Photo: Don't forget your passport.

Chances are, if you've spent much time on Cambodian buses you'll have passed by a bunch of cyclists in bright lycra. Who are these people and why are they cycling across rural Cambodia in the midday heat? It turns out they could well be paying volunteers, taking part in adventure cycle tours run by PEPY Tours. We sat down for an informal chat by email with Daniela Ruby Papi to find out a bit more

1) Can you tell our readers a little about Pepy Ride and Pepy Tours?

PEPY is an educational development organization working to support rural communities in their efforts to improve the quality of education offered in their villages. To raise support and awareness about these school and non-formal education programs, PEPY began offering adventure tours of Cambodia which not only fund these programs but also introduce travellers to development issues. PEPY Tours offers educational adventures and service-learning experiences with a goal to improve the world and to convince others of their power to do the same.

2) Pepy says, "Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself". How do you see that thinking working in a Cambodian context?

We decided on the name P.E.P.Y. when developing our first cycle trip across Cambodia designed to teach about both environmental and health issues. "Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself" is about the relationship between the environment and our health. It is a reminder that things like excess or dangerous pesticide use is harmful to the environment and should be avoided to protect our earth, but also should be avoided to protect US and our health.

In many cases, by protecting the earth we are protecting ourselves as well. Sometimes, in more impoverished areas of Cambodia where short term interests of survival and success are put above long term sustainability issues, environmental protection messages hold less weight than they might elsewhere. However, the impact of non-sustainable farming practices, increased logging, water pollution, etc are even more dire in impoverished areas, as there are fewer safety nets once community/environmental resources are exhausted.

For all of us, protecting our own health and that of our families is always a priority. Because of this, it is often more successful to encourage taking care of the environment by making the direct connection to health outcomes.

Since that first ride, we have learned more about how to improve our approach to changing attitudes and actions around these issues. We realized that it was inappropriate for ourselves, foreigners to Cambodia, to try to "teach", as we knew very little about health and environmental issues in Cambodia and short term visits were not going to be the best way to affect the changes in attitudes and actions around the issues.

Instead, we switched to a broad focus on quality education based on a belief that basic education, Khmer literacy, life skills, and critical thinking skills are the most essential tools required to understand our rights and take actions within our communities to make the changes we want to see in the world. By supporting educational programs which focus on those skills in rural Cambodia, we hope to help support a generation of students and parents who value education and use those tools to help improve their own lives and the world around them.

The travellers are still of course a key part of PEPY, but instead of administering our education programs, they are learners, critics, and financial supporters. Our tours are designed to put the travellers into situations where they are "learning" before teaching and where they collectively address topics relating to development and tourism in ways, which might impact the way they give, travel, and live in the future.

Development tourism with PEPY

3) You say on your website that "PEPY Tours aims to catalyse a large-scale, transformational change in tourism." What do you think is the single most important change required in Cambodia?

In Cambodia, there are roughly two million tourists a year who come to Siem Reap. Among tourists in particular, there is a strong tendency and urge to "give". People come to Cambodia, fall in love with the place and the people, and want to "help". With little understanding of how to do that more effectively or who to trust, travellers can sometimes unknowingly support short-term solutions, undermine government projects, encourage more dependency, or contribute to corruption through ill-researched donations. Some might choose to not support a project at all because they don't know the best ways to do so.

In an ideal world, Cambodian tourism would be environmentally sustainable, low-impact, and community-led, generating funding which goes back to local projects. It would lead to better understanding between peoples, a higher standard of living for Cambodians, and a significant learning experience for travellers. It could empower, not foster dependency.

