Where the Ho Chi Minh trail ends – Part 2 Drone Strike

Dense forest cover obscures the trail.

The dense but colourful forest obscures the trail.

I decided to take an assistant out with me the next day, as my drone catcher. These things can flip over in an instant on landing, no matter how careful you are, so it’s well worth paying someone to grab it as it hovers. We spent a few hours in the early morning shooting the forest and I also tried to recreate an aerial photo I had seen of the nearby Firebase Brown, scene of a fierce battle on 13th May 1970. We went out again in the afternoon after I had finished recharging the batteries.


Some of the bamboo I had been through while looking for the radio.

Having used up 2 batteries we returned to HQ. I was playing around filming the hundreds of confiscated vehicles in front of the Seima office, when I foolishly forgot to take note that my battery was low. While trying a particularly tricky maneuver under some trees and a cable the low battery warning came on. When this happens you have about 10 seconds to hit the cancel button or it will try to ‘return home’, which entails going up to a preset height, in this case 200m, then returning to where you took off. I hesitated just a few seconds as I tried to avoid drifting into a tree and suddenly the aircraft shot up, straight into the welcoming branches above. Not good. I had to watch helplessly as the drone plummeted to the dirt. The plastic shell was cracked in a couple of places and one rotor blade was broken. A quick check showed everything else was working but one rotor was now hitting the shell so it was impossible to fly. Bollocks, there goes my plan to film a few of the beautiful waterfalls in the east of Seima. What with the boots, this trip was suddenly becoming a little expensive.


The US/ARVN invasion started in the area between Memot and Snoul, where they came across a base they called “The City”. The invasion caught the Vietnamese off guard and within a week the Americans started to head north east to Seima where they spent the next 7 or 8 weeks on their search and destroy mission.

Some of the stories from American pilots and GI’s are quite incredible, such as the story of Firebase Brown (Keo Seima), which was the size of a football pitch with 1 piece of razor wire and a 4 foot tall earth berm around it. Here just 2 company’s of GI’s armed only with small arms and 1 mortar, managed to fight off approximately 1,000 highly experienced NVA troops for 3 hours, until reinforcements arrived at dawn. Amazingly they suffered just 1 death and 8 wounded. This story is told in incredible detail in the book Raiding the Sanctuary: Redcatchers in Cambodia, written by Robert Gouge. His book also includes details of the helicopter attack on Gati village, which resulted in the Wat being destroyed. It also recounts the downing of the helicopter we seemingly found parts of (see below). It also tells a story of incredible bravery, of a helicopter pilot Robert Gorske and John Rich, who died on his 22nd birthday trying to save a company of men surrounded by NVA troops. The radio that I have been looking for is in the same area as this particular incident took place and may well be left over from that fight.

To give an idea of how fierce the fighting was in Seima, this was the main support base for the NVA and they had been developing the area for some 15 years. They were well dug in and they did not want to let it go. As one GI put it afterwards. ”I had done 2 tours in Nam already and thought I had seen everything, then we went into Cambodia”.

It's hard to convey just how steep some of this area is.

It’s hard to convey just how steep some of this area is.

I had also paid a guide to spend the day asking locals who still went into the forest if they knew of anything out there that might be interesting. I was aware that there were at least 5 helicopter crashes inside what is now the Seima protected area, but the chances of anything remaining was slim to say the least. Only one of those was in a fairly remote location.

A small part of a topographic map from the 60's. 1 square is 1km. It gives some idea how insane it is on the ground.

A small section of a US topographic map of Seima, from the 60’s. One square is 1km. It gives some idea how insane it is on the ground if you don’t have a trail to follow.

In the morning the old boy who had sent me down the wrong moto track turned up and said he could take me to an area full of bunkers, “The American Base camp” where he said had seen some documents of some sort in a bunker. This all sounded very unlikely to me but I was stuck for things to do. In the end it turned out to be a wild goose chase. He took me on a roughly 5km ride through the forest (scaring off loggers as we went), which took about an hour. Now I have a very good sense of direction so I was pretty sure where we were. As we left the bikes and started to climb a very steep hill, I’m looking at my GPS in disbelief. This was Shakey’s Hill. Seriously? I know the place better than him and he’s been here all his life, some 60 odd years. We could have driven to within 500m of this spot without ever leaving the tarmac road and walked up a relatively easy trail. No need for a knackering ride through the forest or the slippery slog up through the bamboo. I’m not going to trust this guy again in a hurry.

fuseboxStill, we did find something to film, albeit an old (used) artillery shell and a metal box that had contained fuses. I am assuming they were used to blow up the hundreds of bunkers that pepper the hilltop. Over 326 tons of weapons and ammunition were found on top of this hill, the second largest weapons cache of the entire Vietnam war. The biggest cache of all, named Rock Island East by the Americans, was found just a few km to the south, right on the border. While Rock Island had more tonnage of weapons it was more of a staging area to cross the border, whereas Shakey’s Hill, 5km to the North, had all the logistical support, communications, training camps, hospital etc. The Americans came across just about everything you can imagine in Seima, including bicycle repair shops, truck repair shops, medical caches and many thousands of tons of rice.

Sadly even these hills are now being stripped of the forest here. Without the trees the topsoil will wash away in a few rainy season. Madness.

Sadly even these hills are now being stripped of the forest to be farmed. Without the trees the topsoil will wash away in a few rainy season. Madness.

