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This richly verdant pocket of southwest Cambodia is an area of protected forests and conservation corridors. What really preserves it, though, is its impenetrability – a dense web of jungle canopies enveloping a smattering of small villages and, latterly, eco-resorts. No surprise that the Cardamom Mountains was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, with militants hiding out here for nearly two decades after the regime’s barbarous heyday in the late ’70s.

Hand-cleared paths linking isolated villages now serve as trekking routes for those looking to explore a less familiar side of the country. One such link, between the villages of Takat and Tuleki, clearly serves as a major thoroughfare. ‘The trails became well worn,’ says guide Ravy, Vy for short, ‘because those two villages are good friends.’

Red, white and black crabs emerge to bathe in puddles, while a troop of long-tailed macaques flits through the trees with a cacophany of screeching. On damp logs, mushrooms flourish. One type of these is used in spring rolls, another in mice poison. ‘Luckily, they look very different,’ says Vy.

Leaves that will later be used to wrap sticky rice are glistening, and an ‘ant house’ – a tiny, box-shaped nest made of leaves – has been dislodged by droplets and lies on the ground. Villagers will employ this in traditional medicine. Little goes to waste in such a remote and bountiful environment.

Midway along the path, a woman and her two sons emerge from the jungle carrying weathered shopping baskets full of wild mushrooms. Other days they might contain frogs. ‘When it rains, we go out in the early morning with a torch to get them,’ says Vy. He does the same with durian in season. ‘They fall in the night, so I come out at 5am before anyone else can take them.’

Back at the Tatai River, the sky is putting on a show of pinks and violets, while monsoon clouds churn in the distance. Birds start to shift and sing, and the forest rustles with the sounds of animals heading out on their evening rounds – and villagers returning home with firewood.

Takeo province: Best for rural life
When Siphen Meas was growing up in the ’80s, her family lived off the land. Like most Cambodians, they’d lost their property and savings during the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge that ended in 1979. Unlike many, they’d escaped with their lives. ‘We didn’t go shopping. We found our own fruit and grew our own vegetables,’ she says. ‘After school I’d pick greens to eat, fish in the lake or go to the bush to get firewood.’

Today, Siphen and her family shop all the time – nearby Angk Tasoam market is a favourite – but they still work the land in their village of Prey Theat, around two hours south of Phnom Penh. And it provides generously, producing rice, taro, coconut and mango. She now runs a homestay with her husband Mach, a fellow English teacher. Their house is surrounded by paddy fields, in which ducks frolic under the irate gaze of yoked oxen, as children wobble past on oversized bicycles. A neighbour harvests snails and small fish from a paddy field using a woven-basket scoop, stopping to pass the time of day with a family on a scooter – two children sandwiched uncomplainingly between their parents on the slender seat.

Rice season is July to December, and everyone pitches in – even homestay guests. ‘They work hard,’ says Siphen with a smile, ‘and the villagers laugh and say, “Why do they want to work like that?”.’

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