During the 2019 Khmer New Year, while Cambodian people nationwide were enjoying the festivities on April 14 to 16, I was fortunate enough to travel with a professional photography team to Virachey National Park, which sits in the northeast of Cambodia.
Situated some 50 kilometres away from Banlung, the provincial city of Ratanakiri province, and 636km from the Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, Virachey is rarely explored and somehow disregarded.
Virachey National Park offers an incredible insight into Cambodia’s wilderness.
The national park is home to trees aged over a thousand years and a wide-ranging wildlife, including a rich variety of bird species, all living together in harmony within the dense semi-evergreen lowlands and montane forests, across the upland savannah and bamboo thickets, as well as the patches of mixed deciduous forests.
We followed a ranger for a two-day jungle trek starting on the dirt roads to Voeun Sai, the banks of the Sesan and O’lalai rivers. We encountered many jungle treasures, such as rare plants, insects, and waterfalls.
We slept on hammocks in the forest, accompanied by a bonfire. We cooked the local minority group’s traditional cuisine, and experienced drinking coffee and tea from a bamboo cup in the morning.
Virachey has been the home of local tribal people for many centuries, and it remains as a centre of cultural diversity of the region.
The ethnic minority groups such as Brao, Tampuan, Kavet, Kreung, and Bunong, continue to rely on the natural resources for survival.
Most of the indigenous communities are subsistent farmers who practice slash-and-burn agriculture, a traditional system of crop cultivation in which new plots of land are cleared every year, allowing for previously farmed plots to regain its fertility and be reused.
Most of the highlander communities, known as the Khmer Loeu, are animists. They believe spiritual forces have influence over the entire natural environment, including the sky, earth, forest, hills, stones, streams, waterfalls, and rice fields.
They respect and fear spirits. When one arouses the anger of the spirits, one would suffer with sickness or even death.
Since many tourists began visiting the province, an increase from 6,000 people in 2002 to 118,000 in 2011, some communities began offering homestay-style lodging. Prices range from $10 to $15 per night and includes refreshments of cold beer, coke, and traditional cuisines to trekkers as they come out of the jungle after their exploration.
Virachey National Park hides a real beauty of nature.
On our next trip to the park, we look forward to experiencing a tough jungle trekking adventure to Veal Thom grasslands, which local people call the dragon tail, in reference to the geographical area that connects Cambodia to Vietnam and Laos, like the golden triangle of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
Our group expects to see burnt yellow savanna hills sitting before a huge dark green mountain, and learn about the land’s secrets, stories, and spirituality.
Virachey National Park is the largest among seven other national parks in Cambodia, including Kulen, Kep, Ream, Kirirom, Botumsakor, and Preah Monivong. National parks play significantly important roles in economic development and environmental protection.
Rithiya Sreu is a youth volunteer for Asian Cultural Council.