Virachey National Park: up in terra incognita

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March 16th 2012
Published: March 16th 2012
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Veal Thom Grasslands, Virachey NPVeal Thom Grasslands, Virachey NPVeal Thom Grasslands, Virachey NP

I converted this to black and white later on in order to fit the formatting of my book
This blog entry is about my 3rd trip to Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia. I spent 8 days trekking in the park this time in an attempt to reach the sacred Haling-Halang Mountain massif that straddles the border of Cambodia and Laos. Problems arose even before I left Taiwan when the guide who I have trekked with for the previous two years went down with malaria. This time an Kreung highlander by the name of Kuen brought me into the park. Unfortunately, he wasn't very interested in showing me signs of wildlife (such as scratch marks on trees, dung droppings, etc), and was much more interested in reading a book about how to get rich. Nevertheless, we penetrated the forests north of the Veal Thom Grasslands much farther than we did in 2011, tracing the Gan-Yu river to within less than 8 kilometers of the Laos border in totally unexplored country. The upper Gan-Yu River (which flows out of Haling-Halang) is truly terra incognita, and the last 6 or 7 kilometers of it remains so for the next explorer who wants to push further.


I now have a book about my treks in Virachey available, titled
Kam VonKam VonKam Von

our Kreung minority porter, Mr. Kam Von, who is also a "magic man." He is from Piang Village along the Sesan River
Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journey to the Green Corridor and also availabe HERE on And here is an interview that I recently did with the environmental Web site about my book and about the current status of Virachey NP.

Virachey NP -and every single other national park or "protected area" in Cambodia- is in big, big trouble as the Cambodian government, which is now basically in 'liquidation mode,' is selling the country to private developers, many from China. There seems to be no end to the depressing news coming out of the Kingdom.

And have a look at yet another new blog I have, titled Save Virachey , which I am using to raise funds for a camera-trapping expedition to Haling-Halang in January 2014.

Anyway, rather than focus on sad news about ecological destruction in Cambodia, let me provide a preview here. This is the Introduction from my book:

Few people have ever heard of, let alone seen, the sacred Haling-Halang mountains on the Cambodian side of the border with Laos in Ratanakiri province. American pilots might have gazed at them as they dropped cluster bombs from the air over various arteries of the Ho Chi Minh Trail on their way back to Thailand, though according to the local Brao people, they would have missed these two mountains. Fire cannot burn them, and airplanes cannot fly
biological frontierbiological frontierbiological frontier

where the grasslands rise up out of the jungle
over them, a “magic man” from a village near the Sesan River once told me. But those war pilots must have had one hell of a view. To this day, a carpet of jungle ripples out from a chain of mountains that separate Laos and Cambodia, a vast tropical wilderness that is home to some of the most amazing –and endangered- wildlife on Earth. In the center of the jungle on the Cambodian side is a large golden clearing, a rolling plateau of savanna hills known as the Veal Thom Grasslands, an area so expansive that it takes two days to walk its perimeter. As those pilots dropped their payloads on hidden Viet Cong trails, sub-canopy routes that the Americans could have only been guessing at, I imagine they must have marveled at what lay below them: an endless tapestry of tree crowns bisected by brown rivers, rugged mountains, and the inexplicable grasslands appearing like an amber Serengeti in the dark, elephantine forest.

I first had the idea to go trekking in this place –which is known today as Virachey National Park- when flipping through a Lonely Planet guidebook in search jungles, wildlife and animists. The park’s location wedged
timeless views from Veal Thomtimeless views from Veal Thomtimeless views from Veal Thom

up in the grasslands
up in the extreme northeast of Cambodia had cast a spell on me. I dreamed of a forgotten chunk of the Annamite Range buffeted by wild terrain on both the Laos and Vietnam sides of the border, a world of tree fairies and mountain spirits hiding out in a region also known as the “Dragon’s Tail.” But it was, more than anything, the suggestion in the guidebook that the park was so vast, remote and still largely unexplored that Javan rhinoceros were rumored to be living in the lost canyons deep inside the forest. Could there really be a place so wild and forgotten that “extinct” or critically endangered species –remnant populations which once roamed the breadth of Indochina- still clung to existence there? However, it wasn’t that I was particularly interested in rhinos; I was captivated by the notion that there was a secret mountainous landscape far enough away from civilization where the rare fauna of Southeast Asia was holding on, a place where at the first light of dawn a chorus of gibbon calls rang out over the din of unknown rivers and hidden waterfalls, where the calls of Great hornbills echoed through the rosy morning air currents,
mountain of my dreamsmountain of my dreamsmountain of my dreams