When we got back to the HQ, I was told about someone who had seen the rotor from a helicopter just 3 months earlier. This was very exciting news but my boots were clearly not going to be up to the fairly serious walk involved. I decided to try my luck in the provincial capital of Sen Monorom, where locals told me I could find a Vietnamese man that could repair them. It took a whole day but it was well worth it as he did a great job. When I got back I found that no one had been able to get in touch with the rotor guy but I was told that someone in Gati village to the north knew where it was and plans were made for the next day.


It’s not very clear but this is where the turn off from the main trail crosses a small stream. The hospital was in the clearing behind and there are hundreds of bunkers in the forest all around. Nothing remains today except for the trail.

For the first time in a very long time I risked going on the back of someone’s moto. Generally I never do this in the forest as I have had a few idiots in the past and I don’t want to have someone else wreck my equipment or put me in hospital. This time my bike was simply not an option; with the road tyres it would have been a nightmare. I was more than a bit worried about the track as the last time I did it in the dry season and 1 small part was really scary to ride down. Very steep with rocks the size of a small car to negotiate. You were definitely getting badly hurt if you fell on that. Adding to my concerns the new Barang (foreigner) boss here and a few WCS staff tried to go there a few days earlier and gave up! Expecting a seriously hard slog I was rather disappointed to be honest. The road was a mess in parts but entirely manageable and we did the roughly 15km in only 2.5 hours, just hours after a huge storm. The road had been repaired in places since I was last on it and the nightmare bit was much easier despite being wet. I had to get off and walk here and there but I never even had to push or help drag the bike out of any big holes, as is often the case. We even passed a couple of very young girls on a bike, carrying a clearly new-born baby up the hill to Gati. I’m not sure why the others bottled out. Bunch of lightweights.

It turned out to be about a 5km walk from Gati to the crash site, the last bit was a real killer, almost straight up through bamboo. It’s far too steep to walk so you have to pull yourself up each step. I was feeling every one of my 51 years when I reached the top.

Boron Carbide armor plating from under the pilots seat.

Boron Carbide armor plating from under the pilots seat.

At the site no sign of a rotor. We looked around the area for an hour and eventually gave up and headed back. It turned out these guys had not been up here in years. After a few hundred meters we came across some bits of green painted metal, some were clearly involved in an explosion and one of the Gati guys with us found a piece of some kind of armor plating. It was so heavy I couldn’t imagine it coming from a helicopter, but I decided to take it back as it was covered in mud and it wasn’t possible to get a good shot of it. I figured I might be able to work out what it was from. It’s made of 2 layers, the back is just plywood about ¼ inch thick with a layer of a very heavy brittle metal on top. After a little research online and some helpful replies on Facebook, it turns out the ‘metal’ was Boron Carbide and this was almost certainly part of the armor panels under the pilots seats in Huey. Frustratingly we were probably very close to the rotor.

This is all we could find of the helicopter, but it does prove the location in the official report is incorrect.

This is all we could find of the helicopter, but it does prove the location in the official report is incorrect.

This helicopter site is interesting as it was mentioned by both people I interviewed in Gati and yet I can’t see it in the declassified docs. It’s quite possibly a typo because there is a crash site listed near Gati, but to the south, not the north. The villagers also don’t recall any other crash.

We took a very different route back, first heading away from the village and coming back via the old French road. It was certainly a lot easier than the direct route but it turned out to be just over 9km. At least I got some good exercise. On the wildlife front we saw another troop of Doucs and at one spot where we stopped to rest there were a couple of giant squirrels that seemed to be having a chat. It was quite odd as they didn’t seem at all bothered by us. I am assuming they were either having a neighborly dispute or it was a guy squirrel trying to chat up a lady squirrel. It certainly sounded more seductive than aggressive. The ride back from Gati was very uneventful and a half hour faster as the track had dried a fair bit. Ten out of 10 for my driver (I doubled his money I was so impressed), best moto driver I have ever had in 15 years in Cambodia, as for the others… Wimps!

Thr forest near the crash site was very beautiful and full of wildlife. Shame about the background sounds of chainsaws.

The forest near the crash site was very beautiful and full of wildlife. Shame about the constant background sounds of chainsaws.

I didn’t do much the next day and spent most of it researching the armor and backing up everything. I decided to head back to Phnom Penh the next morning as I couldn’t do the other filming I wanted due to the dead drone and it was simply too hard to get to many of the places I wanted to visit. Additionally, plans to do a follow up on Sambo the elephant also went out the window as it turned out the interviewee I needed was not going to be back for a few more weeks.


The Ho Chi Minh Trail

Despite the setbacks it was a very interesting trip and I now know exactly how and where I want to go. As for this film(s), I have no idea when I will be able to put something together, for a start I need to find some work before I can spend anymore time and money up there. I estimate I need to spend at the very least another $2,500 on more filming and on proper translations of all the interviews, which are in Bunong. I doubt I will see any change out of $1,000 for the interviews alone and I can’t do much until that’s finished. Hopefully I can get back up there in December or January and get the rest of the footage and interviews I need to record.

