Race to the spice highlands: An expedition to the Cardamom Mountains

Helicopter Crew

The crew gets ready for takeoff. (left to right) Viboth Ly, Brendan Buckley, Volker Grabher, Sarit and Philip Thomas

Part I: Getting There
Part II: The Impenetrable Forest

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Feb. 16, 2011 — The mass of Phnom Samkos loomed in front of us, emerging from the landscape as an impressive wall of green, with a long sandstone escarpment visible on its northern face. Nearby, the slightly lower, nipple-topped Phnom Kmoach stuck out from the ridgeline offering a great view of its fully vegetated summit. Volker spun the chopper around, seemingly a few meters above the treetops in a dizzying arc, and we saw that there was no place to land. The mountain was covered in a dense and stunted forest of angiosperms, and in all directions as far as we could see the canopy was unbroken. A wonderful report on the area by Jeremy Holden (pdf) from his 10-day expedition in early 2010 noted the dense forest cover and treacherous conditions the entire way. We were, therefore, not surprised by what we saw, but we had thought it might be worth a look anyway. From Jeremy’s pictures of the mass if I thought I could see a cover of dark green on the summit of Phnom Kmoach that may have been a dense cover of conifers, but it turned out not to be the case.

Helicopter Crew

Viboth (left) and Sarit on their first helicopter ride.

“I don’t think we can put down here.” I said through the headset, competing with the chopper’s rotors. “Volker, let’s see if we can find that veal|, popUpContents=|Cambodian term to describe high open meadows.|] on the open ridge that we saw on the map?”

“Sure thing, mate.” Volker hovered a moment, the rotors of the chopper thwup-thwupping their steady beat in the air above the trees. The downward wind parted the trees intermittently so that we could see to the forest floor in rapid glimpses, and then we veered off to the southwest by what in a straight line was no more than 5 or 6 kilometers, but would have surely been several days of hard slogging to negotiate on foot. The scale and ruggedness of this place, now that we were seeing it up close, was truly daunting. When we reached our next target location, on an unnamed ridgeline, we could see the open veals (Cambodian term to describe high open meadows.) laid out like a patchwork quilt on the upper flanks of the mountain. We would be able to put down here.

Volker did a flyover of the entire mountain, buzzing over two stream-bearing valleys on either side of the north ridgeline, before we decided to put down on the highest open space. Several great hornbills, a sure sign that this was indeed primary forest, vacated their perches in the treetops as the chopper passed over them. There were some huge trees in the valleys, a broad mix of species with the only conifers we noted being Dacrycarpus imbricatus, a southern hemisphere podocarp that is distinguished by its two forms of foliage on the same tree. As it turned out, this would be our primary target species of this trip, since it was the only conifer we found in any numbers at all. As we neared touchdown we could see thousands of the newly discovered pitcher plants carpeting the open veals, blowing wildly from the chopper’s downdraft.


Great hornbills are spotted, a sure sign that we are in primary forest.

“This is pretty spectacular!” I stated enthusiastically as we set down, trying to get a rise out of Philip who, true to his nature, was scarcely demonstrative but was clearly moved by the spectacular ride in. “Indeed” came his response, which was about as much of a verbal response as I could have hoped from him. I looked to the seats beside me, where Sarit and Viboth were grinning enthusiastically, giving simultaneous “thumbs-up” indicating their approval of the first helicopter ride of their lives. This was going to be special, I thought, as the chopper came to rest and the whine of the engines gave way to the desolate silence of this vast wilderness area.

crew helicopter

We are on our own now.

The Cardamom Mountains in southwestern Cambodia reach a maximum elevation of 1,770 meters, span an area of 4,420,000 hectares, and are home to Southeast Asia’s greatest area of virgin forest and wildlife habitats. Most of this remote range has never been fully explored nor catalogued, and little in the way of botanical survey has been conducted. In 2000, Fauna and Flora International, Conservation International, and the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Protection Program conducted a joint survey that covered only a small part of the vast expanse of unexplored land and identified 30 large mammal species, 30 small mammal species, more than 450 birds, 64 reptiles, 30 amphibians, and many other plants and insects. Elephants, tigers, clouded leopards, the Asian sun bear and black bear, pleated gibbons, and Siamese crocodiles, all of which are high on the endangered species list, can be found in the Cardamoms. The inaccessibility of the higher mountains, coupled with the installation of numerous land mines at the lower elevations (the Cardamoms served as one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge) helps to preserve much of the area as wilderness. However, as we saw on this trip, encroachment by mining and hydropower interests is beginning to open areas of the Cardamoms to increased threats to its level of wildness. But at least for now this is the largest expanse of remaining wilderness on mainland Southeast Asia.


Several Neolithic “jar sites” (burial jars with human skeletal remains) are found scattered around the mountains, and I visited one of these sites last year at Phnom Pel with Dr. Nancy Beavan. At the Phnom Pel site, 12 log coffins were found along with numerous ceramic jars with skeletal remains that dated back to the 15th and 16th centuries. The jars carry the bones of deceased that, local legends suggest, are the remains of Khmer royalty, though their true nature is still a mystery waiting to be unraveled. My interest was primarily in the log coffins themselves, for their potential use for tree ring analyses. I took small samples of each of them, just a few grams each, for Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) dating, to give us the date of the outermost rings from each coffin. I plan to write a future blog entry with more detail about these amazing sites, as Nancy and I plan additional research in the next year or so.

Mr. Sarit.

Our very competent and quite good natured guide, Mr. Sarit.

Few people live within the Cardamom Mountain Range, but those that do are living at a subsistence level and pose threats to the biological diversity of the region by logging, wildlife hunting, and slash-and-burn agriculture. About a third of the ecoregion has been designated as protected area, the largest being the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary where we now found ourselves, standing in a 1300-meters high veal.  We waved to Volker as he lifted off and flew back to Phnom Penh, and that was the last contact we would have with anyone for the next 3 days. We had arranged for a satellite phone that proved to be unavailable at the last minute, so we had to make a decision on the spot to shorten the trip to 3 nights, to allow us to move elsewhere if need be. As the chopper lifted over the nearby mountain ridge, the silence replaced the chopper’s whine like a switch had been flipped, and we were about as alone as we could be, the four of us, as the wildness of this place sunk in.


Many varieties of orchid grow in the Cardamom Mountains.

The first thing we noticed was the thousands of pitcher plants that inhabited these veals, along with an equal number of orchids of many species and a variety of small flowering plants. Since I work with trees I am not  used to looking at the ground and at flowers and shrubs. However, both Viboth and Philip are botanists and were along with me to help me identify exactly the species I would be finding in these mountains, and to take voucher specimens from as many plants as they could, thereby initiating the first proper botanical survey of this region of the Cardamoms. As hard it was to believe at the time, we may have been the first people ever to set foot into this valley. After bashing and slashing our way through the shockingly dense vegetation over the next three days, however, it became easier to believe. While the time we would spend in this forest was to be short, it was clear that one would be hard pressed to cover more than a few kilometers in a single day. It was seriously rough country, and a truly wild and beautiful place.

Part II: The Impenetrable Forest

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