Haling-Halang remains a mystery
and where elusive species such as the Indochinese tiger, clouded leopard...and Javan rhinoceros, cautiously bent down at unnamed streams for a morning drink, carefully scanning the brush for signs of danger. This would be a landscape not seen –outside of a handful of poachers and rangers- by human eyes in decades.

Much later I learned that the guy who wrote about the Javan rhinoshad taken a peek around the national park office in Ban Lung, provincial capital of Ratanakiri province and gateway to Virachey, but had never actually set foot inside the 3,325-square kilometer park, the nation’s largest. However, even had I known that when I first contemplated visiting the place it wouldn’t have deterred me; the author must have based it on something, I would have reasoned, and that probably would have been about all that was necessary to get me to follow through on a trek. I had no idea, at the time when I pored over that small boxed-in section of the guidebook, that my first trip to Virachey would commence a long-term obsession and engagement with the people, the wildlife and the terrain of what I believe to be the most stunning wilderness area in

Su (left) didn't join us this time, and neither did Kam-La (center); Kuen (right) was, unfortunately, my guide this time around
all of Southeast Asia. But I knew deep down that this was exactly what I needed.

I was a new father at the time and I thought I might have some difficulty in selling the idea of a 4-week solo trip to Cambodia to my wife, who would have to stay home in Taiwan and take care of our (then) eleven-month old son. To my surprise, she immediately agreed to it, no doubt in large part due to Taiwanese practicality; if a “research trip” could help me finish my PhD faster, then it needed to be done. My father in-law astonished me with the same answer (and it was he and his wife who would be helping to look after my wife and baby at their home while I was away). Perhaps the reason I was amazed by their responses was that this trip was, in actuality, mostly about adventure and only partly about research; “field work” was a pretext for penetrating a mysterious jungle surrounded by indigenous tribes who still practiced animism.

Which leads me to my research, or the pretext. When I enrolled in the PhD program at Tamkang University’s Department of English in
Piang Villagers on the Sesan RiverPiang Villagers on the Sesan RiverPiang Villagers on the Sesan River

River life on the Sesan
Taipei I did so with the idea that, since many PhD-level courses focused on Ecocriticism, I could concoct an excuse to go out and do some original field work with indigenous people who still maintained their traditional beliefs. I would then transpose these animistic cultures with modern Ecocritical theories, such as bioregionalism, to see if there was any common ground, which of course I thought there would be (and there was), which would then enable me to label some Southeast Asian tribe the “the original bioregionalists,” or something like that. And in the process, I would get to do some multi-day treks in wilderness areas, swim in secluded rivers, investigate wildlife, and hang out with tribal elders –everything a PhD program should entail (despite the fact that my major would be in English Literature, not Anthropology or Zoology).

Let me also state clearly here in the Introduction that I am not a professional anthropologist or scientist and that this book is written not in an academic style. I am not an authority on indigenous people, endangered species, history, or geology, but I have a great love of all of those, I read voraciously on these topics whenever I can,
Animist charmAnimist charmAnimist charm

an animist drinking vessel put together to implore the spirits to cure a sick man
and I do my best in this book to relate what I know.

