PURSAT PROVINCE is the fourth biggest province of Cambodia. Located in the western part of Cambodia, it borders Battambang Province to north, the Tonle Sap Lake and Kompong Chhnang Province to the east, Kompong Speu and Koh Kong Provinces to the south and Thailand to the west. Pursat offers access to both the Tonle Sap and the Cardamom Mountains. The name of Pursat refers to a type of tree.
Pursat is in Western Cambodia, the home of the Cardamom Mountains and some of the the world’s most god-forbidden roads that can make travel to some destinations bone-rattling in the dry season and impossible in the wet season. For the time being, Pursat receives few travelers and the two main attractions, the Cardamoms and the Tonle Sap require a little initiative on the tourist's part to visit. Pursat is predominantly accessible by the National Highway No 5 form Phnom Penh and Battambang. There is also an old slow train working between Phnom Penh and Battambang, which stops outside (2 kilometers) from Pursat.
Pursat province covers 12,692 square kilometers. The province consists of typical wet plain areas near the Tonle Sap Basin, with rice fields and other agricultural plantations. The Tonle Sap covers a big part in the province’s northeast area. Much of the province is occupied by the Cardamom Mountains, a green, forested mountain range in the southwestern part of the province, near to the border with Thailand. The highest elevation is the 1,813m high Phnom Aural in the Southeast corner of the country.
The population in Pursat Province is about 442,973 people or 3.1 percent of the country’s total population (2007, provincial government data), with 214,651 male and 228,342 female. The population density is only 35 people per square kilometer. Pursat's economy is dominated by fishing and rice and fruit agriculture in the north of the province near the Tonle Sap Basin. The harvesting of sandalwood oil, which fetches huge prices in Asia is another livelihood for locals but sandalwood trees are disappearing fast in Cambodia. Unfortunately the illegal logging of precious hardwoods and the poaching of endangered species give some people an additional income.
Pursat’s average temperature throughout the year is definitely lower than in other areas of Cambodia (except Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri Province). In Pursat cool season is from November to March with temperatures ranging from 18 to 28 degrees C. The hot season is from March to May with temperatures ranging from 22 to 34 degrees C. The rainy season is from May to October. Temperatures are 23 to 32 degrees C, with humidity up to 90 percent.
Koh Kong refers to the province, the town, and the island located in southwest Cambodia near the border of Thailand. According to “Cities of the World”“ ”The main attractions of the island are the white sand coves and lush tropical forests. Though the island has not been fully developed for tourist stays, day trips can be made for those interested in swimming, diving, or backpacking around the island. The village boarder town on the mainland offers several hotels, restaurants, and even a few night clubs for an active nightlife. [Source: Cities of the World, Gale Group Inc., 2002]
Roads: According to ASIRT: Roads were heavily damaged during the civil war. Unimproved roads are heavily potholed and generally lack pavement. Passage is difficult in the rainy season. Upgrades have been completed on several main roads. Landmines and unexploded ordnance were removed before construction began. Be alert for herds of freely wandering livestock, even on main roads. National Highway 5 (NR 5) is a two-lane, paved road in Western Cambodia. Upgrading was completed in January 2010. Improvements include wide paved shoulders. Links Phnom Penh with the Thai border. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2010]
Pursat Town (174 kilometers from Phnom Penh and 106 kilometers from Battambang) is the middle between the Tonle Sap and the Cardamom Mountains on the riverbanks of the Stung Pursat. There isn’t that much to do in this small town. Most tourists that come here are on their way to Battambang or Phnom Penh. For people just driving by, the impression of a boring ordinary town remains. The only tourist attraction in town is the marble workshops near the bridge on the main street. The precious marble stones originate from the Cardamoms. Marble objects are sold near the Lam Siv Eng Restaurant. About 5 kilometers from town is the tomb of Khleang Meung. Getting to Pursat Town: Buses and shared taxis are available from Battambang or Phnom Penh and other towns.
Pursat (also spelled Pouthisat) is located on the Pursat River in western Cambodia. The region around Pursat is one of Cambodia's largest rice-growing regions. Corn, potatoes, bananas, cotton, and vegetables are grown near Pursat. Distilling and trading in horns and hides have traditionally been important economic activities, . Pursat is home to about 26,500 people.
