Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cambodia - Koh Kong Emerges as an Eco-Tourism Destination

In Cambodia, Koh Kong Emerges as an Eco-Tourism Destination.

INSIDE a breezy bamboo structure in Chi Phat, a village in the remote province of Koh Kong, near the Thai border in southwestern Cambodia, a dozen or so foreigners sat down to a communal dinner of chicken curry and Angkor Beer. Cinnamon-hued cattle and elderly women wearing ikat sarongs and checkered scarves ambled along the dusty road outside.

Eating by the light given off by fishing cages doubling as lamps, the group recounted the day’s activities: bird-watching at sunrise, mountain biking across rocky streams, swimming in waterfalls. And fending off rain forest leeches.

“The bite is no worse than a large mosquito’s,” said David Lambert, a strapping Englishman.

Katrin van Camp, from Belgium, had returned from a guided overnight jungle trek, then spent the afternoon in a hammock and playing with local children eager to improve their English. “When I go home, this is the Cambodia I’m going to remember,” she said.

For decades, Koh Kong villages like Chi Phat had little contact with the outside world. Marginalized by a lack of infrastructure, a Khmer Rouge presence that endured into the late 1990s, and some of Southeast Asia’s wildest, least-explored terrain, the region remained virtually forbidden to outsiders.

But new roads now penetrate the jungle and scale the hills; new bridges traverse the area’s numerous rivers. And as Cambodia has achieved a level of political stability, a small but diverse array of Western-run accommodations — including the makeshift restaurant in Chi Phat, part of a project called Community-Based Eco-tourism — has opened in the last few years, catering to both backpackers and the well-heeled.

Thanks to this new accessibility, travelers are now discovering the area’s awe-inspiring biodiversity, which includes one of Southeast Asia’s largest tracts of virgin rain forest; some 60 threatened species, including the endangered Asian elephants, tigers, Siamese crocodiles and pileated gibbons; and a virtually untouched 12-island archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, with sand beaches and crystal-clear aquamarine waters.

The Koh Kong region spans 4,300 square miles, about the size of the Everglades National Park. But the charms of Cambodian rural life are readily apparent in Chi Phat, home to about 2,500 people. The village sits at the foot of the Southern Cardamom Mountains, about 10 miles inland, up the mangrove- and bamboo-lined Preak Piphot River. Wooden houses on stilts, painted mint green and baby blue and shaded by towering palms, line the main dirt road. Children wearing navy blue and white uniforms and broad smiles cycle to school on adult-size bikes, passing by toothpick-legged white egrets hanging out on the backs of water buffalo in neon green rice fields.

It wasn’t always this peaceful. Chi Phat was once infamous for its abundant poachers, loggers and slash-and-burn farmers, who were forced to turn to illegal practices to make a living. That began to change in 2007, when the conservation group Wildlife Alliance started to work with the community on a project that would turn hunters — who knew the forest’s hidden gems better than anyone — into tour guides, and local families into guesthouse owners.

“Chi Phat was home to the most destructive inhabitants in the whole of Koh Kong province,” said John Maloy, a spokesman for Wildlife Alliance. “By participating in the eco-tourism project, community members would not only receive income that would greatly improve their situation, they would be provided with incentives to protect the forest rather than exploit it in an unsustainable manner.”

So far, the initiatives seem to be working. Last year, Chi Phat welcomed 1,228 visitors, according to the alliance, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2009. Residents are receiving much-needed income that allows them to reside year-round in the village, allowing their children to go to school and get to health care. (When locals relied on logging and hunting, they had to spend long stretches in the forest.)

Travelers, meanwhile, can leave the pressures of the developed world behind. Days begin with the rooster’s crow and end when the village’s generator goes silent at midnight. On trips organized by the Community-Based Eco-tourism office, visitors can trek through fields filled with canary yellow and electric blue butterflies to reach bat caves hidden behind curved waterfalls, or plant a tree at a reforestation nursery. Recent visitors reportedly caught a glimpse of a few of the area’s roughly 175 endangered elephants.

Janet Newman, originally from England, fell for Koh Kong while documenting the province’s wildlife in 2005. Within three years, she had decided to stay for good, and opened the eco-friendly Rainbow Lodge.

“I looked at many parts of the country but always had a big smile on my face when I went to Koh Kong,” Ms. Newman said. “It was just the sheer unspoiled beauty of the area.”

The lodge, on 12 acres along the Tatai River about 50 miles northwest of Chi Phat, is thick with palms and brightly colored flowering bushes. The seven wooden thatched-roof bungalows have hammock-strung terraces that overlook the trees.

Guests at the lodge — who recently ranged from a young Australian family of five to adventure-ready couples from Europe — can kayak to the nearby Tatai waterfall, a wide expanse that creates small bathing pools and pummeling massage spots between black rocks; head into the jungle on guided hikes, spotting and identifying birds and insects as they go; or just lounge in the wicker sofas in the open-air restaurant, whose thatched roof features a nightly display by limb-size polka-dotted geckos.

If you are lucky, the spot might just live up to its name: three rainbows streaked the sky during a November visit.

Read more at http://travel.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/travel/06nextstop-kohkong.html


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