Posts Tagged ‘ratanakiri’

Gibbons in the Wild

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Gibbon Spotting in the jungles of Ratanakiri with the local community.

Rare gibbons in Ratanakiri

Rare gibbons in Ratanakiri

Wildlife enthusiasts have a couple of months left to enjoy the opportunity of seeing and hearing an endangered species of gibbon in their natural habitat before the monsoon rains make it a much more difficult proposition. The Gibbon Spotting program in the Veun Sai-Siem Pang area of Ratanakiri, two hours distance from the provincial capital Banlung, is now run by local community members, with profits spread amongst the community group, and as a result, costs have been greatly reduced for visitors wishing to experience these rare creatures. Only small groups of between 2-6 visitors are allowed to visit the site in order to control the risk of the human impact as well as optimising chances of viewing the gibbons. The community guides run 2 day-1 night treks, with accommodation at the nearby ranger station, rudimentary and spartan but isn’t that all part of the adventure? The community have constructed a new five-room wooden building with mattress-bedding and a shower block within the confines of the ranger station. Food is prepared by the community members. The tour begins in Banlung and a one-hour motorbike ride to Veun Sai, on the banks of the Sean River. Once across the river, access to the ranger station is either by motorbike or an hour-long bicycle ride, and the trekking to see the gibbons will be first thing the following morning, with a 4am wake-up call.

As the gibbons are in the wild, the community, who have been supported in establishing this program by Conservation International, indicate visitors have an 80% chance of seeing the gibbons, though when Hanuman’s Andy Brouwer visited the site, he not only saw and heard them, he followed them through the jungle for an hour. This is a unique way to experience gibbons in the wild and the memory of the their piercing jungle call is unforgettable. The project is constantly evolving and additional viewing may include red-shanked douc langurs in the future. For now, the focus is firmly on the rare northern yellow-cheeked gibbons, and an experience and interaction that takes you up close and personal with a family of habituated gibbons in their natural environment. For more details, contact the Hanuman team.

A Real Ratanakiri Experience

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012
Hanuman's Andy Brouwer visits a Ratankiri gravesite

Hanuman’s Andy Brouwer visits a Ratankiri graveyard

In this excerpt from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, Christine Dimmock experiences a grave moment in Ratanakiri.

Voices are approaching, and I half expect to be accosted for trespass. I sneak around quietly until the sounds fade into the distance. I am in Ratanakiri, the most northeasterly province of Cambodia on the banks of the Sesan River, north of the town of Ban Lung. More importantly, I am fighting my way through the undergrowth of an overgrown burial ground at Kachon village, home to one of the ethnically distinct groups that makes up the population in Ratanakiri.

Because my mother engendered in me an affinity for old cemeteries, I can’t help but be drawn into this one. I soon realize that it is the most unusual graveyard I am probably going to see in my life. In fact, from the moment my motodop “had relations” with the minority villagers—that is, he sought their permission—I have been falling over myself in a flurry of discovery.

Adventure travel writer Ray Zepp and others reported seeing Polynesian-style funerary statues here, and as I enter I stop at the closest grave, which has a rectangular fence, an elaborately shaped metal roof painted in bright geometrical patterns, and life-size carved wooden figures of a man and a woman at two corners. At the remaining corners are large pairs of carved tusks. Household items have been provided for the dead to use in the afterlife.

I do my best to tread lightly out of respect for this deeply spiritual place. More graves appear as I click away with my camera, and I must struggle through prickly vines and red ants. Photography is challenging due to the combination of bright sunlight and deep dappled shade, and first I concentrate on the newer, colored wooden figures. Some wear metal wristwatches, and a female sports a pair of metal sunglasses. There are clothes in red, green, and yellow paint. Several male figures wear military-style caps, and one has a carved walkie-talkie on his chest. Another carries a bow and arrows. His wife wears round metal earrings and a green painted bra top, which matches the large pipe protruding from her mouth amongst the leaves.

