Published: February 6th 2010February 6th 2010
start of the trip
that's the Veal Thom Grasslands looking deceptively close on the top of the mountain. looking from the Sesan River in Ratanakiri
I had spent a lot of time staring at the big "empty" green spot in northeastern Cambodia on my large National Geographic map on the wall in my study. As a 3,250 square kilometer national park bordered by large protected areas on the Laos and Vietnam sides of its borders, this represented one of -if not the
last wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia. I hadn't been to Cambodia since December 2005, a trip that was only a little 5-day excursion to see the temples of Angkor Wat. The country made a chilled out and exotic impression on me , and I had wanted to come back and experience the kingdom on a deeper level.
This time around it was more than just sight-seeing and trekking; I am doing a PhD in Environmental Philosophy, and I wanted to see what kind of parallels might exist between people who still practice animism with modern environmental (or Eco-) philosophy (or, if I might...ecosophy
. When I learned that the rules for trekking in Virachey National Park had changed and that all trips must be accompanied by an indigenous guide (as well as a ranger), I knew that I had the perfect excuse to leave the
there's Veal Thom up top
sorry, you can see Veal Thom in the distance from this pic, not the first one
wife and baby at home for a few weeks and launch an adventure -with some research :)
I wanted the biggest and baddest trek they had, which was the 7-8 day journey to Veal Thom Grasslands near the Laotian border. I later learned that fewer than 200 foreign trekkers have made it to this place since hiking began in 1998, and no Khmers (aside from the rangers) whatsoever have come.
I learned some interesting things about Brao, Tampuan, and Kreung traditional religions on this trek. Here's one bit of wisdom that I liked in particular: When a person dies, the birds, the trees, and the Earth have to agree about it, because a tree will be cut to make your coffin, and a hole must be dug in the ground to bury you. Birds have amazing eyesight and can keep a good eye on you, no matter where you go. If you become sick and a bird comes to your window and chirps, that's it; you're done. Nothing can help you.
On the first day we met 4 poachers coming down from the mountain, with what appeared to be some river fish. Soukhon, my park ranger guide,
Brao minority family
I gave $20 to that kid's mother for the round-trip taxi fare to Ban Lung so that she could bring her kid to see the Christian medical group (free) who would be visiting town soon. note the swelling under his eye
is now virtually powerless to stop them. The World Bank pulled out of Virachey in 2008, and when that happened, more than half of the rangers resigned en masse, because their salaries were cut by about 75%. The Cambodian government spends virtually nothing to protect this vast park now, and in 2009, not one single ranger patrol went out. So dire is the situation that the park's official web site -created by the WB- is now down and will not be restored, thus Soukhon -who is both the head ranger and the warden of ecotourism- had to make a blog to get information about the park out there. This blog is now out of service.
On the mornings of both Days 2 & 3 I could hear gibbons singing in the distance, and I have to admit that the prospect of early gibbon serenading was a big part of my reason for doing this trek; I have heard them in Sumatra and in Thailand and to my mind there are few more delightful sounds in all the world. On the 3rd day we found two very fresh piles of leopard dung (either leopard or clouded leopard; we
This is where you will be sleeping for 6-7 nights should you decide (highly recommended) to do this trek
couldn't be sure which), and we also were stopped by a trumpeting sound coming from brush ahead of us, a noise Soukhon attributed to a wild pig. When we reached the final ascent to Veal Thom, we had to pick flowers and lay them atop Elephant Rock and say a prayer to the sacred mountain asking for safe passage and happiness. I have to admit that when Soukhon and Kam La said there prayers (out loud and in Khmer and Brao), I really did feel like something special was happening.
When prayers were over we began our final assault. They stopped for a rest halfway up and I took the rest by myself, with the result that I had about 40 minutes up there all alone. And what a wonderful 40 minutes that was. I had reached that remote area of my National Geographic map that I had been dreaming about visiting for 2 years. Veal Thom, in the center of Virachey. And there was nobody else up here. Just me, the burnt grass, and jungle and mountain for as far as they eye could see. Real jungle, thick, layered, evergreen with patches of bamboo forest here and there,
our Brao indigenous guide
and the Sesan River snaking in and out in places, and those mountains....my god those mountains!
I learned that while poachers penetrate part of Haling Hala mountain, there are still many areas that nobody goes to -no rangers, no trekkers, no poachers, no one. That would be Ching-Yum mountain to the left of Haling Hala, the upper half of Haling Hala, and virtually all of the mountains to the east of Haling Hala, where populations of elephant and tiger are thought to exist, and maybe even rhino. Soukhon has been on 2 recon flights over the park (back when the World Bank was sponsoring) and he said that there are several enormous waterfalls in those mountains that border Laos. There are no trails whatsoever to get them, so to reach them you have to follow rivers -something he is willing to do should some brave adventurers desire to give it a go. He can also bring you to Haling Hala and Ching-Yum mountain and yet another grasslands beyond Ching-Yum Mountain.
Kam La said that when he first came to Veal Thom nearly 30 years ago, the grasslands were practically black with herds elephants and groups of Sambar Deer.
We found this on Day 3 of the trek; whether it was leopard or clouded leopard we could not be certain, but there were 2 piles located about 100 meters apart, of virtually the same freshness, meaning there were 2 of them
"It must have been something like Africa back then," Soukhon imagined, shaking his head. They explained how after the Khmer Rouge, everyone had guns, with result being that those herds of elephants and deer were with either wiped out or were driven deep into the forest near Laos, where to this day nobody ventures.