My obsession with environmental issues in Southeast Asia began one summer –maybe 2004- when it seemed like every other day Yahoo! News was reporting about forest fires and orangutan deaths in Sumatra and Borneo. The deaths and the depressing statistics about extinctions were staggering, but it was the idea that these ancient rain forest landscapes were being devoured by relentless “development” that really grated with me. Couldn’t these governments realize that their jungles and wildlife were national treasures that should be conserved at all costs? The ecocide transpiring all over Southeast Asia began to consume more and more of my thinking time, and continues to do so till this day. Images of tropical forests burning up to make way for palm oil and rubber plantations began playing out in my mind more and more often. I envisioned a relentless rolling-back of a hard forest edge, peeling back all the way to the mountains where it was too steep or expensive to push agriculture any further. That seems to be essentially what has happened, and what is still happening in places like Indonesia and Papua
new waterfallnew waterfallnew waterfall

I was the first 'barang' or white man to ever behold this small but pretty falls. The guides had never even been this deep in the jungle before.
New Guinea where there is still any lowland forest remaining, and even in places like Cambodia where, due to decades of war and instability, large swaths of the country still remain forested. And up in the mountains where the plantations couldn’t go, way back among the limestone crags and deep river valleys in the back, back woods -that’s where the wildlife was, by default, whatever was left of it.

Before my first trip to Virachey in January 2010 I had made some forays into what I like to the call “the green archipelago” of national parks that can be found stretching from northern Myanmar all the way down Java -remnant patches of ancient forests that, for one reason or another, have survived the onslaught of logging, agriculture and development that has transformed most of the region. I had visited Kaeng Krachan, Khao Sok, Sri Phang Nga and Khao Phnom Bencha national parks in Thailand, Mount Kinabalu National Park in Sabah, and Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, as well as other parks and protected areas in the region. I always loved getting hot and sweaty on these treks and ending the day with a swim in a cool river
bamboo shot glassbamboo shot glassbamboo shot glass

Johnny Walker (Red) in the jungle!
and a cold beer in the shade of a restaurant, then hopping on my rented motorbike and feeling the warm tropical air dry me off on my way back to my guesthouse. After one or two trips to the forested interiors of Southeast Asia, I found myself completely disinterested in beaches, temples and cities. And if I was enchanted by these forests and their waterfalls and caves and insects, I was utterly hypnotized by their most vocal inhabitant –the gibbon.

Morning gibbon serenades –I can’t think of a more eerie, haunting, and beautifully exotic sound I have ever heard in all my life (although the morning Call to Prayer comes close). To me, gibbon calls represent a creative flourish in natural evolution, as do (as species) orangutans, tigers, rhinos, elephants, and many other wild creatures. These animals evolved out of the incredibly diverse and luxuriant landscapes that are being chewed up by human economic activities and converted into monoculture plantations –agricultural areas that will produce crops which will be converted into commercial products that will be sold, for the most part, to faraway lands and foreign people who have never heard of the Siamang gibbon, let alone had the
thrice in a lifetime!thrice in a lifetime!thrice in a lifetime!

landscape of my dreams!
pleasure of listening to its euphoric hooting frenzy. Only a magical, enchanted landscape could produce creatures like the Annamite Mountains’ Douc langur, the Cardamom Mountains’ Pileated gibbon, and Borneo’s (and Sumatra’s) orangutans.

But isn’t this a hopelessly romantic vision that is totally out of touch with present realities that are all about globalization, capitalism, progress and development? Well, if clinging to some hopelessly ideal notion defines romanticism in this context, then my visions of ecological harmony are nowhere near as romantic as those of capitalist-fueled globalization. What is the point, the goal, or the purpose of globalization? If one reads the statements put out by the World Bank, the UN, ASEAN, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other powerful institutions active in Asia one reads of plans for every man, woman and child to be lifted out of “poverty” and to begin living a life, after “hard work,” where their consumption habits are on par with those of the citizens of Japan and the United States. With the help of globalization, everyone will be well-educated and live a middle class life of relative luxury with a car in the driveway, a nice air-conditioned home, an iPad and a son
Sambar deer (before)Sambar deer (before)Sambar deer (before)

the skeletal remains of a Sambar deer, up in the grasslands
and daughter studying in the capital city or perhaps even in the UK or USA. This vision of globalization (which is based largely on greed and exploitation) is so far out of touch with cultural and ecological realities that calling it "romantic" is a gross misnomer; in fact, it is purely utopian.