While these modern effigies are intriguing, the older figures are my favorites. They are unpainted, less elaborate, softly weathered, and spotted with lichen. Their only adornments are metal eyes and earrings, and in one case a headband. Occasionally there is a touch of red on female lips or black on male eyebrows. Their heads are large and their bodies lack detail. Items for their use in the afterlife are simple—baskets, china plates, bottles, cooking pots, and brown glazed pottery vessels. Several sets of cow and buffalo horns are lying around, suggesting the ritualistic slaughter of animals.

Reluctantly I tear myself away. On the return journey to Ban Lung, I’m surprised by an unexpected visit to another smaller graveyard. The attraction here is a grave adorned with a naive replica of a helicopter painted in army camouflage. The villager buried here may have helped the Americans in the Vietnam War, as did the ethnic minority groups across the border in the central highlands of Vietnam. Looking at this grave, I realize that these sites are much more than just a tribute to the person buried there. They are a record of Cambodia, both its past and its progress, over the course of the last century.

Graveyards around Ban Lung
In Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province, you can hire a motorcycle taxi or ask at your guesthouse about gathering a group together for travel by jeep. Voen Sai is thirty-five kilometers northwest of Ban Lung, and Kachon is one hour by boat east of Voen Sai. Expect to pay around $15 for the boat ride, which will also include a visit to the Chinese and Lao villages on the way back to Voen Sai. Unfortunately, access to this particular graveyard is now closed, though others on the opposite bank of the river may be accessible.

Gibbon Spotting in Cambodia

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Adult Female Gibbon. Copyright Conservation International Ben Rawson

A unique wildlife opportunity in remote Ratanakiri in Northeast Cambodia.

Wildlife lovers now have a unique opportunity to see the incredibly rare ‘northern yellow-cheeked gibbons’ in their natural habitat in the Ratanakiri province of Northeast Cambodia. This rare and endangered species of gibbon was only discovered in 2010 and with an estimated 500 groups at the site, this is the largest known population in the world. The gibbons reside in a luscious protected 550 square km forest called the Veun Sai – Siem Pang Conservation Area. A partnership between local operators, Conservation International and the local indigenous communities have enabled the start of one and two-night gibbon spotting treks offering what is a very special experience to see these rare creatures.

The new project not only aids conservation of the gibbons and their territory but also helps the local communities. The site is managed by a community-based ecotourism group made up of democratically elected community members.  All profits which go to the community are spent by the community on developing the community.  Local people are also employed in positions such as trackers, guides and wildlife enforcement, which help maintain the forest and wildlife for their long-term benefit. More than a third of the proceeds of the treks go directly to the community.

Being escorted by specialist guides and researchers means you have a much higher chance of seeing the gibbons, estimated to be more than 70%. The treks are for more adventurous visitors, particularly those with a genuine interest in wildlife and conservation. The program includes cycling and trekking through the evergreen forests of Ratanakiri, interaction with indigenous villages en route to the research station, bird-watching in Veal Thom Savannah and both a night-time and early morning trek through the forest. Visitors need to be physically fit to undertake this tour in hot and humid conditions. Accommodation at the research/ranger station is pretty basic but that’s all part and parcel of the overall experience as visitors immerse themselves in this unique wildlife experience.

Until 1 October tours will be on an ad-hoc basis. After that, set departure dates will operate until the end of March 2013. The project is constantly evolving and the intention is to introduce additional viewing possibilities including red-shanked douc langurs and a bird nest protection scheme for giant ibis. For now, the focus is firmly on the rare gibbons, and an experience and interaction that takes you up close and personal with a family of habituated gibbons in their natural environment. An experience not to be missed.

Contact the Hanuman team at http://www.hanuman.travel/ to book your Gibbon Spotting Experience.

In the Trees

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

A female buff-cheeked gibbon. Pic Ben Rawson.



Andy Brouwer set off for the jungles of Ratanakiri in northeast Cambodia on a gibbon-spotting trip. Here’s what he found.