Strangely, we did not hear any gibbons singing in the 2 nights we spent camping in Veal Thom (I requested 2 nights up there so that we could relax, recoup, and do a little extra exploring). We did a little night safari and with our flashlights we found 2 Sambar Deer. On Day 5, as we made our way across the grasslands, we passed through a patch of forest and panicked, child-like screeching broke out in the trees to our right. " Douc Langur
, " said Soukhon without a moment's hesitation. Conservation International
could not find them on their survey of the park in 2007, though they wrote that there was evidence of their existence here. Soukhon, on the other hand, who has been here 15 times before, said he and other trekkers watched a troupe of 30 act aggressively toward him and
emerging from the jungle
afternoon of day 3 of the trek -reaching Veal Thom
the others a few years back. Shortly after, 2 Great hornbills flew overhead, whose flapping wings sounding like they belonged to a pair of pyterodactyls. The next morning, Soukhon said that he heard hornbills coming, and sure enough, a pair of them rounded the bend of the O Pong River. Even more to my delight, a pair of gibbons broke out in song at nearly the same time, and we spotted them up at the top of the canopy above the river. I was even fortunate enough to get a photo of the female using my zoom at full capacity.
And the surprises were not over, for after a 2 hour hike and a swim, we watched a convoy of 11 illegal loggers float wood out on bamboo rafts, coming from deep inside Virachey NP. Soukhon said something to them in Khmer, but there was little he could do. Before with WB, all rangers had guns, vehicles, equipment, and confidence knowing they had the support of a powerful institution behind them. As a result, poachers were scared, and for the 5 years that World Bank sponsored the park, illegal hunters and loggers were more or less kept at bay.
Now things are obviously different.
Unless another outside organization comes in and supports this park, the future of the amazing wildlife it contains is in jeopardy. The park might be large enough to withstand a certain amount of selective tree cutting and fish and pangolin (rampant) poaching, but if plans for a Chinese-financed road through the park go ahead, then large-scale destruction will follow as once-inaccessible areas are opened up to opportunistic hunters and loggers. Also, an Australian mining company is doing a survey over 60% of the park.
Anyway, for those considering this trek, I highly recommend it. I think Veal Thom is the one and only place in Ratanikiri where you will be treated to truly grandoise views. For those who love landscape, geography, and wildlife, this is is for you. And remember, fewer than 200 'balang' have been there! For me personally, I needed to know that there are still some places in mainland Southeast Asia where no men go, and where wildlife makes a stand -the Virachey zone between Veal Thom and the mountainous border with Laos is where it's at. Soukhon and I have made tentative plans to hike to the top of
Haling Halang Mountain
the jagged peak on the left is the borderline for Laos and Cambodia in this distant world of jungle, grasslands, mountains and spirits
Haling Hala when I finish my PhD. What more of an incentive could I ask for? NEW CONTACT INFO FOR VIRACHEY HERE Dr. Cicero Books
recently republished my book, which you can find here
. And here is a link to an interview
that I recently did with Mongabay.com about my book and the current status of Virachey. The Taipei Times
wrote a review of the book, which you can read here
. And here is a link to a 360 panorama video I took from the highest hill in Veal Thom And I have just returned from a 2nd trip to Veal Thom and Beyond, which you can find here in this link to "Journey to the Green Corridor"
And I have been back to Virachey for a 3rd Trip: check it out
And now I have a new Web site called Save Virachey
. I am using this site to collect money to purchase 15 motion-triggered camera traps to plant in and around Haling-Halang Mountain in January 2014. I want to use photograhic evidence to subsantiate claims that tigers and rhinos still exist in the remote corners of the park.
looking toward Vietnam
...but all those mountains belong to Cambodia
You can help out with small donation of any amount.
I am also finishing up a book about my treks to Virachey, titled Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor,
which should be available on Amazon.com in March (2012). I have also created a kind "companion blog" to the book to help promote it and to offer more photographs. Here is a link to that blog
As far as preliminary reading goes, there are some people doing some outstanding research in the area, among the Ian G. Baird and Frederic Bourdier. Here is a list of some of their work: Ian G. Baird
"Making Spaces: The ethnic Brao people and the international border between Laos and Cambodia" -published in the journal Geoforum 41 (2010) pp. 271-817
"Biodiversity Conservation and Resource Tenure Regimes: A Case Study from Northeast Cambodia" -*with Philip Deardren, published in the journal Environmental Management, Vol. 32, No. 5, pp. 541-550. Frederic Bourdier
"The Mountain of Precious Stones: Ratanakiri, Cambodia" -a book published by The Center for Khmer Studies in Phnom Penh, 2006
"Development and Dominion: Indigenous Peoples of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos"
hanging out on Day 4
my back to the north: that's the Cambodian side of the mountainous border with Laos behind me
-published by White Lotus Press, 2009. Bourdier is the editor of this essay collection and in it he pens a fantastic Preface and Introduction which focus largely on Ratanakiri, and this book also contains an article by Ian G. Baird titled "Controlling the Margins: Nature Conservation and State Power in Northeastern Cambodia"; there are many other worthwhile essays by other scholars in this book.
There is also another brand new book titled "Living on the Margins: Minorities and Borderlines in Cambodia and Southeast Asia", which is also put out by the Center for Khmer Studies
-this essay collection is the result of a conference proceedings that took place in Siem Reap in 2008.
Another good book is: "Ethnic Groups in Cambodia," which is a large compilation put out by Center for Advanced Study, also in Phnom Penh
Also, if you are looking for a minority guide for the forests outside of the national park who can speak all of the minority languages, as well as English and Khmer, I highly recommend Do Yok
who can be reached at:
There are more photos below