Cambodia: The best and worst of tourism

In June, I visited Southern Cambodia and experienced the best and worst of the tourism industry in South-East Asia. A desperately poor country trying to use tourism as an agency for development, Cambodia has employed a range of strategies. I encountered both ends of the spectrum during a one-week visit to Sihanoukville and Koh Kong.

As the tourism industry in South-East Asia continues to thrive and expand, there is a growing demand for more sustainable eco-tourism to protect the region’s fragile environment. Already under intensive pressure from deforestation, illegal wildlife trade and climate change, the tropical forests of Asia are a vulnerable ecosystem. One positive campaign taking place in the Cardamom Mountains is an eco-village called Chi Phat.

Chi Phat is a small village located along the Preak Piphot river in the foothills of the southern Cambodian mountains. Here, with the help of the Wildlife Alliance, this village has developed as a model for eco-tourism in the region. Tourist visits help fund rangers, forest restoration efforts and environmental protection. Additional income generated through homestays, canoe trips and cooking classes promote sustainable development, whilst providing an incentive to protect the forest.

During my visit, I undertook a three day trek into the rainforest. The wet season had induced a flush of new greenery and the forest looked magnificent. The hills of the Cardamom mountains were full of amazing wildlife. During my short trip, I encountered hornbills, monkeys, snakes and lizards to name a few. We also found signs of elephants with their dung lining the path. It was fun to discover that the trails I was walking on had actually been made by elephants rather than people. The vegetation was also fascinating with nutrient poor sandy soil at the top of the hills creating pockets of open landscape littered with Nepenthes pitcher plants, whilst the hills had more typical dense mixed dipterocarp forest. Camping overnight in a hammock allowed me to experience the sounds of the insects and rain throughout the night. It was a truly enjoyable trip that culminated with a bird-watching boat tour along the river. Overall, the Chi Phat eco-tourism village showed some hope that the environment would be protected as a result of tourism activities in the region.

Despite the bright light shining from the Cardamom mountains, the city of Sihanoukville located on the Gulf of Thailand represented the worst of tourism in South-East Asia. Recently identified as the next big Chinese tourist destination, development in Sihanoukville had grown out of control. As far as the eye could see, high rise multi-storey hotels and casinos were being constructed day and night, leaving a vast amount of pollution in its wake. Raw sewage and plastic continuously flowed into the ocean, destroying one of the best beaches in Cambodia. It was also clearly affecting the marine life too with the corals being overtaken by algae and sea urchins. The growing tourism industry here had funded an environmental catastrophe.

My trip to Cambodia had been a real eye-opener into the spectrum of tourism activities in Asia. Cambodia, as with much of Asia, has some stunning landscapes and wildlife, but unless more projects follow Chi Phat’s model, much of it will be sadly lost. We can only hope that sustainable tourism will win the day.

The eco-village of Chi Phat situated in the foothills of the Cardamon mountains in Koh Kong province:

Some of the wildlife in the forests of Chi Phat:

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Our simple jungle camp where we slept in hammocks:

Alongside wildlife, Chi Phat offers the opportunity to visit waterfalls and take canoe rides along the river:

Sihanoukville was a stark contrast to Chi Phat with its out of control development and pollution:

For more photos, check out my Cambodia portfolio.

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