Wildlife in Cambodia is becoming increasingly scarce, so it’s great news when a wildlife agency discovers a new population they didn’t know existed. One such discovery is the endangered gibbons of Ratanakiri, the northern buffed-cheeked crested gibbons to be precise, about 1,500 of them, and under the umbrella of Conservation International, an exciting opportunity now exists to see them in their natural habitat. Cue my recent visit to Banlung in Cambodia’s northeast province of Ratanakiri. My destination was the Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area where a small group of habituated gibbons have been the subject of research for the past couple of years. Habituated means they don’t run away from humans, which makes early morning viewing a real possibility. To reach their stretch of evergreen jungle required a 4WD trip of 35kms, a boat ride along the Sesan River and then a two-hour bicycle ride punctuated by a lunch stop before arriving at the ranger-research station. The gibbons are another 2kms away but the best time to see them is around dawn, so we took an hour-long night-time(8pm) hike through the forest with head-lamps in the hope of spotting pygmy-loris or civet, though we were out of luck this time around.

The next morning, it was a 4am departure from camp for the 2km walk to the home of the gibbons and right on cue, as we arrived, their mesmerizing whooping call literally took the roof off the forest in front of us. A few steps under the canopy and the family of four were directly above us, playing, resting, fighting, eating, with the male and female (who is beige in colour) sending their piercing call across the forest canopy. It was a magical moment. After twenty minutes, the local guide told us to be ready to move, and again on cue, the family (dad, mum, a juvenile and a minor, all black in colour except mum) began swinging from tree to tree, high over our heads but easy enough to spot, as we followed our expert tracker who knew instinctively which direction the family was heading. Every few minutes we would pause on the forest floor as the family stopped to eat and inspect their own patch of forest.

It was tough-going on the forest floor, there is no path to follow but our group size (no more than six at a time to limit the impact on the gibbons) means it’s straightforward enough to follow the guide and to keep a look-out for the gibbons overhead. It got a bit tense when the family encountered two red-shanked douc langurs, something the guide hadn’t seen before, but after a few moments, both groups went their separate ways without incident, to the relief of all present. We carried on shadowing the family for more than an hour before letting them carry on without further interruption. Then unexpectedly, we spotted a troupe of fifteen douc langurs high in the tree-tops and their different way of traversing the jungle, jumping from tree to tree feet-first instead of the languid swinging of the gibbons with their long arms, was an unexpected pleasure to see. Two hours after our arrival we emerged from the jungle for a well-deserved rest, invigorated by our adventures and experiences.

Back at the ranger station, we had brunch before getting back on our bikes for the ride back to civilization at the town of Veun Sai, on the banks of the Sesan and a ferry ride to meet up with our 4WD back to Banlung and a welcome splash in the pool at the Terres Rouge Hotel. It was a fabulous experience, seeing these rare and at risk gibbons in their natural habitat, and the added bonus of the douc langurs as well. It’s refreshing to know that the work of Conservation International and the park rangers are preserving this pristine environment and allowing new experiences like this to be made possible.

Wildlife viewing

Monday, December 26th, 2011

On the trail of Black-shanked Doucs

There’s good news for wildlife lovers in Cambodia. Two projects are just about to be launched in the north east provinces of the country which will provide visitors with a good chance of getting close to some of the country’s rapidly disappearing wild animals. With the forests of Cambodia vanishing faster than you can shake a stick, as plantations and commercial mining demand more and more space, its great news that there are still pockets of wildlife in numbers sufficient to entice conservation groups to set up these programs. In the Seima Protected Forest in Mondulkiri, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Sam Veasna Center are working with the villagers of Andong Kraleong to set up one, two and three-day treks that will take you amongst the world’s largest known population of Black-shanked Doucs (estimated to be around 40,000), while other monkeys such as macaques, yellow-cheeked crested gibbons and langurs, together with larger cattle like Banteng and Gaur, and night-viewing of loris and wild cats are also a possibility. And that’s not to mention the elephants and the abundant birdlife including giant hornbills. The project, using villagers as guides, aims to provide the local community with sustainable employment in tourism in return for not hunting the wildlife and for forest conservation. The treks around Andong Kraleong will take visitors through pristine forest and to a series of 20-meter high waterfalls. A second project, this time with Conservation International to the fore, is looking to benefit from the groups of yellow-cheeked gibbons and red-shanked Doucs that inhabit the fringes of the Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri near Voen Sai. They are working with locals to allow limited access to these closely-related cousins of the proboscis monkey a reality. Other animals such as macaques, sun bears and wild dogs are known to inhabit the same area. Contact Hanuman for more details.