To get closer to this goal, the four main changes we would like to see in tourism in Cambodia today are:

a) No more orphanage tourism. In some cases, donations for "poor" orphanages are keeping kids looking poor and orphanage owners very rich. In addition, unrestricted visits by foreigners to visit and play with children can lead to negative outcomes. This tourism trend will continue to cause harm until travellers are better educated about the rights of children and ways to support them. Child-Safe International is a great resource to learn about some of these issues.

b) More money staying in Cambodia. Most visitors don't realise it, but they are usually staying in foreign-owned hotels, eating in foreign-owned restaurants, buying imported fruit and foods that came over from Thailand, and little of their money is staying in Cambodia. PEPY's Responsible Tourism Statement highlights our efforts to try to increase the positive impact of our tours in Cambodia and might spark ideas and questions for others planning their travel in the area.

c) Tourism that adds to the community. With so many good intentions out there, it's disappointing to see how often "voluntourism" or traveller's philanthropy ends up doing more harm than good. In an effort to improve our own work and to share the lessons we have learned with others, we have conducted research to develop a Voluntourism Self-Check tool full of questions, which should help voluntourism operators and travellers better analyse the impact of volunteer travel offerings.

d) An end to both child, and adult, sex-tourism. Enough said. It's horrific. To this end, we should still work on the first point above as sometimes unrestricted access to children's facilities that have no child protection policies can add to this.

Development tourism with PEPY

4) How would you differentiate Pepy trips from a more traditional volunteerism project?

We design our tours with learning first, and giving back second. We need to learn before we know what or how to give, and this is a lesson we have learned the hard-way at PEPY. By making these mistakes ourselves, we know that giving things (a house, a school, clothing, supplies, etc) is not a successful way to build capacity in local people or positively change future actions.

We think it is important to build volunteer projects into more long-term goals and programs. Painting a school does indeed make the learning environment brighter (if done well!), but a program that puts all of their funds into paint, giving unskilled foreign tourists a chance to brush some walls, and effects no other positive changes in education, is not what we are looking to offer. Instead, our programs are designed to improve the capacity of local teachers, work with communities to identify the problems they see in education and come up with solutions, and make long-term changes in attitudes and actions towards education.

By giving our travellers the chance to fund those programs through the required fundraising portion of their tour fee, we can help them impact change even long after they leave. Then, if they come paint walls, the funds used for paint are only a small portion of the funds supporting improvements in education including more influential programs like teacher training. Painting the school at all is not the ideal solution, we agree. Instead, for the best matches, we look to place travellers as helpers in whatever the current needs are as far as their skills can support the projects. Rather than creating or holding off projects until they arrive, we aim to integrate the travellers into the needs at that given time, which means we often do not tell guests what their exact project will be until they arrive.

Overall though, most tours are designed not to be "volunteer" trips at all, but rather educational adventures, which introduce travellers to the issues facing Cambodia today. By providing the education portion first, travellers can go out and take actions in the future and continue to be advocates for sustainable change rather than short-term solutions.

5) Critics say that combining volunteering and tourism produces "feel good" trips that are great for the pax but of negligible benefit for the people being "helped". One case that springs to mind is a UK operator who brings out guests to build a house for a village. After the tour leaves, the villagers dismantle the house and sell it all. How does Pepy address these sort of concerns?

Ha... or lets you replant trees, which have already been planted. Or lets you "give food or books to a needy family", and charges you for it! Oh goodness ... there is a lot wrong with this trend, and there is a lot of education on the part of the traveller, which is needed to stop self-serving tour operators from taking advantage of generosity and un-knowing travellers from supporting corrupt acts.

We avoid those concerns by not giving things, but building programs, supporting skill-building for our Cambodian staff and partners, and knowing the communities where we offer our programs. By making initial connections through groups we trust and forming long-term partnerships with people and places we know well, we don't have the issues of trying to evaluate the impact of our programs during semi-annual tour visits. Instead, we are there every day.

We have over 30 local staff who manage and operate our education programs, the majority of whom come from those same villages themselves. We work with them daily and their input and decisions are what drive our programs and determine how and when outside support is welcome.

Development tourism with PEPY

6) While there are serious issues with the sustainability of tourism to Angkor Wat that many are aware of, what other spots in the country are you concerned by? And could you give us some examples of sustainable tourism?

