Chi Phat, Cambodia
The young Cambodian girl drives me the last kilometre on her motorbike to my guesthouse. Although to call it a guesthouse is misleading. It’s really the home of this girl, who turns out to be 15, and it’s been a long journey to get here.
Her family has converted a building on their property into accommodation of three rooms. They’re not the only ones here in the village of Chi Phat who have done something similar. You see, the whole community is trying to turn Chi Phat into a stop for tourists. It seems like it should be a tough task – to get here you have to jump off a bus in the middle of nowhere, catch a motorbike taxi for half an hour, cross a river on a raft, then walk the last few hundred metres – but every year more and more travellers are coming.
They come partly for the natural beauty. The area around Chi Phat is perfect for hiking and exploring. Rivers, mountains, waterfalls, mountain bike tracks, bird-watching, rolling green fields – it has it all. But a lot of people also come because they’re intrigued about how a tiny village in rural Cambodia has managed to come together and reinvent itself – and its future.
Ecotourism in Cambodia
It all started in 2008 when an NGO called Wildlife Alliance was looking at ways to improve environmental conservation in the area. Like many parts of Southeast Asia, this region was being threatened by illegal logging, hunting and clearing for farms. The group decided to engage the village and try to develop an ecotourism plan that would help the natural environment and provide income for the community.
The loggers became guesthouse owners, the poachers became tour guides, and the farmers found new businesses without having to expand their land. The forests became a sustainable asset – not something that needed to be destroyed in the name of progress.
Although an NGO was leading the project, it was important the project was owned by the community so local leaders were elected from the Chi Phat village to make decisions and control everything. The hope is that they will continue to grow the businesses when Wildlife Alliance leaves in a few years’ time.
There are now 13 families with guesthouses with a total of 67 rooms. 10 families also offer a homestay option with a total of 16 places. It’s taken quite a few years to get to this stage but word has spread and Chi Phat is now mentioned in several influential travel guides. And the numbers speak for themselves.
In 2008, the community had an income of just $7,000 from tourism. In 2012, the figure was just shy of $100,000. The number of international tourists rose from 170 in that first year to 2084 in 2012. (The total income figure comes not just from international visitors but also from domestic tourism and from a growing investment fund from profits.)
Trekking in Cambodia
When I arrive there’s a large folder with all the tour options I can do in the region. They range from one day treks and mountain bike rides through to four day trekking and camping adventures. I wouldn’t say they were cheap – it can cost a couple of hundred dollars for a long trip with a small group – but every cent is accounted for. The itinerary shows your where you money goes, right down to how much the guide is paid, how much the boat ride down the river is, and even the water you’ll be provided with. The idea is transparency and equality. There are no commission deals and nobody along the way is being shortchanged. Everyone involved earns their fair share and that’s what helps keep things sustainable.
As a visitor, things are easy and well run (once you’ve used at least three modes of transport to get here). The central office has a restaurant where you’re encouraged to eat all your meals. There’s a rotation system so different families share the cooking duties and the salaries. The office will also arrange your accommodation to make sure all the providers get an equal number of customers over time. It’s almost a perfect little socialist ideal.
I say ‘almost’ because we all know that socialist theory sounds good but is easily disrupted by market realities. I find one of those disruptions when I book a bus ticket from a shop in the village, rather than through the office. I end up chatting with the man who runs the shop who explains that he tried to be part of the community project but, for whatever reason, was rejected. So three months ago he set up his own business.
Some members of the village didn’t like it, he explains, but he also tells me he has a lot of support. There’s some disagreement with the members who have been chosen for the ruling committee but it will be years before the next election. Even in a tiny Cambodian village, politics has a way of exposing (or creating) the cracks in society.
Still, there’s no denying that overall the project is achieving its aims. The environment in the region is being protected and enjoyed by tourists and the wealth of the local community is increasing – which is impressive in a region where the average household earns just $1.50 a day. Plus it’s all being done at a reasonable pace and with sustainability at the forefront. It’s a model that Chi Phat should rightly be proud of.