There is something to be said for eco-tourism. I am all for any scheme that allows you to trek into the jungle, sleep in tree houses, travel by zip wire while looking for monkeys.
It is an amazing scheme, massively painful to get to (probably a good thing) but amazing all the same. Seven tree houses built in the middle of the northwestern Laos jungle joined together by a network of zip-wire cables, some up to a kilometre long.
At 160 Euros a head for the three-day waterfall tour it is uber expensive when compared to day-to-day travel in Laos but it was definitely worth every cent. The jungle is beautiful and the zip wires are mind-blowing fun. It also ticks a lot of boxes for the contentious traveler. Established by a foreigner, the management of the project has since been handed back to the locals who are also employed as guides, cooks, drivers, builders and for maintenance. The scheme is located in an area nominally designated as a National park but as the government does not provide protectionist resources illegal logging and poaching are rife. The Gibbon Experience now funds the employment of local rangers to patrol 25% of the park.
I would love to meet the dude who had the imagination to visualize such a scheme let alone the ability to bring it to fruition.
Unfortunately no Gibbons for us. Apparently you have to be quite lucky to see them at this time of year. We heard them, saw where they slept and where they ate. It was just like going to an open for inspection of a rental property that still has tenants living in it. Nonetheless, the trekking and zipping was more than enough to entertain us. Flying across a gorge suspended hundreds of metres in the air on a kilometer long cable is an amazing experience. Zip wire is well and truly the highest form of travel.
For our last Cambodian weekend away we headed to the Thai border and the Cardamon Mountains. An untouched expanse of jungle covered mountains, plunging gorges and winding streams. Home to an abundant range of wildlife: tigers, elephants, gibbons and crocodiles. Refuge for the deposed Khmer Rouge resistance. Our abode was to be the Rainbow Lodge, an eco-resort nestled into the green shores of the Kep River.
The booking confirmation included very specific instructions on getting there. We caught the Virak Buntham bus and started counting bridges. About four hours after leaving Phnom Penh we hit the third which was our queue to send a text message to the lodge owner Janet. About half an hour later we slowly wound our way down to the Phum Doung Bridge and reaching the other side hailed the driver to pull over.
Stepping off the bus is both breathtaking and a little daunting. Jungle covered slopes tower majestically over the gently winding waters of the Kep River. But when the bus disappears up the mountain in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes you quickly become aware of your more immediate surrounds. An abandoned quarry littered with a couple of sheds, broken down earthmovers and heaps of busted rock spread around both sides of road while the rusty hulls of sunken barges rot in the shallows beneath the bridge. A small village, little more than a couple of huts and sheds sits on the other side of the bridge. You really feel how far you are from civilization.
It wasn’t long before we noticed our guide G leaning in the shade of the bridge. We loaded our bags into the skiff and were off up the river. Soon our abode came into view. Nestled on the riverbank is Rainbow Lodge, green painted peaks towering above. We worked our way up the trail to the bar where we checked in and received the first of a series of talks pitched to the conscientious traveler. Topics include responsible use of power, responsible use of water and responsible eating (food is included in the package). For its electricity, the lodge relies on solar with sparingly used generators providing a back-up.
Rainbow Lodge is by no means lavish, seven reserved but comfortable bungalows are linked together by a series of raised walkways. You get the basics, bathroom, fan, cold water (if there is power) and a resident Tokay (a colourful large gecko named after its distinctive call). In the centre sits a plain, open-air but surprisingly well-stocked bar.
Being English Janet makes a mean G&T and also has an interesting story to tell. Tiring of a London legal career she took a year sabbatical and did some volunteering. During that time she discovered Cambodia and got it in her head that eco-toursim was the go. She spent six months on the back of a rented motobike exploring every mud track and goat trail she came across until she found her spot. After six months of construction she opened Rainbow Lodge. There she, her dog Sunny and cat Psar Chma (market cat) pile their eco-tourist trade.
The lack of creature comforts is well and truly compensated for by the beautiful surrounds, relaxed vibe and fantastic food. You can sit, relax and enjoy the quiet. Lounge by the river and watch local fishermen with their skiffs and cast nets. They also offer a range of boat trips, sunset cruises and guided jungles treks.
The first day we thumbed a lift with a camping trip up the river. The boat ride was amazing, still and hot as hell to start with then in a heart beat the wind picked up and a crowd of low hanging clouds brought a torrential rain down from the mountains. An hour so up the river, just as the rain cleared we arrived at a series of rapids. We spent a couple of hours swimming and exploring the rocky river bank while a tarp and hammocks were set up for the Dutch couple staying there the night. Not a soul or electric light for miles, just the sound of the river and the light of the moon and stars. We waved our goodbyes and headed back downstream jealous as hell. That jealously did fade a little later that evening once an exquisite barbeque buffet had been demolished.
The following day we joined Mr Lei, a former ranger at the Botum Sakor National Park, on a guided trek to the Talai waterfall. To be honest, only the first three hundred metres could really be construed as trekking after that it was three hours on a gentle jungle trail. Beautifully coloured butterflies, dragonflies, birds of all sorts, shapes and sizes accompanied by the elusive call of Gibbons. Oh, and loads of leeches.
The Talai waterfall changes with the ebb and flow of the river: following the rains it is a gushing torrent that spans the entire gorge and at the height of the dry it is reduced to a gentle cascade. They say no two visits to the waterfall are ever the same. That was certainly true in Amy’s case; her first view was obscured by the bare arses of two French retirees. That aside, the day we visited the waterfall was at its pristine best. A series of cascading falls feed dozens of pools transforming them into natural spas. We spent the remainder of the day watching our cares wash away in a relaxed stupor. It was late afternoon when the boat arrived to take us back to the lodge. Later that evening we were joined by a snowy owl who through luminous eyes watched us devour every morsel of a delicious three course dinner.
If you are looking for luxury on your weekend away don’t go to Rainbow lodge. But if you are looking for great food, to relax and enjoy the quiet or hike stunning and untouched wilderness whilst leaving the smallest footprint possible then Rainbow Lodge is the place of you.