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Mekong's riches lure tourism and development

Mekong's riches lure tourism and development

Parts of the Mekong River near Laos, renowned for their natural riches, are increasingly visited by tourist boats and government officials keen on prodding international trade.

As the boat motors up the Mekong River, water birds and rare Irrawaddy dolphins play

in the current. The river cuts between rocky outcroppings and pristine sandy islands.

On either bank, towering trees hide a network of wetlands below.

This scene is as picturesque as it is remote. Every village in this part of Stung

Treng province, on the wild edge of Cambodia, seems as isolated from the cities and

development downstream as they were a century ago.

But these remote reaches of the Mekong River, renowned for their natural riches,

are increasingly visited by tourist boats and government officials keen on prodding

international trade.

It is only 37 kilometers from the town of Stung Treng to the Lao village of Voeun

Kham. Today, a trickle of travelers cross the Laos border each week at the international

Dongkralaw border checkpoint on the Mekong River. Speedboats depart daily from Stung

Treng carrying a handful of passengers eager to have their passports stamped. And

signs of more arrivals are evident.

One resident who has lived in the area for four decades recalls his fading isolation

with the encroachment of modern life.

Men Sarin, 71, has hardly left the area since arriving in 1964. Almost forty years

ago, Prince Norodom Sihanouk established his tiny village on one of the small islands

in the Mekong River. Retired and volunteer soldiers soon moved there. Sarin is one

of the few survivors to stay.

He calls himself a Kalong soldier, having served a tour of duty in Sihanouk's army

before the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country. Since quitting the military,

he has found little reason to leave. He visited the capital for the first time last

year to receive a donation of rice from the Palace.

His seclusion is waning, he says. It is being replaced by the first hints of commerce,

tourism and trade that the government believes will thrive on this remote waterway.

But much has to be done before that happens.

Although a paved road now connects nearby Cambodian towns to Laos, it is in such

disrepair on the Cambodian side that the Mekong River remains the easiest route,

says Sem Samnang, 49, deputy chief of the Dongkralaw checkpoint.

That could change as Lower Mekong countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and

Vietnam follow through on an agreement to develop economic and transportation ties

in the region.

Chhim Chhorn, the governor of Stung Treng province, says the neighboring Lao province

of Champasak has already forged a friendship pact permitting residents of the two

provinces to cross the border with a $10 pass.

He also foresees a bustling tourist trade emerging.

"I think that the trade now is only cargoes of fish, resin trees and wildlife

between villagers," says Chhorn. "But it is easy for international tourists

to cross the border by boat."

He says the influence of international and local tourists will fuel economic development.

He is not alone. Others have been investing billions of dollars in the region with

the same goal.

As part of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) initiative-bankrolled by ASEAN nations,

the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank-a North-South economic corridor is

emerging between China's Yunnan province and Vietnam. By last year, investment in

GMS projects had topped $2 billion, according to the 2003 State of the Basin report

produced by the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

Men Sarin, 71, has hardly left his island village since he settled there as a retiring soldier in 1964. He says his seclusion is waning, being replaced by the first hints of commerce and tourism.

The Stung Treng area was rich in endangered bird species before speedboats began proliferating in 2000, wildlife officials say. At least 30 boats now operate out of the province.

Part of that money had been poured into building roads.

Construction of Asian Highway AH1 in Cambodia, which runs from Poipet to Bavet, is

about 90 percent finished. It is expected to be completed by 2005.

Eventually, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific

says, it will link Phnom Penh to 32 countries with more than 140,000 kilometers of

roads across Asia.

The link to Laos was recently given a boost when Chinese Ambassador Ning Fukui signed

a $24 million interest-free loan for Cambodia on November 27. It will finance the

rehabilitation of National Route 7 from Kratie province to the Lao border.

Chhin Kong Hean, a director in the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, said that

the rehabilitation of National Route 7 would start by the end of 2003.

The government is also eyeing the tourist dollars the new roads may bring. Thong

Khon, secretary of state of the Ministry of Tourism says a "tourism triangle"

could soon be established between Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

"All of these countries share the spirit of regional tourism cooperation,"

says Khon "There will be more discussion of a concrete strategy in the future.

Now we have a plan, and it is a long-term plan."

He says that Cambodian provinces such as Stung Treng, Kratie, Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri

will be managed as eco-tourism areas in the future. Eco-tourism is vital to help

Cambodia eliminate poverty, especially along the Mekong River, he says.

But for many would-be eco-tourists, the trip can be more harrowing than expected,

tourism operators in the area say.

"I have seen some backpackers arrive in my hotel with tears after they paid

a lot of money for transportation," says the manager of the Sekong Hotel in

Stung Treng. He says that tourism potential exists, but the industry will suffer

until transportation snags are cleared away.

But a danger exists in exploiting the area before environmental safeguards are in

place. The MRC estimates at least 700 species live in the Mekong Basin-481 species

from Laos and nearly 500 species in the Cambodian stretch of the river.

Yen Run, program manager for the Culture and Environment Preservation Association

in Stung Treng province, says the area was rich in endangered bird species before

speedboats began operating in 2000. At least about 30 boats now operate out of the


He says a combination of tourism and poor conservation management threatens the area.

"I don't know how the [increased] transportation will impact the protected wetlands,

but I have noted that the number of birds species are declining seriously,"

says Run.

In an effort to protect this biodiversity, the lower Mekong countries have said they

will endorse sustainable development.

According to the 2003 State of the Basin report, the MRC, in partnership with the

UN, began a five-year, $32.6 million program this year to promote regional cooperation

in assessing and conserving biodiversity. The World Wide Fund for Nature has also

launched a five-year Indochina Strategy encompassing Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to

ensure biological diversity is valued and conserved for the future.

Mekong islander Kong Phean, 37, grows vegetables for a living.

A monument in the island village of Borey O'Svay commemorates its founding 40 years ago by Prince Sihanouk.

That means preserving natural resources for people like Sarin. But, so far, the program

has not halted declines of critical wildlife along the river.

Sarin says today's Mekong is not the same teeming river he fished 40 years ago. The

sounds of birds working the waters of the Mekong River for fish have been largely

replaced by the roar of speedboats.

A few years ago, Sarin could start a fire each morning confident that a fish would

be roasting on it a few hours later.

Now, he sometimes spends a whole day in order to pull a meal from the river.

"I don't know the reason for the decline, but I think that maybe the fish and

the birds are afraid of the noisy motorboats and they run away from the basin,"

says Sarin. "In my lifetime, we did not have to use gear to catch fish. We just

caught the fish with our hands from the pond during the dry season."




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