Rare turtles on show

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Rare Mekong Turtles

Since June of this year, the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center has been open to visitors daily, for a small fee, where you can see one of the world’s rarest and largest freshwater turtles, the Cantor’s softshell. Hatchlings are given the opportunity to grow into juveniles before being released back into their natural habitat, after spending ten months in indoor tanks, whilst a large outdoor pond assists with a turtle breeding program. The center gives sanctuary to four types of turtles until they are ready to be released back into the Mekong River. Local fishermen and communities have been educated not to eat or steal the turtle eggs and in fact to report the nests they find in exchange for small rewards. All entry fees and donations will go straight back into the project and to the local villagers near the center, which is housed in the grounds of the Wat Sarsar Mouy Rouy pagoda, better known as the 100 pillar pagoda, about 40kms north of Kratie town. Conservation International and the monks at the pagoda are the driving forces behind the center, which is open from 8am until 5pm, with a break for lunch. So for wildlife enthusiasts, that’s critically endangered turtles and the rare Irrawaddy dolphins on your Mekong River itinerary. Whilst on the subject of wildlife in the northeast of Cambodia, if elephants are your thing, then the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri is definitely worth checking out and we’re just hearing reports of a potential Gibbon-related project starting up in Ratanakiri. More as we get it.

The Girl from the Jungle

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

In 1988, nine-year old Pnieng Rochum disappeared in a remote corner of Cambodia. Two weeks ago she emerged from the jungle to be reunited with her family. Here her mother and father tell their incredible story…

Ma Pa GirlFor eighteen years, her mother Rochom Choy prayed for the safe return of her daughter. She communicated with the spirits day and night to bring her back and on 13th January her prayers were answered. “It was the happiest moment of my life,” she says. “I looked into her eyes and knew this was my long lost daughter.”

Her father. Lou Sal, a local policeman, was certain it was his daughter. Filthy, naked and silent, instinct told him this was the little girl he had last seen during Cambodia’s civil war. Back at the village, her mother bathed her. As the layers of dirt cascaded off, she looked for telltale marks that this was her little girl. “As I washed her, I saw a scar on her forearm,” she says animatedly. “I knew it was her because her sister accidentally cut her with a knife just before she disappeared. She is my daughter.”

She also has a burn on her calf which her parents say was caused by a cooking pot when she was young. Finally, as if to vanquish all doubts, they pull back her hair to reveal a large mole on her ear. Still, there are doubters and some people have called for a DNA test to confirm her identity. “I am happy to take any tests,” says her mother, “I just want everyone to know this is my daughter.”

Oyadao village is in Ratanakiri province in the remote northeast of Cambodia. This mountainous region is home to minority people and a world away from the rest of Cambodia. Pnieng Rochum is Pnong and her family are animists. They believe in spirits. Spirits of the forest, spirits of the earth, spirits everywhere.

Out of the Jungle

Early reports claimed she was with a wild man wielding a sword. “She was alone. She came out of the jungle and I was afraid”, says Cher Tam, the first person to set eyes on her for 18 years. A woodcutter from the nearby village of Ten, he heard that one month ago near O Tang village, local Jarai people saw a young woman with a jungle man.

“She was naked and dirty and moving with a stoop,” continues Cher. “She ripped open my rice and began to eat as if she was starving.” He tried to talk to her but she only uttered strange, soft sounds like a small animal from the jungle.

Cher, like all the villagers in the area, knew the story of Pnieng Rochum’s disappearance. He returned to his village to seek the counsel of elders who contacted Lou Sal to let him know of this amazing discovery. The next day they returned to the same spot to lie in wait.

