How luxury tourism could help preserve biggest rainforest in Southeast Asia and its rare wildlife

Travellers to Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains can enjoy nature at its best, while helping to save the rainforest and its wildlife from logging and poaching, thanks to the launch of innovative tourism projects to support conservation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 8:17am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 12:02pm

A wooden hut is packed with ageing chainsaws, simple but lethal home-made wire and rope snares and rusty metal traps – all of them seized by the teams that patrol and protect Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains.

The weapons are just a small haul by rangers who guard the dwindling landscape and its diversity of wildlife. As Southeast Asia’s largest remaining rainforest, conserving the Cardamoms – home to rare flora and species teetering on the brink of extinction, including pangolins, Indochinese tigers and royal turtles, as well as remote indigenous communities – has become a priority for organisations that work tirelessly to guard the area.

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Decades of pillaging by hunters, illegal loggers and sand dredgers, who annually plunder thousands of tonnes of sand from the estuaries to export for construction, has taken its toll on the Cardamoms.

NGO Open Development Cambodia estimates the country’s forests are disappearing at a rate of 2,000 square kilometrres (770 square miles) a year, with seven per cent of the once pristine landscape destroyed in the last 12 years. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, according to NGO Wildlife Alliance, which has been protecting the rainforest since 2002.

Illegal logging scars the landscape, with luxury timber, including rosewood which sells for US$5,000 to US$8,000 per cubic metre, heavily felled. Vast areas of the jungle have also been cleared for agricultural development, such as rubber tree and palm oil plantations. Poachers prowl the dense forest on the hunt for endangered animals that fetch high prices in the region’s rampant wildlife trade – an industry estimated globally to be worth US$19 billion annually.

For example, pangolins fetch up to US$600 per kilogram on the black market, while a single tiger’s whisker – used in Chinese medicine – is worth US$10.

But help is at hand. Steps are being taken to protect the remaining landscape – and responsible tourism could be one of the latest weapons in the war to keep the Cardamoms alive.

“This region is the last great wilderness left in Southeast Asia and is also the geographical reason for the rains that power the great Cambodian agricultural machines in the plains,” says Bill Bensley, creator of Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Wild, a luxury tented camp slated to open in the Cardamoms in November, nine years after the organisation secured land concessions from the government, including 18,000 hectares in Botum Sakor National Park in the southern Cardamoms.

His is not the only tourism-driven initiative. In 2015, Wildlife Alliance teamed up with Khiri Travel, Yaana Ventures and Minor International to create the area’s first glamping experience in the form of Cardamom Tented Camp (CTC) – nine safari-style tents located in the heart of a key migration corridor for wild Asian elephants.

In early 2016, inspection of the camp’s site – a large area of open land where no trees would need to be felled – began. Materials were sourced and workers hired from the local area, and design work started in January 2017. Ten months later, CTC opened its doors. Until then, visitors to the area had been restricted to basic accommodation, including homestays, or roughing it in the jungle.

“In the south and north of these concessions, there are economic developments where forests are cut and replanted with palm oil and rubber trees and poaching is rife,” says Marius Herrmann, Yaana Ventures project manager, who designed CTC. “We are standing on the frontier and protecting the remaining evergreen rainforest.”

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The 325-hectare (800-acre) valley that connects Bokor National Park with Kirirom National Park was being auctioned off by the government, and was snapped up by Bensley for the Shinta Mani Wild luxury camp. Set in a previously unprotected wildlife corridor, Shinta Mani Wild will comprise 15 luxurious tents dotted along a 1.5km stretch of river.

The Cardamom Mountains is a very important area and protecting it is vital. These initiatives – and visitors – are really helping play their part in this.
Suwanna Gauntlett

The camp is working with Wildlife Alliance, the government and other organisations to protect the valley. As well as providing a sustainable form of income for nearby communities – many of whose members are fishermen, farmers and former poachers and loggers – revenue from both initiatives is ploughed back into Wildlife Alliance’s efforts.

