Could Cambodia become the sustainable travel capital of Southeast Asia?

Cardamom Tent Camp tours along the Prek Tachan river (Alex Robinson)

Cardamom Tent Camp tours along the Prek Tachan river (Alex Robinson)

Without knowing why, I woke up with a cold sweat on my forehead. The cloudy air of the stormy evening had intensified on a calm and cool night. The forest hissed, hummed, chirped with frogs and insects.

Somewhere in the distance, the frightening bell of an owl rang. I could picture the bird on top of a dripping branch – yellow eyes, fluffy feathers. Patterns of calls made me fall asleep again. It had been a bad dream that woke me up; not more

Then a thunderous noise broke the night as sharp as lightning. A scream? No: a low, mournful howl, the slow rise of a dog to a trot, then its fall at a foaming speed with barks and barks.

It was perfect. Gibbons!

I grabbed my torch, stumbled out of bed, and fired a beam into the woods by the river. The air was velvety. The moths fluttered. Nothing.

Then suddenly I saw movement; a glint of the eye. IT it was baboons! Wild gibbons are just outside my tent.

I finally found them. I wanted to call home and tell everyone. But in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains there was no signal, no wifi, no contact. The only option was to savor the moment and file it in my mind.

A Cambodian gibbon in the forests near Siem Reap (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A Cambodian gibbon in the forests near Siem Reap (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Cardamoms lies in the heart of one of the last major coastal rainforests in Southeast Asia: a corrugated landscape of steaming green swamps, rainforest-rich steep ridges and caramel-brown rivers. The view you fly over on your way from Bangkok to Angkor; or roll along the country’s new highway between Phnom Penh and the talc-white beaches of Cambodia’s tropical islands. A place that even backpackers miss.

The perfumed name of the mountains seduced me when I came across it on Google Maps years ago. I dreamed of fragrant hills and fragrant trees. Then a search revealed something more interesting: wild elephants, clouded leopards, pangolins, critically endangered Siamese crocodiles… and forests dripping with orchids and bromeliads teeming with gibbons. I’ve always wanted to see these most elusive monkeys, the tall tree-swingers who spend their lives in the canopy of large, pristine forests.

Before the pandemic, I had never had a chance to visit this paradise. I patiently waited. Then, as Covid wanes, good news from Cambodia and reopening to tourists, the country announced a series of sustainability initiatives reflecting the ideas of Costa Rica, a Central American beacon of conservation and responsible tourism.

These include the World Bank-financed Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism Project, which is planned to continue until 2025; an attempt to prevent poaching in the wild Mondulkiri Province; and a plan to introduce Indian tigers into the wild forests of the Cardamom mountains (here extinct since 2007). According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), tiger numbers have increased by 40 percent worldwide between 2015 and 2022, thanks to similar conservation initiatives in India and Nepal. Could Cambodia’s green future be part of this success story?

I booked a flight as quickly as I could; Through some ethical tours, local encounters and ideally gibbons, I planned to land at a riverside tented camp in the Cardamom Mountains.

Guide to Sinai at Cardamom Tented Camp, Cambodia (Alex Robinson)

Guide to Sinai at Cardamom Tented Camp, Cambodia (Alex Robinson)

Inevitably my first stop was Angkor, where I toured the majestic Angkor Wat and Bayon sites with wildlife guide Buntha Chheang. We walked through the tall forest and the mossy ruins of magnificent 12th-century buildings. A buttery light shone from King Suryavarman’s wide moat filled with lotus flowers on the edge of Angkor Wat.

Life was everywhere – turtles in the water, butterflies floating like flying leaves, swallows flying around the ancient wall. Buntha pointed to rare birds: an electric blue Hainan Flycatcher, an Oriental Darter, a Black Crested Bulbul.

“The pandemic has been good to the forest,” he told me. “The Hornbills are back in numbers. You can see them in hotel gardens in the city of Siem Reap.

“The gibbons have been released; they are breeding now. Sea otters too. It is rumored that clouded leopards will return. Good news for plants and animals.”

He said it was this blooming of local fauna that awakened officials to Angkor’s historical as well as natural treasures and prompted them to think more about the forest’s true value. They looked at Costa Rica and the Mayan ruins between Cancún and Guatemala. Perhaps Angkor could be developed in a more concerted effort to preserve the ecosystem around it.

