The rarely explored, and somehow disregarded, Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri province hides in it the real beauty of nature. With only very few people who were interested enough to journey deep into the wilderness, Virachey – which may be the world’s greatest park – remains almost unknown. But explorer, conservationist and academic Gregory McCann is determined to know the secrets, stories, and spirituality of the land. He spoke to Eileen McCormick recently.
Good Times2: How did you start your work in Virachey National Park?
McCann: I was in a PhD programme in a Taiwanese university studying Ecocriticism. There were few major texts that then led me to a concept called bioregionalism. I wanted to learn the stories of the land. When I started in 2009-2010, I discovered that animism was still at the core of the culture in the wild borderland of Ratanakiri. In Taiwan, the connection to land and spirits somehow got lost. That’s why I got very curious how Cambodia maintained its traditional beliefs. I began to read a lot of books about eastern Cambodia and why it’s still practicing animism. From my research, I realised that I could go for treks in the jungle and meet the indigenous tribes. It is because of the pre-existing connection of the environment and animism in Virachey that I chose it.
Good Times2: What are some key challenges for you and your work?
McCann: The Veal Thom Grasslands are the most beautiful place in any national park. The problems is, as Tim Radford has said, the Virachey National Park is too close to Vietnam that people from the border cross and literally bulldoze roads. There are just too many poachers and loggers from Vietnam. I was told that in the 1950s and 1960s, all of Cambodia was considered a national park. I think it’s important to note that most of the members of the Khmer Rouge came from that area.
One of my guys was born in the national park. When he was eight, he saw his father step into a landmine and die in front of him. After the war, it was suspected that there were many Khmer Rouge sympathisers who gave Vietnam an excuse to go in, invade the land and kill off entire ancestries. One of my other guys had his entire family massacred. He was spared so he could be put to work. He carried his mother’s dead body. I think there’s been so much horror and suffering that’s why people don’t want to be overly aggressive in protecting their lands. Many of them still suffer post-traumatic syndrome from all the violence that took place in their communities for the last 30 years.
Good Times2: What has been some monumental changes since you began working in Virachey?
McCann: I would have to go with my camera traps project because it’s too difficult for me to focus on spirituality. Once you introduce an economy into a place, it seems that you also begin to change people and weaken their spirituality quickly. I don’t blame them because they need money to support their families. It’s human nature. The thing about camera traps is that they keep capturing certain animals over and over, even the ones that we thought were already extinct. Within three years of setting up camera traps, the sighting of endangered species has increased. Some of the areas I worked at are blacklisted because people think the conservation is hopeless. But we were able to confirm the first sighting of an elephant in 10 years.
Good Times2: How does spirituality and conservation connect?
McCann: They say that it is the oldest form of conservation there is. The Veal Thom Grasslands area has very specific mountain ranges and each of them has a name. If the mountain ranges, trees and lands have names, there is a big chance for them to be in better shape because the people think they are significant and symbolic. There would be no need for conservationists and park rangers to protect these areas because the indigenous people can do it themselves. Unfortunately, rouge Vietnamese loggers come in and ignore their policies. They take what they believe is an extended part of their country’s territory and sell it for profit.
Good Times2: Can you tell us about some of the land spirits?
McCann: Tiger Cave is my favorite. From there, you can see a panoramic view of the border mountain range and they all have names. The fact that these places have names and stories amaze me. They said that one of the bigger Gods came down in the time of the great flood where water rose up to the top of the mountain. There was a woman and a tiger who had no choice but to mate in order to repopulate the land. From their human, a half-human and half-tiger being was created.
I also know that some of the mountains are named after real people who did amazing things such as this one guy who was in love with a girl. The guy set out to make money but when he returned, the girl was said to have been kidnapped by a tiger. He went to the jungle and fought hundreds of tigers and got his beloved back.
There’s also a mountain that helps to bring rain during drought. It’s named Crown Mountain. This mountain was named after a man who was arrested during the French colonial period for not paying taxes. He prayed for the land spirit to free him and the legend says that his handcuffs magically fell off.
From that day on, the people worshipped the mountain.
Good Times2: What is one of the scariest moments you have had in the forest?
McCann: I’m not sure if it was in 2015 or in 2016, we we’re going to check our camera traps. But my health took a scary turn which I later found out was kidney stones. I’ve never experienced a pain like that in my life. I was vomiting and bending in agony. I thought I was going to die. All the team could do for me was lay a plastic tarp on the ground and allow me to roll around from 7 pm to 7 am. They called up the embassy to see if they could medevac me but the price was too high.
Looking back, one of the reasons I think I got so sick was because of limited water intake. But the local guides had a different idea why it happened. They said that because I drank too much rice wine the night before, I missed a major ceremony of sacrificing a chicken that was supposed to protect us on our journey. While I was lying in agony, the guides pulled my tarp to an open area so the land spirits would be able to find me and forgive me. When I woke up the next day, I was already fine.
Good Times2: Have you had any encounters with a land spirit?
McCann: I once encountered a spirit while I was under sleep paralysis. I was in panic when all of a sudden, I saw this big animal similar to a deer. But I knew it wasn’t a deer. All of a sudden, I heard the person next to me scream and something crashed to the ground. I knew it was real because the people saw it, too.
Greg McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book ‘Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor’. Readers can help support McCann’s efforts in Virachey National Park by making a small donation at https://www.paypal.me/GregoryMcCann