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Cambodians take to great outdoors to remedy Covid-19 claustrophobia

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Sreysor Pheng went on a gruelling 10-day journey to reach the spectacular views at the Chhay 100 waterfall. UNSEEN CAMBODIA

Cambodians take to great outdoors to remedy Covid-19 claustrophobia

Over the past three decades, The Post has regularly published features and news related to tourism and travel in order to serve our readership by informing them about aspects of the Kingdom or the region that they may not be familiar with, while also helping to promote the tourism industry which is vital to so many Cambodians’ livelihoods.

This mission wasn’t deterred by the Covid-19 pandemic, despite the inability of most people to travel outside of whichever country they happened to be in. Instead, we took a different approach that focused on domestic travel including secluded wilderness destinations and adventure trips as well as futuristic trends like virtual reality tourism.

The virtues of virtual

Museums around the world are increasingly turning to immersive exhibitions that use technology and a theatrical manner of presenting historical information and artefacts as their star attractions. Cambodia will soon have an immersive exhibition of its very own to excite locals and tourists alike.

Immersive Angkor will allow visitors to travel back in time by stepping into a large room with 3D images that emerge from eight directions and surround them, allowing them to see momentous events of the past play out right in front of their eyes.

“This immersive experience will utilise cutting-edge technology that allows people to witness a recreation of the temples being constructed through ultra-realistic 3D animations,” says Soreasmey Ke Bin, CEO of Confluences, the company responsible for building the attraction.

Of course, there are already hundreds of activities and apps that one can explore at home using virtual reality headsets like the Oculus, Valve, Vive or Playstation VR – all of which cost several hundred dollars each and they generally require a desktop PC with a fast processor, plenty of RAM and a graphics card that costs a few hundred dollars at minimum, so your total minimum cash outlay will likely surpass $1,000 – and that’s at the low end for pricing and, unfortunately, performance.

On the other hand, there’s a domestic tourism option that has taken hold recently that is practically free aside from a few essential pieces of gear that most people prefer to bring along. The hot new trend? Old-fashioned camping.

Adventures in the great outdoors

The Kingdom has experienced a boom in interest for camping, hiking and getting back to nature, mostly driven by younger Cambodians who are acutely aware of the environmental challenges faced here.

The trend has been equal opportunity, with many women also taking part in group camping trips as a safe and secure pastime that enjoys the helpful support of a community of enthusiasts always willing to lend their advice and expertise.

As the government began easing restrictions during the pandemic, some of the first activities that were deemed safe were nature hikes and camping because of the inherent isolation from crowds and the circulation of fresh air while outdoors.

Due to the pandemic, many Cambodians turned away from intimate social gatherings and instead opted to visit more remote and out-of-the-way natural attractions, which spawned a social media trend of people taking selfies featuring scenic natural landscapes.

For example, Tho Phirom, an amateur outdoors adventure-seeker, decided to make her first foray into the wild in July, 2021, when she visited Knong Psar, which required a five-hour trek over mountainous terrain to reach the point of intersection of Kampong Speu and Koh Kong provinces.

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Tho Phirom decided to join the growing number of women going on outdoor adventure camping and hiking trips. SUPPLIED

With a dozen friends who were mostly new to the outdoors, Phirom admitted that they were following the social media trend essentially, but she just wanted to get some space to breathe after being forced to stay home for many weeks.

“I wanted to recharge my life battery,” said Phirom, who said she enjoyed the stunning views of the mountain range and walking through meadows hidden away in the wilderness.

Though the five-hour hike wasn’t easy for her, Phirom said it was worth it to test her physical capabilities and the empowering affect it had on her spirit.

Choun Phirom, a well-known veteran of the outdoors and camping within the Kingdom and abroad, brings his entire family these days including two children under the age of 10 when he ventured forth into the wilderness.

Phirom led a 250km trek through the Cardamom Mountains from Kampong Speu to Koh Kong and neighbouring Pursat province to promote community-based ecotourism that is of great benefit to the mostly poor communities situated in these remote areas.

Phirom is interested in maximising the economic and social benefits that activities such as camping can bring to the forest communities and particularly how they might be able to profit from tourism by leveraging their knowledge of the local terrain to serve as hiking guides.

