Cambodia Train

Recently shot a travel photography feature for Silkwinds, Silk Air's inflight magazine covering the newly reopened Cambodian train service from Phnom Penh to the south coast.

Long gone are the romantic days of train surfing on the roof of a dilapidated Cambodian train. After 14 years the passenger service from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville via Takeo and Kampot has been up and running for less than a year. Clean air conditioned carriages and soft seats make for a smooth ride, top speed is 60kmh. The passenger service currently runs only at the weekends. But is expected to run every other day soon. The windows in the carriages were sealed shut for the AC, But from between the carriages it is possible to open the doors and get a mix of fresh air with the odd diesel waft. A great scenic ride plus safer than bus or taxi. It is definitely worth the marginal extra time. Desapeeup la'or!

The magazine article by Jonathan Evans along with some of my photography can be found in the March issue of Silkwinds here.

Photographs from the journey can be found in the "Cambotrain" gallery.

Teuk Chhou Zoo Revisited

I recently revisited the privately owned Teuk Chhou Zoo in Kampot for the first time in about a year and a half. To my dismay I found many of the animals I had photographed in 2013 missing with empty enclosures. Namely the female leopard, two Bengal tigers, two Asian golden cats and a female gibbon and her infant, leaving her male mate alone where once together they lived a seemingly happy existence. The male gibbon still enjoys his head being massaged through the fence.

Other remaining animals looked unhealthy. Large birds of prey still in cages way too small for them with no shade from the baking heat, some with what looked like broken wings. I also noticed three new sun bears in the old orang-utan cage. A black bear in the tiger's enclosure and what looked like a different wild boar than the previous one I had photographed who foamed at the mouth.

Some people when asked informed me that the missing animals were moved to Prey Veng zoo, also owned by Nihm Vanda. I haven't been to Prey Veng zoo, but in a Google search the first results are "Zoo of Death" with petitions to "Close down Prey Veng Zoo"

Since the breakup between the zoo owner His Excellency Senator Nihm Vanda and NGO Footprints in 2013, the animals were in need of help yet again. Visible substantial improvements could be seen during Footprints short time at Teuk Chhou and positive stories were published in national newspapers and magazines such as the Phnom Penh Post and Asia Life. With titles in the realms of "Zoo on the rise" "Zoo back on track" Apart from the initial breakup these stories haven't been followed up since.

Are these animals dead? Have they been trafficked? Or have they been eaten, as the owner once stated if he couldn't get money. Or are the two zoo's being refurbished/cleaned/rearranged? If the animals are dying why introduce new animals? What is going on? It seems both zoos should be closed down.


Kampot Pepper Farm

Perched between sea and mountains at Cambodia’s bucolic south-eastern coast, Kampot’s pepper plantations benefit from a unique soil and ideal climatic conditions for growing. But it is not only the rich minerals in the soil, the right amount of rainwater and sunshine that performs the magic. It is also the farmers’ traditional cultivation methods that play a crucial role.

Most of the farms started replanting about ten years ago. Nowadays some twenty tonnes are harvested every season on a total area of about ten hectares.

It remains a mere fraction of the 2,000 tonnes that were grown before the Khmer Rouge regime destroyed the fields, a fatal combination of plummeting world prices of pepper and nearly two decades of war and conflict saw Kampot pepper being wiped off the international market.

Today the farmers and traders are upbeat about the future. The once-forgotten king of pepper is fast on its way to becoming Cambodia’s first export product with Geographical Indication (GI) status such as Parmasan from Italy and Champagne from France.


Bokor Hill

Frequented by the French colonialists and Cambodian elite, Bokor Hill was abandoned first by the French in the late 1940s during the first Indochina war, then again in 1972 by Cambodians as Khmer Rouge seized the area. During the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Khmer Rouge entrenched themselves on the mountain and held on tightly for months. Up until the early 90s the area was still a no go area, land mines, poachers and bandits still being a danger.

Today the allure of "wild" Bokor and its ecotourism potential is rapidly disappearing, clearing swathes of nature to be replaced by tasteless casino resort buildings, concrete parking lots, housing estates, golf courses, fast food restaurants and artificial playgrounds. Plans are underway for a complete "City in the Clouds" overhaul.

A new road was completed in early 2012 that was once a 32km bone jarring motorbike ride through the jungle. Now the best quality road in the country can be driven in less than an hour, wide enough to accommodate gambling bus tours from neighbouring Vietnam.

The once centre piece French colonial era Grand Palace Hotel still stands overlooking Kampot bay and the surrounding hills of Bokor national park. But sadly many of the old buildings are being demolished. The site is owned by the government but is under a 99 year lease to the richest man in Cambodia, Mr Sok Kong (Sokimex Sokha company). Sokha’s plans to redevelop the plateaus is said to be completed in 13 years.


Kampot Zoo

Eight kilometres from the Cambodian coastal town of Kampot, the surreal and tranquil Teuk Chhou Zoo sits in a idyllic valley at the fringe of Bokor National Park, where the Elephant mountains meet the plains of the Kampot River. The private zoo was realised in 1999 by His Excellency Senator Nhim Vanda, still the owner today. Over the years lack of finance and public interest rendered the zoo dilapidated, animal enclosures deteriorated and became unliveable, the animals were underfed and seriously neglected. Consequently many were malnourished and emaciated, culminating in sickness, depression and death.

After visiting the zoo in 2011 Rory and Melita Hunter, an Australian couple living in Cambodia pledged to do what they could to save the zoo's dying residents. Collaborating with Nhim Vanda and utilising the animal care skills of Nick Marx of the Wildlife Alliance, the situation was temporarily reversed and many of the animals were saved.

From this came Footprints, an NGO dedicating itself to the management and transformation of the zoo. A lease was signed with Nhim Vanda and plans for the future were slowly moving toward a "Teuk Chhou Wildlife & Educational Park".

In early 2013 the deal between Nhim Vanda and Footprints was abruptly broken over an unknown dispute and the future of the animals is uncertain once again.