A LONG road separates the law courts of Birmingham from the forests of Koh Kong, but three years ago Janet Newman decided to give up her wig and gown to set up Rainbow Lodge near the village of Tatai in the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains.
It was while volunteering for Frontier in nearby Botum Sakor National Park that the former barrister came up with the idea of opening an eco-lodge.
“I had already started with a seed in my mind of setting up a guest house and I was doing conservation volunteer work so I wanted it to be along the conservation field,” she says. “I saw an opening, because at that time I believe there was only one other eco-lodge in the country up at Ratanakiri.”
Being familiar with the area from her volunteer work, Tatai seemed an obvious spot to establish her lodge.
“I found I had a big smile on my face every time I came up this way,” she says.
The lack of local infrastructure also appealed to her. At the time neither the Phnom Penh to Koh Kong highway nor the road’s four bridges were completed.
“It was very undiscovered and that to me was a real draw,” she says. “I thought that people would like to come to this area as I did.”
Despite the improvements to the infrastructure that have made trips from Phnom Penh to Tatai much easier, Rainbow Lodge is still only accessible by boat. Once there guests are treated to some of the best and freshest food in the country as well as uber-tranquillity.
And for those who want to go even further, Rainbow Lodge offers overnight camping in the jungle which Newman claims is very popular with her guests. “It really is getting right out there and very peaceful,” she says.
According to Newman, the last year has seen a marked increase in the number of tourists visiting the area – both foreigners and Khmers.
“Cambodians are realising that this is a very nice area to come,” she says. “You see loads more people at Tatai Waterfall now.”
While attributing much of Tatai’s increased popularity to efforts by the Ministry of Tourism to promote the area as a destination, Newman has been equally impressed by the way villagers have reacted to the problems that tourism brings with it, such as litter.
“The community is doing quite well with this now and they’ve started charging people to go to the waterfall,” she says. “They have got dustbins and it does look as if they are being emptied. This is major progress in my view.”
The change of attitude on the part of local villagers is at least in part due to the benefits they now perceive from the advent of eco-tourism in Tatai.
“There is a sense of pride,” says Newman. “They know it’s a beautiful area, but they have got to see a benefit. People won’t do anything unless they see a benefit.”
Optimistic about the future of eco-tourism in the province, Newman lists the community-based eco-tourism project in Chi Phat, the mangrove walkway at Peam Krasoap and 4Rivers floating eco-lodge a few kilometres down the river from Rainbow Lodge as examples of the vast potential for eco-tourism in Koh Kong. However, despite her overall optimism, Newman is not blinded to the potential pitfalls.
“Around Koh Kong there are quite a number of different threats to eco-tourism,” she says. “On the one hand we have very positive signs from the government and the ministerial departments that they are pushing eco-tourism in this province. On the other hand there are other policies that are being put in place that are fundamentally opposed to any form of eco-tourism.”
In addition to the high profile cases of the dam concessions, Newman believes that excessive sand-dredging is damaging the river, the people who use it and eco-tourism.
“People come here for peace and quiet,” she says. “They do not want to be woken up at six o’clock in the morning with the noise of sand dredgers outside their guest houses. People have to think a little bit more in advance about long term tourism in this province as opposed to the short term gains of things like sand dredging.”