I actually think there’s more than enough material to make a fascinating short series, maybe 4 or even 6 parts. It certainly would be good to be able to include some of the US soldiers stories as well as give the local’s accounts. I am still not sure where this will go but I am very keen to have a strong environmental side to the story too. I am not interested in getting into the politics at all, no patriotic bull, no glorification. It’s not needed as the various stories are so incredibly compelling. I think it could basically follow the events from start to finish over the 7 or 8 weeks that the American’s were in Seima. Who knows, I might even be able to end it with a good old fashioned love story. At the moment I am seeing Seima as a beautiful backdrop to the story. The all-important human element is certainly there to interest broadcasters and if nothing else it would be a great opportunity to show the incredible beauty of Seima and it’s wildlife to the world.

To end, some links.

A 10 minute film of mostly stills from FSB Brown and written excerpts from “Raiding the Sanctuary”. Warning to anyone squeamish, graphic images.

A  trailer for a film about Shakey’s hill. I have not seen it yet, it was shot by a CBS cameraman who was on the ground when they were fighting for the hill. I understand he bought the footage back from CBS in 2007 and made this documentary. So far the only way I can find to buy it is a DVD, which is a bit silly in this day and age.

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Where the Ho Chi Minh trail ends.

Keo Seima in Mondulkiri is by far and away my favorite place in Cambodia, it’s stunningly beautiful with an incredible diversity of wildlife and has almost every type of habitat found in Cambodia. This time however, I was looking for something a little bit different. A little bit of History.

For sometime now I have been researching what took place in and around Keo Seima in May and June 1970, when the US invaded Cambodia to go after the North Vietnamese bases along the border. Over the last couple of years I have trawled through thousands of pages of declassified US military documents, conducted numerous interviews with local people and both mapped and searched this rather inhospitable terrain for the locations of various places and stories that I have read about.


Some of the various wartime sites around Seima.

Today not much remains and the most significant items were sold off for scrap metal years ago. It’s mostly just a lot of holes in the ground, either from the massive 5 year bombing campaign or the hundreds, probably thousands of bunkers blown up by the Americans during the course of their brutal 2 month search and destroy mission. While the Vietnam war has been well covered, my intention is to put together a documentary on this story, but from the perspective of the Bunong hill tribes people, who were unwittingly caught in the middle of the Cold War.

Some of the stories told by the locals are enthralling.

A 10 year old girl was looking after the families small herd of waterbuffalo when a US helicopter suddenly appeared and shot several of the buffalo as the girl ran for her life. A few days’ later US soldiers arrive at her community and apologise to the villagers, giving them some money as compensation. US dollars. The girl and her family didn’t know what to do with the dollars and put them away in a corner of their house and simply forgot about them. A few years pass and the Khmer Rouge come to the village and begin searching houses. They find the dollars and drag her off accusing the girl of being a CIA spy.

One dreadful story tells of a Bunong village completely wiped from the face of the earth by a B-52 strike. Others who were young at the time recount the wonderful sweet snacks the GI’s gave to them.

A new story I heard on this trip but have yet to record is, strangely enough, a story of love. The Americans were only in Cambodia for 2 months yet a young soldier based at Firebase Speer managed to fall in love with a Bunong girl and ended up marrying her and taking her back to America. I will have to pursue that story when I am next up there as apparently the lady concerned has recently returned to Cambodia.


Bamboo forest along the trail.

The main task of this trip was to find some things to film, basically anything other than more holes. Two years ago I went on a trip to find an old US backpack style radio someone found and I wanted to have another try. I know the approximate area from the GPS track I took at the time, but it’s still like looking for a needle in a haystack. To make matters worse it’s the rainy season, not quite the worst possible time to be here, but not far off it. In this terrain rivers and streams can flood in minutes and you can easily find yourself cut off for hours at a time. The mud is also incredibly sticky and quite often you find yourself clambering up very steep slippery slopes, while at the same time fighting your way through dense bamboo. Leeches are also in season and you have to check yourself regularly to clean them off. Along with the leeches, swarms of mosquito’s are also obligatory and of course there are various ants, termites and other insects that will happily take a bite out of you if you give them half a chance. Even most of the plants here seem to want a piece of your flesh as you pass. Add to this 36 degree heat and humidity that must be off the charts and you start to get the picture. Still beats being in an office.

The ridge where the trail runs parallel to the border.

The ridge where the trail runs parallel to the border.

After an exhausting 2.5 hours I finally arrived at the point where I planned to start looking for the radio. Almost immediately I managed to catch the side of my boot on a sharp tree stump tearing some of the stitching. With my sole hanging off I had little choice than to slowly make my way back to the road and eventually to the Seima HQ. I was convinced the boots would fall apart as it’s very rough terrain in this spot with almost no trails, but somehow they survived. Out with the gaffer tape for day 2. Never leave home without it.

Having spent a lot of time looking at maps and knowing many of the trails here I enquired about ways to get nearer by motorbike. One of the local guides showed me the ‘correct’ moto trail to follow and I decided to have a go at it the next day. Sometimes my faith in the locals can be very misplaced.

The main Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs through Seima. Still good enough to drive a car on in places.

The main Ho Chi Minh Trail that runs through Seima. Still good enough to drive a car on in places.

