A Climb of Phnum Aoral, Cambodia, 1801 meters, (May 6-8, 2005)
Participants: Pius Fischer, German Ambassador
Jens Richter, Advisor, RUA, Faculty of Forestry
Ray Hossinger, Exec.Manager, Cambodia Development Research Inst.
Ms. Son Chhaykhia, administrator, World Bank Water Project
Mr. You Sethirith, translation staff of CDRI
Martin Lutterjohann, Advisor, NACD
Departure from Phnom Penh: May 6, 2 pm with 2 vehicles (1 Pickup & 1 Toyota RAV 4)
Access route: Oudong, Thpong, Spien Daik (Iron Bridge), Lgnoeum, Aoral, Srae Kan 3
Arrival at Srae Kan 3: 6 pm
As we arrived in the final village, we immediately asked for the headman’s house, but were told that it was back in Srae Kan 2. We had no intention to fulfill our duty as it was just before dark, so we next asked for Bǎa’s or Chim’s house. The hut of Bǎa was right nearby. He was sitting by the fire preparing his evening meal. We told him of our intention to climb Aoral and - remembering Mike’s advice - stressed our plan right away that we intended to make it a 2-day round trip with just one night at camp 1100m. Bǎa insisted that we would need at least 3 days. I told him that an American had even done it in one day. We assumed that he might just call for more money, so we assured him that we would pay 3 days, even if it only took us 2 days. We also asked for 2 guides, which he was glad to hear. In the end he said that never before a group had climbed Aoral in 2 days. If we wanted to stand a chance we needed to get to the foot of the mountain by moto. We asked if there were enough motos in the village. That was no problem. How much would they charge? One of the riders said they would have a meeting, discuss the matter and then inform us of the result. As we walked 200 meters to Chim’s house, we overheard them talk about 30,000 Riel. We thought this sum O.K. as long as it was for the whole group.
We parked the cars in Chim’s compound. There was a snooker table under his house. A few youngsters were playing pool. We greeted Chim, and I handed him the letter of Huot, staff of FFI, which ended all discussions. They obviously now accepted the plan of the 2-day-trip. We unloaded our stuff and began preparing our dinner transforming the pool table temporarily to a kitchen table (the teenagers had left soon after our arrival). Chekhia quickly made a fire and started boiling water. Jens opened his cool box filled with ice cold beer and soft drinks. We enjoyed our improvised dinner standing around the table, eating cup noodles and congee, sardines, bread and sausage.
Meanwhile, the moto gang had come to the conclusion that 20,000 Riel per person would be right. We laughed at the idea to charge the same amount of money for a 30-minute moto ride as the guides for a whole day guiding up a high mountain. Somehow we then developed the plan to use the pickup for the whole group instead and have it guarded by two of the teenagers for whom the guides suggested we pay them 10,000 Riel per person. That was the ideal solution. We would then also have the car waiting for us after returning from the peak.
We went to bed just after 9 pm, all slept underneath the hut (in hammocks and on a wooden platform) except for me: I went upstairs and slept on the floor next to the couple’s sleeping area where they were enjoying b/w TV until I came up. They immediately offered me their place, which I refused of course. Distant karaoke music was heard until after midnight.
May 7: Just after 5 am we got up, sorted out our luggage and had a cup of coffee. By 6 am we were ready to leave. By 7 am we had reached the “parking area” in the forest and started the climb. The guides swiftly went ahead rarely looking back towards our group. We would have had problems to follow them were the vegetation in the lower forest as dense as in the upper rain forest. Once in a while they would stop and wait for us. We were a little reluctant to urge them so soon to stay closer to us, as they then might have argued that we would never make it to the top in one day if we walked as slowly as we did.
After one hour we had reached the first water hole. The water looked hardly tempting but at least was still flowing. Had we known the water situation at camp 1100m we would have made sure to fully stock up here. The guides then started to cook rice and eat their morning meal. We were not keen to be forced to put in a long rest after just one hour walking. But we also felt that we had to respect their eating habits. We ate a few bananas or biscuits in the meanwhile. We instructed the guides that it was their obligation to make sure that no waste was left – we found quite a bit when we arrived. They dutifully cleaned the place! After all we were in a wildlife sanctuary with limited access of the public.
After nearly one hour of forced rest we continued uphill. There was no trail. We scrambled up a fairly steep slope full of bamboo and rattan. One traverse was treacherous; the feet hardly found hold on the hard sandy slope. When the first in the group touched it, the top layer of soil slid downhill. Some of us nearly followed. Eventually we reached the normal trail, which looked so good that I called it National Highway 11. Bǎa explained that that trail was much longer and that he had chosen the shortcut to help us save time. We were not convinced that the shortcut had really saved us time. Anyway, we enjoyed the easy walk from then on and were often amazed at how good and comfortable the trail was. In reality following the trail with no guide in sight we realized that it needed concentration, as often only the cuts and twisted branches revealed the course of the trail.
