Off the Beaten Path in Cambodia

About Chi Pat
Chi Pat refers to the Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) project in Chi Pat village, located amidst the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Started in 2007 by the Wildlife Alliance, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization supporting conservation programs in Southeast Asia, CBET aims to protect the Cardamom rainforest and provide inhabitants income-generating opportunities by transforming former loggers and wildlife poachers into tour guides, guest house owners, and taxi drivers. CBET offers travelers trekking, mountain-biking, kayaking, and camping expeditions through the jungle, as well as opportunities to stay at homestays in Chi Pat village.

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Chi Pat Village

Getting to Chi Pat
When you try to book a bus ticket to Chi Pat, don’t be surprised if the travel agent appears lost. Chi Pat has not yet become a mainstream tourist attraction, but not to worry, you can reach it by making a stop along the well-traveled route between Phnom Penh and Koh Kong. If you’re traveling from Phnom Penh, ask the bus driver to let you off in Anduong Tuek, a town about an hour before Koh Kong. From Anduong Tuek you can travel to Chi Pat by motorbike taxi or taxi boat (if you make a reservation in advance of your arrival, Chi Pat will even have a taxi waiting for you!).

The journey by motorbike is for the hardiest traveler. As your driver speeds through country dirt roads, you’ll pray that you don’t topple from running into one of the many sand or stone hazards. Adventure junkies, enjoy the ride! If a laidback excursion is more your pace, meander down the Preak Piphot River on a taxi boat. The boat ride takes twice as long as the motorbike ride (two hours as compared to 45 minutes), but it is a perfect opportunity to admire the surrounding scenery.

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House on the Preak Piphot River

Adventures in Chi Pat
Once you arrive in Chi Pat, you can choose from numerous activities including trekking, mountain-biking, kayaking, lobster fishing, and Khmer cooking classes. Activities range from a few hours to several days and from the more relaxed to the more adventurous. We opted for a four-day trek with three days of sleeping in the jungle and stops along the way to see a bat cave, ancient burial jars, and waterfalls.

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During the four days, we walked for more than 60 kilometers through jungle pathways and on country roads, swam in waterfalls, slept in hammocks, jumped off cliffs, ate freshly caught fish, and exercised on a veritable jungle gym. Our guide, Rath, amused us with his terrible English puns and childish pranks, most of which involved poking me with a stick from behind or making animal noises to scare me (Rath, if one day you wake up with a snake in your bed or shaving cream all over your face, you’ll know that I’ve come for my revenge!).

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Rath, our guide, with my friend Eunice

While we marched through the jungle, our cook, Pro, rode his motorcycle loaded with cooking supplies and foodstuffs to the campsites to prepare our meals. We couldn’t stop marveling watching him drive his small bike over waterfalls and through the jungle. At night, we competed with our guide and cook to see who could sing classics from their home country louder. I never imagined that I would belt out the songs from “Frozen,” “Rent,” or Queen in the jungle!

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Pro, our cook, riding his motorcycle through the jungle

On our return from the jungle, Pro cooked one last meal for us which he invited us to eat at his house. Eating in his yard, among his family members, the chickens, and the animals reminded me of my time spent living in rural Paraguay, as did squatting on the ground and washing my clothes by hand at the guesthouse later that afternoon.

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Rural Cambodian house
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Water buffalo in the fields

We spent our last night in Chi Pat enjoying cocktails/mocktails with Rath and Pro, and eating the most delicious Khmer meal I’ve had in Cambodia at Dantara Cooking School, located a few doors down from CBET (make sure to try the Amok and the Tom Yum soup with freshly caught lobsters).

Review of Chi Pat
My experience in Chi Pat was not at all what I anticipated in terms of the logistics, transportation, and adventure activities.

Regarding logistics, its website is well-organized, but CBET’s functioning is a little more haphazard in person. CBET asked my housing and meal preferences ahead of time via the online reservation system, and again when I checked in. Despite requesting vegetarian meals for the three of us, the only accommodation the center made was including scrambled eggs in their dinner buffet; the two vegetable dishes they served both contained meat. For this simple meal of rice and eggs they charged $3.50 a person, not an inconsiderable sum for a meal in Cambodia. I cannot imagine what they would have prepared if one of us had requested a vegan option! My misgivings about that first dinner in the village aside, our cook prepared several tasty vegetarian and pescatarian meals for us in the jungle. Payment was also a great source of irritation as the CBET office repeatedly tried charging me for my friend Michael’s activities, meals, and accommodation. That being said, revise and pay your bill the night before you check out, and eat meals outside of the CBET center and you will be fine.

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Pro cooking a tasty vegetarian meal for us while atop a waterfall
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Eating lunch in the jungle

Where CBET excelled in coordination was transportation. I was pleasantly surprised when CBET arranged to have a taxi boat pick me up at Anduong Tuek. I was even more impressed with its response when our return taxi boat couldn’t start due to engine problems. CBET assembled a caravan of motorbike taxis to ensure that all 14 passengers caught their buses to other destinations. The taxis dropped us off a small restaurant in Anduong Tuek with enough time to spare for lunch before our buses arrived.

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The view while waiting for the motorcycle taxis to arrive

In terms of its social mission, CBET has received a number of awards for its ecotourist activities. For this reason, I was understandably disappointed when I saw trash littered on the trails and near the campsites. I further disapproved of its distributing plastic water bottles to tourists for the jungle treks instead of filling reusable bottles with boiled or filtered water. If CBET aims to be truly environmentally sustainable, it should take more actions to clean up the forests it aims to protect and prevent the creation of further waste.

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Cambodian countryside

As for the adventure activities, active travelers accustomed to arduous treks such as those found in Peru and Nepal may not find the trekking offered by CBET to pose enough of a challenge. Notwithstanding the distance, our trek felt more like a long walk. We hiked for nearly six hours on both the first and second days, but for only two to three hours on the third and fourth days, ending the days’ activities by 12 PM and 11 AM, respectively. Of the four days, we only spent two hiking through the jungle; the other two we walked through the countryside. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the expedition. The days walking through the fields and past houses offered opportunities to observe rural Cambodian life and people. Swimming in waterfalls was a delight after hours of hiking in the heat and sun. It’s not often that a trek offers a daily opportunity to bathe in a stream!

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Walking through farms and the countryside
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Stream near our first campsite in which we swam and bathed

If you’re looking for technically challenging trails through remote wilderness, there are other destinations in Southeast Asia. However, if you’d like to experience the “real Cambodia,” strolling through farms, living with locals, playing with children, and chatting with villagers, then Chi Pat is the destination for you!

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Village children on the way to school
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Pro with his daughter

 

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