Accommodation in Pursat: 1) Phnom Pich Hotel: (tel: 052/951515) is about 200 meters North from the main bridge on the westbank of the river. The smart and modern hotel offers clean and very spacious room equipped with Western bathroom, satellite TV and air-con. The attached restaurant has a very good reputation in town. The prices range from US$6-15. 2) Vimean Sourkear Hotel: (tel: 052/951466) looks old and rundown outside but inside it has air conditioned rooms and hot water. It's probably the cheapest hotel with air-con in town. 3) New Tounsour Hotel: (tel: 052/951506) is long-running by friendly people and offers quite the same standard as the Phnom Pich Hotel. Clean and very spacious room equipped with Western bathroom, satellite TV and air-con. Don't wonder about the kitschy decor it's just a Khmer update. Prices from US$5-10.
The next two places have similar good locations, close to the river and market: 4) Thmar Keo Guesthouse has is a nice outdoor terrace here. The best bet is the fan room with a Western bath and single bed for US$ 5. An air conditioned room goes for US$ 10. Hotel T'mei, Next to the Hotel Vimean Sourkey, was still under construction in the late 2000s. Looks like it will be the best spot in town when it's finished.
Two places near each other and just off National Highway No 5: 5) Hotel Orchidee is a A very friendly place run by a mother-daughter team. There is a common living room, TV area on the second floor that has some nice Khmer artwork on display. Rooms with a Western bath, h./w shower and two beds go for US$ 7 with fan, and US$ 10 for turning on the a./c. 6) Hotel Than Sour is probably a step up from the Orchidee, and is a friendly place as well. Nice rooms with TV, Western bath and fan go for US$ 5, a/c for US$ 10.
Tonle Sap from Pursat: Pursat province offers a magnificent opportunity to see one of the larger and markedly less touristy floating villages without a significant investment in time or money. In fact, there are a number of floating villages in the province only accessible from the lake, Peach Kantil, Kbal Taol, and Prek Kr, but you can only see Kompong Luong for the cost of the day-rate for a moto ($6-8) and the cost for a boat ride once you get there. See Tonle Sap
Central Cardamom Mountains from Pursat: Pursat offers a relatively easy way to the Cardamom Mountains. Accessing the central Cardamoms from Pursat is not too difficult as there is a road from Pursat to Veal Veng, a small village between the Mt. Samkos and Mt. Aural Wildlife Sanctuaries. There's no organized transport from Pursat to this place, but if you ask around you should eventually get satisfactory results. There is a road from Koh Kong to Pailin, which cuts through the Cardamom Mountains on the western edge of Pursat province.
CARDAMOM MOUNTAINS(near the Thai border in southwest Cambodia) are named after the sweet spice that grows along the mountain’s slopes. It is home to lovely waterfalls, moss-covered rocks, wild orchids, tigers, clouded leopards, pileated gibbons, sun bears, Siamese crocodiles, giant blue-winged butterflies and other rare animals. Rain forests cover more than three million hectares and are in remarkably pristine conditions.
The Cardamom Mountains of Koh Kong and Pursat provinces are said to be the most pristine wilderness area remaining in Southeast Asia. The western edge of the Cardamom region abuts the Thai border, while the easternmost part ends about sixty miles northwest of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The region's area is 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares). The highest point in the range (and in Cambodia) is Mount Aural, at 1,813 meters (5,946 feet). There are five main rivers that run through the Cardamoms, creating dozens of waterfalls. About 25,000 people live in this region, some of whom are ethnic minorities, such as the Porr.
Khmer Rouge guerrillas retreated to the Cardamoms after losing power in 1979, and for the next twenty years, no one wanted to enter that area for fear of the KR and the mines they placed in it. As a result, the region remained untouched and undeveloped. Thousands of Cambodians left the country before and during the KR holocaust by walking over the Cardamoms into refugee camps in Thailand.Today, the Cardamom Mountains region is the largest wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia, preserving a remarkable number of species that are endangered (and in some cases extinct) elsewhere in the world. However, without proper conservation and protection, this area and its inhabitants are now at the mercy of logging interests, as well as poachers.
