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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Developers move on Ratanakiri lake

Developers move on Ratanakiri lake

A PRISTINE lake in Ratanakiri province - and five Tampuan hilltribe villages

surrounding it - face inevitable change as the province prepares for


Two Belgians operating under the name of "Ta Laom Tourist

Company" are currently seeking approval to build a restaurant and 30 tourist

bungalows - to house 60 guests a night - along the east side of Boeng Yeak Laom,

a volcanic lake not far from the provincial capital of Banlung.

Officials in the Ratanakiri tourism office told the Post that the

province has virtually signed off on Ta Laom Tourist Company's bungalow

proposal, which is awaiting final approval from the offices of Planning,

Tourism, and Environment in Phnom Penh.

In addition, a Hong Kong

company, Eastern Dragon Hotel Management Company, has been exploring the

possibility of building a 200-room hotel at Boeng Yeak Laom. And the province

itself is in the process of sketching out a two-year development plan for the

lake, which could include a second restaurant, drink shop, bandstand, boat

rental facility, and four bungalows for day use.

Since the initial

discussions with the Ta Loam Torist Company, the province has repaired the main

road to the lake and a second road that approaches from the west.


soon as Ta Laom Tourist Company obtains final approval from Phnom Penh

authorities, Van Pelt and Stiers hope to start construction, with the opening

date projected for November.

The Belgians behind Ta Loam Tourist Company,

Maurits Van Pelt and Jos Stiers, do not deny that their development plans will

affect the surrounding highlanders, who live a simple lifestyle devoid of

electricity, cars, or television.

The Tampuans - who number about 13,000

in the central part of the province - subsist on slash and burn agriculture,

burning the hillsides and shifting their garden plots every few


"It's unavoidable to have an impact in the direct vicinity [of the

project]," said Van Pelt. "The people right there won't be able to preserve

their culture. They will be commercialized at a very rapid speed. You can't stop

the clock."

His partner Stiers added: "You cannot say they have to stay

in the forest - that's very egocentric.

"You cannot stop the ethnic

minorities from entering the 20th century, but you have to limit the


By building an environmentally-sensitive project, hiring

Tampuans as staff, and trying to insure that hoards of travelers do not descend

on hilltribe villages without warning, Van Pelt and Stiers hope to offset any

negative effects of their project.

The Tampuans will benefit

economically by being employed in the hotel complex, the developers say, and

also by the increased attention and development activity brought about by

outsiders' exposure to the hilltribes.

Other than a trail that rings the

lake and a covered dock that local people use to bathe or wash their clothes,

the lakeside is currently unblemished by any man-made structures. Local folklore

has it that the 50-meter lake contains deadly whirlpools, water spirits and even

dragons, causing the hilltribes to keep a healthy distance from the center of

the lake. The Tampuans never build their stilt houses close to the water's edge

and rarely swim very far out into it.

The villagers do, however, depend

on the lake for fishing. Turtle traps and fishing nets, lines, and snares can be

found everywhere along the lakeside, and in the rainy season the fish harvest

provides a significant source of the villagers' protein. It is unclear how

private control and development of the lake shore will affect their fragile

fishing structures.

Some local people worry that the lake and surrounding

crater may be irreversibly damaged without careful assessment of pending


"There's no planning here, no thought about the future," said

a Cambodian who has lived in Ratanakiri since the 1960s. "The officials wake up

in the morning and see a contract on their desk and maybe don't even put their

glasses on before they say 'This looks good' and sign it."

Van Pelt and

Stiers, who work for Medicins Sans Frontiers in Phnom Penh, conceived the

complex two years ago when they came to Ratanakiri on holiday.


traveled by foot, motorcycle, and elephant around the province, stayed with

Tampuan villagers, and fell in love with Ratanakiri.

"We were sitting by

the side of Yeak Laom, knowing it would be full of tourists one day, and trying

to figure out how that could be done without spoiling the place," said Van Pelt.

"We realized that we would have to do it ourselves.

"Tourism is

unavoidable in Ratanakiri," he continued. "It's so beautiful and unspoiled. The

challenge is how to limit and control the damage."

The two men decided to

develop an environmentally-friendly project, building small 6x6 meter bungalows

in traditional Tampuan style no closer than 30 meters from the lake shore, and

not cutting down any trees.

"From the outside it will look like a

Tampuan village," said Stiers, adding that the traditional bamboo and thatch

walls will be augmented by wood paneling inside, and bungalows will have their

own shower and bathroom.

Special attention is being paid to preventing

pollution of the lake, with each bungalow having its own septic tank and seepage

pit. Van Pelt and Stiers hope their development will thwart the type of

pollution occurring even now, with crowds from Banlung descending on the lake

every weekend to drink beer - throwing cans and boxes in the water - and washing

their vehicles.

Van Pelt and Stiers are adamant that the complex will

not turn into a loud disco scene or a place attracting prostitutes. Instead they

envision a quiet environment with a reading library where people can play chess

or talk, after a day of trekking in hilltribe villages by foot or


Initially the bungalows will rent for $30 a night. After two

years, if the economic climate is right, Van Pelt and Stiers hope to expand the

number of bungalows and take the complex upmarket.

The two men first met

provincial leaders in August 1992 to discuss the idea of developing tourist

bungalows at Boeng Yeak Laom. They urged the province to improve the dirt road

to the lake and asked for full rights to the entire crater, excluding an area

reserved for the King. Barring that, they hope for veto power over any other

proposed developments.

Jan de Jong, representative of Health Unlimited,

a non-governmental organization in Ratanakiri, said he would prefer the lake be

left alone, but that if something is going to happen at Yeak Laom he backs the

Belgians' plan.

"It goes under the heading of preventive development,"

said de Jong. "They have a good approach - they're very worried about the

environment. They know that if they spoil the beauty of the lake they spoil

their own capital."

Van Pelt said that he has met with Tampuans in the

vicinity of the project and explained the proposed project to them. "They said

they didn't care," he said. "But I got the strong feeling they don't realize

what this is going to mean. You can explain it but I don't think they can

imagine what it will be."

Choung Pheav, who heads up the Highlander

Association based in Ratanakiri, was not familiar with the specifics of Ta Laom

Tourist Company's plans, but said he feared that tourist development at the lake

could ultimately result in the displacement of many of the Tampuans living


In Phum Chree, a Tampuan village on the western crest of the

crater, Yun Loeng, 45, puffed on his pipe.

"There's no problem with

tourists coming because we understand that now Cambodia is opening the door to

everyone to come visit," he said.

"But if the foreigners build a hotel at

the lake they need to ask permission from the spirits first - otherwise the

spirits will be unhappy."



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