BeTreed January 23

BeTreed is a magical place. A Lothlorien of light in a sea of darkness. Ok I’m getting carried away but it’s pretty special! And a thirty-seven-kilometre fence and trench that Ben is building aims to keep it that way.

Psaa Leur before we set off

Psa Leu in Siem Reap is not the place to visit after a sleepless night with a splitting headache. An overload of the senses as we walked through the stalls selling recently dead meat and fish that were still alive. Manus and Lina spelled out Khmer numbers for me to interpret and hand over the cash. We were buying our food for the next three days.

Ben’s perimeter trench

North at Stoung, easy for thirty kilometres before the border with Preah Vihear then a 4WD test track in a Hyundai people carrier.

Today’s meander through a forest included climbing the two-hundred-meter Phnom Tnaut accompanied by the haunting hoot of gibbons. And a lake where pigs wallowed in the mud and Lina picked leaves for lunch.

The entrance to the bat cave on Phnom Tnaut

The limey smell of bat poo permeated the forest before we saw a bat cave leading into the mountain. Quivering little bundles of life clung to the rock that launched into a chaotic swirl when the light from our phones illuminated them.

Soksan and Nick under a forest giant

We all heard it crashing through the dried leaves and caught a glimpse but Tree our guide saw the Sambar Deer calf. Legs nearing strike action I spotted the BeTreed tree house and the prospect of a cup of tea.

Legs approaching strike action

On the grass below the stilted house where we or rather Lina cooks, he’s our driver as well, the Long-tailed Macaques play, wrestle and groom waiting for a banana to be thrown. It’s mating season for the Green Peafowl so the males fan their magnificent tails while the hens carry on pecking at the grain Ben and Sharyn scatter. Alongside are Jungle Fowl, White -crested Laughing Thrush and emerald doves (I don’t know the species).

Molly the homocidal Pileated Gibbon

Molly the Pileated Gibbon came to tea and spotted a banana in the kitchen then when I wouldn’t give more and locked them up in the cabinet, launched off a beam and sank her claws in my hair reaching down to bite me in the shoulder, little Bitch! The homicidal monkey had it in for me, while Lina was wrestling with a dead chicken for supper, she followed me up the trail until I escaped on Amily’s motorbike.

Lina, Nick & Manus on route for Preah Khan 

Day two Preah Khan Kampong Svai Province took us an enchanting hour to cycle through the BeTreed woods until we reached Ben’s perimeter fence. It’s supposed to be part of an overall forty thousand hectare protected area of which only seven thousand actually are as we could see from the chamkar of logged land stretching almost as far as the eye could see. The recently planted cashew trees were little compensation for what has been lost.

The ancient temple city of Preah Khan has a peace it shares with those in Angkor and the Apsara controlled surrounding forest. A corner of the baray was still muddy with semi-submerged buffalo and a Wooly-necked Stork. We could land a helicopter here if the cycle ride proved too much.

Preah Khan Kampong Svai

A dusty crossroads, which amounted to a village and some corrugated iron which I suppose was a restaurant. Cha kroun with fatty pork gristle, a Cambodian staple dish that was almost as bad as what we had at the fancy restaurant in Phnom Penh. A twenty-five-kilometre ride on the red earth road back to the forest.

We were going to stay three, but in the end it was four nights so we could go for a gentle stroll that turned into a thirteen kilometre hike, bush bashing through lacerating grass and piercing seeds. A critically endangered Elongated Box-turtle stopped on the path in front of us, which didn’t help its conservation status. Everything has a price, had we been villagers it would have been put in our pack and sold in the market for $20 as solid chunk of protein. The tall dipteropcarp trees along the river are $200 only because they’re in a protected area and illegal to cut down unless of course Ben isn’t here to catch them.

Amily and Soksan with a critically endangered Box Turtle

We reached the river, which swirled with big fish as a result of Ben’s conservation program that allows them to breed and spawn new fish for the river downstream.Gallery after gallery of towering trees, thickets of bamboo that formed tunnels we walked through. 

Riparian forest along the BeTreed River

BeTreed is currently closed to guests while Ben finishes the Herculean task of building the perimeter barrier, creating fire-breaks for the inevitable burning that will come in the dry season and generally protecting and maintaining the core protected area mindful of the other thirty three thousand hectares. 

Sharyn is compiling carbon credits based on forest climate change mitigation that when agreed to will provide a sustainable future for the project and the possibility of local employment that does involve environmental degradation. Their two daughters are in full time study and Amily is preparing to go to university in Sydney.

Ben and Sharyn, the daughters and dogs

It was with a heavy heart that we drove off early that Saturday morning. The sun sending shafts of light through the trees. Wild Pigs and Jungle Fowl were eating the grain on the gravel, bulbuls, orioles, woodpeckers and Hoopoes flew in front of the car and an eagle perched beside the path watched as we left through the gate.

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