The Death of Cambodia’s “Highway of Death”

A tropical rainforest paradise in Cambodia that I visited in 2010 to see a riot of wildlife including Black Giant Squirrels (Ratufa bicolor), a flock of about 75 green parrots that went up in a cloud of emerald splinters, and dozens of raptors swarming overhead has disappeared, replaced by an oil palm plantation.

I made my first big trek in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park in January 2010, then decided to take the motorbike “highway of death” to Senmonorom, the capital of Mondulkiri Province, some 550 km northeast of Phnom Penh, to do ethnographic research on the Bunong tribes that retained their animist beliefs in whatever scraps of forests were left there.

Just as I had made up my mind to make the challenging journey, which supposedly consisted of oxcart paths, sandpits, and myriads of forests trails leading into various no-man’s lands, two German women gingerly raised their sore bodies off the back of two motorbikes that had just rolled into Ban Lung. Their faces were caked in red dust and sand but their eyes shone with amazement. My driver, known only as John -- as I’d be riding on the back, as the Germans had – said we’d be leaving at 7am.

It was a stunning trip. I am 95 percent sure I spotted a Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis), a bustard species native to the Indian subcontinent, which would put it pretty far outside its known range. John said that if he had a bit of start-up cash he would have started offering tours to sleep near tigers. While I doubt that anyone had ever actually died on the Highway of Death it certainly had its thrills, and the best moment for me was waiting by the Srepok River made famous by the classic 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, waiting for our small wooden barge to ferry us across the brown languid river.

That is all gone today. Every last piece of it, even the Srepok River. Today a paved highway connects Ban Lung, the capital of Ratankiri Province, with Senmonorom, 200 km. away. The journey now takes two hours, while a modern cement bridge spans the Srepok River. The Srepok and Sesan Rivers are being dammed downstream by the Chinese, a US$800 million project. The Srepok Dam will flood 54.000 hectares, flooding 13 percent of the 400,000 sanctuary – all of the river areas. The dam is set to displace some 45,000 villagers and assert China’s growing – and alarming – influence across Southeast Asia. Colonel Kurtz would’ve had those busy beavers wiped out!

The once mysterious east, a place that saw fierce fighting between the North Vietnamese Army and American GIs, has been tamed once and for all.

I have come to expect this sort of thing in Cambodia. We live, after all, in a cataclysmic world. But there was one thing I saw last month on my way to Virachey that made my jaw drop: palm oil plantations. I have seen endless rows of oil palm plantations in Sumatra and Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia before but never in Cambodia. It couldn’t be! But it was! These were young palm oil plants, possibly two to three years old with another decade or so to grow to full fruition. But it was just beyond my imagination. Eastern Cambodia is going to become a vast palm oil plantation?

I asked a popular foreign restaurateur about it when I arrived in Ban Lung. “In 10 years,” he said wistfully, it will be all palm oil from Ban Lung to Senmonorom. Every last inch of it.” There was nothing left for us to say. Pour another glass of wine and enjoy the famous Ratanakiri sunset.

The next day we set out for a long trek through Virachey National Park to a different area of the Lao border where we heard two sun bears having a vicious fight less than 100 meters from our camp, and there were signs of other wildlife too like Golden cats and Marbled cats. But if one is looking for some kind of “Wild East” Adventure in Eastern Cambodia, I’m afraid that the oil palm scourge, which has ravaged so many areas of the tropics, is set to annihilate Cambodia’s last mysterious places too.

Greg McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID. If you would like to make a small donation to his Cambodia project in Virachey National Park you can do so here on Paypal. He is also the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.