Three years ago, Janet Newman was a barrister who needed a break from cold English courtrooms. In 2005 she took a sabbatical from legal practice and volunteered in Botum Sokor National Park, Cambodia.
Today Janet runs Rainbow Lodge, the only eco-lodge in the Cardamoms, located on the Tatai river near the town of Koh Kong.
As a guidebook writer and the leader of a rugged travel program in Cambodia, I know a good eco-lodge when I see one. Janet's Rainbow Lodge is top-notch.
On Google Earth, the Cardamoms are a dark green bruise swelling north from the Gulf of Thailand. Up close, the tropical jungle is a steaming, impenetrable mass, split by virgin rivers. The upper reaches of these pristine rivers have barely been explored.
When I poked around the Cardamoms last year, I ran out of fresh water and contracted amoebic dysentery. But this time, thanks to Janet, I enjoyed good coffee in the early morning, kayaked and clambered around waterfalls all day and drank pitchers of Pims and lemonade on the sundeck in the evening.
You'll still have to watch for snakes--lots of them. When I checked in to the Rainbow Lodge, Janet warned me about a big-eyed pit viper that had taken to lounging on the porch of my bungalow.
The Unfortunate Story of Panda:
Janet cares deeply for animals. Every morning, she gives heartworm medicine to her two pet dogs. There used to be a third dog at the Rainbow Lodge, named Panda. But this spring, one of Janet's neighbors trapped Panda in a net and roasted him for dinner.
Panda's murder was a dreadful shock, though not totally surprising. Her neighbor, who Janet calls "Whiskey Man," raises dogs for meat. The Cardamom Mountains are still wild.
The brand new road from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong province is the smoothest slice of asphalt in Cambodia. The highway cuts straight through the jungle, with dramatic views of the Cardamom range.
To get to the Rainbow Lodge, ask the driver to let you off at Tatai, the last of four bridges between Sre Ambel and Koh Kong town. A boat will pick you up at the bridge and whisk you upstream to the bungalows.
Reservations are essential.
What to Do by Day and by Night:
A boat ride or trek to the Tatai waterfall is obligatory, but I also recommend a trip to a set of rapids a few kilometers upstream. Brave travelers can camp out overnight at these rapids, cooking dinner over a barbecue and sleeping in hammocks in the jungle. Just watch out for those elusive spot-bellied eagle owls.