thma baing district, Koh Kong province – Israeli Ambassador Yael Rubinstein on Tuesday came to the jungle here to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and to mark the start of her country’s first humanitarian aid project in Cambodia since establishing bilateral relations in 1984.
Before a candle lighting ceremony in Chiphat commune’s Chiphat village where Buddhist prayers were also recited, Rubinstein said she felt the new program, dubbed the “Israeli Backpacker Contribution,” would allow young volunteers to help the development of a sustainable economy among local residents who had long depended on poaching and logging in the 144,000-hectare Southern Cardamom’s Protected Forest.
Rubinstein said her visit was also a chance to show a side of Israelis the world may not often get to see.
“I think, it’s really a chance and it’s a unique opportunity for us, as Israelis, to show the best. People hear about Israel, about the intifada,” she said. “For us, Israel is not all about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We have much more,” she said.
Settled in Chiphat village, the first group of six volunteers say they aim to help develop computer literacy and English-language instruction, complementing the work of the conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance, which since 2002 has sought to end the local community’s dependency on unsustainable farming practices and forest crime.
Selected from a pool of hundreds of applicants, the volunteers are expected to come in groups of about ten, and each staying about three months before continuing to travel the region as backpackers.
Maayan Yavne, 27, a recent graduate in bio-technology engineering from the Israeli town of Raanana near Tel Aviv, said that after an early youth confined to study and compulsory military service, many young Israelis feel the need to let loose when they travel, and may not project the best image abroad.
This made the possibility of volunteering in Cambodia all the more attractive to the program’s participants, she said.
“It was for most of us exactly what we were looking for,” she said.
Designated in 2007 as a Community-Based Eco-Tourism Site, or a location where a panel of local inhabitants administer tourism services, Chiphat now has four guesthouses and was recently mentioned in the Lonely Planet travel guide.
According to deputy district chief Keo Nybora, since May, 341 tourists have visited Chiphat, less remarkable for its beauty as a town than for the easy access to river rapids, forests, Oriental Pied hornbills, long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques and gibbons.
Learning to say “hello” to the visitors was the first order of business, he said.
“I hope this group will help the people here to be able to talk with the foreigners so they can communicate for their businesses,” Keo Nybora said.
“We have trees and animals in the forest for the tourists to see besides the scenery and the waterfall,” he said.
“Before people used to log the forest but they’ve stopped for farming instead.”