In 2009 I traveled to Cambodia again for my clinical training project with the Cambodian mental health organization, TPO. I traveled alone, having long before gotten the hang of moving through southeast Asia successfully without knowing anything more than how to say hello and thank-you in three languages.
After this upcoming stay of about two weeks in Phnom Penh, I had decided to find an ecolodge in Cambodia for four or five days on my way back to Bangkok for the flight home, since my experience at Yarapa River Lodge in Peru the previous year had been so wonderful. I found one near the western town of Koh Kong, which I had visited before on an annual retreat with TPO. After the ecolodge stay I could take a bus to the town of Trat, on the eastern edge of Thailand, and then a small plane into Bangkok.
Rainbow Lodge was a new place owned and run by a former English barrister named Janet Newman. It was situated in the Cardamom Mountains on the Tatai River, and very reasonable. I contacted Ms. Newman with my local sim-carded phone and she told me how to get there. I was to call her number after the third bridge on the highway before Koh Kong and then her assistant would bring the boat down the river to the bridge and pick me up at the Tatai River bridge stop. It was June, the start of the rainy season, and I carried one large suitcase on wheels and a smaller wheeled laptop/files case.
The bus from Phnom Penh was cheap and would take about 5 hours. As we drove west on highway 48 we passed miles and miles of empty flat countryside, dotted only occasionally with trees. Much of Cambodia’s land, after being nibbled away by its neighbors over centuries, is floodplain to the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. “We are the water and rice people”, my Khmer friend now living in Minnesota said. I was looking forward to seeing a more mountainous and forested part of the country. As the bus rolled along, the rain started and stopped intermittently, often in downpours. After about four hours, I began looking for the first bridge. There it was! I took out my phone to check for a signal. No signal! Suddenly my confidence as a solo monolingual traveler started to seep out onto the plastic seats. I began to picture myself left by the side of an empty highway in pouring rain, with two suitcases, and no ability to explain my problem. “Don’t panic”, I thought. “There are two more bridges to cross”. Next came bridge number 2. Still no signal! “Ok, what is Plan B?” I pictured gesturing to one of the passengers about whether I could use their phone, hopefully with another cell phone company and a signal, to call. Now, was that last bridge #2 or #3? Had I missed one? Up ahead was another bridge. As we crossed it, I checked my phone one last time. A signal! I quickly called before it went away, got Rainbow Lodge, took a deep breath, and prepared to disembark at the river stop.
Rainbow Lodge was and is in a lovely lush bit of leftover tropical forest. Since 2009 the lodge has developed both as a lovely spot complete with yoga platforms and massages and as an economic endeavor designed to offer employment and environmental protection for the area, which has been under siege for decades (New York Times) The Chinese have wanted to dam the Tatai for hydropower. Illegal loggers have been cutting down the trees and shipping them to China and Vietnam. Local and international environmentalists have been documenting and witnessing for a decade or more. These battles reached their peak in 2013 when two Khmer activists exposing illegal logging were killed. (www.globalwitness.org)
Since then Cambodia’s long time premier Hun Sen has made public shows of protecting his country from illegal logging by legal and military means. Still, illegal logging goes on, now more focused on eastern forests and headed for the furniture trade in Vietnam and Hong Kong. (AsianCorrespondent.com)
Should you be traveling to southeast Asia and decide to visit this wonderful ecolodge, and I recommend that you do, please enjoy the sun, the jungle, the singing gibbons at dawn, the powerful Tatai river, the massages, and the morning salute-to-the-sun on yoga mats—but don’t forget to find out about your role in either protecting or hastening the demise of this threatened vital ecosystem. Lift up the mat!