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'There Was Method to My Madness'
Why TIME Asia ventured into Cambodia's remote wilderness

September 7, 2000
Web posted at 1:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 1:00 a.m. EDT

CAMBODIA: The Lost World
The Cardamom Mountains, formerly cut off by war, are proving to be a fertile--and threatened--ecological zone

Barreling down the mountain logging road in the pouring rain, huddled under raincoats in an open truck we shared with the AK-47-toting soldiers, photographer Peter Charlesworth turned to me and shouted, "Isn't this a glamorous life we lead?" Well, only if you think three days of pounding through choppy waters in a tiny boat, having leeches crawl up your boots, sleeping on the floor of a shack in a malaria-infested jungle and, above all, getting rained on at every turn, is glamorous. Oh, and did I mention bathing in the river of crocodiles?

The Cardamom Mountains, the mysterious lost world of rare species in southwestern Cambodia, is not called "remote" for nothing. It took us two-and-a-half days to get to our base camp in the central mountains. And two of those days were spent just trying to get into the general area itself.

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There is no passable road from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong, the nearest town to the central Cardamoms. The only way to get there is by boat, or by airplane twice a week. We initially opted for the boat, but foul weather caused its cancellation two days in a row. It soon became clear why almost nobody ventures into the Cardamoms during the rainy season, why everyone I mentioned the journey to said, "You're crazy. Wait until December and the dry season." About the fourth time I sat huddled under my raincoat with rain dripping on my face and stinging my squinted eyes, I began to think that maybe they were right. We must be mad.

But there was method to my madness because by the next dry season, the fate of the Cardamoms, the last great wilderness left in Indochina, may already be decided, before almost anyone from the outside world gets a look at it. Only a handful of loggers, scientists and local journalists have actually gone into the Cardamoms since they became accessible (sort of) last year with the end of the country's long civil war. The first large-scale survey revealed a treasure trove of rare species, including Siamese crocodiles, previously thought extinct in the wild. Researchers believe there may be dozens of other species, previously unknown to science, hidden in the area.

We thought it was vital to see this pristine wilderness for ourselves--and to share what we saw with the world--before the upcoming debate (and decision later this year) on how to control development there. The Cambodian government has promised that this month it will begin discussing how to protect the Cardamoms following a report due this week on the first biodiversity survey of the area.

Conservationists are warning that if Cambodia doesn't act fast, the Cardamoms will within three to five years go the way of the rest of the continent's once-vast wilderness, cut down and reduced to secondary growth, with the wildlife disappearing as a result. And yet, logging represents a major source of income for Cambodia's cash-strapped government. Thousands of landless poor are clamoring for plots to slash and burn for plantations. Clearly, the Phnom Penh government has some serious decisions to make--and not a lot of time to make them.

So it was for this reason--against all common sense--that we organized our expedition into the Cardamoms, guided by Hunter Weiler of the conservation group Fauna and Flora International and Department of Wildlife enforcement officer Chheang Dany. Chheang was probably the only sane one among us, and certainly the one who got us back in one piece.

It was a difficult journey, but what we saw made it worthwhile. In a boat up the mountain rivers, we saw dazzling walls of green and countless waterfalls tumbling down the hills like dozens of shimmering tears. We also climbed the rocks beside a roaring run of white-water rapids on rivers that have never been navigated.

In the jungle town of Thmar Baing--population about 150--wooden huts are springing up along a logging road, where residents, mostly military men and their families, keep gibbons as pets. Generators power a select few houses at night, including that marker of modern Asian civilization, the karaoke video player. It was somewhat disconcerting to hear the amplified singing competing with the calls of the jungle animals at night. Yet, despite these incursions, the Cardamoms still remain a vast wilderness.

One morning, after wearing the same clothes for two days, I ventured to bathe in a slow-moving stream a few hundred meters from Thmar Baing. There, the jungle closed in, and civilization felt far away. Everything seemed huge--the century-old trees above and the butterflies and amazing dragonflies that hovered and nosedived around me. It was so otherworldly. Conditioned by the media, all I could think of was a movie set. As I sunk into the icy water, I thought, "This is the part of the film where I become bait for a giant, previously thought extinct crocodile." I was imagining things, of course, but it is true that there are rare Siamese crocodiles in one of the mountains' five major rivers. There may even be an entirely new species of web-footed crocodile, according to a hunter-turned-conservation-officer employed by the group Cat Action Treasury. But thankfully, all hungry reptiles left me alone. The only injury I sustained was a bleeding round hole in my calf where a leech had made its way up my boot and drank its fill of my blood.

As we descended from the mountain in our hired truck--one of only two on the mountain, and therefore obliged to give rides to anyone along the logging road, including several armed soldiers--it occurred to me how few places in today's globalized, networked and wired world are truly remote. The Cardamom Mountains are one of them. It will be interesting to see how long it stays that way.

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