Pnieng Rochum and her young cousin vanished in 1988 when her mother had gone to collect some drinking water for the two girls. The parents searched everywhere, wandering through the jungle and travelling from village to village. “Some villagers saw some small footprints on the banks of a jungle stream near their ricefields,” says Rochom Chey. “I thought we might find her but the jungle spirits did not want to let her go.” Rochom Chey went crazy and could not eat for months.

Making a Sacrifice

The family made sacrifices to ask the spirits for her safe return. Her father visited the local sorcerer to ask for advice. “We sacrificed pigs many times but she never came back. The sorcerer told us to hold a bigger ceremony with a black buffalo, but still we could not find her.”   

More ceremonies were held and the family sacrificed a brown buffalo and a cow. Sacrifices are a genuine sacrifice for poor families in the Cambodian countryside. “Money was no object to bring back my daughter,” says her father. “I asked the spirits of the jungle to give back my daughter every night. We never gave up hope that she might still be alive and eventually the spirits delivered her back to us.” Tellingly, the parents never held a ceremony for her death. They went on believing that she was alive, even when others were sure she was dead.

The Media Circus

The incredible circumstances of her return have not gone unnoticed by the media. Hordes of visitors have descended on this remote outpost and it has not made adjustment easy for Pnieng Rochum. “She doesn’t like crowds, she becomes restless, even afraid,” says her mother. “If it becomes too noisy or too many people come and stare, she tries to take her clothes off and escape to the jungle.” Living in the jungle for 18 years, adjustment was always going to be a challenge, but this has turned it into an ordeal.

It’s not only the media that see her as a local celebrity. The Jarai people in the region hold her in reverence. She was claimed by the jungle as a child and has returned as an adult. She has been anointed by the spirits of the forest and long after the media scrum evaporates, the Jarai people will come to pay homage.

Pnieng Rochum sits and stare for most of the day. She stares back at those staring at her, she looks lonely and lost. She doesn’t yet fit into her family, but there is nowhere else for her to go. She talks to herself at night, muttering noises that the family cannot understand. “She makes strange sounds like a small animal,” explains her mother. “I try to understand, I want to understand, but I don’t know what she is trying to say.”

Even though she cannot speak, she communicates with basic gestures and signs. When she is hungry, she pats her stomach and the family feeds her. “Her favourite food is fruit,” says her mother. “She likes papaya and watermelon, but she will eat anything. She eats like she is ravenous, but we are trying to teach her to use chopsticks or a spoon.”

She also likes television, especially karaoke. Next door to the family house is a small restaurant with a karaoke machine. Karaoke is the national pastime in Cambodia and 18 years in the jungle hasn’t diminished the draw.

The parents fawn over her like a newborn baby. Not exactly a newborn, she is reborn, unable to even take care of her most basic needs. She survived the forest, but will she survive life in the village? Her mother cleans her teeth in the morning and washes her face. She is supervised when she goes to the toilet. Pnieng Rochum has a new life, but it’s an alien life.

Back to life

Her parents are constantly afraid that she might go back to the jungle. She has trouble sleeping and they take it in turns to comfort her. “We must hold a ceremony in the jungle where we found her,” says her father Lou Sal. “We have to make the spirits happy so they do not take her back again.”

Her mother is worried that she will not speak again. She has not uttered a single word since her return to the village, although she appears to understand some of what is said to her in her native Pnong language. “I don’t know if anyone will want to marry her after she has lived so long in the jungle,” her mother despairs. “She likes to be alone and I am not sure if she can live with anyone else.”

There are more questions than answers. How does an eight-year old girl survive in the jungle for so many years? The Cambodian jungle is home to poisonous snakes, tigers, malaria and many other dangers. It is an unforgiving place for anyone, particularly a young, vulnerable girl. Was she kidnapped by a jungle man and forced to forage with him, a Cambodian version of Tarzan and Jane? Why did she have kempt hair if she had been living in the jungle for 18 years?

For now, nobody knows. Rumour is rife. What is certain is that a little girl disappeared 18 years ago. A traumatized adult has returned, reclaimed by her family. The only person who knows the truth is Pnieng Rochum. For now she is silent, stunned by her return to society, but in time she may reveal the secrets of her past.