Our Ideas

Dan Vercruysse Travels to Cambodia: Part 5 of 5

    Previous Next
    • Dan Vercruysse Travels to Cambodia: Part 5 of 5

      Sustainable Choices

      In past posts I have described a few ways in which Cambodian lifestyle incorporates a number of sustainable practices, living lightly off the land and sea. I do not want to mischaracterize the reasons why their culture lives this way–these practices are most often adhered to out of necessity. The wholesale destruction of the country’s infrastructure as a result of both American bombing campaigns to weaken Vietnamese forces, as well as the Khmer Rouge occupation in the 1970s, is still taking its toll on the population today. Since that time, Cambodia has experienced a higher than average amount of political unrest and governmental instability. Additionally, the effects of globalization, in which First World countries benefit from the resources and production of goods in Third World countries, has disrupted local economies and made it difficult for Cambodians to gain in prosperity. All of these factors have contributed to a society where making the most of what you have is paramount.

      For this post, I wanted to write about what lies ahead for this country that is the recipient of many international aid programs, but still struggles with economic instability. Cambodia is now poised to make important decisions about their natural resources, which could either uphold their sustainable lifestyle or relent to strong economic factors that could provide much-needed income. In recent years there has been a significant increase by corporate interests in the exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources. These include: increased wood harvesting from its deep jungle regions, the expansion of mining activity throughout the northeast provinces (home to some of its rarest indigenous plant and animal species), as well as the rapid rise of uncontrolled development in fragile beach and jungle environments, related to the growing tourism industry. In a country with such widespread poverty, decisions about how best to manage their resources are likely considered with an emphasis on addressing immediate needs rather than long term benefits. Like environmental questions in many parts of the world, the prospect of making money now versus biological wealth in the future is very complicated. It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are some great organizations and community development programs that are working hard to educate the population on the downfalls of unregulated growth and lobby against the selling of their natural resources.

      While planning our trip, I came across Chi Phat, a somewhat remote village in the Cardamom Mountains that is working to change their economy from one that has been supported by illegal logging and poaching (due to a lack of other viable options), to one that is built upon ecotourism programs showcasing their environment while preserving its beauty. They offer an array of tours and programs that allow visitors to enjoy both environmental and cultural aspects of Cambodian life. This nascent ecotourism approach has proven popular with visitors and is appears to be bolstering the village economy. The entire operation is led by locals who organize the activities, provide fresh cooked meals, act as guides, and coordinate a variety of lodging options. This shift in practice, from an economy built upon environmentally depleting activities to one based in protecting their natural resources is an excellent example of how making responsible choices, in the face of difficult financial challenges, can result in mutually beneficial outcomes.

      To reach the village we had to tell our bus driver that we needed to be let off on the side of a highway at a certain river crossing–not an actual bus stop. From there we embarked on a two-hour boat ride upriver into the mountains, giving us a chance to take in the river villages and see some of the landscape we would be touring.

      Upon arrival we checked into the Chi Phat village community center where we confirmed our lodging for the night and received instructions for our departure the following morning. We stayed in a traditional village house with a wooden room, mosquito-netted bed, and a traditional splash tub/shower. We had access to electricity for specific windows of time, allowing for fans until 9pm . . . after that it was sweaty time! That evening we walked around the village, followed by a communal dinner at the village center with other tourists who were signed up for a series of activities in the coming days. Meals consisted of simple rice dishes and fresh fruit.

      The next morning after breakfast, we headed out on our tour with a diverse group of fellow hikers (Swiss, French, and German travelers). Our guide, a young Cambodian man who grew up in the village, wasted no time hitting the trail. Despite wearing only thin flip flops, he walked at a pace that was hard to keep up with! That morning we traversed both grassy plains as well as dense jungle. Midday, our guide quickly prepared a fresh meal right on the trail–a stir fry of fresh vegetables, fried egg, and rice. We then continued on for more jungle hiking, which was great because it provided much-needed shade from the high temperatures. That afternoon, we arrived at their jungle base camp, which consisted of a few open-air sheds with simple corrugated roofs. These provided: a kitchen, dining table, restroom, and sleeping platform. Our group set up hammocks with bug nets, before settling in for a great meal with our fellow travelers. We spent the evening (which happened to be Thanksgiving night!) comparing and contrasting our different cultures and practices. We discussed politics, universal healthcare, paternal family leave, gun control, etc.–no major issue was left untouched. It really was a delightful and educational evening in the Cambodian jungle.

      The next morning, after a typical fried noodle breakfast, we commenced hiking again until we came to a large swampy grassland clearing in the jungle. Our guide told us how at night this area acted as a watering hole for elephants that live in the area. While we were not able to see anything as majestic as elephants in the wild, the scenery was breathtaking. Our next destination was a picturesque jungle waterfall where we stopped to relax and swim at the waterfall’s base. Some of our group climbed part of the way up before jumping in, while the more daring guides ran to the edge and jumped from the top! It was a refreshing break from the high temperatures. After another on-the-fly lunch, the group continued on back to Chi Phat where we ate a great dinner at a village restaurant and prepared for the journey out of the mountains the following day. The village arranged for an adventurous motorbike ride by a local villager to take us back out of the mountains where we could catch a bus onto our next destination.

      This brief excursion into the interior of one of Cambodia’s remote mountain ranges allowed us the opportunity to enjoy the diverse mountain landscapes and appreciate the value of good stewardship of these fragile environments. This brand of ecotourism is becoming more popular with tourists, who are interested in experiencing native habitats within Cambodia while putting their tourism dollars towards programs that help preserve these environments and support local economies.

    • About the Author

      Dan Vercruysse

      • Architect / Senior Associate
      • dan@msrdesign.com
      • 612 359 3225
      • View Bio