Northwest Samlot: Mines, Waterfalls and Angelina JolieMay 4, 2006
Tasanh Market in the clean early December morning light was a disorderly place with hyena like dogs trotting through piles of rubbish and chubby, greasy faced children wrapped up well in colourful nylon jackets. As we picked at bai suh ch’rook breakfasts fortifying us for a ride out to see waterfalls and on to the Thai border, our host’s earlier cautionary words came to mind. Making small talk, he had circled around one subject returning to it again and again; that being mines.
This district of Battambang Province is ridden with mines. Even as late as 1997, as many as 4000 landmines were being laid a day in this remote part of Cambodia which was one of the last hide outs of the Khmer Rouge. One in 27 people in here have been maimed by landmines, around 10 times the national average in a country which already has the highest rate of land mine victims in the world and only last year, fresh unmarked mines were found in the settlement of Tasanh itself close to the river and straight across from the health centre that triages the obligatory weekly mine victim and by coincidence serves as a guest house for strangers. Therefore, when traveling in Samlot it’s as well to be wary of mines especially as most accidents take place very close to the paths which snake through this most rugged and beautiful part of Cambodia.
The road northwest of Tasanh bends around to become an east-west road rather than a north-south one and a couple of kilometers later there is an intersection with a dusty settlement. This is Tasanh Cheung and there are a couple of cafes and drink stalls here but not much else.
Carrying on along this road for a further kilometer takes you to a T-junction with the left route leading to a Rattanakiri-like open grassy forest and the right route heading out to the Thai border.
We traveled towards the Thai border along a good road of solid baked clay passing dull, open featureless country and a wooden school donated by the actress Angelina Jolie before taking a sharp right turn at an enormous World Vision mine awareness sign, one of many gruesome tableauxs warning the populace of dangers lurking just off the beaten path.
The road north through Stung commune bend sharply and thereafter the scenery changes. Fields of tall feathery stalks swayed in the light morning breeze which in December was cool enough to cause the locals to be bundled up in assortment of colourful but ragged sweaters and jackets. Other fields were bare apart from red tin signs warning of un-cleared mines.
The track narrows and here and there dotted around are isolated hamlets smelling of fish sauce and small clusters of huts that don’t merit the title of village. Locals squatted in the shade, watching over ordered mats of recently harvested rice or tending dented pots over smoky fires. They silently sized us up as we bounced past through the dirt tracks which were sometimes sandy but more often made of sun baked mud with ridges, deep ruts and trenches caused by rainy season erosion.
We traveled onwards traversing rickety wooden suspension bridges.
Before the wars started in the late 60s Samlot was the only developed zone in the entire area. Samlot also saw some of the first events of the revolt that eight years later put the Khmer Rouge into power when, on April 2nd 1967, veterans of the first Indo China war and local communists acting independently of Pol Pot’s orders murdered soldiers who had been sent there to collect rice and grain. This policy of forcibly buying crops at a low rate from farmers, known as ramassage du paddy, prevented locals from selling their produce at a higher and untaxed rate to Vietnamese merchants and had provoked widespread dissent particularly in Battambang province.
The furious villagers and peasants responsible for the killings grew in confidence, stole weapons from the corpses and went on to burn down local government buildings later that day. Thirty years later, the district was still a Khmer Rouge stronghold.
Much of Samlot reverted to jungle over the thirty year period of war and unrest but now bounding on towards the waterfall we passed fields of banana, peanuts, cashews and huge durian trees, growing far bigger than durians can ordinarily be expected to grow. Elsewhere, we passed fields of low scrub and frequently the stumps of chopped trees jutted mournfully from the ground providing stark evidence of logging.
This is a Cambodia of remote stillness without pagodas or broken temples. The land is hilly and undulating and people are few and far between.
Eventually, after about an hour of riding, the track lead us to a pristine forest which has been rescued by the actress Anglina Jolie on her world tour of salvation. Ms Jolie has built her Cambodian home here and is spending around $350,000 a year over a 15 year period to rent the land across the river from the waterfall and develop a number of projects dealing with environmental protection.
The spotlessly clean conservation centre she has built here employs around 40 rangers and border police (see above) whose job it is to prevent agricultural encroachment, illegal commercial logging and the wholesale butchery of local wildlife for food and medicine. There are pit vipers, leopards, wild pigs, pheasants, porcupines, civits, loris, honey bears, sambur and other exotic creatures in the forest and all of them are vulnerable to poachers. As are the tigers which are still reputed to be out there in the forest somewhere and whose bones fetch locals $475 a kilo when sold on to the unscrupulous merchants who then profit vastly when the crushed bones are moved into the Chinese traditional medicine market.
The waterfall itself lies down a track which plunges steeply through about 300 metres of lush forest next to the conservation centre.
It’s neither a large nor spectacular waterfall but is set in a tree rimmed depression beneath blankets of vegetation; trees, creepers, ferns, lianas, bamboos and the virgin forest come in countless shades of verdant green.
The trees, including one spectacular large tree with an intricate root system running through the waterfall, provide both cool and shade and the pool of clean and clear turquoise water is ideal for swimming and bathing in.
Sadly, some small signs of civilisation are beginning to appear in the form of discarded water bottles, chewing gum and shampoo wrappers tossed away by the occasional Khmer visitors who enjoy risking their lives by climbing the trees up through the waterfall in typical daredevil style. These visitors are still fortunately few in number though and the area around the waterfall is still beautiful and far from trashed. In fact, it’s still a pristine pool and close to paradise.