Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Meetings and Misadventures

My first foray into Ecotourism with a capital E (rather than just the 'try not to accidentally do anything that supports bad practice' approach I normally take).
Chi Phat is part of an initiative (Community Based Eco Tourism - CBET) to provide an alternative economy to poaching and logging in the protected Cardamom Mountain region. About half of the families in the community work with they CBET project in one way or another - as guides, cooks or trailsetters in the jungle; or running guesthouses or homestays; or performing a role on the committee of the organisation.

Scouting out how to get to Chi Phat from Kampot was an interesting experience in the road less travelled. There is no bus to Chi Phat - that mode of transport abandons you at Anduong Tuek (a collection of about half a dozen buildings), and from there you can choose a 2 hour boat journey along the river, or a 40 minute moto taxi ride along rutted dirt road. Turning up at the bus station in Kampot, there was little opportunity to say where I was going before a list was fired at me. "How do I get to..."
"Phnom Penh."
"Sihanoukville"; "Battambang"; "Siem Reap"
"No... Anduong Tuek"
[confused looks - almost certainly due to my pronunciation]
Luckily, many Cambodians have a passing familiarity with the latin alphabet, so showing them the guidebook and pointing works better than it has any right to do.
The tourist bus rep wandered off at this point, leaving me with two helpful strangers who explained there would be a bus at 9am, any day of the week, from the petrol station, and it would cost them (very specifically excluding me) $5. This with an apologetic shrug - they couldn't help me with what the tourist premium would be. But at least I knew where to be and when!

On Tuesday morning, the tour bus rep tried to sell me a ticket for $8, and my tuk tuk driver then tried to hustle me into a taxi for $15. I resisted both, wandered to the bus by myself and agreed a price of $6 with one of the relevant people. (Not the driver. As well as the driver, there are usually at least one - often two - co-drivers who help load the bus and then sit up front; and at least one random other person who rides in the back, rearranges the passengers when more get on than there are seats, and occasionally leaps out of the moving vehicle to go and run an errand for the driver. You pay one of them.)

While sitting on a cooler and watching the assorted guys load assorted goods onto a wooden trestle strapped to the rear bumper (everything from a leaky sack of fresh meat, through kitchen furniture and finishing with my rucksack) I got talking to a local woman about where I was headed. Her name was Sreioira (as close to a phonetic spelling as I can get, as ever), and when we got to a lunch stop a few hours later, she offered to drive me from there to Chi Phat on her motorbike because she'd never been and was curious. I'm also pretty sure she was bored and lonely, and wanted some company as her husband was away for a few days. It worked for me as a deal, so I paid the bus guy, we got some lunch, and I hopped on the back of Sreioira's moto.

That is not a journey I wish to repeat anytime soon. The road from the stop to Chi Phat was very poor, and balancing with my rucksack on the back of a bike, with a driver who was not familiar with the road got rather unnerving. The tarmac road to Anduong Tuek was in bad repair, with a lot of potholes that needed to be avoided by weaving all over the road (as was the traffic in the other direction). The road from there to Chi Phat is just dark, rutted red dirt. In the midday sun it looked stunning against the green of the approaching jungle and a deep blue sky. The first rank of foliage at the side of the road was coated in the dust from passing traffic, and the contrast of all of it was amazing, but I wasn't able to take photographs of it, unfortunately. In all, it took about an hour and a half to get from the bus stop to Chi Phat (I'm still not sure exactly where it was, actually...), and I was very, very pleased to get to a guesthouse and get off the bike.
Sreioira and I spent the rest of the afternoon hopping on and off the bike to explore the area, until around 4, when Sreioira left to go back home, and I went to find the CBET office to see whether I could afford a trek.

Sreioira, on a very swingy suspension bridge

They aren't that expensive, considering you get a guide and a cook for the time you're there, but it's expensive for one as you don't share the costs.
Happily, there was a sign up on the noticeboard saying "We have booked trek number 2 for tomorrow (the 8th). We would be happy if you would join us to make a cheaper tour. Leon, Eva and Benno."
I'd been planning on a 2 day trek, but this meant the three day option they had booked was the same price as a 2 day would be by myself. At $75, this brought it within my normal daily budget, so I signed up!
Another guy, named Mike, later joined the same trek, accidentally making it more expensive as it's one guide to 4 people! (We only realised this later)
We 5 ate dinner together, and bid each other adieu to meet up at 5.40 the following morning.
Trekking Happened.
Day One:

 Mike. Contemplating breakfast. Or the meaning of life. But probably breakfast.

