KOH KONG – The dullness of a rainy day accentuates the lush shades of green rainforest of the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province. Float down the Tatai River and you see bobbing turquoise, red and yellow canoes tied up along the banks—in their vivid colors they resemble toy boats. A few neighbors, boarding their own canoes or lounging in kiosks, will likely wave, welcoming you to the neighborhood.
After reaching the small dock of the eco-friendly Rainbow Lodge resort, a trek up a loosely manicured hill brings you to the resort’s seven modest, yet modern, thatch-roof bungalows tucked into the hillside. All face the Tatai River with the sprawling Cardamoms as their backdrop.
Starting from noon today, Rainbow Lodge is hosting a novel event. The first seven people to call their phone number will get two nights free accommodation in late October.
It is undoubtedly good advertising, but it’s also what managers Neil Wilkinson and Lois Woodward call “paying it forward” and goes with the resort’s eco-ethos.
Rainbow Lodge, with guest donations, has partnered with businesses and locals to install toilets and water filters in the nearby villages and schools along with garbage collection and shoring up teacher wages.
The guests who win the two free nights at the lodge are encouraged, but not required, to donate to one of these projects.
“We’re not here just to make cash, we’re here to come back to our original idea of paying back to the community we live in,” Mr. Wilkinson said.
Most accommodations in the Tatai River area heavily advertise their eco-friendly credentials but their claims are unregulated; those adhering to environmentally conscious practices of reduce, reuse and recycle more stringently than others share the same, self-appointed “eco-friendly” name.
“Ecotourism’ in Cambodia,” said Mr. Wilkinson, “is the word you’ll notice that appears on signs and people talk about being eco-friendly, but their practices are often failing.”
As managers of the Rainbow Lodge, Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Woodward have a list to back up their eco-friendliness: solar panels, filtered water from mountain streams, composting, organic food purchased daily from local markets stored only on ice blocks (no refrigerators), harvesting fruits and herbs on site and recycling all plastic, glass and metal. All that “econess” can be time consuming and not very profitable, they admitted.
Despite the push to promote the natural beauty of the province, land grabs, logging, poaching and sand dredging have encroached on Koh Kong and the Tatai River. But the growing environmental awareness among businesses and residents in the area has been able to slow down the depletion of resources by promoting Koh Kong as a profitable and popular ecotourism destination.
Thomas Klein, owner of the nearby three-bungalow Neptune Resort, said pressure on environmentally unfriendly businesses has had an impact. But he has grown pessimistic about the future.
“We are still a small port but they are still taking sand from Tatai River and giving it to the Chinese. It’s loud, it’s noisy and it’s oily,” Mr. Klein said.
A 108-MW hydropower dam, to be built by China’s Guodian Corporation, would flood thousands of hectares of land including forestland in the Cardamom Protected Forest. More than 1,500 people would have to relocate, and environmentalists have said that rare animal and plant species in the forests would be affected.
“I think it doesn’t make any sense [to protest] because there are hundreds of people out there working [to build the dam]. We tried to stop it, so now I think it’s too late,” Mr. Klein added.
Martin Leighfield, community-based ecotourism project manager of Wildlife Alliance, says ecotourism in the region is growing year by year.
“The role that community-based ecotourism plays in our overall vision is to generate environmentally positive sources of income for the local community so that they can abandon destructive practices such as logging and hunting.”
On Monday, the World Bank applauded Cambodia’s tourism sector, which it says attracts visitors from Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Pacific regions. Ms. Woodward said more and more guests staying at Rainbow Lodge are from Cambodia and the region.