Somewhere, just over the rainbow

Louise Southerden ventures into the wilds from the safety of an eco-lodge.

There's jungle in every direction. Bird calls I don't recognise. Monkeys watching us from boulders as we putter along the river in an open, bright-orange boat. It's just the start of our two-day stay in Koh Kong province and already I feel as if we've stumbled upon a Cambodia I never knew existed, one that pre-dates Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields, even Angkor Wat.

Earlier that day, a four-hour bus trip had transported my partner, Craig, and I from seedy Sihanoukville - a backpacker town on Cambodia's south coast, where beds cost a dollar, you can get a beer for 25¢ and happy hours last all night - along National Highway 48, aka "The Ecotourism Route", to the rainforested skirts of the Cardamom Mountains and Koh Kong Conservation Corridor. Farmland gave way to tall trees draped with tropical vines. At the top of every rise were forested hills as far as we could see.

A vast wilderness in south-western Cambodia that includes a national park, a wildlife sanctuary, vast mangrove forests and the Southern and Central Cardamoms Protected forests, the corridor has the largest surviving rainforest in south-east Asia and is one of only two places in the region where forests reach all the way from the highest peaks down to the sea (the other is Myanmar).

Long preserved by remoteness (the road was only upgraded in 2002) and civil war (it was one of the last hideouts of the Khmer Rouge, well into the 1980s), Koh Kong province is fast becoming an ecotourism hot spot. Rainbow Lodge, our base for the next two days, was the first ecolodge here, in 2008, leading the way for a few others (see breakout).

Only we're not staying at the lodge, not yet. No sooner have we arrived than we're setting off on a heart-of-darkness trip up the river in another open orange boat.

There are four of us: Craig, our two guides and me. It's not a large boat - sitting cross-legged on the deck we're little more than an arm's length from each other - but the drone of the longtail engine makes conversation impossible. It's too hot to talk anyway. The air is thick with humidity and the sun blazes down from a thin strip of sky between high walls of living green on either side. I trail my hands in the cool water.

It takes about 40 minutes to reach a dead end in the river, Tatai Falls, where we all leave the boat, shoulder the gear - including a Khmer-style barbecue and two eskies - and set off into the jungle.

If there's a trail, it's long overgrown. We bush-bash our way in silent, single file (wondering when anyone last did this trip) until we reach a small clearing on the edge of the jungle: our campsite, which has its own sandy beach and waterfall-fed swimming pool.

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The guides, Broh and Chuon, get to work setting up camp for us, which doesn't take long when your lodgings are two camo-green hammocks, with built-in mosquito nets, under a tarp. There's a brief lesson in how to light a Khmer stove (fire-starters optional), they point out the first-aid kit and mobile phone (we're not so remote that we need a satellite phone, but we are two hours' walk from the lodge), then they head back to the boat, leaving us completely alone. It's 4.30pm.

To celebrate this new solitude after days of crowded cities and beaches and buses, we have a swim and a soap-less wash in the spa-like pools under the waterfall, and dry off in the last rays of the sun. It's a heavenly way to spend an afternoon.

Then we dress for the mosquito hour (there's malaria in these parts; probably dengue fever, too) and pre-dinner drinks by the pool - wine can be supplied but we have a selection of local beers: Cambodia, Kingdom, Anchor and Black Panther (like Guinness). The only sounds are of rushing water, a few crickets, a bird or two. Then we hear something else: a persistent, dog-like bark.

As the light begins to fade, I suddenly feel our vulnerability in this unfamiliar natural environment. There are wild dogs called dhole in these forests, apparently, and we'd seen those monkeys from the boat this afternoon. What else might be in the jungle at our backs?

So we do what human beings afraid of the dark have been doing since time began: make a fire and think about dinner. On the menu tonight: barbecued prawns, vegetable kebabs, garlic-marinated pork and chicken wings, followed by a selection of local fruits. Even with so much food, and much lingering, it's over too soon. Is it only 6.30pm?

The long jungle night stretches out before us. We take two cushions onto the still-warm rock platform and lie on our backs, looking up at the first stars and watching the moon play hide-and-seek with wandering clouds.

When the clouds close like curtains, the jungle takes centre stage. It's oddly exciting to be out here without a guide. But seriously, I wonder, what might be in the forest around us? We'd read at the lodge that there are wild boars, gibbons, clouded leopards and, um, tigers in the Cardamoms. Of course, the tigers are endangered and there can't be many left, but the forests here are so unexplored, who knows where they might be? And if one could be drawn by the aroma of cooking chicken to a riverside campsite ...

