Please see: http://www.chambok.org
Back in 2012 I went backpacking around Cambodia with two friends from Bristol uni, and we spent 3 nights at this amazing little community ecotourism spot. They wanted me to spread the word on my return to the UK, and I am sorry to have left it this long to write about! My friends were also biologists so we decided we should visit the most convenient national park, as time was of the essence. Looking in Lonely Planet we discovered Kirirom national park was just 2 hours west of Phnom Penh, so we decided to stop over on the way down south coast from the temples of the north.
Getting there was an adventure in itself. We arrived at Phnom Penh’s bus station half asleep in the early hours of the morning from the Siem Reap overnight bus, and were assailed but the usual barrage of tuk-tuk drivers wanting to be our chauffeurs for the day. We had assumed that we could get on a local bus the two hours to Kirirom (ridiculously close in Cambodian time), so swatted away the yells of ‘miss you want tuk-tuk? TUK-TUUUUK?!’ but after asking around it became evident there was no scheduled buses there…one man even said ‘Kirirom? Why you want to go there? Nothing there.’ We didn’t want to go all the way on the back of motorbikes due to our massive backpacks. Suddenly our luck changed- after some laughing with his pals a tuk-tuk driver offered to take us down the HIGHWAY to Kirirom, for 30 US dollars. A tenner each! Having little other option we ignored how ridiculous getting a tuk-tuk to a national park sounded and jumped in…
The drive was entertaining, locals giving us weird looks on the main road out of the city, but when we turned off the main road to the mountains in was a dirt track. Pot holes and cows + tuk-tuk and four people= trouble. We came to a rickety wooden bridge over a river and had to pick our way across on foot, leaving the driver to negotiate the bridge. I still wonder if he ever regretted not asking for more than $30, he had to drive all the way back after as well…about 40 minutes of bone shattering dirt ‘road’ later we managed to get there.
When we arrived it suddenly dawned on me- we hadn’t called ahead, what if there was no one here? What if there was no accommodation? What if there were no English speakers? We eventually found the commune, and there were a couple of Cambodian men lying around. We explained we were here to see waterfalls and they looked confused, were we part of a tour? No, we explained, we just picked it out of this magic book called Lonely Planet…so where were our motorbikes? Oh, we didn’t bike, we got a tuk-tuk from Phom Penh……obviously this was the most hilarious thing they’d ever heard! Loving the fact that we had heard of them and come independently, they told us ‘crazy farang’ to have a hammock nap (the answer to everything in Cambodge) and they would make us some lunch.
After a lunch of rice and stir-fried beef, which our buddy the driver gratefully joined us for (looking exhausted) we were introduced to our guide. He spoke excellent English (unfortunately I can’t remember his name), but he explained we could stay in a homestay in the village and pay for meals cooked by one of the wives. It wasn’t cheap after paying for entrance to the park, but looking around and seeing the lack of other tourists you could tell this area really needed it. They had set up this commune after realising the damage the last half a century had inflicted on the local environment. After the money put towards conserving the environment and reforestation projects any little left over was put back into the community. Due to this it is unlikely the project currently makes enough money to help with poverty alleviation. We spent the afternoon on a short walk through the forest and collapsed into bed as soon as it got dark that evening, there were no lights anyway.
The next morning we had arranged with our guide to go on a jungle trek to a waterfall. The trek wasn’t easy but he said this was a daily task for men coming out to get wild food. In the days of the Khmer Rouge he said they would come and hide up in these forests, and he went on to tell us how his father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, and big brother had survived having his leg maimed by a bomb, only to later die of infection. I was amazed that he said all of this in a calm factual way, he holds no grudge, and wants to remember his family for the joy they bought him. He then got very passionate, imploring us NOT to walk off the roadside without him, there could be unexploded bombs. Since the males in his family had died, he was now the bread earner, and had to care for his mother as she got sick. His youthful dreams of heading to the big city (Phnom Penh) were over and his responsibility was now the community. We stopped for lunch at a waterfall; we had carried a packed lunch wrapped up in a banana leaf, the most genius environmentally friendly packaging ever! Later that afternoon we stopped at a view point over-looking the national park and soaked up the awesome views.
One night the local children put on a cultural dance show. They looked utterly gorgeous in their traditional outfits and as far as I could tell one of the dances involved the boys trying to flirt with the girls and the girls had some coconuts as musical instruments. The kids had also been educated about the environment and did a rain dance where the trees (the boys) grew tall after the monsoon. Later on we were dragged up and involved in some dancing! After attempting to teach us how to move like a Cambodian they demanded to be taught an English dance…we joked around with some ballroom steps and spins but eventually settled on the macarina. Classic.
The next day we went to visit the school and it rained quite a bit. We were fairly lucky with the rainy season considering it was September, and at least the rain made everything emerald green and the waterfalls over-flow. We also checked out a smelly bat cave and decided the bats were better off left alone.
I had a great few days here; the effort to go off the beaten path can sometimes really pay off. My only advice is to just go and see for yourself. The community genuinely cares about the environment, incredible when you look at the poverty in the village. But then this should perhaps not be so astonishing when we consider that developing countries are on the front line of environmental change. Us westerners may be happy we didn’t catch much rain during our visit, the farmers likely not so much. Deforestation in the Amazon, as the world’s largest mist producer, has been found to have affects as far-reaching as the Asian monsoon. Poverty and environmental change have become incredibly interwoven and need to be handled in a holistic manner. Local scale initiatives such as this are a step in the right direction and need our support.