Discovering Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains with kids
In the mirror still water, the palms reflected in endless elaborate patterns. From the banks, gnarled black tree roots snaked under the surface, the mangroves looking more like alien creatures as they plunged into the river.
Two families live here, their homes tucked away in the mangrove forests but it felt a thousand miles from civilisation. Peace washed over me.
In the silence, the flurry of startled birds erupting from a tree sounded like a gunshot, green pigeons taking fright at the gentle splashes of our kayak paddling further under the overhanging branches.
To my daughter’s dismay, there was no sign of the area’s famously shy fishing cats or of monkeys in the trees, but butterflies fluttered and an army of chirruping cicadas soon provided a constant invisible soundtrack.
The Cardamom Mountains are not like the rest of Cambodia. In fact, there are few other places in the world quite like this unspoiled 20,000 square kilometre wilderness. Two decades ago, the lush forests sheltered Khmer Rouge fighters, a final refuge after the last bullet of the civil war was fired.
Today, it’s home to sun bears and birds galore; venture even further into the rainforest from the well-trodden paths and there are elephants, tigers and leopards. You have to be lucky to catch a glimpse, and with a five-year-old by my side, we were sticking to the less inaccessible areas. Besides, once Minnie decided to ‘entice’ the wildlife by miaowing and making monkey noises at the top of her voice, I suspect most creatures had fled.
Staying by the River Tatai in Koh Kong, even our journey was memorable: climbing higher and higher up twisting roads, brief flashes of colour as we passed villages along the way before arriving in Tatai itself to meet the boat taking us to our hotel.
Or, rather, to our floating tents at Four Rivers Floating Lodge – luxurious safari-style tents set on a pontoon floating on the river. With kayaks to borrow and boat trips around the area, we were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the water and woke to the sight of the clouds resting gently on the hills.
Eco-friendly, to ensure this paradise is protected, you’re asked to use the hotel’s own toiletries and not to bring your own food to avoid upsetting the balance of nature on the edge of the nearby wildlife sanctuary – but with a great restaurant, plus tented library which felt straight from a colonial story, that was no hardship.
I’ve written before about how welcoming and friendly the people in Cambodia are, but staying here had the same warmth as staying with a family: Minnie was on first-name terms with the General Manager almost instantly.
I didn’t even blink on discovering that rains had knocked out the limited WiFi. After relaxing by the beach, I was hardly stressed, but if there’s anywhere to unwind completely, this is it. After voyaging around the small island opposite our tents, with Minnie trying her own hand at a full size paddle, we were ready to take on those mangroves.
First a visit to a local school, as part of our day boat trip. Supported by Four Rivers, the school has 50 students – below the threshhold of 80 needed to get funding from the government. Wearing life jackets and shining grins as they headed across the river to their homes following the morning’s teaching, the contrast with Minnie’s well-equipped primary school was stark.
The two classrooms with their leaking roofs each housed two classes on old-fashioned wooden benches. Posters on the walls taught basic hygiene, a calendar was from 2015. On the edges of Cambodia, it’s less than an hour to the Thai border, compared to almost five to Phnom Penh – some even speak Thai rather than Khmer amongst themselves.
In the small village nearby, chickens roamed squawking between lazy dogs, women painstakingly weaving palms fronds with a skill I could only envy. The small pagoda was a sudden splash of colour, its walls painted with stories of the Buddha.
Life in this paradise can be hard, certainly by Western standards. To me, being invited to have a glimpse of other lives around the world is one of the things I value most about travel – and especially for Minnie. At the same time as seeing those similarities, children not much older than her heading to their lessons just as she does, it’s a reminder of how many people around the world have a much simpler existence than our privileged one.
And of why illegal logging and sand dredging, as well as hunting, take place – but why work to prevent them is so vital if this special spot is to be preserved.
Tourism could – for once – hold part of the answer. Trekking and nature holidays are growing in popularity, especially with better roads to the area while hotels like Four Rivers provide employment and training for some of the locals living in stilt houses along the river.
Others act as guides, ours helping me paddle the kayak through those mangroves, down a small tributary off the main river. And then leading us on a mini hike to the Tatai waterfalls.
In drier weather, you can walk more easily to the cascades or see them from a boat. After the first rains of the green season, the normal mooring place was too close to the torrents to be safe, but with Minnie enjoying a piggy back from our guide, we clambered our way round to the falls, two levels of rushing white water crashing down to the clear river.
Cruising back as the sun started to set, the thunder of the falls was stilled and peace enveloped us again – broken only by the sound of the boat’s engine. In my hand, an Angkor beer the only reminder of Cambodia’s better known attractions.
In this spell-binding place, I felt even the glories of Angkor Wat might take second place.
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Disclosure: My trip exploring Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains with kids, including our stay at Four Rivers Floating Lodge, was courtesy of Stubborn Mule. All opinions and miniature monkeys are my own.
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