A lot of the areas I am concerned about are not being damaged by tourism, but by political or local forces: the pollution of the Mekong both outside of and within Cambodia is causing the remaining fresh-water dolphins and other life to die off. Deforestation fuelled by land-grabbing and mineral mining is changing the beautiful north east into a sparse burning plain. Illegal logging and wildlife sales are harming the Cardamom mountains. Those places are actually some of the few areas where I see the potential for tourism as a positive force.

Yes, tourists no matter what bring a whole additional set of problems, but if trips are designed to both preserve and highlight the natural resources available, there might be more incentive to preserve those. Chi Phat in the Cardamom Mountains is being developed for bike tourism, CRDT (a local NGO) is offering tours that support their livelihoods-development programs, and the Mekong Discovery Trail has aimed to connect travellers with ways to support local economies along South East Asia's largest river. These are a few of the projects, which are in their initial stages and aim to support positive tourism development. Their impacts are yet to be seen, but I think more initiatives like these are needed to support and protect the environmentally rich areas of Cambodia.

7) Cycling is an environmentally friendly way to get around, but what other advantages does cycling provide to riders?

Only the BEST way to see a country. :-)

You go at the local pace; see, smell and feel the world around you; and get the satisfaction of getting to your destination on your own power. You also are able to enjoy the "Hello Paparazzi", children who come out from all sides to say hello long before they are even in your sight, making you feel like a visiting celebrity. Getting past the initial ego-boosting and superficial greetings and sitting down with someone over a glass of fresh squeezed sugarcane juice or a shared interest in the water buffalo, which has just decided to cross the road and stop all traffic, are experiences you can't have in a bus. Plus, riding your bike gives your body and your mind a chance to get in sync and a chance to think and reflect both on your own life and the things you are learning on your journey.

8) Can you give our readers an idea of an "average day on the road" for a cyclist on one of your trips?

We head out early (don't worry, you get used to it!), avoiding the heat, and stop for breakfast somewhere near our guesthouse. Once everyone is clear on the destination for the day and any highlights or suggested meal stops are discussed, the pace is yours to determine! We either all meet up for lunch, at a tricky turn, or at our final destination, depending on the day. Some take the pace a bit faster, looking to get their destination by lunch, while others stop along the way at a local pagoda, have lunch at a village restaurant, and make it to the hotel before dusk. We will enjoy a meal together in the evening, discuss our days adventure and perhaps an article from our PEPY library, and get to sleep early, rested from a day of putting our bodies to good use.

On other days we might stop to visit one of PEPY's partners to learn about their programs and how our efforts can support their work. We learn about topics from landmines to agriculture and our guests can help drive our learning based on what they are interested in finding out about on their journey.

Development tourism with PEPY

9) How fit do you need to be for one of your tours?

Fit enough to ride your bike, at a slow pace, a few hours a day. Typically, those of average fitness have no problem on our tours. The first few days can be more painful, as those whose bodies are not used to being on a bike adjust, but over the course of the ride, people find their pace and their groove.

10) With the fund-raising portion of the fee, I'd imagine you see some pretty innovative ways that cyclists rustle up the money. Would you like to give any examples?

PEPY participants have done everything from cook-offs to clothing sales, Rotary club talks to scavenger hunts, and everything in-between. There was a group in Japan that organised three simultaneous bike rides throughout the country that not only promoted the PEPY values and provided a fantastic weekend adventure to many people, but also raised money for our educational programs.

11) Will PEPY be crossing the border anytime soon? The Mekong Delta has some tremendous cycling...

We tried this once and loved it, but the issue of getting bikes over and back at the border for longer groups was something we hadn't yet worked out. We now have a solution, so look for Laos into Cambodia bike rides from PEPY very soon. Southern Laos is beautiful and Northern Cambodia has a lot of adventures to offer. Join us!

Last updated on 10th September, 2009.

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Further reading

Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.

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Travel with kids


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Volunteering & work

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