A Race to the Middle of Nowhere – The Scramble for Kulen with apologies to Thomas Packenham (The Scramble for Africa*)
We were about a thousand years too late but then it wasn’t for the first time, the Angkorians had been here before. And anyway the British, French, Germans and Italians took it in turns to claim large chunks of Africa*. I reckoned all we needed to do was plant an Indochine Exploration flag on the top of Phnom Srok, Mr Leang said was the tallest hill on Kulen, to guarantee safe rights of passage across Kulen for our Grasshopper guests the following week.
Lors had filled Kuong’s van with enough equipment to rival our pioneering colonial peers on a country conquering expedition. The ‘stuff’ wasn’t the half of what he’d be taking for the guests. We were just using hammocks to swing ourselves to sleep under the stars, though I wasn’t leaving it to chance and had my camping kit of Valium, whisky and ear plugs within easy reach.
Loading Mr Chou’s oxcart
The escarpment up Kulen marks a departure from the dusty plains and chaos of Siem Reap. The forest canopy encloses a calm that penetrated even Kuong’s van. The MoE Station at Preah Ang Thom is where we start our trips and where we emptied the contents of the van onto Mr Chou’s Oxcart, while Phum – our guide for the next 24 hours, rode around the station getting used to the mountain bike we’d brought him.
Our lunch spot
The guests arriving
Lors fresh from his muscle contest in Phnom Penh and rippling in lycra, conducted our expedition as we embarked on our mission to cross the empty quarter by way of Porpel Village to Kbal Spean.
We followed a path between chamkar clearings that had been hacked and burnt out of the forest for the cashew nut plantations which, deplete the painstakingly accumulated fertility in a couple of years then wither to a scraggy halt.
We halted where the path went back under the trees and waited for Chou and his cows. Lors had bought a chicken for them. I’d got a squashed breakfast bagel from Little Red Fox. The chamkar finished at an escarpment and so apparently did our way. It was used to get timber out from the forest below but Phum told us that the illegal logging had stopped, incredible! He seemed to be right. It appeared that nobody had been this way for years. There was a path but it was so well disguised that when it changed direction I didn’t and came to an impromptu halt in the bushes*
Relaxing* on the trail
Chest high grass on the steep slopes gave way to forest as we reached the valley floor. Two years ago the saddest logging was taking out the remaining big trees. Now the vegetation was striking back, linking limbs to lock in the road and block the oxcarts that had born the bloodied corpses of felled trees.
We emerged out of the jungle into a flower-studded meadow bisected by the Kulen River. Our campsite was given away by rusty pilchard tins now hidden by the tall grass, evidence of Alistair’s (my previous business partner) search for Silver Langur Monkeys.
Arriving at the campsite
It seemed impossible that Phum and Chou would get the oxcart down the escarpment with no apparent path and then through the jungle so we headed back, fully expecting to abort our mission and spend the night in Anlong Thom. We found them a short way back hacking at a fallen tree, while the cows contentedly munched the leaves blocking their path.
Lors and ….
other flowers of the veld
Our mission to cross Kulen was back within our grasp. Chou had a kettle on the boil while Lors and Phum set up the campsite and I drank tea.
Lors and Phum preparing supper
‘Nick get out of the way,’ warned Lors. Phum was flapping his hammock and stamping on the ground to get rid of black ants. ‘I cant get out of the way! Aaargh’ the little bastards stung, but they weren’t immune to deet.
Only a trickle of water made it down the stream despite the recent rain but the bathing pool remained. I reduced its surface tension by soaping up in the slightly cool water then went back to the campsite to drink beer and watch Lors shirtless cook dinner.
One week on from coming second in The Angkor Body-building Championships, it looked as if he could glide like a flying squirrel with his enormous deltoid muscles. Wielding a large bladed kitchen knife he alternated between slicing onions and swatting mosquitoes on Phum, for some reason remaining immune to their bites.
We were missing Dean but in his stead he’d sent a family sized pack of chicken casserole supposedly just for Lors and I, actually enough to feed all of us for dinner and breakfast. Beer then whisky as Lors and I contentedly chatted about nothing in particular. Mr Chou was wrapped in his hammock betrayed only by his gleaming white smile, 22 and with a baby on the way.
A full moon appeared through the canopy and shined silver on the bark of the trees that seemed to grow taller in the dark.
I lay in my hammock looking up through the branches at the stars, thinking that a simple camp in the forest was worth a million times more than whatever the 5 star Sachaya Resort on Bintan Island had cost where I’d been the week before.
The lingering chill from the night lifted as the sun lit up the leaves around us. Mr Chou and the ox-cart returned to rendezvous with Kuong, while we struck through the wilderness to find a route via the North Escarpment to Kbal Spean, not quite ready for how wild it turned out to be.
Elephant vomit or pig-shit grass life a soft fur covered our way but unlike soft fur it sticks its scratchy seeds to your socks and gets in your shoes. Enchanted glades of dipteropcarp deciduous trees gave way to dark caverns shaded by green and lit with white flowers on the forest floor.
The rocks and ruts were throwing me at every turn sapping confidence such that I pushed the bike as much as rode it.
with Phum on the trail (left)
We met Leang the policeman with Chomran from Porpel village and two rangers with guns though it seemed unlikely they worked. A few months ago they’d arrested two loggers who were in jail and fined five others $1250 each. They were confiscating their chainsaws and fining the owners, which explained why the logging trail was disappearing. Leang had even seen the scratch marks of a bear at Kbal Spean and they reckoned they were still there in the Porpel Community Forest. An old bear had been hunted and killed for its bile. The hunter got $1000 and the middleman $6000 all for some fat ugly bong thom and his libido.
The North Facing Kulen Escarpment
The North-facing escarpment had been logging central 2 years ago. Oxen and carts congregated with crude cut planks from freshly felled timber, which was stashed at the base of the cliffs and hidden so it couldn’t be spotted from the Wildlife Alliance helicopter that was surveying the mountain. Piled ready to be collected and taken out via the Forestry Administration HQ who extracted their toll and waited for the next batch to extort. Today there were no signs of logging.
Dr Livingstone I presume? Said Stanley, rather more usefully ‘would you like a beer?’ I was asked as we arrived at Kbal Spean. It had only taken 5 hours but as Dave Taylor had said the last time we attempted the route, while lying flat on the grass, ‘this is challenging,’ and technically not a mountain bike ride.