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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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."