start of the journey
the once-mighty Sesan River, depleted by the Yali Falls dam upstream in Vietnam
My friend and I originally had a goal with this trip -to reach the summit of the sacred and powerful Haling Halang Mountains, which straddle the border of Cambodia and Laos, and have one foot in both countries. What happened was this: there are 2 ways to get to Veal Thom Grasslands (which is on the way to Haling Halang): the normal tourist trail, which, while still challenging, is nothing compared to the "alternative route." The "other way" to go is by tracing the Tok Mok River up a grueling commando/special forces type of training workout, a trip which makes your bag all the more heavier because this way takes another 1.5 days and thus entails carrying more food. There were 6 of us in all: myself, my friend Richard, park ranger Soukhon, indigenous Brao guide extraordinaire Kam-La, village "magic man" Mr. Noi (who was brought on at the last minute as a porter) and the dapper Mr. Su, a park ranger in training.
The Tok Mok snakes it's way up Veal Thom's eastern flank, making numerous zig-zags through the forest. Eventually tiring of river tracing with a very heavy pack, Kam-La said he remembered a "short cut" which entailed
ready to load in!
our boat and bags are ready on the Sesan!
scaling steep mountains and literally bush-whacking our way up and down mountains with no trail whatsoever. We encountered an 80-100 foot high wild mango tree and saw numerous signs of animals along the river and up and down the slopes: Soukhon actually caught a flying lizard, Kam-La stepped on a lizard while fishing in the river and we espied 2 trees on opposite sides of the river seemingly filled with hornbills that were flying back and forth. We also found the tracks, claw-marks or dung of: Asian golden cat, clouded leopard, leopard, Sambar deer, Malayan Sun Bear, Black bear, and civet cat.
Basically, this 3-night section of the trip wiped me out; I was finished, and I had a feeling I would not be up for another 4 or 5 nights of it north of the grasslands in even wilder country in an attempt to summit Haling Halang. But there was more to it than that.
Before the start of this journey we spent one night in Kam-La's village because I wanted to learn more about the myths and legends of Veal Thom and Haling Halang (HH). HH is apparently an extremely powerful spirit mountain and it is
of Kam-La's village, on the north bank of the Sesan, where we had to spill the blood of a sacrificed chicken in order to proceed to Haling Halang
almost never visited by the Brao people of Tom Phoun Rueng Toch village, located on the northern bank of the Sesan River (we later learned from the people of Kalem village -a couple of hours downriver going toward Voen Sai- that in order to ask a favor of the spirits of HH one must offer a human sacrifice). It is also said that so great is its power that HH will not burn and that airplanes cannot fly over it. In order to attempt this trek, we had to sacrifice one chicken, spilling its blood on a local spirit place, and share one jug of rice wine (see pic). On the 2nd night of our trek on the Tok Mok, I was seized by sleep paralysis, being half awake, when, I swear, I kind of large dog (which I somehow identified as a forest spirit) walked over to my hammock, breathed heavily in my ear, and asked me "why do you want to go to the Green Corridor?" The next morning, I told Soukhon about the dream, and he said that he also had a strange dream that night -he was driving his scooter and someone drove up alongside him
rice wine drinking
they didn't have to twist my arm (I am on the left)
in a car, accelerated, pulled up directly in front of him, and caused him to stop/crash. We were later told, back in the safety of Ban Lung, that Mr. Noi dreamt that he ordered a coffin that night. When Noi and Kam-La heard of our dreams they were spooked, and Noi spoke to the spirits of the forest.
By the time we arrived at Veal Thom, the Brao guides were getting nervous, and I was physically spent. We decided that instead we would spend 3 nights in Veal Thom (VT), making a day trip to the Gan-Yu River (whose watershed is HH), a stretch of forest and river that no tourist has ever visited. Noi and Kam-La were elated, and both Richard and I felt good about this decision; maybe we didn't need to climb HH and have one foot in Laos and the other in Cambodia, maybe it should never be climbed, maybe sacred mountains should be off-limits.
The first night up in VT was a full moon, so we we had little chance of seeing any wildlife on our night safari because animals would be able to see us coming. Nonetheless, we spotted a Sambar deer
the mighty Tok Mok
3 days on this river kicked our asses (at least mine)
and her baby, and she barked (loudly) 3 times at us to warn us off, a sound that echoed throughout the savanna. We camped in a poachers camp close to the "green corridor" and because we were nearer to the northern forests we heard gibbons singing loud and clear every morning there.
We woke up early the next morning and made our way to the Green Corridor. The entrance to it is a low hole that enters into an area of ancient bamboo forests, a species which is at least 8 inches in diameter. Immediately one feels that he is in a darker, quieter place, though, quite unfortunately, we found several poacher camps in just 7 hours of trekking. After crossing and wading several streams, and seeing several Kingfishers (which we also saw on both the Sesan and the Tok Mok) we finally arrived at the Gan-Yu, terra incognita
! Here we found more Asian Golden Cat paw prints, as well as Malayan Sun Bear. We stopped for a swim and Noi jumped in the river with his net and within 20 minutes he had over a dozen medium-sized, delicious fish which we ate wrapped in local edible leaves.