Nick Boulos wrote in the Washington Post, “Until recently, the Cardamom Mountains were simply off-limits. War raged in these quiet emerald peaks, named for the heady spice that grows here, until the mid-1990s. The area was the last stronghold of Khmer Rouge rebels who retreated here after the 1979 collapse of Pol Pot’s brutal regime. For more than a decade, bloody battles continued to break out between the guerrillas and local villagers. When the guns finally fell silent, the locals had lost everything. Forced to exploit their natural resources to survive, they hunted wildlife and destroyed the forests. But despite their dark past and a back story worthy of the Hollywood treatment, the Cardamoms remain a place of astounding beauty. And with peace has come tourism.[Source: Nick Boulos, Washington Post, August 10, 2012]
“With the help of the Wildlife Alliance — an American nonprofit organization that works alongside national governments to promote conservation and alleviate poverty in Southeast Asia — the communities here have reclaimed their destiny. Landmines have been cleared, former battlefields have become prime trekking territory, and the men who once fought the rebels now lead guided walks along deserted trails. The women, meanwhile, have opened their homes as guesthouses, with all in the community benefiting from the profits.”
Today, the rainforests are threatened mostly by land concessions for monoculture plantations. At one point the Cambodian government announced it would not be granting any new economic land concessions—which have cut out swathes of forest for plantation even in protected areas—but since then has announced several concessions.
Flora and Fauna in the Cardamom Mountains
The Cardamom Mountains are rich in wildlife and contain some of the best rainforest remaining in Southeast Asia. The French used to hunt for rhinoceros and black leopards here. More than 250 bird species have been counted and the largest population of Asian elephants in Cambodia, numbering about a hundred individuals, roams the forest. A survey of the area in the early 2000s revealed seven new species of amphibians, perhaps one new snake species, several new species of small mammal and as many as 800 new insect species.
One reason that the forests are still so alive is that the Khmer Rouge had their last stronghold here. They planted so many mines that loggers and settlers have been reluctant to move in. This is changing however. Already squatters have moved in and timber has been harvested in places where mines have been removed.
Despite the minimal area under observation the survey identified 30 large mammal species, 30 small mammal species, more than 450 birds, 64 reptiles, 30 amphibians, and many other plants and insects. To name just a few of the animals indigenous to this area would include elephants, tigers, clouded leopards and a variety of other mammals such as the Malaysian sun bear, pleated gibbons, and Siamese crocodiles all of which are high on the endangered species list and the only significant population thought to exist anywhere.
In 2000, Fauna and Flora International, Conservation International, and the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Protection Programme conducted a joint survey that covered only a small part of the vast expanse of unexplored land. The Cardamom Mountains are now known to contain almost all the country's known mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. This is partly due to the very high diversity of habitats, some of which occur nowhere else in Cambodia, such as large expanses of fire-regulated ferns, upper montane forest, high elevation marshes and blackwater rivers.
The Cardamom Mountain Wildlife Sanctuaries Project—a joint venture of Fauna & Flora International and Cambodia's Ministry of Environment— aims to ensure the long-term conservation of a landscape of global importance and its biodiversity while reducing poverty and ensuring essential national development. The focus is to establish and maintain management systems in two protected areas in south-west Cambodia: Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary and Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary.
Wildlife Sanctuaries in the Cardamoms
There are two wildlife sanctuaries in the Cardamoms, both of which were decreed by King Norodom Sihanouk in 1993 solely on the basis of aerial photographs. Mt. Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary is in the western part of the range, and Mt. Aural Wildlife Sanctuary is in the east. These are "paper"parks only: they exist only by law, with none of the active management necessary for a wildlife preserve.
Mt. Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary on the Thai border occupies the eastern part of the Cardamon range. Mt. Aural Wildlife sanctuary, west of Phnom Penh, occupies the eastern side. There is some discussion about turning the central Cardamon mountains and forests there into a reserve. If all goes according to plan the reserve would be linked with Mt. Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary and Mt. Aural Wildlife sanctuary, creating the largest green corridor in mainland Southeast Asia with a total area of 2.44 million acres. There is a lot of resistance to the plan, particularly from logging companies that already have concessions there.
Chi Phat (in Koh Kong province, three-hour drive and a two-hour scenic boat ride from Phnom Penh) is the main access point to the Cardamom Mountains. It is a small town situated directly in the heart of the Cardamom Mountains near mainland Southeast Asia’s largest remaining tract of rainforest. With natural attractions such as mountains, mangroves and low land swamps and cultural artifacts such as burial jars and wooden coffins, Chi Phat and its surrounding area has a variety of attractions to offer both to local and international tourists. Tourists can take a walk through the forest trails and meet warm and friendly village people.