 Benno and Eva In Conversation

 Row, row row your boat..

 Unnecessary Arty Shot

 Leon tries his hand at the rowing

After the boats, we met up with Rose and Deb, who were on a 5 day trek, the first two days and nights of which were the same as ours. Mike defected to their itinerary on day 3...

 Lunch, with added pedicure fish
(They were *everywhere*)

 I have no idea which flower it thinks this is, but it smells like damp socks

Dorm room

 Here, tiger tiger tiger tiger...

 Benno and Rose

 Me and Mike

 Rose, Deb and Leon

Leon, Eva and me

The group contained two Dutch, a Dane, a German and a Brit. The Aussies started a conversation about Eurovision over dinner...

Day Two:

 The fauna was lacking in danger...

 How about the flora?

 Rose and Eva encourage ants to suicide. For SCIENCE.

 Naro chills out by a tree. Possibly also for science.

 Lots of chilling.

 This happened a lot

 Because I am a clutz. Or my right foot is competitive about being more swollen than my left. Or something.

The view from my hammock.

Day Three:

 Here be Ents

 Some of our jungle is missing...

 If your bridge falls down, just prop up some other stuff against the old one. Be reet.

 OK. But I'm not looking...

 "I carried a *coconut*...?"


 Saron, catching lunch



 Product placement

Me, in bathers, atop a waterfall, *not* swimming on my sprained (?) foot. Doh.

After that, we headed back to Chi Phat, and stayed in lovely bungalows that Leon and Eva had stayed in their first night. The owners also make a cracking rice wine, with a hint of Highland Park about it.

Thus ended the jungle adventures. Although not the foot issues. It's still somewhat swollen, and probably will be for a couple of days. 

That evening, we talked with some of the CBET staff, and also with a guy who used to work at CBET in Chi Phat and is now setting up another project in another part of the Cardamoms:
The first trek ran there just a couple of months ago. It looks fabulous, and if I come back this way one November (just after the rainy season, when the waterfalls are at full tilt), I'll go and check out those guys.

CBET seems to have a good system going. When we spoke to the staff there were a few things we suggested that they are looking at doing - setting up volunteer opportunities like helping to maintain or replace the bridges, for example. But also little things, like giving tourists a way of bringing the rubbish from the trip back with them (it's currently only collected once a month) rather than having bins in the camps. They are trying to get more community involvement, but they face challenges. Some residents are setting up alternative companies for transport or accommodation, for example, and as part of the CBET income currently goes to funding CBET activity and development, the financial benefit of freelancing is greater. It's a complicated balance, and it will remain one for the whole Chi Phat community for several years, as well as for those other communities along the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor that go down a similar route.

To foray briefly into politics, he showed us footage of some of the protests in Phnom Penh. Recent elections were, to say the least, somewhat suspect; and there have been protests to both try to precipitate new elections, and also to try to increase wages for factory workers. A couple of weeks ago, protesters were fired upon, and 3 killed. The incumbent government has been in power for 35 years, so it is very difficult to challenge the system in a meaningful way here.

It's calm again, for the time being, but Phnom Penh is the next stop for Leon, Eva and me. (Spoiler alert - it stayed calm, and we were fine.) Cambodia is having Interesting Times. I'll return to them later. In the meantime, you may wish to do some background reading. I don't have any recommended links for you, I'm afraid, as a bunch of stuff about it is blocked here and I'm mostly getting information from talking to people. I'm sure Google will help you out, though.


  1. Just been catching up on your adventures - very disappointed in the lack of dragons in Cambodia at the moment, please do what you can to remedy this! Glad you are having Interesting Times and look forward to more. Heather x

    1. Hi Heather! Sorry about the lack of dragons! If I remember rightly, there should be some in the next post (which should be made reasonably soon, I hope!).

      I'll do my best, anyway! xx

  2. Ouch; your foot looks very swollen. Hope it improves soon and isn't impeding your fun-having ability too badly!