Tempted as I am to do so, I am not going to get into that stuff just yet. Because right now I want to tell you about the landscape of my dreams and the people who helped take me there. This is a story about a love of geography and the natural world, about an insatiable curiosity that took over my life, and a desperate quest to glimpse a lost world before it disappeared in a cloud of chainsaw and bulldozer smoke. My wife listened to excuses about why I had to leave, my son missed his Dad, and my colleagues and professors shook their heads when I told them about this place way up in northeastern Cambodia that I just had to go to. Every time I returned, however, they were eager for the story, and I was always eager for something, too –to go back
unknown terrrainunknown terrrainunknown terrrain

Upper Gan-Yu River
just one more time.

You can read the Taipei Times review of my book here .


In The Soul of the Rhino (2008), Nepali rhinoceros expert Hemanta Mishra writes, “They (Javan rhinos) have disappeared from Thailand, and their status is unknown in Laos and Cambodia, which still have some pristine tropical rain forest suitable for rhinos. As most of Cambodia is heavy with land mines from the Khmer Rouge, extensive ground surveys to confirm sightings in that country have not been possible” (emphasis mine, p. 31). Mishra also notes that a group of 10-15 rhinos had been discovered Vietnam’s Cat Loc Nature Reserve. However, on May 10th, 2010, a rhino was found butchered in Vietnam’s Cat Tien National Park, of which Cat Loc is part of. Since no rhino signs or sightings had been made in years, experts fear that the poached rhino found in 2010 may have been the last one in the region, leaving the population of 50 or so individuals in Ujung Kulon NP in Java with the distinction of being the last breeding group –and possibly last population at all- on Earth:

Bioregionalism can be defined
unfortunate birdunfortunate birdunfortunate bird

nobody needed to eat this thing. it was captured very opportunistically and was later cooked up
as ecosystem-based living, or making a living within the natural geographical and biological resources available within a given watershed or naturally-demarcated area (as opposed arbitrary lines drawn up my governments: consider the 3,000-mile straight line that divides the USA and Canada, or square box states such as Colorado, Montana or North Dakota; these are political lines drawn up for convenience that ignore natural features such as mountain ranges, rivers, forest types, biotic zones –natural markers which native peoples throughout the world often used when establishing their territories. Furthermore, languages, cuisines, literature, artwork and many other cultural products emerged from the dynamics of life as found within given bioregions. For more on this see Kirkpatrick Sale’s Dwellers in the Land (1991), Judith Plant et al’s Home! A Bioregional Reader (1995), Michael Vincent McGinnis’ Bioregionalism (1999) and Tom Lynch’s Xerophilia (2008).

For more on the absurdity of supposed goals of globalization and its parallels with utopianism, see Richard Evanoff’s Bioregionalism and Global Ethics: A Transactional Approach to Achieving Ecological Sustainability, Social Justice, and Human Well-Being. Routledge, 2011.

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17


more terra incognitamore terra incognita
more terra incognita

The Yak Yeuk Grasslands -seen in the distance- have NEVER been surveyed by scientists or visited by tourists. 2 ranger patrols visited this place when the World Bank sponsored the park between 2004-2008. The rangers say that Yak Yeuk is even more beautiful than Veal Thom -a stupefying compliment
Phnom PenhPhnom Penh
Phnom Penh

my favorite city in the world

4th May 2012

forest protection in Cambodia
I read about you in Mongabay, so i came looking. My friend in Cambodia is working hard to protect forests, and I am sure you are aware that activists have been killed recently over forests in Cambodia. Would you be interested in connecting with tararith, my friend in Cambodia?
20th December 2013

The book
I lived in Ta Veng for almost a year in 1992/93, traveling daily up and down the SeSan river, and am accordingly really attached to the region. Is it possible to obtain a copy of your book? Amazon is sold out.
20th December 2013

The book
I lived in Ta Veng for almost a year in 1992/93, traveling daily up and down the SeSan river, and am accordingly really attached to the region. Is it possible to obtain a copy of your book? Amazon is sold out.

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