mountain wilderness. The were no paved roads or bridges. The half a dozen or so river crossings had to be negotiated on rickety pontoons with outboards motors on the back which, usually, but not always ended up in the right place on the far bank.
This time, fifteen years later, we made the same journey but were picked up at the Thai border entering southern Cambodia with (gasp) an e-visa and whisked to a waiting long-tail boat an hour away in an air-conditioned 4x4 driven by a grumpy Khmer who thought overtaking cement trucks on a bend through a cloud of dust was brilliant fun.
We were headed to a tented camp some 20km upriver from Trapeang Rung on the Chang river through a landscape which becomes increasingly beautiful and silent past virgin jungle. I confess to imagining I was steaming upriver into the Heart of Darkness and an apocalyptic )Marlon Brando. (South-east Asia is about many things. But one big thing it's about is rivers. Anyone who doubts this should read Jon Swain's compelling River of Time.)
We were not I'm pleased to say greeted by Brando in war paint but by genial wildlife photographer Allan Michaud who runs the Cardamom tented camp, the 18000 hectares centrepiece of a brave attempt to stem the tide of logging both legal and illegal, land grabs, slash and burn and vast new rubber plantations that are destroying one of Asia's last genuine wilderness areas.
The Lonely Planet talks airily of the country's wildlife in the remoter parts having survived the decades of war. This is an exaggeration to say the least. The thing you notice most in this specially protected concession in the Cardamoms is how very little wildlife there is.
The silence is deafening. We saw a magnificent large otter, a handful of beautiful kingfishers, storks and hornbills. And some truly awesome spiders on an 8km trek through thick jungle. There are a small number of Asian elephants further south and Allan was the first person to photograph the shy and endangered Siamese crocodile.
But talk of reintroducing tigers into this area is fanciful. For one they won't have anything to eat. For another Cambodia is being steadily mortgaged to the Chinese to whom it is becoming a vassal state to coin a phrase.
Even in this little pocket of sanity recovery of wildlife is by no means guaranteed and if it happens it will be slow. The government will need to balance the insatiable desire to sell the country for logging or rubber plantations or casinos more often than not to Chinese businesses- with some semblancde of a conservation strategy.
It is impossible to convey the extent of China's penetration into Cambodia. One example: as you drive from the border you see what look like tall, rectangular concrete windowless warehouses.
These 3-4 storey structures are in fact bird's nests factories 'manufacturing' the ingredients for that much sought-after Chinese delicacy birds nest soup. Swallows (Swifts?) are reared in up to 3000 buildings mostly near rivers. Bird songs are even piped in with speakers to attract more swallows. They fly around weaving nests from their saliva. These are then harvested and sold for between US$1800-US$3000 a kilo. Many escape.
They deplete the insect population which in turn makes the return of Cambodia's exotic birds even harder.