Eastern Pied Hornbill peeks through the foliage (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Eastern Pied Hornbill peeks through the foliage (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“But they will lose,” Buntha said, pointing to a group of vendors selling T-shirts and bottled water. He explained that true ecotourism must involve the well-being of local people in common. This is a sentiment enshrined in the UN World Tourism Organization’s definition of sustainable tourism as “providing alternative employment and income opportunities” and “using locally owned small businesses as suppliers”.

Inspired by the town of Siem Reap, I sought tourism that is not only “green” but community-oriented.

I had already chosen my hotel with this in mind. My temporary home, Jaya House, was beautiful—large, honey-colored and whitewashed bedrooms with high, soft lighting, set in high glass walls and lush riverside gardens. But there was also no plastic, using locally sourced produce, and employing only people from around Siem Reap – many of whom were people of rural origin who often had a hard time finding jobs in the town’s luxury tourism sector.

I also visited Apopo, where cat-sized rodents dropped by American planes and planted by the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese were trained to find ammunition and mines. These still pollute Cambodia’s countryside.

I took a food tour with Urban Forage, a tasting dive into locally owned and operated Khmer restaurants like Banllé, Mahob, Pou, and Wild, all opened by alumni of famous resorts. All are resolutely Khmer. Cooking was refined and gourmet, a reinvention of rice field and farmhouse cooking as fine dining.

Even the bustling Phnom Penh, my second stop in the country, had a sustainable tourism landscape to explore. My hotel, the gorgeous Rosewood Phnom Penh, suggested MOTO GIRL tours: a female-led business and one of a series of small local ventures founded by young Cambodians. These entrepreneurs have high hopes that tourists will support their efforts.

Manich, Alex's guide to scooter riding in Phnom Penh (Alex Robinson)

Manich, Alex’s guide to scooter riding in Phnom Penh (Alex Robinson)

My MOTO GIRL guide Manich gracefully passed through temples, new glass towers and traffic before taking me to eat fresh pies at street stalls. He showed me dancing and live, rococo street art, and in the shadow of the Royal Palace we watched the locals engage in a quick rap battle over percussive Khmer hip hop.

The Cardamom Mountains were my last stop – the country’s wildest nature, potential jewel in the ecotourism crown. The morning after the night of the gibbon searches, I was kayaking on the lazy, jungle-covered, turtle-filled river that runs through Cardamom Tent Camp. Sina, one of her social guides, told me how important the camp’s mission is to the future of Cardamoms.

The Tent Camp is located in a buffer zone that was ostensibly created in 2021 to redistribute the land to the local population on a small, sustainable scale. But most of the concessions were suspiciously close to the holdings of powerful magnates. Fearing land grabs, the owners of the camp bought 18,000 hectares of land adjacent to Botum Sakor National Park, around the beautiful Prek Tachan River.

“Cardamons are the last refuge for animals and plants that have largely disappeared from the Southeast Asian mainland,” he told me. They are still home to rare Siamese crocodiles, hairy-nosed otters and Malayan sunbirds. Our rivers are home to the largest population of critically endangered royal turtles in the region.

“We will also take back our tigers as part of the new fermentation program. The forest elephants will be protected and of course our gibbons will thrive.”

And as if we had understood, we heard their call once more: a family huddled in high branches, with fur as white as an old man’s beard. They looked down, beady-eyed and grinning.

“They’re glad to see you,” Sina joked, “They want you to tell everyone to visit Cardamoms to come to Cambodia.”

I heard their call. Cambodia needs visitors. If the country has a green future, it will be through a patchwork of government plans, private eco-lodges like Tent Camp built by committed investors, and small locally owned ventures.

The success of the lodges in Sarapiqui and the Costa Rica Cordillera prompted former president Oscar Arias Sanchez to go beyond PR and create Costa Rica’s first properly protected national parks. And just as with Costa Rica in the 1980s, if Cambodia wants to get beyond a temporary start, it’s carefully spent tourist money that will make all the difference.

Travel essentials

Traveled with Alex RobinsonWorld Travel, Combining Siem Reap, Cardamoms and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, offering sustainable holidays from £3,327 pp including international return flights, hotels, transfers and excursions. Inquiries:; 07871 169 558.

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