Sihanoukville, Cambodia was our next port of call. We opted for an excursion to Ream National Park, Cambodia where we would take a river cruise on the Ou Trojak Jet River, visit a village and school, and hike through the jungle. Upon arrival, the morning was already hot and humid but we were excited to embark on our adventure.
A Bit About Ream National Park
Established in 1993, Ream National Park is located about 11 miles outside of the city of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The park area is about 81 square miles and protects natural resources as a protected area. The Cambodian government felt that the rivers, forests, mangroves, estuaries, beaches, coral reefs, wildlife, and marine life were in danger of exploitation.
** This was a commendable action, but there were some unintended consequences to consider. Among those consequences was the potential displacement of 300 longstanding residents. An agreement allows these families to continue living within the boundaries of the park. The caveat was blood relatives of the current occupants needed to occupy the homesteads that had been set up. These homesteads should fall into hands other than direct blood descendants, the land would be forfeited. In exchange for keeping the homestead, at least one family member had to agree to work within the park.
** Disclaimer: Our river guide give me this information. The information, although I believe it is true, has not been independently verified.
Our Time In Ream National Park
As soon as we arrived, we boarded motorized wooden boats to cruise the Ou Trojak Jet River. We separated into groups of ten and would remain in these groups for the rest of the excursion.
The mangrove-lined Ou Trojak Jet River, Sihanoukville’s longest river, runs from Otres Pagoda to Otres Beach. As we cruised down at a snail’s pace, the scenery was gorgeous. It was quiet and green, and the motor’s lull was almost hypnotizing. A glorious way to start the day. We saw mussel divers harvesting their catch.
As we moved along, I was dragging my hand in the water. One of the guests in our group was a photographer for National Geographic. He told me to get my hand out of the water informing me the water was full of harmful bacteria. He went on to say that even the smallest cut in the skin would be prone to infection from the river water! WOW! What about the mussels that they harvested? Were they safe to eat? The people who lived in the park used the river for bathing and wash their clothes! Had they grown immune to this bacteria? He informed me that yes, they were immune to the bacteria but persons not living in the area could become very sick! Hand out of the water!
After a while, we approached a dock where we would disembark our boats. We had some snacks and begin the next part of our excursion.
Hiking Through the Jungle
The boats had canopies so when we reached the dock and disembarked, it was surprising how hot the sun had gotten. The snacks, cold drinks, and lemon-scented cooling towels were most welcome! Then we separated back into our designated groups and begin the next leg of our journey. Our hike would take us through a village and school and then into the deep jungle.
The Village and School
Although we walked a cleared path, the terrain was a bit rough. As we approached a small inhabited village, while interesting, it was heartbreaking. You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out far below the poverty level these people lived. Many generations of families lived in one or two-room shacks with barely-there roofs. The shacks had dirt floors, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing. There were large mounds of rubbish that consisted of food waste, plastic, and cans. Of course, the odor was overwhelming and the flies almost intolerable. We learned from our guide that trash removal is not a priority in Cambodia. It happens partly due to economics but also the attitudes of the people.
Walking into the school was so troubling. Finding only a handful of students, because only a few children attend regularly. The children stayed in their homes and worked the land assigned to each family. Furthermore, books and other teaching resources are scarce. They rely on donations from other areas. There was only one one-room schoolhouse available for the entire population to receive an education.
It seemed that with each passing minute, the humidity and heat increased. Our guide was sensitive to the fact that many of us were uncomfortable. We stopped often in shaded areas handing out water and cooling towels.
On one of these stops, he picked lemongrass for each of us. With only about 2 tons of lemongrass exported each year, it is one of the largest exported goods of Cambodia. Asian countries use it in food and beverages, as well as medicines and cosmetics. Our cooling towels were scented with native Cambodian lemongrass harvested from the park, according to our guide.
The lush, green jungle was not much respite from the rising heat and humidity. Although the path was cleared, the terrain was still pretty rough. It was beautiful but it would not be suitable for people with medical or mobility issues. As we walked through, I kept thinking about the soldiers who occupied this jungle in past conflicts. I thought about the conditions that they face here.
An Oasis at the End of the Hike
Finally, as if by magic, we reached the end of the trail which opened into a beautiful beach on the Gulf of Thailand! Complete with a luxury hotel, restaurant, bathrooms, showers, and shaded areas it was a perfect way to end the hike. I will have to say that the opulence seemed out of place based on what we had seen at the beginning of the hike. I immediately headed for the cool and refreshing waters of the Gulf.
For some of you, it might feel as if I painted a bleak picture of the day. But, quite the contrary. Yes, the conditions, by western standards, were deplorable. What resonated the most with me was the humility, the pride, and the smiles on everyone we encountered. People are just people, no matter what conditions they live in or where they call home. There was no competition between neighbors. Families had a value that is rare and unmatched. And when it comes right down to it, we all want the same things as we journey through life and this glorious world. We want a roof over our heads, food in our stomachs along with peace, harmony, and happiness.
It’s not fair, to judge how those things are represented or valued by others. I found the Cambodian people to be quite hospitable that day and I walked away humbled.
Until Next Time, Friends, Remember “To Travel is to Live!”