My imagination, suddenly bored of tigers, skips on to human forest dwellers. Ceramic jars and log coffins dating back to the 15th century have been found in the Cardamoms, and people still live in these forests, surviving through illegal logging, wildlife poaching and slash-and-burn farming. Local conservation organisation Wildlife Alliance, set up in 2008, even employs armed rangers to patrol the area. What might a poacher, or a ranger for that matter, make of two unarmed "barangs" (foreigners) camping all alone in deepest Indochina? And who's to say a half-crazed expat channelling Colonel Kurtz hasn't made a new life for himself here, escaping who knows what?

Then the thoughts pass and I'm aware again of the stillness of the night, which has been here all along.

Meanwhile, Craig has been chopping wood with a machete (it seems we are armed, after all) and put the kettle on the fire for tea. "Earl Grey or English Breakfast?" he asks, civilising the situation. Before I can answer, that barking starts up again. Couldn't be a dog, we agree. Must be a frog. A large bird - or a bat - flies overhead. An owl?

Maybe it's Neak Ta, the spirit of the forest, which protects all the plants and animals, Craig says, not helping.

Suddenly, there's a high-pitched scream. We look at each other, wide-eyed in the firelight. Until we realise - the now-boiling kettle has a whistle on its spout.

Finally, soothed by tea, we turn in. But the night is not finished with us yet. Just as we're climbing into the hammocks, Craig falls to the ground, courtesy of a broken cord. Ever the handyman, he soon has it fixed and by 10pm we're zipped up inside our camo-cocoons reading by torchlight. It's surprisingly cosy. There are even camo-green blankets for when it gets cool in the early hours.

I time-travel through the night. One minute we're saying goodnight to each other, the next it's 7am and the sun is dappling through the trees.

Morning has scared away the imaginary tigers and poachers, leaving only peace and quiet. We rock-hop a little way upstream to two natural Olympic-size pools linked by a gurgling stream, where we swim and float on our backs.

The world is all pale sky and lapping water - until we hear a shout from our campsite and see that Broh and Chuon, right on time and still too soon, have returned to pack up camp and take us back to the lodge.

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Air Asia and Footsteps Worldwide.

THREE MORE ECO-LODGINGS IN SOUTHERN CAMBODIA

CHI PHAT CBET (COMMUNITY-BASED ECOTOURISM) PROJECT

Supported by Wildlife Alliance, the village of Chi Phat, upstream from Rainbow Lodge, has 12 guesthouses, five home stays, a small lodge and tours such as mountain biking, trekking and night fishing. Rates start at $US5 ($5.25) a room. See ecoadventurecambodia.com. The Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network lists other community-run experiences; see ccben.org.

FOUR RIVERS FLOATING LODGE

Downstream from Rainbow Lodge, on a secluded bend in the river, is Cambodia's first floating ecolodge, which opened in 2010. Its 12 roomy safari tents have solar-powered flat-screen TVs, wi-fi and minibars, but if you took the lodge away there'd be no trace of it ever having been there. Tents start at $US152 a couple a night, including boat transfers and breakfast; see ecolodges.asia.

SONG SAA PRIVATE ISLAND

Australian couple Rory and Melita Hunter broke new ground when they built this 27-villa sustainable luxury resort - complete with "spa and wellness sanctuaries" in the rainforest and on the beach - and established Cambodia's first marine sanctuary off the coast of Sihanoukville in 2011. All-inclusive rates start at $US1336 a villa a night (low season runs from May to October); see songsaa.com.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air Asia has a fare from Sydney to Phnom Penh for $448 return, including taxes. First fly to Kuala Lumpur (8hr) then to Phnom Penh (1hr 45min); see airasia.com. Rainbow Lodge is four hours by taxi ($US70, $73) or five hours by bus ($US10) from Phnom Penh.

STAYING THERE

Rainbow Lodge has seven bungalows: three doubles and three with twin beds ($US75 a room), and one family unit ($US100 for two adults and two children), including all meals and unlimited use of kayaks; see rainbowlodgecambodia.com.

CAMPING THERE

Rainbow Lodge's overnight camping trips cost $US15 a person (minimum two people, maximum four), including camping gear, food and boat transfers. The trip costs $US30 if you want to trek to the campsite with a guide (5hr) and take the boat back.

MORE INFORMATION

tourismcambodia.org.

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