I didn’t get more than 1.5km off the road before it became utterly impassable and it hadn’t exactly been easy to get that far. I decided to park up and see if I could find an old trail shown on the GPS. As I headed uphill I came across a maze of small trails, some even had steps built with rocks in a few places and there were bunkers seemingly everywhere. As I reached the top I came across a large clearing next to a small stream. Checking the GPS I realised this was the location of the small hospital the Americans had found. I took some shots before heading on. Just another 300m further and I came to the main trail along a ridge. The trail here is huge, it’s as good a road as you could imagine. Even 45 years later, much of it is in excellent condition and as I discovered there is an amazing network of roads, including several ways to the border. That’s definitely one for the dry season. Although I ended up walking some 15km, in the end I still didn’t get to the area where the radio is as I ran out of time. But I did find a good trail with clear signs of motorbike traffic and decided to follow my own nose the next day. This was also a great day for wildlife spotting. Everywhere I stopped there seemed to be either Douc Langurs or Longtailed Macaques hanging about; it’s primate paradise here.

Signs of elephants at the smaller of the two hospital sites in Seima.

Signs of elephants at the smaller of the two hospital sites in Seima.

I had hired a bike in Phnom Penh (Honda Dream, not off road style as I can’t get much equipment on those) and while a road tyre is ok in the dry season, it can be very hard work in the wet, especially when you start adding 15 or 20kg of equipment. I set off early and went to where I thought the trail must start. It wasn’t too bad going at first but to get up on to the ridge you have to get through one particularly gooey stretch, about 100m long. That took about 20 minutes to get through but it was not too bad after that, it would have been really easy with the right tyres. I found more trails and it finally dawned on me that the apparent “logging trails” (marked on the GPS) left by Samling (Malaysian logging Co that left in 2002) were almost entirely built by the Vietnamese in the 50’s and 60’s. This was the Ho Chi Minh trail, or rather the end of it. I spent so much time exploring the various turn offs and working out where I wanted to try in the future, I again failed to get to the area with the radio. As with the previous day, it seemed as though there were Doucs and Macaques everywhere I stopped. By mid afternoon, with water getting low and running out of gaffer tape I headed back.

A partiicularly deep bunker I came across. Approximately four meters deep and right on the trail.

A partiicularly deep bunker I came across. Approximately four meters deep and right on the trail.

We had a fair bit of rain overnight and I decided to give off roading a miss for the day. The gaffer tape had held up pretty well but it was clear I couldn’t do much more walking. I headed up to the location of what the American’s named “Shakey’s Hill”, after a young GI who died in the initial fighting in the lead up to the capture of this place. It turned out to be the main NVA base in Cambodia with massive stockpiles of weapons, ammunition, food and even a fully equipped 500 bed hospital, right in the middle of the forest.

Rusted artillery shell on top of Shakey's Hill.

Rusted artillery shell on top of Shakey’s Hill.

I had been here before and was mainly looking to find a trail I saw on the GPS, which seemed to lead down to the site of the hospital. I doubt there is anything to see now but I would like to visit it anyway. I tried to get there previously but couldn’t find a way down, this time I did, although it will have to wait until dry season for me to try it. Another issue for me was the large number of illegal loggers I could hear in there and being on my own I was a little wary of the situation. Many of these are kids off their heads on Meth and they often carry long home made swords. Generally they all take one look at me a run, thinking I am some kind of law enforcement but it does make me a little wary when on my own.

The next day I spent most of the day entering locations into the GPS, cleaning clothes and equipment and updating the software on my drone. I also did some more exploring by bike around the villages to the north, but there’s nothing much left in this area as the forest has been cleared and most sites are now cassava fields.

To be continued in part 2. Drone Strike!

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Rain, Leeches and 100,000 views on Facebook

Just a short blog before I head off to the boonies, Mondulkiri this time.

I recently finished 2 films on Prey Lang, one for the University of Copenhagen/Danmission about their wonderful smartphone app that is helping the indigenous communities in Prey Lang record and geo-reference illegal activities and map natural resources.

English      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lywMlY4ZpZs

Khmer      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bSADYBJk5Q

The other film was for Winrock and their Supporting Forests and Biodiversity Project. Essentially this film was a much shorter remake of my film Cambodia: Forests, Water, Life film from 3 years ago, but with a lot of new footage and it’s only 16 minutes instead of 45. It’s now 5 weeks since Winrock released it and they have informed me it has now been seen by almost 100,000 people on Facebook alone. This was helped in no small way by opposition leader Sam Rainsy posting it on his page where 10,000 people saw it and many shared it. The client seems pretty happy, apparently it’s a good 10 times the numbers they have managed for a video before, so hopefully I might get another job out of it in the future. For me personally I couldn’t be happier because the film of 3 years ago was due to be broadcast on the most popular TV channel in the country, when local paper the Phnom Penh Post ran a ridiculous article on their front page that resulted in it being pulled at the last minute. I believe Winrock are going to offer it around the TV stations so hopefully this one will eventually get broadcast.

As with most of my films I have deliberately tried to take a fact based approach rather than trying to be confrontational, as I for one don’t think that works in this part of the world. Hopefully the message is strong enough to get across because the country really cannot afford to let the rampant destruction of their forests continue.

40,000 https://www.facebook.com/Supporting-Forests-and-Biodivers…/…,

10,000 https://www.facebook.com/rainsy.sam.5/videos/1160992663957465/,

45,000 https://www.facebook.com/USAIDCambodia/videos/513744525487968/.