The Chi-Phat commune consists four villages:Chi-Phat, Komlot, Chom-Sla and T'k La'o. The commune population is estimated around 3,000 inhabitants. According to the Washington Post: Car and boat transfers to Chi Phat can be arranged by the local Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) office (011-85-9-272-0925; www.ecoadventurecambodia.com). Accommodations in Chi Phat are booked via the CBET office. Options vary from guesthouses to homestays, which cost $5. The facilities are basic, but rooms are private and clean, with mosquito nets provided. Bathrooms are shared and usually consist of bucket showers and Western toilets. Home-cooked meals with your host family can be arranged for $5. Sothun Lodge, set on a private island, is Chi Phat’s most comfortable accommodation option. The eight bungalows overlook a river and boast modern bathrooms, fans and mosquito nets. Rooms cost $20. [Source: Nick Boulos, Washington Post, August 10, 2012]
Trekking Packages are available through the CBET office, varying in distance, duration and difficulty, and including overnight camping. Mountain Kingdoms (www.mountainkingdoms.com) offers a 16-night guided tour of Cambodia, including four days in the Cardamom Mountains. Prices start from $2,170 per person, excluding flights. River cruises on a traditional rowing boat, mountain biking, bird-watching, night fishing and visits to mountain communities may be booked through the CBET office.
Getting to Chi Phat: Chi Phat is located on the Stung Phipot (Phipot River) about 20 kilometer upstream from Andong Teuk village on Highway 48 – the main highway linking Phnom Penh with Thailand, through the provincial capital of Koh Kong. To get to Chi Phat you will have to travel to Andong Teuk village by bus and from Andoung Teuk to Chi Phat by boat, the journey from Andong Teuk to Chi Phat is a scenic river trip passing mangroves and forested mountains. [Source: Wikitravel]
Transportation to Andong Teuk village: From Phnom Penh: The bus departs Phnom Penh at 7:00am or 8:00am from Mao Tse Tung Blvd, near Psar Domhkor (Domhkor Market) to Koh Kong town and arrives in Andong Teuk village around 10:30am or 11:30am. From Sihanoukville: The bus departs from the central bus station at 8:00am for Koh Kong town and arrives in Andong Teuk village around 11:30am. From Koh Kong Town: The bus departs from the central bus station at 8:00am to Phnom Penh and arrives in Andong Teuk village at around 10:30am. Remember to ask your bus driver to drop you off at Andong Teuk village!
Hiking in the Cardamom Mountains
Nick Boulos wrote in the Washington Post, “It wasn’t the greatest first impression I’d ever made. Arriving at the small, dusty Cambodian village of O’Key, where dogs scampered around the handful of bamboo houses, I smiled and waved at the mother and daughter sitting in the shade of a banana tree. The young girl stared at me. Then, lip trembling, she burst into tears. “Don’t take it personally,” my guide, Lok, reassured me. “She hasn’t seen very many Westerners.” Only 1,000 or so travelers a year make the journey to this region, which is a three-hour drive and a two-hour scenic boat ride from the capital, Phnom Penh. Their efforts are rewarded with world-class hiking and local interaction that’s a far cry from the commercialized “cultural” treks found elsewhere in Asia.[Source: Nick Boulos, Washington Post, August 10, 2012]
One housewife-turned-hotelier is Ming Tha, who proudly showed me into the second bedroom of her humble home, built on wooden stilts, in Chi Phat, the main village in the mountains, where my trekking adventure began. Settling in, I could see Ming below me through the gaps in the floorboards. There she sat, busily picking coriander leaves as dogs and ducks, chickens and children ran around the courtyard. The cicadas sang sweetly as the rain clouds moved in, the heavy droplets falling like bullets on the iron roof. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
The next morning, I strolled along Chi Phat’s main road, a ruler-straight avenue where petrol and potent rice wine are sold in identical plastic bottles. My guide from Phnom Penh, Lok, introduced me to Kan at the community center that doubles as the town’s only restaurant. Kan, born and raised in Chi Phat, was to lead our trek. We planned to walk about 22 miles over the next two days, although, with so many trails of varying lengths and difficulty, choosing our route proved to be a challenge. More than 87 miles of trails have been carefully carved through the mountains, with a number of thatched structures erected in clearings for camping in comfort. Well, relative comfort.
The prospect of trekking here was an exciting one. “It’s world class,” said Lok, glancing toward the forested peaks that rise to heights of nearly 3,000 feet. Home to more than 70 species of mammals, including Malayan sun bears, clouded leopards and the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, the Cardamoms bring together 16 different ecosystems.They also form part of the last elephant corridor in the world — a route that herds of the long-trunked creatures travel over several months toward the coastal resort of Sihanoukville. Sadly, the elephants’ numbers have plummeted in recent decades because of rampant poaching, and it’s thought that fewer than 100 remain in the area.
