Qantas Airways, Travel Insider - Free the Bears

A travel feature photography assignment for Qantas Airways’ Travel Insider inflight magazine, written by Ann Fullerton. The trip was part of a wider tour run by travel company World Expeditions. Below are some tear sheets from the article plus other shots from the Free the Bears sanctuaries located at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, Cambodia, and Luang Prabang, Laos. As well as a short side trip to Mandalao elephant sanctuary in Luang Prabang.

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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.