For anyone wanting to watch it, here is the Youtube link


Anyway I am off to Keo Siema in the morning, to get wet and do my bit to conserve the local leech population. I am going to be taking a lot of aerial shots with my drone and plan to visit several waterfalls as its’ rainy season and they should be pretty spectacular now. The main point of the trip is to search for a few places that I turned up in research into the 1970 US incursion into Cambodia during the Vietnam war. Basically Keo Seima was one of the main bases for the North Vietnamese and included the 2 biggest weapons caches discovered during the 10 years of the US war in Vietnam. It also included a fully equipped 500 bed hospital, which is one of the main sites I am trying to get to this time. I got near it 18 months back but didn’t have my machete with me and couldn’t fight my way through to where it was. The other main thing I am looking for is a US radio (backpack style) that some guys from the WCS ranger station came across. That would be quite a find because from my maps, the area it is in means it may well have come from a well documented and fierce battle that took place.

Lastly I am hoping to finish off the trip with a visit to see Sambo and film a bit for a potential follow up to the film of 18 months ago.

Nothing like traveling light.

Nothing like traveling light.

As the saying goes, there is nothing like traveling light… and as you can see from the picture, this is nothing like traveling light. And I am not even taking my big 500mm lens, no camping equipment, no second (bigger) tripod, no climbing equipment and no solar equipment, which would entail a 2nd waterproof case, a car battery, the roll up solar panels and my 120 liter Bergen. This kit weighs in at just 60kg, the full kit is well over 1ookg, without the car battery.

In case anyone is interested the kit includes:

Stills body and 4 lenses (14mm to 200 range, including a macro)

Large selection of Lee filters

Video camera with assorted accessories

Drone and assorted accessories, ipad etc

Sennheiser lav mic and wide angle camera mic

2 lights for interviews etc

A huge selection of batteries and chargers for the above

Macbook pro

WD 2gb portable hard drive for backing up

Camera slider and 2 stands (double up for light stands)

Video tripod

1 change of clothes and most importantly a half kg of freshly ground coffee.

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Battery Power

A bit of an odd one today but it might be useful to a few people. It’s just a quick blog on batteries, as anyone in this business has a small mountain of the damned things and they are not exactly cheap. I currently have approaching $2,000 worth of batteries for my various bits of equipment with 4 batteries for the new drone setting me back $600. Some of my equipment can sit around for months between uses and I was a little sick of finding batteries that were seemingly dead or wouldn’t hold a proper charge. After investing in a number of new batteries recently I decided to spend a bit of time researching the various types. It’s been worth it as I have managed to resurrect a few of my batteries.


Just a few of my batteries.

Getting the most out of your batteries is not so straightforward. Some batteries like to be kept fully charged others prefer to be stored at zero; some have a ‘memory’ issue others don’t. One thing you can say with all batteries, is they do like to be used. However, the various types need to be treated very differently if you want to get a long life out of them. So here are some tips for battery use, maintenance and storage.


Nickel Cadmium (NiCad)These should be stored with zero charge as any residual charge will cause a kind film to appear, which acts as a barrier to recharging them . You should always fully discharge before charging or you can suffer from the ‘memory effect’ reducing the amount of power it will hold. When seemingly dead or they have a low capacity from poor use, these type of batteries can often be restored to good health by repeatedly charging and discharging them several times. This can kind of ‘burn’ off the film that has developed.

Nickel Hydride (NiMH) – Same as NiCad, the only significant difference is not having Cadmium, which is high toxic.

Lithium Ion (Li-ion) – No memory effect with these but they should be treated completely differently to the Nickel based batteries. For short-term storage, over a few weeks or months, charge to 100%. But for long-term storage they should be charged or discharged to around 40-45%. Check the charge every few months and ideally fully charge and discharge them every 6 months. DO NOT store these for any length of time with zero power, as they can lose storage capacity over time due to a chemical reaction similar to what happens in the Nickel batteries.

Lithium Ion Polymer (Li Po) – This is what I have read regarding my new DJI Phantom drone’s batteries and I am unsure if this is the same for all kinds of Li Po batteries. For storage of more than a week, charge or discharge them to 40%. This is apparently because they discharge very quickly from 100%. For example from 100% a battery will discharge to around 60% in 2-3 months. From 40% they will only drop to around 30% over the same period. Check the levels every couple of months and charge as appropriate. Do not fully discharge these and it is suggested to avoid going below 15%. Always allow them to fully cool before charging, equally allow them to cool before using them. If you store them long term or are regularly recharging them when partially charged, you should charge them to 100% and discharge to 10-15% every 4-6 months or every 20 charges. No batteries like to be dropped but Li-Po batteries seem to be particularly fragile.

WARNING: There have been numerous incidents of these type of batteries catching fire, generally it seems when being charged after being dropped. So if you drop one and want to charge it again, keep an eye on it and make sure it’s away from anything combustible.

Lead Acid (Car/Motorcycle)Always store them fully charged. Ideally they need monthly use and like the others types, they like to be ‘exercised’ by fully charging and almost fully discharging them, once a year. These do not like to be fully discharged and generally speaking it is best to not take a car/bike battery below 50%. Note that deep cycle lead acid batteries for solar and marine use can cope better with larger discharges than normal car or bike batteries but again they still don’t like to be fully discharged on a regular basis. Storage without maintenance will result in ‘sulfation’, which is similar to the effect suffered by the Nickel and Lithium Ion batteries. If caught in time this can be reversed by repeated charging and discharging the battery.

