A Glance at the History of the Cardamom Mountains
The Cardamom Mountains – a mountain range in southwest Cambodia that extends along a southeast-northwest axis from Koh Kong Province on the Gulf of Thailand to Veal Veang district in Pursat province – is not only the home of Cardamom Tented Camp, but is also one of the largest and ecologically richest jungle habitats in mainland Southeast Asia. In fact, its remoteness is still revealing long-hidden secrets from centuries ago.
More recently, this largely inaccessible mountain range formed one of the last strongholds for Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime during the Cambodian-Vietnamese War in the late 1980s. Driven from power by the advancing Vietnamese troops, the mountains became an impenetrable sanctuary for the fleeing Khmer Rouge fighters, as well as refugees trying to escape the fighting.
However, there is evidence that this rich biodiversity has played an important part in the region’s development as far back as the 1st century AD. A unique rock art site known as Kanam, located in Kravanh district, Pursat province, came to the attention of Cambodia’s Culture and Fine Arts Department in 2007. While local residents in the area had long been aware of the rock art, it wasn’t until 2015 that the paintings were officially recorded. Painted using red ochre, over 220 separate images were identified and comprised mostly of elephants, deer, banteng, buffalo, as well as paintings of humans riding elephants and other unidentifiable creatures.
While the dates of the paintings and nature of the site’s activities remain unknown, archaeologists believe they could be related to the capture of elephants and training practices, as well as a thriving deer hunting industry. While these practices have been recorded in chronicles as far back as the Funan, Chenla and Angkor kingdoms in the first millennium AD, many indicators at the site pointed to a post-Angkor period in the 15th to 17th centuries, when deerskins from Southeast Asia were in high demand, driven by Japanese consumers.
At the time, Taiwan’s deer population had been practically wiped out due to the insatiable Japanese demand for Samurai armor and other deerskin accessories. As a result, deer hunting had shifted to Thailand and Cambodia and it is possible the paintings played an important role in rituals seeking the assistance of ancestors and spirits for a successful deer hunt.
Another intriguing story to emerge from the Cardamom Mountains was the discovery of several sites containing burial jars and coffins hidden on the ledge of a 100 meter-high cliff in an isolated area of the forest – a place that had remained hidden for centuries. Partially covered by foliage, the sites were discovered on a conservation boundary survey expedition in 2000. Thought to be contemporaneous with the rock paintings, one of the burial sites at Phnom Khnang Peung uncovered 42 intact jars and a dozen human remains, as well as a number of tiny coffins containing more body parts.
While some of the jars at the site proved to be Angkorian, the majority of them were found to have originated from Thailand. This was puzzling to researchers and suggested that there must have been a connection to Thailand through maritime trading routes. It was believed that the people living in the Cardamom Mountains did not have direct links overland through trade with Thailand, and must therefore have traded products such as ivory, resin and wood with ships at the nearest seaport in Trat, Thailand.
Then, in 2005, fishermen off Koh Kong Province in the Gulf of Thailand found the same kind of jars caught up in their nets. This led to the amazing discovery of a sunken vessel, known as the Koh Sdech Wreck, dating from the mid to late 15th century – the same period as the rock paintings and burial site. On board the wreck ivory, beads, Chinese porcelain and both Thai and Angkorian jars were discovered. The Thai jars, which were similar in design to those found at the Cardamom burial sites, were a type of ceramic known as Mae Nam Noi, fired in the kilns of Ayutthaya, and most likely transported to the Gulf of Thailand along the Chao Phraya River.
Despite these incredible discoveries deep in the forests of the Cardamom Mountains, the region has remained relatively isolated, but all began to change in 2002 with the construction of the trans-border freeway, Route 48, in Koh Kong Province, connecting Cambodia and Thailand. The new route cut through 100 km of previously untouched impenetrable forest, providing poachers with easy access to the heart of the Cardamom wilderness. In April of 2002 alone, poachers killed 37 elephants and 12 tigers, and land grabbers lit 37 to 40 forest fires everyday as part of their illegal slash and burn farming.
The crisis led Wildlife Alliance to step in and protect the forest, which at the time had no rangers or central government protection in the southern Cardamom forest. In fact provincial authorities had been directly responsible for pillaging forest resources due to the lack of supervision and regulation from central government. There was even evidence that the provincial government was involved in the illegal logging and wildlife trafficking – directly benefiting from the lucrative business.
In recent years there has been a more concerted effort to protect his pristine habitat and in April 2016 Cambodia’s Minister of Environment announced that the Southern Cardamom forest would be protected as a national park. Wildlife Alliance has continued to play a critical role in healing the forest by employing 98 forest rangers across six ranger stations in the Southern Cardamoms, helping to protect approximately 2 million acres of land.
At Cardamom Tented Camp in Botum Sakor National Park, which makes up the coastal forest habitat of the Cardamoms, we work with Wildlife Alliance rangers to actively protect a 180 km2 land concession on which we are located – keeping it out of the hands of loggers, poachers and sand dredging operations. Visitors to Cardamom Tented Camp are able to participate in efforts to protect this pristine evergreen forest through helping to replant indigenous trees, assist Wildlife Alliance rangers on their patrols to two rangers stations, and help set up camera traps and other conservation activities. Through this unique experience, visitors have the opportunity to learn about the prevailing wildlife, nature and the external influences that continue to threaten this unique region of western Cambodia.