Absolute Travel and Wildlife Alliance, “the leader in protecting the forests and wildlife in Southeast Asia’s tropical belt,” have partnered and are now offering travelers the opportunity to embark on environmentally-conscious journeys to Cambodia, visiting Wildlife Alliance’s forest and wildlife conservation projects. This is the first organized eco adventure tour in the region. Below is the personal account from Beth Eisenstaedt, Wildlife Alliance’s Chief Development Officer. Learn why she believes this tour is the best way to experience rural Cambodia. (We agree.)
On my first night in Cambodia’s remote and stunning Southern Cardamom Mountains, I found myself in a traditional boat in the dark of night with three community members from the village of Chi Phat as my guides, navigating the river bends in the blackness with flashlights and GPS. We arrived at our destination and I knew I was in for a real experience of the lush Cambodian rainforest.
My companions and I disembarked and climbed up into the tree house where we would spend our night. As our guides helped us hang our hammocks and began to cook dinner, we surveyed the surroundings. A rainforest feels alive even in the dark, with the wet air heavy around you and the sounds of wildlife and insects vibrating in the (not-so-far-off!) distance.
As we settled in to a traditional meal of rice and stir-fried morning glory and chicken, I began to inquire with each of our hosts (through our translator) about how each of them ended up a member of Wildlife Alliance’s Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) Project, situated in Chi Phat, the village we had set out from just a view hours earlier. In turn they each told me their stories, former wildlife poachers or loggers all, now trekking guides and CBET Committee members, helping manage their community and bring an alternative, sustainable income to the more than 200 families who participate in the project.
The story of Prom Heoung touched me the most: A former wildlife poacher, he spoke of how to him, the easiest thing for him to do was to go into the forest and hunt tigers. His father had taught him how, why wouldn’t he just do that when he knew he could support his family that way? I was floored – the easiest thing that I could think to do was not face down a tiger in the forest! But it made me think about what I would do in his place in my own ‘natural’ setting. My first thought definitely wouldn’t be hunting a large predator – more likely to get me before I got him – but there are plenty of other desperate options better suited to my own talents from which to choose. Heoung was constantly afraid of being caught and fined or jailed, and he yearned for another option.
He got that chance in 2007 when Wildlife Alliance initiated their Community-Based Ecotourism Project in the village. He joined up immediately as a guide and has since worked his way up to be Chief of the CBET Committee and leader among his people. He is well-respected in the community and has been instrumental in helping the project grow to become the best community-based ecotourism site in Cambodia. He has found the value the forest and imparted that to others, and he works hard to help protect it for his family and his community, for the hundreds of tourists streaming into Chi Phat, and for the future of Cambodia.
After a delicious dinner, I crawled into my hammock and drifted off to sound of rain, dreaming of tigers and trees, and a better tomorrow for the community of Chi Phat. By the next morning, the rain had cleared and the sun sparkled over the river that only the night before had seemed foreboding. We were ready to set off on the next leg of our rainforest adventure and see what other treasures and surprises the Cardamoms had to offer us.
The rest of the trip was no less astounding than the first night. After our return to Chi Phat, we were met by Wildlife Alliance’s helicopter for a trip to the Million Tree Nursery, site of Wildlife Alliance’s Tropical Reforestation Project. There is no better way to experience the majesty of the rainforest than from above, where thick puffs of clouds almost make it look like it’s raining ‘up,’ as the forest feeds the skies above and there is nothing to see but green for miles and miles.
It also gives you the best picture of the devastation that has been wrought by logging and slash-and-burn farming. It is hard to tell from the ground, but from above you can see large swaths of clear-cut land and gaps in forest cover that Wildlife Alliance is working to restore. Visiting the nursery itself is an incredible experience, where 90 community workers are preparing seeds, sowing them in the greenhouse, and planting them to one day restore the forest cover. We spent that night at Chi Phat’s Koh Sothun Ecolodge. Only reachable by raft, this ecolodge consisting of small, private cabins feels a world apart, overlooking Stung Proat river, one of the main rivers in this part of the Cardamoms.
We woke before the sunrise the next day and after a quick breakfast, we heard the boats before we saw them. Three speedboats came racing out of the river bearing a team of forest rangers picking us up for a morning patrol. We piled into the boats headed off into the misty river. As the sun rose over the treetops, we went deeper into the forest, slowing our pace to keep our patrol more vigilant. We pulled over two boats of fishermen and searched their vessels for illegally caught wildlife or tools of the poaching trade (and thankfully found none). We happened upon a campsite and clambered out of the boat to investigate the grounds.
There we did find snares, set to capture wildlife unawares, and removed them from the trees and groundcover. Before heading to the patrol station, we released three turtles and one giant python that had been rescued by the team the day before. We looked on in glee as all of the animals swam off to safety. That evening our hard work was rewarded with a stay at the luxurious Four Rivers Floating Lodge, set in a pristine river bend close to the village of Tatai. Twelve luxury tents are set on pontoons and joined to one another and to a restaurant serving delicious Khmer cuisine. We swam in the river and relaxed after a long day on patrol.
The final day held some of the most inspiring experiences of the entire trip. Driving into Sovanna Baitong, where Wildlife Alliance’s Community Agriculture Development Project is located, it’s hard to imagine that only a few years ago, most of the family farms you can see didn’t exist. Now, they are thriving with vegetables, fruit trees, and other cash crops. Some are dotted with fish farms or chicken coops. Many of the traditional chamka huts have been rebuilt or expanded into larger homes better suited for expanding families.
We were met by the Agriculture Association, the group of community members who help administer the needs of the village, at their community center in the middle of town. After hearing about their activities and responsibilities, like marketing, micro-credit, and health care, we toured the village, visiting family farms, the irrigation station, agriculture store and community nursery, trailed by an ever-growing crowd of curious children. Their sweet smiles and laughter were a welcome presence and a great testament to lifestyle afforded the families living in Sovanna Baitong. The visit was capped by the best meal of the trip, prepared using all local produce. We feasted on stuffed tomatoes, small sweet bananas, fried fish, and stir-fried vegetables.
Taken in total, there was no better way to experience rural life in Cambodia – both the joys and the threats – than through this trip. We experienced every side of life in the rainforest and what Wildlife Alliance is doing to make sure this landscape and the animals and communities within in it survive and thrive for the long-term.