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Bike, hike or paddle: It's only natural

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TRACEY SHELTON

Tonle Sap Lake is home to a range of ecotourism initiatives with boat trips to floating villages, stilt houses, flooded forest areas and bird sanctuaries.

From dolphin watching to elephant rides, ecotourism projects are being developed all over Cambodia. Some are more market driven, while others are the creation of conservation NGOs. Here is a partial list:

Bonding with elephants
Elephant Valley Project (EVP) in Mondulkiri is operated with an NGO that cares for mistreated domestic elephants and trains owners how to properly care for an elephant. EVP launched an ecotourism project in November in Pugron village, 11km from Sen Monorom, where tourists have the chance to get acquainted with their elephant by sharing in feeding and bathing before "learning to drive” on an elephant trek. About 200 visitors have taken the treks since the project began. Project manager Jack Highwood says the idea is to give people an intimate experience in which they get to know their elephant. Day trips to waterfalls and overnight treks can be arranged; profits go to a local hill tribe.  

Hill tribe treks
In Rattanakiri, Virachay National Park is beginning to offer trekking, camping and home stays in local hill tribe villages, and conservationists have praised park management for their efforts. Near Banlung, visitors can find the stunningly clear waters of Yeak Lom Volcanic Lake. Projects benefiting the local community include boat rides, guided treks around the circular lake, nature treks through the tall forest and lush undergrowth, and educational visits to a Tompuon hill tribe village. The eco-friendly bungalows of Yaklom Hill Lodge were recently certified by Green Glode, making them the only project in the country to be recognized by this global ecotourism certification program.

Hidden temple
In the northwestern province of Beanteay Meanchey, Banteay Chhmar is home to one of the biggest Angkorian temples. Featured in Tomb Raider, this temple is still buried amid forest growth but local guides will take travelers around the site. In the village tourists can explore local life, which includes silk weaving, ox-cart trips, biking and home stays.

Tonle Sap
Tonle Sap Lake is also home to ecotourism initiatives with boat trips to floating villages, stilt houses, flooded forest areas and bird sanctuaries. Most tourists visit the lake on a day trip from Siem Reap, where the boats, fishing, swimming and bird watching can be arranged. In Kompong Phluk stilt village, there are tours with local fishermen, lunch or a home stay with a local family. Conservation group Osmose runs a popular bird watching program. Visitors can take a paddleboat tour of the village and have lunch in a floating bamboo home before heading into the flooded forests of Prek Toal biosphere reserve which boasts over 30 species of birds, most of which are endangered. Species that can be viewed from a treetop platform include the milky stork, the rare black headed ibis and the spot-billed pelican.

 

Close to Phnom Penh
Accessible as a day trip from Phnom Penh, Chambok offers oxcart rides, trekking, biking, traditional dance performances, and home stays on the outskirts of the striking Kirirom National Park. Bird watching, stunning nature trails, bat caves and waterfalls are among the attractions.

Island options
Ream National Park in Sihanoukville can also be explored by boat trips, hiking and bike riding. Eco-friendly accommodation is also beginning to take shape on some of the more secluded islands. At Jonty’s Jungle Camp nothing is mechanical. Construction is built around the trees including a treehouse that sleeps 12, but specially designed hammocks with built-in mosquito nets are also an option. This jungle island is home to at least 52 bird species, long sandy beaches, great snorkeling opportunities and a natural steam and sauna room. 

Cardamoms
The last frontier is the Cardamoms. As development progresses elsewhere, this little explored mountain range is emerging as an ecotourism hotspot. Jungle trips are beginning to take shape with local tour guides who can be hired from the ranger station in Kateh village, Kampong Speu. A few days of hardcore trekking across mountains as high as 1,771 meters brings you into the pine forests of Koh Kong province. A survey by Fauna & Flora International has recorded 30 species of large mammals, more than 100 birds, 64 reptiles, 30 amphibians, 30 small mammal species and numerous plants and insects living within the range of forest habitats found in the Cardamom region. 

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