Phnom Kulen; Porpel Village to Kbal Spean overnight Bike Ride. Part 1

Proposed Cycle Ride

Actually it wasn’t a cycle trip but it’s going to make a great one! We’ll start at Preah Ang Thom by the reclining Buddha, then cycle to Porpel Village, the local community we’d like to coopt with to look after our guests. The villagers will receive a conservation linked income from the services they provide. From Porpel a 10km cycle through mixed evergreen forest and cleared chamkar to the campsite beside the stream in open dry deciduous forest.

A hike up the escarpment to the plateau behind the camp with views to the West to catch the late afternoon sun over the wooded valley below then a blissful bathe in the stream followed by dinner brought by ox cart and cooked on a camp fire. Tents and cots will make this a comfortable adventure in the meantime its hammocks under the stars or a tarpaulin if it rains. On day 2 back on the bikes along the logging trail that comes out beside the MoE station at Kbal Spean for a pick up and transport back to Siem Reap. Tony and I have got to trial that section when we come back in 3 weeks.

Actual Hike

We were going to be lost in the forest for 4 days 50km from the nearest coffee machine so Manus and I had breakfast at Sister Srey Cafe near the Psa Cha in Siem Reap. Double latte and fruit pancake, my last meal before nearly a week of energy replacement with rice as opposed to eating for pleasure.

Pradark felt like the frontier town to the wild Northern lands. A cross roads for the bus loads of tourists on route to Banteay Srei and wild adventuring types like Alistair – the bat man, Tony – the facilitator and me. 3 dirt bikes in convoy, Tony and Alistair’s laden with useful things that they’d just bought from Pradark, like food. Mine with essentials like beer, whisky and coffee.

We stopped to meet the head ranger at the Kulen National Park check point then up the escarpment with views of the once forested valley between Kbal Spean and Phnom Kulen where a Chinese company has permission for a botanical garden.

The straight track into Kulen is shaded by forest all the way though you can sense in places only by a thin corridor of trees. At Preah Ang Thom where Cambodia’s largest Buddha reclines we picked up lunch and 1 of our guides, who changed his shirt, slung an ancient AK47 over his shoulder (which Alistair told me worked) and transformed himself into a Ministry of Environment (MoE) ranger.

Tony my future coworker at Indochine Exploration loading the ox cart at Porpel Village

Tony my future coworker at Indochine Exploration loading the ox cart at Porpel Village

Now we needed the dirt bikes along the sandy rutted path 5km through some thick forest to Porpel, a small village of about 30 families and some rough planked houses with litter strewn yards and smiling villagers. When the national park was created .75 hectares of chamkar or forest allocation was awarded to each family but with no one to check there are many more and bigger chamkars than there are families. What with high population growth and inward migration logging is the nail in the forest’s coffin.

Our group consisted of taciturn Tony, who’s going to work for me, cheeky Chomran, accommodating Alistair, our MoE ranger with the AK47, who was always a little too close behind and the local guide with a fluffy hairstyle.

An amiable teenager who was always hitching up his trousers and the village urchin, likeable but out of control, together they were responsible for the powerful pair of cattle that pulled the oxcart.

Chomran, the ranger from Porpel preparing lunch in the forest

Chomran, the ranger from Porpel preparing lunch in the forest

The route followed a logging trail half way to Kbal Spean. 10km from Porpel we emerged out of the dense evergreen bush into a valley of open dry diteropcarp woodland now shorn of leaves as these deciduous trees are dormant during the dry season.

The ox cart arrived and we set up camp, slinging our hammocks between the trees and boiling water to drink. Multi tasking Chomran was also the cook and served up a mean pot of rice with dried strips of fish, yum but by far the best feature of our camp was the stream with recent rain feeding running into the rocky pools. Cold after the humidity but leaving you with a wonderful feeling of being clean albeit briefly until you do something and sweat again.

We walked 18km (according to Alistair’s GPS) the next day but it felt like 30, the same again tomorrow if my boots don’t fall apart.

Oxcart arriving at the campsite

Oxcart arriving at the campsite

Tonight’s night walk spotted a marble cat snake hung like a bootlace around a bush and small fish and a tiny crayfish visible in the torch light in our bathing pool. Alistair, Tony and Chomran walked on to check the trees where we’d seen the civets the night before and spotted a flying squirrel in their beam. It made an escape by launching into the space between the trees where it was spotted but didn’t make it so quick as a flash Chomran had it pinned for Tony to catch with his camera. The photos were clear and it looked like a Red-cheeked Flying squirrel, which hasn’t been recorded in Cambodia so a significant first for the Kulen project survey.

Our bathing stream beside the campsite

Our bathing stream beside the campsite

Towering silk cotton trees with buttress roots folded like flaps of skin, corrugated Sra Laos trees, a Bengal Monitor Lizard, Rosy-cheeked Parakeets and a variable squirrel missing it’s arms so we set up a camera trap to check if anything came back to finish the job (they did, the next day it was all gone). A Common Palm Civet, Alistair said – we’d seen them in the trees next to the kill the night before.

Rising 50 meters above the rest of Kulen was the plateau of Phnom Ganja, which we reached by way of a spooky escarpment. Magical, mysterious, the oldest Angkorian civilization lost to legend in the forest, not sure if we’d stumble across a temple in this un-surveyed corner of Kulen, or maybe a mine. We climbed up rocky escarpments fighting our way through thickets of bamboo to riverines, cleft canyons of tangled vines and swarms of mosquitos in the heavy humid air. Greater Hornbill, Variable Squirrels – this time with a white band at the base of their tail proving just how variable they can be.

Forest flower

Forest flower

Joints aching, heavy feet and disintegrating shoes held together by black masking tape. Mr Chomran showed how he got his shoulder muscles hacking through the undergrowth with a machete.

Hunters had been to the places that looked right for camera traps. We found snares that would lift an animal off the ground with a coil of rope tied to a bent sapling and arrows made from slim straight pieces of wood with plastic feathers.

Fronds of vegetation caught the light filtering through the canopy, reflecting in the mosquito pool at the base of the cliff.

Alistair setting a camera trap

Alistair setting a camera trap

Snare like vines tugged at our ankles and broad green leaves deposited bighting red ants on my neck and down my back, sweat drenched from the trapped humidity. Emerging from the trees a blissful cool enveloped us at the edge of the escarpment, looking over a wonderful forested valley, the logging erased by the hazy distance.

We tallied Indian Giant Flying Squirrel, Particoloured Flying Squirrel or Red-cheeked (both new to Cambodia), Common Palm Civet, Lesser Mouse Deer, Asian Barred Owlet and Marble Cat Snake on our night walks. In day light we saw many birds; spectacular Greater Hornbills, Rosy-cheeked Parakeets were always with us, Crested Hill Mynahs, the ones you see in Siem Reap cages, Crested-serpent Eagles to name a few of the more obvious. And mammals; Black Giant Squirrel about the size of a fox but up a tree and variable squirrels.

A posed hiking shot

A posed hiking shot

We also saw a Bengal Monitor Lizard stuck to a tree trunk. The wildlife, the forest, the views from the escarpment, camping and biking between them, it should be a hit if we can tell the right people.

View of Northern Kulen Valley from Phnom Ganja

View of Northern Kulen Valley from Phnom Ganja

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