Indeed after a while we learned to read the trail. Our couple had obviously failed to do that: After the descent from Point 950m and the traverse to the slope that leads up to camp 1100m, they somehow lost contact with the group. We only realized it when we had reached a point within 3 minutes from the camp. We decided to wait (as Bǎa said we had still 30 minutes to the camp) and asked Chim to go back and look for the couple. After one hour we were reunited (they reported that they had lost the trail and had walked in circles for a while). We once more recommended to the guides that it was better if one of them stayed at the back of the group.
At the camp we reluctantly filled our bottles with the brownish water from the creek. A few tiny pools were all that was left at this point late in the dry season (fortunately we had chemicals to purify the water). As we had rested one hour just before the camp, we decided to move on as soon as we were ready. We took out things we did not need for the climb, but left everything in the backpack that we might need in case of a forced bivouac.
Bǎa suggested that it would take 3 hours to the summit and 2 hours back. I had the 2 hours in mind that Huot had mentioned. Anyhow, we left at 12.40 and thus stood a good chance to be back before dark. Chim had stayed in the camp with the couple. Chekhia could have made it but said that she never had intended to go beyond the camp. Ray had wanted to go with us to the summit but at the same time felt that he ought to stay with her at the camp despite her encouragement that he go along with us.
The group stayed together. I kept close to Bǎa who always waited when he had gone ahead too far. And whenever he got out of sight and I was not quite sure about the trail, I would make a bird-like sound: O’, O’ – he would then respond likewise. This worked out well. The pace was far steadier than in the morning. There were two mild rain showers. We felt so hot that we would have desired a real shower. Because of the clouds it was less hot, there was also a cool breeze every now and then. The group made only one stop after the camp, just below the pre-summit. By 2:25 pm we had reached the main summit where we rested for 30 minutes. One lone leech was stretching and bending, but he (or she?) got none of us. All in all we just saw 2 leeches. Nevertheless I stuffed some tobacco into my shoes.
Rith was nearly shivering, so cold did he feel after sitting some time by the summit hole. So after having eaten and drunk we started the downhill trip, which took us 90 minutes. We reached the camp by 4:30 pm. Once more we filled up the bottles, fixed the hammocks, ate cup noodles or whatever, enjoyed the last sunrays in the tree tops and resigned to our hammocks as soon as 7 pm for lack of anything else to do. 12 hours in hammocks lay ahead of us. Nevertheless, first I was tired enough to enjoy the rest, later I enjoyed the stars, the noise of the forest, the distant lightning, the wind in the treetops, the cool air. Rith, however, felt so cold, he went to the campfire twice during the night, the second time at 3 am, he then even felt the need to eat bananas against the cold.
May 8: We were glad to get out of the hammocks at dawn. By 6:15 am we were ready to leave the camp. The guides had removed our waste including the one from the previous group. We did not remind them once more, they did it automatically, very good attitude! After a few minutes down the camp three in a row (me being the first) were stung by a bee or hornet, anyway the sensation lasted more than 24 hours but was endurable. Otherwise the downhill trip was uneventful. We figured out that it would take us 3 hours back to the car and that indeed was the time needed – including a rewarding 30-minute stop at Phnum Khnong Sal (Pine Tree Hill) the only place with a view that we had missed on the way up due to the shortcut (which went up the slope to the left). We had a final rest at the foot of that hill after the strenuous descent on a sandy slippery slope.
On the way back to the village we stopped at the stream and most of us enjoyed a very refreshing bath. By 11 am we were back in Srae Kan 3, paid the guides and the guard boys and bid farewell. Everybody was happy. We followed the other route back via Kantuot (with a detour to the hot springs) and then lengthy and boring Route 44 to Kompong Speu. Just after 3 pm we were back in town.
Additional Notes on travel to Phum Aoral
Phnum Aoral is a wildlife sanctuary managed by the international NGO Flora &
Fauna International (FFI), 8B, Street 398, Phnom Penh, Tel. (+885-23) 211
142. If you wish to climb or just contact FFI, ask for country director Mike
(012-294935, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ). Logging is rampant inside
the sanctuary; a ranger from the village where we slept the first night, was
killed a few months after our visit when he tried to intervene. The Military
is behind most illegal logging. Much of the land beside the road that leads
to the final village is now occupied by the Military and their families.
Many people have been evicted from the land they used to live on - a
frequent problem in present-day Cambodia. They now camp in front of Wat
Botum in the heart of Phnom Penh hoping that the Government may assign other
land to them.