As we walk through the “community forest,” or jungle that has been turned into farmland, Kimi flows through the bush with the ease of a wild animal. Some (most) of the plants are spiky and sharp, jagged leaves threaten to snag your shirt, and unsuspecting stems sprout a million needles that can puncture your fingertips. We pause and Kimi snaps green beans from a vine I didn’t even see; soon we descend and he digs red chilies from the ground. Ten minutes more and we stop to snap open sesame husks and down their seeds.
We stop for lunch and Kimi chops down a bamboo pole, empties our harvest into the naturally-hollow interior, and smashes it together with a stick. Into the mix go wild leaves that taste like lemon-lime, harvested lemongrass, chili, and green beans. He suggests that the homemade salad would go well with some fish. I gesture to the pool and jokingly suggest he catch some. Without a wink nor a nod, Kimi is in the water, eyes just above the surface, toes feeling along the bottom for crabs. When he hooks one, he dives under, and soon is back on the shore with three crabs and a two small fish.
From Kimi I learn how to grip rocks with my bare feet to go up and down a steep cliff. He teaches me to recognize which palm trees have a sweet and edible inner-stem, and which vines drip drinkable water when slashed and held vertically. Kimi has been leading jungle treks for 8 years as a trekking guide for Highland Tours and other trekking companies in Rattanakiri, Cambodia. I have the privilege of learning from him and his counterparts as a volunteer trekking guide/porter for one month. Kimi, along with the porters, rangers, and minority villagers who accompany our treks, are strong and skinny from traipsing through the jungle with 40 lb. rucksacks and rice bags. Often their bags are falling apart at the seams from carrying various items such as cooking pots, wok pans, 5-10 kilos of rice and vegetables to fuel many a foreigner.
Normally, the trekking guides employ a local villager or ‘ranger’ living in a minority community on the jungle perimeter to help lead the group or carry cooking supplies. The trekking community proves to be a viable source of income for most minority villages, as villagers can work as rangers or open their bamboo huts as ‘homestays’ to trekkers passing through. A group of foreigners can tour a minority village for a small price, paid to the village chief, which goes toward funding the village’s school and subsidizing local farms.
The villagers have grim and weathered faces and lead us softly and swiftly through the jungle. Their endless patience and humility is apparent when they cook all the customers lunch before they even eat themselves; often times the food is gone before they have eaten and they must cook again. To me, they embody a simplicity of life and a certain humility that is a result of living simple but tenuous lives. A portion of that lifestyle seems to be lost in Western society, where many can afford luxurious comfort and most don’t have the opportunity to experience the kind of rural simplicity that is prevalent in Cambodia. Luckily, many foreigners still crave this way of living, and experience it firsthand by paying for guided treks in Cambodia and other developing countries. In Eastern Cambodia, a trek for one night and two days can reveal jungle spiders the size of one’s palm, wild tarantulas carrying egg sacs on their bellies and a million leeches that cling to one’s calves during wet periods. At night a new soul awakens when the stars rise and the fireflies hatch, the cicadas symphonize, and the rice wine flows beneath the pounding of a nearby waterfall. Guides and customers alike clink their bamboo cups and lean back into the night in a communal choulmuoy; cheers.
Aside from providing income for rural villages, trekking in Cambodia proves to be a sustainable outlet for eco-tourism. At night, soup is cooked inside of bamboo, utilizing it’s naturally hollow interior and flame-resistant exterior. For treks longer than three days, fish, spiders, frogs and iguanas are caught, killed, roasted over the fire and consumed in their entirety. Wild fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are also collected. No pre-made meals or gas-powered camping stoves. Only hand-made, sustainably cooked meals over a fire built from scratch.
Walking alongside the Cambodian trekking guides has forced me to question how myself and other residents of developed nations can sustainably utilize our surroundings when venturing outside. What kind of medicinal plants, wild fruits, vegetables, fungi or animals can we use to our benefit? Which trees have edible leaves and medicinal bark? How can we heal our ailments in the wild, using only our surroundings? Imagine the reduction in the carbon footprint of the outdoor community if each adventurer learned how to use the environment to his/her advantage during outdoor excursions.
As a Westerner, I believe that ‘we’ collectively have a lot to learn from those who live simply; anyone who visits a developing country can tell you that. But I hope that this blog post brings insight to a community that already strives to be sustainable and eco-friendly; the outdoor folk, the nature-lovers who thrive in the wilderness and the back-to-the-landers who crave a return to the traditions of our ancestors. These traditions are still practiced in countries around the world; they are present and they are beautiful, they are magical and they are all-encompassing. One only needs the will to seek them out and the desire to share her knowledge with those around her. In doing so, the world may become a better place.