These efforts help people such as Kroeung Vong, who has worked as a Wildlife Alliance ranger protecting the southern Cardamom Mountains for seven years. “I am dedicating my life to protect this forest for the future,” he says. “This is my cause. I am committed to ending the destruction of the forest and wildlife, but patrolling the rainforest is very difficult.”

Bensley hopes that these projects will set an example for future initiatives to protect and preserve the Cardamoms.

“Tourism plays a huge and growing role [in conserving the environment],” says Bensley. “In many places, governments can’t afford to pay for the protection of natural areas, management of parks and scientific research.

“High-yield, low-volume tourism can provide minimum impact solutions that [offer a] financial lifeline to protect and manage natural areas sustainably. Tourists are willing to pay dollars to see and experience these beautiful areas in intimate ways without crowds.”

Koy Lay operates a homestay in another of Wildlife Alliance’s community-based tourism projects, Chi Phat, and expects communities living close to Shinta Mani Wild and Cardamom Tented Camp to benefit from visitors into the future.

Tourists are willing to pay dollars to see and experience these beautiful areas in intimate ways
Bill Bensley

“Because we are protecting the wildlife together with Wildlife Alliance, our family has sustainable income through tourism,” she says. “We welcome thousands of visitors each year who come to visit this last untouched rainforest in Asia and view the wild animals.”

These projects offer visitors the chance to venture into the heart of the jungle, get up close to rare animals, meet the isolated indigenous communities that populate the forest and learn first-hand about the efforts being made to ensure this landscape is preserved for future generations – while returning to a comfortable bed for the night.

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There are plenty of reasons to visit: tourists can take boat trips and kayak down the gushing rivers that slice through the forest, cool down in waterfalls and trek to the cries of monkeys and singing of cicadas. They could spend the day on patrol with rangers, checking camera traps set up to film the wildlife that roams the area, or witness at first hand the shocking hauls of seized snares and traps.

For more hardened travellers and wildlife enthusiasts, tailor-made adventures spanning several days that go deep into the Cardamoms can also be arranged, including sleeping under the stars and foraging for food.

“The Cardamom Mountains is a very important area and protecting it is vital,” says Suwanna Gauntlett, founder and CEO of Wildlife Alliance. “These initiatives – and visitors – are really helping play their part in this.”

Something for every budget

Click on hyperlinks for information from operators’ websites about how to reach the tourist sites.

Cardamom Tented Camp: reached by boat from a departure lodge in the village of Trapaeng Rung on on Highway 48, the main highway linking Phnom Penh with Thailand.

Bensley Collection – Shinta Mani Wild:

You don’t need to go the high-luxury route to experience the Cardamom’s natural beauty. Wildlife Alliance operates a series of other eco-tourism options geared more towards travellers on a more modest budget.

Chi Phat: celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Chi Phat is a community in the Cardamoms that was once made up mostly of loggers and poachers.

Wildlife Alliance worked with villagers to equip them with the skills needed to offer visitors homestays, guided treks through the jungle, mountain biking, kayaking and nature-based activities. For more details contact:


Wildlife Release Stations: don’t expect the luxury of CTC or Shinta Mani Wild here; this is a back-to-basics experience. However, visitors do get to shadow the rangers who work at the site, which is home to a range of rare wildlife rescued from the clutches of hunters and traffickers and being rehabilitated and readied for release back into the wild.

Accommodation comes in the form of basic wooden huts, with food cooked up in a simple kitchen. For more details contact:

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STAR CBET: one of the latest community-based tourism ventures headed by the Wildlife Allliance, Stung Areng (STAR) CBET launched in January. A total of eight villages offer 22 authentic homestays, kayaking, mountain biking, trekking and 150km of nature trails. Contact Wildlife Alliance for information.

Getting there

Direct flights from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and nine East Asian countries to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, are available.