Joined by our cook, a man of few words nicknamed Mr. Crab — he never revealed his real name — we set off, making an exciting discovery within minutes. Scattered across the narrow trail, carving deep holes on the moist forest floor, were elephant tracks the size of dinner plates. Kan, however, seemed more interested in a nearby tree. Hacking at the blood red bark, the thud of his machete echoing through the silent forest, he stripped away a clump and promptly rubbed it over his exposed legs and ankles. “For protection against leeches,” he said, over the loud call of a gibbon. Grabbing a handful myself, I followed suit as the bloodsuckers appeared seemingly from nowhere on the moist ground.
For hours we walked through untamed nature of inexpressible beauty: giant ferns growing beside delicate and exotic plants, small gecko snakes vanishing beneath fallen tree trunks. Best of all, though, there wasn’t another soul to be seen. That evening we set up camp in the heart of the forest. There was little for us to do except tie our hammocks to the bamboo pillars of a special open-sided structure erected in a small clearing. Mr. Crab immediately set about rustling up a feast. Hunched over a sizzling wok on an open fire, he fried slivers of spicy beef as night began to fall. Suddenly, every animal call, every rustling of the trees, grew more mysterious and sinister.
There was little time to dwell on this, however. I was keen to learn more of the local history from those who had lived through it. Like many, Kan and Lok both bear the scars of recent history. Kan, born in Chi Phat and now in his 40s, started fighting the Khmer Rouge when he was just 15, while Lok, in his mid-30s, lost loved ones to the regime, as did countless other Cambodians. “I don’t seek revenge on those who killed the people in my village when I was a child,” he said. “My father was among the dead and my mother feared that we would all be separated, so we fled. I lost my father and my home.”
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of crackling firewood. Mr. Crab was serving breakfast, coffee bubbling away in his well-used tin kettle. Day two of our trek had more wow factor: epic scenery and ramshackle villages hiding ancient secrets. We crossed vast plains carpeted with pale grass that crunched underfoot. Rising gently and majestically all around us were the Cardamoms. Out there somewhere was Cambodia’s highest peak — Phnom Aural, which stands at 5,948 feet. Following the snaking route of a gushing stream, I peered into the murky water, looking for the rare Siamese crocodile, once found in abundance here but rarely seen today.
It’s hard to underestimate the cultural and natural significance of the Cardamoms to the Cambodians. The region has been home to pockets of people for centuries, and some of their customs have long been lost. Lost but not forgotten. While they no longer practice them, locals continue to respect the ancient rituals of their forefathers.In the 13th century, during the height of the Khmer Empire, the deceased were not interred in the ground. A different final resting place awaited them. Bones and other remains were placed in ceramic jars and left in secret spiritual locations, some of which have recently been discovered. Kan and Lok wanted me to see one for myself, so after meeting the locals at the village of O’Key — and reducing one to tears — we ventured deep into the forest, to a cavernous hole at the bottom of a cliff. Sitting in mounds of sand and dust was a collection of ancient and weathered pots and jars. As we gazed at them, our mood turned somber, yet at the same time, I felt a strange sense of excitement. There was no denying how fortunate I was to be in such a sacred and secret place.
Until recently, talk in villages such as O’Key had been of nothing but the Cambodian government’s controversial plans to mine the mountains for gold and titanium. Had the proposal gone ahead, it would have spelled catastrophe, destroying the elephant corridor and centuries of heritage. Opposition campaigners, led by the Wildlife Alliance and local environmentalists, put up a strong fight, and the plans, thankfully, were shelved last year.
We returned to Chi Phat both exhausted and exhilarated, but Lok had one last place to show off. I hopped onto the back of a motorbike, and we drove down a long bumpy track out of the village. We crossed a river, walking gingerly over slippery rocks near fizzing rapids, and came to a stop before a patch of woodland. “This is our tree nursery,” Lok said proudly. And he was right to be proud. Reversing the widespread deforestation of days gone by, the Wildlife Alliance has replanted about 2 million trees here — ebony, mahogany and sandalwood. Mist lingered over the treetops; the faint chimes of cowbells rang from the distant flatlands. The past may have been dark, but the future’s bright.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
Last updated August 2020