We’ve been cruising down the river in a small wooden boat for two hours. The banks are mostly wilderness, dotted occasionally with a small cluster of homes. As the frequency of homes increases, we know we must be getting close and, sure enough, after just a few minutes more we begin to drift towards a dock.
After unloading our bags from the boat, we set off along a small footpath to cover the short distance to the heart of the village. This is Chi Phat, home to Cambodia’s award-winning community-based ecotourism (CBET) project in the Cardamom Mountains.
Developed in partnership with Wildlife Alliance, the Chi Phat model provides rural villagers alternatives to destructive farming methods and poaching. Instead of engaging in wildlife trafficking, former poachers now lead treks through the forest. There are also kayaking, biking, and bird watching outings available, ranging from half-day to week-long adventures.
Accommodation options include homestays, giving visitors a chance to see exactly how locals live. You can even share an evening meal with your host family. Proceeds from the project feed back into the community, dramatically increasing the annual income for villagers and building a sense of pride in their community.
The number of outings available is a little overwhelming at first. You have to book by 5pm for any tours beginning the next day, so when our boat arrived at 4:15pm we were under a bit of pressure to get checked in and make selections quickly. I, along with two others from my boat, opted to join a group who had booked a two-day trek setting out the following morning.
We also all signed up for the homestay and our host family was called to let them know we were coming. One by one, we were loaded onto motorbikes for the five minute ride to our home for the night. The family we stayed with was made up of what seemed to be a couple with three small children, a set of grandparents, an uncle, and someone else. They didn’t speak very much English, so it was hard to be sure.
Our host family spanned two separate buildings and, as most homes in the area are, both buildings were raised on stilts to protect from flooding, with the area underneath the larger building serving as a garage/storage area. The bathroom was a separate building, with both a typical squat toilet and a Western one. With no sink or shower, any washing required dipping water from the large tubs. No electricity meant you tried to do this during daylight hours.
Dinner was a simple meal of rice, veggies, and some kind of meat (which they kindly cooked separately), with bananas for dessert. We sat on the floor of the porch to eat, chatting with the family as best we could while we ate. The kids, ranging in age from three to seven, were especially interested in us, showing off their tricks and toys, as kids do.
The oldest boy brought over his school books to show us what he was learning and I was fascinated. I know essentially nothing about Khmer (the main language of Cambodia), but had no idea that the words were so long. Some rows of text were just a single word with dozens of characters. To be fair, I think these were the parts of the book that were meant as instructions for adults, not seven-year olds, but still. I wish I could have communicated a bit better…I had so many questions!
After dinner, we headed to bed to rest up for our trek, which set out early the next morning.
In the morning, after saying goodbye to our family, we were motorbiked back to the village, where we were given backpacks that were preloaded with our jungle hammocks and a blanket for that night. We added in our own essentials and set off.
Altogether, our group was made up of eight tourists, three guides, a cook, and our loyal trekking dog, Coco (who led the group for most of the 34 kilometers).
Much of the hike on the first day was through secondary forest, on a small dirt path that was also used by locals to travel between villages. When we reached breaks in the forest, we covered open fields of grasses nearly as tall as us (and, in some cases, taller).
Lunch was stir-fried veggies and rice (and meat, for the others). The pots, dishes, and veggies were washed right in the nearby stream and then cooked over a fire.
After several hours of hiking, we reached a small home/snack shop where we had the chance to grab a cold drink. There were many chickens, ducks, and puppies running around the area, some in better health than others. It’s a common sight to see many animals at each home and dogs are especially valued for the protection they provide (many homes are completely unsecured, some not even having doors to close). As a result, the dogs are very territorial and aren’t always super excited about strangers being near their homes. There were a few spots along the hike where we had to back up Coco against dogs who didn’t take too kindly to another canine on their turf.
Eventually we reached a bamboo forest, which was the final gateway to our campground. As we emerged from the towering bamboo into our campground clearing, we saw two raised and covered platforms. These were to be our ‘bedrooms’ for the night, where we would hang our hammocks and be protected from any rain.
After getting our hammocks set up, we headed off to check out a nearby waterfall. Being pretty sweaty, and in serious need of a rinse, we all quickly got into the water for a wash. Several of us opted to just hang out, enjoying the scenery, and marvel at the very strong current threatening to drag us downstream. Others opted to jump off the high rocks into the water while the rest of us cringed at the thought of what they might land on.
Sunset was quickly upon us, so back to camp we went to dry off, eat dinner, and spend a few hours playing games to pass the time. Then it was into our hammocks to sleep. Jungle hammocks are pretty cool because they come with a built-in mosquito net (which was essential given the number of those little buggers flying around). Yes, the setup could feel a bit coffin-like, but I think there’s plenty of room in there and the resulting space is cozy rather than confining.
In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we set out on the hike back to Chi Phat. We were doing a circular route, and this second day was spent primarily hiking through banana plantations and along a well-developed dirt road. That meant a lot of sun exposure and a lot of sweating. As on the first day, we rested a lot and drank a lot of water to compensate, but we were pretty beat when we finally got back to town.
As we were in the final stretch, many of us were trying to figure out what we were going to do next. We were going to stay an extra night? When can we get a bus out? Where is everyone going next?
There were three girls who were headed back to the village where they teach English and they were hoping to get on the road that night. I wanted to get back on the road as well, as I was heading to Siem Reap next but would need to go back through Phnom Penh to get there and had a long trip ahead of me.
When we got back to the information center, we found out that there were no more buses that night, but that two other people already had a private taxi booked back to Phnom Penh and we could jump in with them. The catch was that we needed to be ready to go in less than 10 minutes. We quickly repacked our bags, paid for our trek, and jumped onto the small fleet of motorbikes waiting to drive us the 40 minutes out of the town to the main road (where the taxi would pick us up).
As the motorbikes set off down the bumpy road, I was enjoying the scenery. The green fields contrasted sharply with the red dirt road and the occasional house with its brightly colored trim. This was definitely off-the-beaten-path Cambodia.
After 10 or 15 minutes, my motorbike, which was pulling up the rear, came upon one of the other bikes, which was now sporting an unfortunate flat tire. There wasn’t enough time to wait for a replacement to get there, so Filip (who had been the passenger on the disabled bike) now needed to join me on mine.
After a bit of maneuvering, we managed to get three adults, two giant backpacks, and one smaller pack crammed onto this motorbike. I was perched on the very back, hanging on for dear life (sorry Mom!), as we covered another 30 minutes worth of bumpy road. It was truly a local experience, but I was so glad to finally arrive at the main road and see our taxi (a real car!) waiting to pick us up.
My time at Chi Phat was short, but it was great to see such a successful CBET program at work. There is so much beautiful wilderness in the world and so many people who want the chance to experience it. It’s important, though, that ecotourism work with the local communities, creating a win-win situation for everyone, rather than exploiting the wilderness and local people while funneling profits into foreign pockets. Chi Phat is a great example of how CBETs can work and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in the area.