Rechargeable Alkaline – Despite what the instructions usually say you should not run these down to zero before recharging. This type of battery is old hat now, not very efficient and they are not very useful with high-powered equipment. However, with correct use (not running them down to zero) decent quality Alkaline batteries (even non rechargeable ones) can be recharged hundreds of times. Don’t go sticking your Duracell’s in a charger though, without first doing some reading up. Non-rechargeable batteries have to be recharged for no more than 2 hours at a time or they can cause a fire. There are even chargers available online, they basically automate the on and off charging. This is more than a little risky if you are not confident you can monitor them properly, so I for one will not be trying it.

I hope this is useful for someone and please, whatever batteries you are using, try to recycle them as they all contain some very nasty chemicals. The NiCad’s are particularly dangerous as they have Cadmium, but none should ever be thrown away with normal rubbish.

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Creating a Satellite image of Cambodia for 2016.

I have been going through my now annual process of constructing a giant satellite image of Cambodia with images taken from the USGS Earth Explorer site, freely available at http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/. To construct this ultra high-resolution image I had to search and download over 60 images, taken between mid December 2015 and the 16th Feb 2016. After doing this on a regular basis for some years, I soon came to realize that for 8 months of the year there is little chance of a clear image due to clouds.

PL deforestation If you want to use this site I suggest setting your range of dates to only include December to April each year, otherwise you will be trawling through hundreds of images that are useless. Also there are numerous image sets you can choose from but largely you will just want to select Landsat 8 for today or the older Landsat versions for historical images. Each month you get 3 or 4 pictures of each part of Cambodia and it takes a total of 25 of these images to make up a complete map of Cambodia.


Example of the problems with Landsat 7 images

For anyone wanting to put together an image from 2003 to early 2015, you have to contend with images from the faulty Landsat 7 satellite. As you can see they have lines across roughly 80% of the image, which makes them very hard to use.

Putting all these images together is a painstaking process and the end result is a truly ridiculous 5.3GB file. Even with my quite powerful Mac, saving it takes almost 10 minutes. But that’s the easy bit. Sometimes as many as 3 or 4 images are combined so as to remove cloud cover. I put in around 20 hours of moving, erasing, merging, colour correcting and otherwise tweaking the images, but I do have a pretty interesting result. Were you to print the final image at 72dpi it would be an impressive 13m x 7m.

Camb 2016small

Satellite image for Jan/Feb 2016

This is a low-resolution version of the completed map.

I have blown up a few areas with comparisons to earlier years to give both an example of the detail of the full sized image and the destruction that’s taking place in Cambodia’s forests.

BPer Deforest Rat deforest











Below are screen shots from the EarthExplorer site.

First select 4 points on the map by clicking on it, then enter you date range.

First select 4 points on the map by clicking on it, then enter you date range.

Click on Data Sets tab and select from the Landsat sets.

Click on Data Sets tab and select from the Landsat sets.

Lastly click on the Results tab and you have numerous options to view the images or their footprint on the map or download them.

Lastly click on the Results tab and you have numerous options to view the images or their footprint on the map or download them.

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Prey Long 2016 – An aerial adventure. Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Solar guy to the rescue.

Amazingly, in Spong of all places, it turned out I could get a replacement within a few hours. Solar guy offered to go and buy one the next day. I’d have to pay through the nose but it was essential and to be honest I was so amazed I’d have willingly paid double. To speed matters up Solar guy suggested we take his inverter with us the following morning, while he set off on a 6 hour round trip to buy a new one.


Kid’s from Spong all keen to see what I’m up to.

We were joined on our journey by our host and guide Mr Vat, who I’d met on the earlier botanical expeditions and knew the forests well. The first stop was a Chamkar (rotational farming fields) with a small ‘house’ a couple of hours south of Spong. I wanted to shoot there too as it’s almost dead center of what is regarded as the ‘core area’ of Prey Lang; prior to going to the swamp. As a bonus it’s got a great little river to bathe and cool off in. My kind of luxury. We set up camp and the solar system and I used up 2 of my batteries filming the surrounding forest. I still wasn’t sure how many charges I was going to get as the drunk farmer clearly had little idea what he was doing when it came to batteries and 3 hours charging (along with 2 other batteries) wasn’t likely to give me much, so I was being very cautious. I made do with taking a few forest shots with my normal camera, while the batteries thankfully charged without any further problems. I had a full set for the swamp.

The Swamp Forest.

Livistona Palms tower over the canopy of the swamp forest.

Livistona palms tower over the canopy of the swamp forest.

The next morning we set off at first light with Mr Vat, leaving the drivers at the river. It took a little over an hour to get to the swamp by bike, with us arriving at around 7am. Once we found a vaguely suitable spot I decided to go for it. There wasn’t much room to play with and I had to weave around to get it up through the canopy. I had no more than about 3 meter hole to aim at and it wasn’t straight up; not a lot of room for error. I knew what images I wanted so I quickly set up a “Point of Interest” shot. One of the cool things this thing can do is automatically circle a point giving a wonderfully smooth shot. I wanted one of the distinctive Livistona palm trees and soon had the shot in the bag. I couldn’t see the copter at all while flying, which was a bit worrying to say the least, but it worked out well. After finishing the third battery I brought it into land again but this time instead of hovering for my assistant to grab it, it started to drift slightly and my lack of piloting experience meant I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid it clipping a bush. Crunch. I had the sense to switch off the power this time but amazingly it survived its impression of a weed whacker. After some thought I decided to cut short the flying and use the last battery on foot. These things also make a great steady cam for smooth walking shots, although it’s a bit tricky as you can’t see what your filming… and your stumbling around in a swamp. I need more practice at that. I also filmed a little around the swamp with my main camera and had pretty much got everything I wanted by mid afternoon, so we returned to the camp to recharge and relax in the river.