Soukhon (in ranger suit) the dapper Mr. Su (behind him), Richard (Center), "Magic Man" Mr. Noi (bottom right), the sensational Kam-La (upper right
Had we camped out there and made another push the following day, I believe we could have reached the base of HH, and maybe we could have just touched it, bowed to it, and turned back. Noi and Kam-La were afraid that the spirits of HH would follow them back to their village and cause trouble. It was with a touch of sadness, for me, that we turned around and went back to VT, when we were just 6 or 7 KM from the Laotion border.
But one thing is for sure -there is still wildlife, and probably a lot of it- in the Green Corridor. Soukhon was amazed to find signs of elephant an an area close to the grasslands where they were not previously thought to be living. Noi, who was born and raised in the wilderness about 12km east of the grasslands in what is today still an unexplored region, speculated that the footprints and bamboo devastation that we saw was done last summer during the rainy season. Villagers rumor that Vietnamese poachers are active in the Gan-Yu and HH area, making either an incredible 7-8 day journey through totally forgotten wilderness canyons, or instead
Tok Mok waterfall
one of many waterfalls on this river, which has numerous deep pools for tropical swimming
coming down from Attupeu in Laos. Or maybe both. Who knows?
Anyone who treks to the Veal Thom Grasslands and beholds the awesome vistas will tell you that Virachey National Park is a national treasure, and that it must be treated as such. However, that's not how things seem to be playing out. Instead, mining companies have exploration rights over much of this 3,325 sq. km park. We saw signs of mining exploration, and while it's not doing much damage right now (I wouldn't have even noticed it had Soukhon not stopped to point it out), if they do indeed find abundant minerals or whatever up in there, the roads that would be built and the ensuing digger operations, along with the giant vehicles and the poachers who will use the new roads at night, will spell the death of the park. I've heard rumors (from a guy who works from Conservation International) that exploration results were in fact disappointing, and in fact, no roads will be built; I've also heard the opposite (from a local NGO worker) that in fact results were promising, but that disagreements about who is going to fund the operations and who gets to
Noi and Kam-La
these skilled Brao woodsmen could survive in the forest armed with just their bush knives
keep what percent of the cut, and so forth, are what's really holding it up.
If you're thinking of trekking to Veal Thom, you'll still see it in all its glory for 2011, and probably 2012 as well, and I strongly urge you to visit Virachey National Park, and take the extra couple of days to visit the Veal Thom Grasslands, and when you're up there, ask your guide which mountain is Haling Halang, and have him ask the indigenous guide what he knows about it. Watch his face carefully as he explains it NEW CONTACT INFO FOR VIRACHEY NP HERE
For some more updated info, here is an interview that I did
with the environmental Web site Mongabay.com about my book and about the current status of Virachey NP.
I also have a new Web site called Save Virachey
which I am using to help raise funds for a January 2014 camera-trapping expedition on Haling-Halang Mountain. I want to use photographic evidence derived from motion-triggered camera to prove that tigers and rhinos still exist inside Virachey, and then I want to use these images to compel wildlife conservation groups and the Ministry of Education to take a renewed interest in the park.
And for those who
Twice in a lifetime!
The Veal Thom Grasslands, where would spend the next 3 nights
want to trek in Ratanakiri but do not wish to enter the national park, I can wholeheartedly recommend my multi-linguistic (English, Khmer, Lao, Brao, Tampuan, Kreung, and others) Do Yok
In Ban Lung I stayed, as usual, in the stylish Tree Tops Ecolodge
and while I was in town I had a nice lunch at the exquisite Norden House
down by the Yeak Loam Lake. And in Phnom Penh I stayed at the comfortable and conveniently located Bright Lotus Guest House
down by the river.
One last thing -if you have the time, I recommend breaking up the journey from Phnom Penh to Ban Lung with a night in Kratie, and I also recommend taking the bus as opposed to the super-crowded (no matter what they tell you and regardless if you pay for VIP 'leg room'
mini-van. Forget the mini-van, take the bus.
And here are some videos that I took in the park, which I just recently uploaded to YouTube: Preparing fish to cook on the Gan-Yu River, north of the Veal Thom Grasslands Butterflies and bees eating up those fish guts Partial Veal Thom panorama taken from the holy Krang Mountain, in the grasslands
I am also working on a book about my travels in Virachey NP. I hope to have it finished in February (after my upcoming trip there) and on sale on Amazon.com in
March. The book will be titled Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor
and you can read a short preview of it as well as browse some additional photos and captions here on my new companion blog for the book
And as a final note, I now have a book available on Amazon.com
that describes my three treks into Virachey along with my trip to Mondulkiri province. The Taipei Times
reviewed the book, and you can read that review here
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