ON a quiet island poking out of the Mekong River, once surrounded by schools of fresh-water Irrawaddy dolphins, a volleyball flies back and forth between a group of 11th-grade American high school students and the children of an otherwise isolated local village. The students have come to see the “real” Cambodia and as far as quests for authentic local experience go, they’ve stumbled onto a fairly genuine one – although with some notable exceptions to the typical Cambodian village.
But the Koh Pdao ecotourism project in Kratie’s provincial capital isn’t just another self-interested tourism project using a buzzword to bring in extra bucks. In fact, it wasn’t even envisioned as an ecotourism project when the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) first launched a project in 2006 to save the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, which is rapidly heading towards extinction because of heavy gill-net fishing and changes to the river’s ebb and flow.
“Of course, we didn’t plan for it to become an ecotourism site when we first started the project, because in 2006 we focussed on [livelihood] development … in order to play a part in reducing the impact on the dolphins,” said Sun Mao, the organisation’s technical operations manager.
Their livelihood programme was set up to reduce villagers’ reliance on fishing by providing much-needed alternate sources of nutrition to fish and rice.
James Robinson, a sustainable business development and ecotourism consultant with CRDT, says that making simple suggestions to the Koh Pdau villagers, such as planting home gardens, has dramatically reduced the communities’ reliance on over-taxed natural resources and brought significant health benefits to the community.
“One of the things we’ve been able to measure is the effect this has on people’s health and families. I think it’s something like 95 or 99 percent of the families we work with have said their and their family’s health has notably improved within six months or a year of working with CRDT,” he said.
CRDT had hoped that the cumulative effect of their programs would ultimately reduce threats to the Irrawaddy dolphins that routinely became caught in the now-outlawed gill nets that were once popular amongst many of the area’s fishermen.
But as more and more donors pay visits to the island to inspect how their money has been put to use and express delight with the simple, clean charm of the villages, Sun Mao and his associates sensed an opportunity. In 2007, CRDT ran a test project, taking tourists to visit Koh Pdao free of charge. Its success prompted the official launch in 2008 of the Koh Pdao ecotourism project with the support of Oxfam Great Britain, Spain-based Fundacion Promocion Social de la Cultura (FPSC) and the provincial Department of Tourism.
Sous Ve is one of many villagers who can now earn additional income by running a home-stay programme for tourists because of the simple changes in habits that CRDT originally suggested to make her village a more pleasant and healthy environment for visitors.
“We are changing our habits step by step. Previously in the village, there was not so much cleaning … since the tourism community and NGOs taught us about the environment, our village is cleaner, and the way we throw out rubbish is tidier. We have rubbish bins and places to burn trash,” she said.
But CRDT didn’t just want tourists to come for the view. Sun Mao said their programmes are directed towards fostering real interactions with communities, which can mean a little hard labour from time to time. “Importantly in Koh Pdao, we prepare tourists to get to know the community.
They can stay and eat in the community, while in Kampi [the more popular tourist island], tourists could only see the dolphins,” he said. “Tourists can also take part in community work like harvesting.”
It’s this engaging aspect of the programme that first attracted Eric Louis, from the education and community development NGO PEPY, to incorporate a trip to Koh Pdau into his two-week educational tour for American high school students.
“I think what we liked about CRDT is that everything they do for the communities – for their work – they’re taking community input, so it’s not a top- down, one-sided, paternalistic version of aid,” he said. “It focuses on input, so the community actually has a buy-in, so they’re actually personally and communally invested in what’s going on rather than feeling that they’re the recipients of some form of condescending aid.”
Though his pupils’ first task is to tuck into a traditional Khmer lunch at one of the home stays, they’ll spend plenty of time over the next five days of their visit learning what it’s like to work the fields in relentless 34C heat.
But Gemma Elizabeth Florial, a 16-year-old student from the US, isn’t too fazed by the hard work. “I’m just honestly really curious about not being a typical tourist. Like you see how people live in the city, but you don’t really see how most of Cambodia lives, and most of Cambodia lives like these people do,” she says.
She’s partly right and partly wrong, but that’s all part of being a student.