Picnic at Death Falls

Another wilderness adventure that garnered a lot of attention from the public recently was the story of Sreysor Pheng and her small group who went deep into the Cardamoms for 10 days in search of the Chhay 100 waterfall – also know by some as “Death Falls”.

She said she’d heard tales from old folks in the nearby villages about a beautiful waterfall, towering in height, that was hidden out in the middle of the mountain forests.

Sreysor, 26, is an environmental activist who has been dedicated to protecting Cambodia’s natural resources through volunteering and taking part in wildlife conservation missions since she was just a teenager.

“If anyone wants to visit Chhay 100, now that we’ve found the path to it, you will reach it in three days and enjoy very scenic views along the way,” she said.

But anyone intent on following in her footsteps needs to do it responsibly, said Sreysor, whose own journey there was difficult and harrowing, with her group getting lost out in the middle of nowhere and spending several days longer than planned wandering outdoors, which meant they were in danger of exhausting the supplies they brought for the trip before making it back to civilisation.

“Hikers can explore safely without disturbing nature and wildlife if they limit the number of tourists who can visit and don’t let crowds of them flock to one place at the same time,” she said. “And be prepared mentally for a tough hike. My physical strength as a woman may be less than that of men, but my inner power enabled me to overcome the obstacles in our path because of my love and affection for nature,” Sreysor told The Post.

Race to the top

Recently, two expats named Jacob Sims and Julien Brewster teamed up to challenge the climbing record for fastest to reach the summit of Oral Mountain with the goal of beating the time established by Fred Zalokar, 59, and David Minetti, 42, who set their record of three hours, 27 minutes and six seconds back on February 17, 2020.

On April 3, 2022, the duo set a new record of 2 hours, 26 minutes and 36 seconds. Their climb was witnessed by Chhoeun Chhim of Sre Kan III village’s Phnom Oral Tourism Community, who along with a few other observers confirmed the timing of their speedy ascent.

“We also really want to help Chhim and his ecotourism agency with publicity. Due to the Covid-19 downturn, local tour guide agencies have had a tough time making ends meet,” Sims said. “We hope that this record will elevate their profile and generate more business for the Oral Mountains tourism community.”

Their record did not hold for very long, however, as Kim Saroeun, 53, and his team from KK Running Club – including Khy Sophea, Kan Kunthy and Hiroshi Ake of Japan – swiftly took up their challenge, in more ways than one.

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(From left to right) Cambodian mountaineers Thy Sophea, Kan Kunthy and record-setter Kim Saroeun along with Hiroshi Ake of Japan summitted Mount Oral on June 4. SUPPLIED

On June 4, Saroeun reached the peak of Oral Mountain in 2 hours, 26 minutes and 8 seconds – meaning he arrived at the top and set the new record with just 28 seconds left on the clock. The rest of his team arrived at the top at various times within the next 30 minutes or so after him, but too late to be included in the record books.

After breaking the record, Saroeun and his team thanked Sims and Brewster for initiating public awareness of the Mount Oral climbing record and encouraged both of them to attempt to beat his new time at any time convenient to them.

“I believe Cambodia has a lot of strong runners and climbers, and I call on locals and foreigners – as well as Jacob and Julien – to try and break my record. Oral is the highest peak in the country and it is a very challenging run. If they cannot beat my time, they will at least set their own personal bests,” said Saroeun.

Birds of a feather

In addition to climbing to the top of Oral Mountain, be it quickly or slowly, another big attraction present there are the many rare species of birds that flock to the area.

Phnom Oral Tourism Community’s Chhim, who guides tourists to the top of Oral Mountain regularly, said the number of tourists has jumped dramatically now that the pandemic is fading.

“From the end of 2021 until now, our community guides have offered services to more than 2,000 visitors. But in 2020 and 2021, we received only a few local people, not many of them. But now we have a mix of nationalities again,” said Chhim.

Chhim recommends that visitors plan on spending three days in the forest in order to take in all of the interesting places and activities such as exploring reputedly haunted forest sites and bird-watching, because you can often spot rare species with exquisitely beautiful plumage.

Some of the rarest birds present include the chestnut-headed partridge with white stripes on its wings and belly and the Cambodian Laughing thrush – both of which can only be found in the Kingdom exclusively, according to Chhim.

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