An idyllic Cambodian village between a mountain and a river offers a relaxed, welcoming base from which to explore a special part of the world. Tucked into the southeastern front of the Cardamom Mountain range, Chi Phat is a pretty, prosperous two-street village. Dusty red roads are flanked by palms and sandalwood trees, handsome wooden houses perch on stilts and there’s a thriving community-based ecotourism (CBET) operation, established by conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance.
For a long time conservationists worked on the basis that the best way to protect the environment was to get people, and their bad habits, as far away from the areas sought to be protected as possible. That thinking started to change in the 1980s and ’90s, and the idea has since taken root that actually the people who have long lived on and worked and intimately known the land may in fact be its best stewards. However, they needed something to replace the livelihoods that they derived from practices such as hunting, poaching, logging, resin-tapping and non-sustainable agricultural practices. Thus the idea for CBET was found.
Adopting the principle of “poacher turned gamekeeper” through CBET programmes not only gives people a replacement for incomes lost, but gives them a deeper incentive to protect the areas around them, and dependent wildlife, as their own wellbeing becomes entwined with that of their furry and feathered neighbours.
Community members benefit from CBET initiatives in a number of ways. Whether they’re hosts in homestays and guesthouses, waiters, guides, trip organisers, handicrafts manufacturers, offering culturally-based experiences or shopkeepers, the opportunities can be found. This not only helps to spread the benefits brought by tourism, but it also enhances visitors’ experiences as they are brought into closer, more genuine contact with the community.
It should be noted that real ecotourism is always linked with conservation goals. It has become something of an empty cliche within the travel industry as operatives have realised that tourists do care about the impacts they have when they travel. Thus any nature-based excursion is dragged under its banner. But operations like the one established at Chi Phat offer a genuine opportunity for travellers to support communities who are working to protect their environment.
Chi Phat is home to almost 40 homestays and guesthouses plus another small group of eco-chalets built in 2014 beside the wildlife release station. If that all seems too structured for you, then you can also camp in the forest. There is a handful of restaurants in the village, including at the CBET centre, which also has a bar. Just a few kilometres up the road, a winding tributary to the Preak Piphot River runs into rapids and waterfalls as it wends its way down the mountain.
Whether you’re seeking relaxation, adventure, or a chance to come into closer contact with Cambodian culture than you’ll find at the big tourist centres of Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, Chi Phat has something. Hiking and cycling trips into the mountains can be done at your level. Real adventurers can trek for several days into the forests, camping beside rivers, crossing wild elephant trails and hopefully catching a glimpse of some of the beautiful birds and animals that call this part of the Cardamoms home.
Pro tip: when they say the trip is hard, they’re not kidding. We did the Trick or Treat trek, which is 44 kilometres into the hills and takes in bat caves and an ancient burial site. Despite being sick, we’re still generally strong and fit, but were definitely feeling it the next day. Things that are perfectly doable back home take on a different hue when it’s 35 degrees, and the humidity is hovering around 90%. Canoeing and river cruises let you enjoy the rivers at your pace. Through all these excursions you can take in birdwatching, or sites with ancient burial jars, bat caves, a forest regeneration programme or a fascinating wildlife release station where rescued animals are prepared for re-release back into the forest.
If adventure isn’t your thing, but you still want to get hands on, you could try the volunteer gardening programme, or perhaps learn more about Cambodian food with a cooking class. And if even that seems a little sportive, there’s a massage parlour where you may want to ease out tired post-trek muscles. The delivery is somewhat eccentric (we’re being polite here), and it may be the least private massage you’ll ever have, but if you don’t believe us about the hikes being hard when they say they’re hard, then you’re seriously not going to care about any of that. It’s the only one in town. The parlour is a few doors up from the CBET Centre in the middle of the village main strip, and a one-hour aromatherapy massage is $10.
The community also offers plenty of opportunities to explore what the project is about, whether it’s the reforestation programme or, fascinatingly, the wildlife release station to which you can take a dedicated tour, overnighting at purpose-built eco-chalets. We didn’t have time to do that this time, but will certainly be making a return trip so that we can.
For something more leisurely, a lot of guesthouses hire out simple bicycles for $4 a day. Take a chance to explore, in any direction, and you won’t be disappointed. We rode straight out of the village towards the mountain, taking a diversion on to the prettiest road which runs parallel to the main drag, flanked by more handsome wooden houses and beauteous blooms of bougainvillea. On the other side of the village, we found ourselves on a deserted “moor” with a small lake, and were lucky enough to witness the evening fall as the water birds took flight to return to their nests.
Chi Phat village sits in the middle of Chi Phat commune, which is home to four villages and about 3,000 people. The area was once a hotbed of illegal logging and poaching, and it is also within sight of economic land concessions granted to companies belonging to Cambodian tycoon and senator Ly Yong Phat, in partnership with Thai and Taiwanese companies.