View of a small river from directly overhead.

Predictably, my battery packed up after charging another 1.5 of the copter batteries and I was now onto the smaller reserve battery we ‘d borrowed. That got me up to 3.5 batteries charged, but that was as far as it went. I had to re think the plan again. I had intended to go back to the swamp the next day, but as I got the shots I had come for we decided to head back to Spong instead, where we could hopefully charge a few more batteries and film something different.

I was sad to leave the Chamkar house and particularly the river. It’s also a lot more peaceful sleeping in the forest than a village, where the roosters wake you at 3am. As it turned out, the roosters were the least of my concerns when it came to sleeping. We arrived to find a wedding party being set up a few houses away, with the obligatory wall of speakers. Anyone having experienced a Cambodian wedding knows what that means. Zero sleep. As it happened it did die down briefly around 1am and I dozed off for a while. The thing with Cambodian weddings is that at around 3am they have a kind of call to prayer for the village elders, that goes on for half an hour or so and is generally done at full volume. Once that died down of course, the roosters took over.


Sokhan, Mr Vat and Mr Phun all look suitably impressed… meanwhile, I’m just praying it comes back in one piece.

The new plan involved trying to film some cleared forest I could see on satellite images about 15km to the west of Spong. Seeing it and finding it, turned out to be a whole different ball game. We spent the entire morning riding (paddling would be a more appropriate word) along exhausting sandy trails only to fail miserably, the only other option was a 4 to 5 hour ride across Prey Long to Sandan. For me that wasn’t an option, we’d be looking at a 10 or 11 hour round trip and I wasn’t at all keen to bounce the copter around that much on a bike. Having pretty much wasted the day we returned to Spong to come up with another plan and I settled for using another valuable battery to film a nearby river.

For the final day we decided to try to film some illegal loggers. The forests around Spong were full of them so it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone, according to Mr Vat. As we left the village a young guy on a bike came flying past us. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but it soon became apparent he had set off to warn people we were coming, as the almost obligatory chainsaws had finally fallen silent. Much to Mr Vat’s surprise we couldn’t find anyone all morning. Lunchtime discussions revealed that people around the village thought Sokhan was a soldier, working with me to catch illegal loggers. The fact that one of my drivers was from the Prey Long Community Network probably didn’t help matters either. The PLCN are a group of villagers from all 4 provinces of Prey Lang, who are trying to protect this forest and its resources, such as their resin trees. Apparently everyone was convinced my tripod carrying case was in fact holding a gun. Despite this, not long after lunch our luck changed and we managed to catch some loggers in the act.

We explained what we were doing and that we just wanted to film them. Not arrest them. After some discussion I was able to film them felling a tree they were working on, both from the ground and the air. It should make a nice sequence. With that task done we filmed at another couple of locations before returning to Spong for a rest and some celebratory rice whiskey.

Prey Lang forest canopy on an overcast morning.

Prey Lang forest canopy on an overcast morning.

Solar man hadn’t been keen to charge anymore batteries for me as we had pushed his brand new system to its limit. With my aerial filming effectively over I called an end to the trip a day early. I was keen to get back to town to see what I had anyway, as I only had power to back up all the footage and hadn’t actually watched more than a few seconds of it.

I learned a lot on this trip but I am pleased to say the many hours of research I put in before buying or flying one of these, was well worth it. A quick Google search will throw up one very obvious fact about these quadcopters. They crash A LOT. I spent a great deal of time finding out why people were ‘losing’ or crashing their copters. Most were stupid errors and simply not following instructions, other problems were not so obvious. Large metal structures (including the metal frames of buildings), even a car can mess up the all-important calibration you should perform every time you move more than a few hundred meters. Fly low over water and your copter could soon become a submarine unless you turn off a sensor first. Probably the most surprising cause for me was solar activity. Essentially you can lose contact with the copter if you fly during magnetic storms and probably lose or crash it. A surprising number of people have had to watch hopelessly as their expensive toy flew off into the sunset.

Of course, this being 2016, we have an app for that. There are several apps that warn if magnetic levels are too high. What has surprised me is just how often this occurs. In the one-month since I bought it, there have been at least 5 days when the levels were too dangerous to fly. While there are countless videos of people crashing these things, many people seem to operate them without problems, so I think it’s mostly about being prepared. If your going to be bouncing it around in a forest, expect to have to go through the slightly time consuming process of resetting the IMU/Gimbal, so you get a level horizon. Most important of all, make sure the damned battery shop charges your battery properly.

Myself and Sokhan with Mr Vat, the moto drivers and the old boy is Mr Ouen, a great character (strong as an ox too) who I worked with on all my previous trips here.

Left to right: Mr Than, Sokhan, myself and the incredibly helpful Mr Phun, who seems to get on with everyone. Followed by Mr Vat and Mr Khamphorng. The old boy getting a hug is Mr Uong, a really nice guy who I worked with on all my previous trips through Spong.

