Off the Beaten Track: Ecotourism in the Cardamom Forest

Tourism has doubled in Cambodia since 2004. Last year more than 2 million people tromped through the temples at Angkor Wat, drank too much beer on Siem Reap’s Pub Street and fell victim to the peanut-snatching monkeys at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh.

But if you’ve had your fill of temples, beer gardens and thieving primates, then perhaps you need to see something off the beaten path, if so, go to Chi Pat. Chi Pat is a remote village in the Cardamom Protected Forest. Located in the commune of the same name, Chi Pat has no running water and electricity is by generator only.

But none of that is stopping the NGO Wildlife Alliance from bringing ecologically conscious tourists to the village as part of the organization’s new ecotourism program.

Wildlife Alliance’s ecotourism is in its infancy but the organization, formerly called Wild Aid, is heavily involved in law enforcement in the southwest Cardamoms, working directly with the park rangers who patrol the region busting poachers and illegal loggers.

So in terms of protecting the Cardamoms, for Wildlife Alliance, the rangers are the stick and ecotourism the carrot. “If we want people to stop logging and hunting, we need to give them something [else to do],” said Oran Shapira, 32, a former Israeli soldier who is Wildlife Alliance’s ecotourism project manager in Chi Pat.

“We consider ecotourism a tool for long-term conservation to reduce pressure on forest resources,” Shapira said. “To try and provide an alternative lifestyle.”

According to the World Conservation Union, ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel that has a low visitor impact and provides beneficial socioeconomic involvement of local peoples.

As a trial run for Wildlife Alliance and the Chi Pat villagers, on Aug 1, the first group of 16 ecotourists embarked on the 8-hour journey from Phnom Penh to Chi Pat.

Most of the travelers were friends and acquaintances of the trip’s organizer Terry Worltorton. Worltorton works for Live & Learn, an organization that is providing the mountain biking component at Chi Pat. Shapira said it was important to test the capacity of the community based ecotourism (CBET) committee and the villagers, to see how well they could accommodate groups of tourists before the project is fully operational in December or January.

And so we left Phnom Penh on a Friday at around 8 am and rode for about 4 hours in an air-conditioned bus west on National Road 4 before stopping at Andoung Tuek village.

With the bus portion of the trip over, we needed to find a boat that could take us to Chi Pat. The boat Worltorton thought would be able to take us apparently wasn’t running. Fortunately, we were able to hitch a ride on a cargo boat. We piled into the wooden vessel, loaded down with ice and provisions for Chi Pat and puttered north along the Prek Piphot river for three hours. It was around 4 pm when we arrived in Chi Pat. The village is predictably small: a muddy dirt road, a couple of restaurants, lots of cows, dogs, chickens and children. “Hello! Hello!”

After unloading our backpacks, we strolled through the village to the CBET office to figure out where we were going to sleep.

Chi Pat has four guesthouses and several home-stay options available with prices ranging from $2.50 to $4 a night. CBET controls the prices and tourists pay the committee directly, which then pays the guesthouses owners between 75 and 80 percent of the money collected, Shapira said.

The remaining money that CBET doesn’t pay out to the business owners goes into a fund to support the ecotourism program. If the program turns a profit, that money can be spent building schools, a hospital, an orphanage or improving roads in the village. It’s up to the committee to decide what to do with the money, Shapira said. None of it goes to Wildlife Alliance.

After dropping our bags in our rooms we assembled at the CBET office to plan the next day’s activities. Wildlife Alliance and CBET have defined several natural and cultural sites to visit. “Every area has a name and a story,” Shapira said.

We sat around in a half circle while each of the possible adventures was explained using a large hand-drawn map showing the location of waterfalls, ancient burial jars and wildlife such as elephants. While there is a lot to choose from, many of the activities require at least one night of camping in the jungle, and since about half of us had to leave the next morning our choices were limited to day trips.

If you’re in good shape, you can try the 44-kilometer mountain bike ride to ancient burial jars, visit a bat cave, and if you’re lucky you might even see an elephant. For the less adventurous you can trek to one of the nearby waterfalls or take the rowboat down one of the streams feeding into the Prek Piphot.

After picking our activities, we ate dinner while the CBET committee hammered out the logistics for the next day’s adventures. The CBET organizers were able to accommodate all of our requests and, depending on the excursion, prices ranged from $15 to $17 and included a guide and meals for the day.

“I like it because it’s brand new,” said Australian ecotourist Sarah Burgess. “It’s better than other places that are more established.”

 

The Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network can be contacted at 023 355 272.

 

 

 

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