Economic land concessions are the legal mechanism under which thousands of Cambodian families have been thrown off their own land, their legitimate rights and livelihoods swept aside, often quite literally torched, all in the name of “development”. More than 10% of Cambodia’s land has been parcelled off and handed out as concessions that are frequently just a legalistic cover for illegal loggers to continue their decimation of Cambodia’s ever-dwindling forests.
In theory the concessions are granted so the land can be converted to agricultural use. Thus trees are permitted to be logged and sold from within the ELCs. However trees logged in other, off-limits, areas are frequently shipped in and sold as “legal” timber. Moreover, the rights-holders very often have no intention to convert the land, and hundreds of thousands of hectares that once sustained families, forests and wildlife are left bare, lifelessly baking under the hot sun.
Where agricultural operations are developed — Sre Ambel and Botum Sakor produce sugar for the European market — land that once marginally sustained thousands of families becomes a cash machine flooding the accounts of a tiny, venal minority of well-connected Cambodians and foreigners.
The existence of community-driven operations such as the one at Chi Phat helps to provide a small bulwark against the blind rapaciousness that defines so many Cambodian political calculations. And for that reason alone, it’s important. It’s also huge fun.
The journey from Route 48 to the village is as much a part of the experience as your adventures when you get there. Whether you’re dropped off at Andoung Teuk, about 3.5 kilometres from the turn-off for Chi Phat, or at the turn-off itself, the dusty, sandy spur takes you off on a 19 kilometre ride through cashew plantations, vast fields of crops, and an occasionally bleak landscape marred by clearance fires and thin bursts of skinny blackened trees, before the forest starts to gradually creep in to your horizon. Parts of it are lovely, even where the edges of the forests have been singed in sepia tones by fires that came too close.
At Andoung Teuk, you need to go to the restaurant on the south side of the road with a green net awning and wooden pillars. There is a big sign for Chi Phat Community Based Ecotourism. The moto from there, or from the turn-off to Chi Phat, will cost $7. If you have already organised transport through the CBET centre at Chi Phat, you don’t pay the driver, but the centre. If you hire an independent driver, you pay them the $7.
The motorcycle ride (or minivan trip if that is your transport from Phnom Penh) comes to the end when you reach the river. Here you hop on to a “ferry” that takes you straight across the village to Chi Phat itself.
The village is quite small, but long. You alight from the ferry on a small hook at the bottom of a two-kilometre road strung with wooden houses on stilts that are remarkably well-kept. In fact, the whole village is remarkably well kept. In general, Cambodian villages are, sadly, more commonly lined with great, stinking, dangerous drifts of plastic bags, food containers, broken glass and drinks cans. It’s utterly depressing to see the complete lack of care and concern for the environment — not only geographical, but also personal — that persists here.
Chi Phat is different. And it’s not just in appearances. The people are almost unfailingly friendly (so far, so normal), and someone will almost invariably step forward to ask, “May I help you?” the moment you may look slightly lost or puzzled by something as you wander down the street. That is unusual. And a little bit delightful.
The CBET centre is not even 300 metres into the village, and that’s where you need to go first, to register, sort out your accommodation, whether you’ve booked it in advance or not, and start organising your adventures.
We were impressed at how well run the whole programme appeared to be. We’ve seen first-hand how CBET programmes can become bogged down by resistance to change, jealousy and cronyism. The visitor will never see any of that of course, but they will unconsciously feel it in the attitudes of the people they encounter. We only had one moment of pause throughout the four days we spent there. And we were hugely impressed with the staff at the CBET centre, who were helpful, engaging and friendly.
You will need to bring your money with you as Chi Phat has no banks. There is a Wing office about 50 metres below the CBET centre. Wing allows money to be sent anywhere within Cambodia swiftly, safely and cheaply. Transfers cost just $1.50. If you run out of cash, then you need to start contacting friends.
There is a small medical centre in the village, just down the road towards the Sun Bear Bungalows, about 100 metres past the CBET centre. There is also a pharmacy where one of the staff members speaks English about 100 metres below the CBET centre (going towards the river). You will need to know what you’re looking for in advance. If you have had a serious accident, or are seriously ill, you need to get to Phnom Penh immediately. Speak to the team at the CBET centre; they are very competent and will be able to organise your transfer to Phnom Penh if necessary or help you to communicate with the local medical centre if necessary.
Indispensable items that you will need include wet wipes, long socks, a small torch, sunscreen and mosquito spray. You can get mosquito spray in the village, as well as long socks. The latter are necessary, because of leeches. Lots and lots of leeches. And do not under any circumstances forget about sunscreen — if you go on a trek, you will spend a lot of time on open plains and meadows. You can buy it in the village, but it may not be strong enough, or fresh enough. Sunscreen loses efficacy over time. You can also buy hats, scarves, flip flops, basic toiletries and other clothing.
Most of the places you stay at will not have WiFi. Or electricity for much of the day. Electricity in the village goes on from 05:00 to 09:00 and then from 17:00 to 22:00. That is when you can charge your phone and pick up the WiFi at the CBET centre if you need to catch up with the rest of the world. But do you really, really want to?
By Nicky Sullivan . Last updated on 16th October, 2016.