Cambodia: a country at a crossroads

In recent years, Cambodia has exploded and evolved into a hotspot for tourism. Over 1.3 million tourists visited Cambodia during the first six months of 2011 alone. So what is it about Cambodia that makes it so desirable?

Cambodia is scattered with precious relics from the past. The phenomenal complex stone temple, Angkor Wat, is the world’s largest religious monument and for a long time has been Cambodia’s most popular tourism attraction.

In recent years, Cambodia’s more modern gems such as its energetic capital Phnom Penh, home to the breathtaking Royal Palace, and the smaller town of Siem Reap have also gained attention by travellers from all over the world.

That’s not all. According to Invest In Cambodia magazine, the Cambodian coast is fast becoming the country’s second largest tourism attraction after the temples of Angkor.

Cambodia has everything within its power to be the next big thing in South East Asian travel.

But all of this comes at a price. Environmental pollution, exploitation of the country and its people are some of the potential negative consequences of the tourism influx. Much of the population still subsists on less than the equivalent of $1 a day and more than 60% still gets by on subsistence farming.

There are serious concerns that the majority of this developing nation’s population is not receiving the benefits from this tourism boom.

The Cambodia Tourism website states, “Concerning the fact that Cambodia is a Third World country, the local community can be extremely vulnerable in relation to the consequences that international tourism can create.”

The country is now hoping to affect a more sustainable way of tourism that avoids damage to the environment and economy. Sustainable tourism is about ensuring that the local people enjoy the benefits of this influx of travellers and the money they subsequently invest in the economy. But unlike countries where tourism has had a ‘boom and bust’ effect, sustainable tourism hopes to provide longterm benefits for the area.

The Gap Year Travel Guide looks at some of the best ways to enjoy the delights of Cambodia in a sustainable way…

Chambok Ecotourism site

Set up in 2001 to combat the issue of deforestation, Chambok Ecotourism Site is run by the community, meaning that any income gained is re-invested into the area.

The site is an intrepid explorer’s paradise. Along the four kilometre trek, you can interact with local villagers and discover the nation’s unique natural biodiversity.

The site lies at the border of Kirirom National Park in Kompong Speu province, central Cambodia. Venturing around the site, you can enjoy hiking, ox-cart riding, renting bicycles, picnicking, bird watching and bathing at the stream and the waterfall.

But the true beauty of this area is the opportunity to immerse yourself among the Cambodian people. Visitors can have a lunch in a villager’s house prepared by local women and feast on hand-picked fruit and coconut.

The Chambok Ecotourism Project was developed to provide an alternative income to the villagers. All revenue from the site stays in the community to protect the forest and manage it in a sustainable way.

Trained local guides are available to share their knowledge of the natural, historical and cultural aspects of the area. The site also has a visitor centre and a restaurant where the local youth stage dance performances and traditional Khmer food is served.

The Kirirom National Park has a basic guesthouse and restaurant facilities inside and a hotel containing several bungalows, a restaurant, theme park and swimming pool.

Protect the Earth, protect yourself

If you’re travelling around Cambodia, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter a hoard of cyclists in bright lycra, trekking across in the countryside in the midday heat.

These are most likely paying volunteers taking part in adventure cycle tours run by PEPY Tours. Protect The Earth, Protect Yourself is an educational development organisation working to support rural communities in their efforts to improve the quality of education offered in their villages.

The organisation has four main changes they are hoping to bring about:

  • No more orphanage tourism
  • More money staying in Cambodia
  • An end to both child and adult sex-tourism
  • Putting in place tourism that adds to the community.

PEPY specialise in providing educational adventures including bike rides. Each tour starts early to avoid the heat. Once everyone on the tour is clear on the final destination for the day, and any highlights or suggested meal stops are discussed, you can set off on your adventure.

There’s no limit to how fast – or slow you want to take the pace, as everyone congregates at the hotel before dusk and reflects on the day’s adventures.

There’s nothing better than hitting the beautiful landscape this country has to offer and getting away from the hustle and bustle of Cambodia’s tourism haunts.

Such is the success of Protect The Earth, Protect Yourself’s work, that the organisation is now supporting education for over 1,700 families in twelve villages and nine schools in rural Siem Reap alone.

See Cambodia on foot

The chance to see Cambodia on foot is becoming a more popular option among travellers. It is universally known that Cambodia is a nation of astronomical beauty so it’s easy to see why trekking and walking are very popular, particularly in magical provinces such as Ratanakiri. With thousands of unexplored square kilometres, this region is the perfect treat for a wanderer’s curious mind.

Mondulkiri could be next on your list. Equally as beautiful as Ratanakiri, walking in this region is the perfect way to explore this unique area as many of the areas simply cannot be reached by vehicle.

If you get tired of walking, Mondulkiri also gives you the opportunity to hitch a ride on an elephant. This rare experience will take you to the main provincial waterfalls in the area.

There’s chance to visit and mix with the local ethnic minority villages. Some parts of Cambodia are still adjusting to the tourism influx but on the whole the people are welcoming. At Mondulkiri, the Phnong people will greet you warmly and show you their ancestral rice farming techniques and traditional weaving.

One of the major benefits of seeing Cambodia on foot is the fact that it is very cost effective. You may need to pay for guides or entrance fees to National Parks or specific sites but otherwise it will cost hardly anything. It’s also great weather wise anytime of the year but remember to pack the right clothes and equipment in accordance with the seasons.

Bird watching

While this may seem a bit of a niche activity, it would be unwise not to take advantage of Cambodia’s rare and breathtaking birdlife. Cambodia’s woodlands are widely regarded as the most pristine in South East Asia and are home to a number of unique landbirds.

Many larger species have all but vanished from surrounding countries but can be seen in Cambodia. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to see birds such as the greater adjutant along with the sarus crane, spot-billed pelican, Bengal florican, and the highly-endangered white-shouldered and milky stork.

The Mekong River is a popular spot for bird lovers as the newly discovered Mekong wagtail and the endangered Irawaddy river dolphin can be seen here.

A boat trip to Prek Toal, one of the world’s most important waterbird breeding colonies, in the core area of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve will give you the opportunity to see other native and exotic species.

Looking ahead

The Kingdom of Cambodia is making firm strides forward now and the outside world is getting the opportunity to enjoy its beauty. What makes this country so fascinating is the proactive effort to effect sustainable tourism and with so much beauty on offer it’s not hard to see why travellers are flocking there in their millions.

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