Mr Uong – On my first trip here I was provided with a very young assistant that was completely useless to be honest. Anyway, when we arrived in Spong we were trying to recruit a few people as guides/porters. When we talked to Mr Uong, who’s house we were staying at, he said would also come along. The young boy laughed and said he was “too old and not strong enough”. Mr Uong visibly bristled a little but took it well. I had no doubt he’d be just fine. The following morning we set off on a 10km walk with the kid carrying easily the smallest, lightest pack. At the half distance we all stopped and waited for Mr Uong and the young guy to catch up. Shortly after Mr Uong walked calmly around the corner carrying the biggest of my bags (a 120 liter Bergen, which was almost as big as him), plus the kids bag. He was eventually followed by an exhausted and very embarrassed looking boy, who was not allowed to forget that very quickly. Give me the old guys every time.

All in all it was a good trip and I got some great aerial shots. But, I am still utterly dumbfounded that we managed to buy an inverter in Spong. Lastly, a special thanks to my friend and assistant Mr Sokhan Young for his great work and for providing several of the pictures in this 2 part blog.

Here is a link to a sample of the footage taken. It was originally shot in 4k resolution but has been reduced to 720 HD resolution for Vimeo.


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Prey Long 2016 – An aerial adventure. Part 1


Prey Lang forest canopy

I have just completed my first project with my new quadcopter and happily managed to return with everything intact… just about. Although these things are fairly easy to operate I had managed to get just 10 hours practice in before dragging it into the depths of the Cambodian jungle to film in a swamp forest. In particular to shoot an unusually large palm tree that grows in the swamp and towers over the canopy.

Aerial footage is essential to this film, which is to raise awareness of the importance of Prey Long forest in central Cambodia, an area I have had the pleasure of working in on a regular basis since 2008. This was a fairly ambitious expedition, largely due to the issue of power. I have been charging batteries for my various cameras using a solar panel to charge a small car battery for many years, but this piece of equipment takes the problem to a whole new level. The batteries for these quadcopters only last a maximum of 25 minutes and even with 4 of them you don’t get much time in the air. Each battery is as powerful as a small laptop, so charging them is not so simple when you’re traveling to such a remote area. With no time to test my new system thoroughly I picked up a hefty 60amp battery and a new larger 25watt panel. I figured this should give me at least 12 recharges over the course of the filming, possible 16. In a quick test it charged one without problem.


DJI_0012_convertedxSpong is a tiny and remote community of largely ethnic Kouy people. The village was effectively cut off from the outside world for months at a time during the rainy season, but development and massive deforestation have made the village a far easier proposition to visit. My previous journeys to Spong have not been the most pleasant of experiences. In the wet season of 2008 it took 3 days to get there through a combination of minibus, walking, moto’s, an ox cart and more walking. The last 2 visits were with botanists traveling in a local truck. These are horrendously slow and have next to no suspension making the 10-12 hour journey from Stung Treng a truly exhausting experience. Today it can be done in a day from Phnom Penh, with an early start.

After traveling to Stung Treng by minibus with equipment and supplies for the 9-10 day trip, myself and Sokhan my assistant met up with our porters/moto drivers, three local villagers. I brought my own moto too (a Honda Dream) as I prefer to drive myself so I can carry the more delicate equipment, like my shinny new toy. The road is fairly good for half the distance and we made it to Spong by 5pm, just 11 hours after leaving Phnom Penh. A little dusty but none the worse for wear.


Landing safely.

After sleeping at Mr Vat’s home, our local guide, we started early and began filming the forest around Spong. I wanted to get as much aerial footage as I could before we arrived at the swamp, as I was very concerned I would end up wrecking the copter in such a confined space. It’s not recommended to do what I was proposing, even for experienced pilots, so I knew I was taking a risk. As it turned out, these things are surprisingly robust. After using up 3 batteries I brought it into land on a bare bit of dirt in a rice field. I had practiced for exactly this situation time and again and just done it three times without any problems. But this time one side came down fractionally before the other and it instantly flipped over. My heart sank as it disappeared with a grinding sound in a cloud of dust. Was my aerial filming over almost before it had started? I quickly put the remote down and picked it up not realising the engines were still on. As I turned it back over the rotors sliced my forearm as it tried to right itself. I just clung on as I shouted to Sokhan to shut it off. Oh, and they’re bloody noisy too. After a quick dust off it was good to go, much to my relief. I decided to give it a rest for the day and not push my luck. Now to charge the batteries, do a bit of filming around the village and prepare to travel the first part of the way to the swamp the next morning.


Prey Lang forest stretches into the distance in every direction.

This is where things started to get complicated. Having charged just one and a half batteries the inverter started screaming its’ warning that it didn’t have sufficient power. Not impressed. Either my battery was a dud or the damned shop didn’t charge it properly. Mild panic set in. This is Spong, previously you had trouble finding anything other than some ancient cigarettes or salt for sale.

“Can we charge the battery?” “Yes”. Good start. Two options, some guy with a solar panel or a slightly inebriated farmer with a mechanical mule he uses as a generator in the evenings. We visited the solar guy and discovered a full-blown Cambodian style general store. It turned out he had a fairly decent solar system charging a nice big 100amp battery and a 500w inverter to plug appliances into. He let me charge up the 3 batteries but couldn’t help with the car battery. By the way, yes I did have a panel, but it’s just 25 watts so it would take 4 days to charge a battery that size. We tried the farmer but he wasn’t home and wouldn’t arrive until the evening. Things were looking up but I was still worried. A further chat with the solar guy turned up a second battery that we could rent. I then did something really stupid and decided to do a bit of tinkering with my small but trusty inverter of 15 years. The faint but clearly audible ‘phut’ upon plugging it in, turned out to be fatal.


Continued in part 2.

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