Mountain biking through an acacia plantation on the edge of the Southern Cardamom Protected Forest. Photo: Sierra Gladfelter

From Poachers to Tour Guides: The Story of a Cambodian Eco-Village

Sustainability National Parks Insider Guides
by Sierra Gladfelter Mar 8, 2013
The village of Chi Phat transformed from a nexus of poachers and illegal loggers to an eco-friendly, tourism-based settlement that supports the sustainability of the land in which it’s located.

From space Cambodia is green. Twenty-six percent of the country is under protection.

The interior’s remoteness and the nation’s violent history greatly set back development and have resulted in the preservation of forest only now being appreciated despite its continued exploitation. The Cardamom Mountains are home to 60 critically threatened species, including Asian elephants, tigers, Siamese crocodiles, gibbons, and Asiatic black bears. The largest virgin wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia, the Cardamom Mountains are also one of only two places in the tropics where forests reach in one contiguous shield from summit to sea.

Despite its status as protected, this region is not safe. In 2010, the Union Development Group of China broke ground on a $5 billion resort complex in the heart of Botum Sakor National Park. Already, a four-lane highway cuts into the core of the peninsula through a swath of the most productive and pristine coastal mangroves, paving the way for the western third of the park to be ravaged for the next 25 years. Nearby communities, once hopeful for employment, find themselves bypassed as Chinese workers are imported to live and labor on the isolated construction site. Meanwhile, the boundaries have not changed; the entirety of Botum Sakor remains a national park, at least on paper.

Just a few miles upriver from rapidly shrinking Botum Sakor, our bus dumps my boyfriend Eben and I at a dusty turnoff where a green sign points up a red dirt road to Chi Phat. We are here on a month-long circuit around Cambodia writing about conservation and ecotourism initiatives, and this community is our first stop. Strung along the 200-mile Cardamom Biodiversity Conservation Corridor and tucked against the southern boundary of the Southern Cardamom Protected Forest, Chi Phat offers an alternative vision for villages on the edge of protected areas.

Houses on the banks of the Preak Piphot River. Photo: Sierra Gladfelter

Two local men smoking a cigarette under a tin shack motion to their motorbikes; they already know where we’re going. Wedging our backpacks under the handlebars, we climb on the backs of the bikes and cut up the ribbon of road through land tamed into fields of sugarcane and shaggy banana plantations. These are the foothills on the edge of the Cardamom jungle. Smoldering patches of earth remind us that slash-and-burn remains the primary method subsistence farmers depend on across rural Cambodia. We cross the Preak Piphot River on a small ferry, little more than a few buoyant skids with a weed whacker engine manned by a kid who can’t be older than 13.

The Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) office is just a few yards up the dirt road on the other side: an impossible-to-miss, open-air bamboo structure with 12 solar panels attached to its roof. We slip off our shoes and pad across the cool tile. Everything is open air, the entire office and lounge inhaling and exhaling the humid jungle. The CBET committee manages all tourism programs through Chi Phat, including overnight accommodation and trek and mountain bike tours ranging from one to seven days through the Cardamom Mountains.

Visitors to the community must register at the office before being directed to one of the community’s 10 homestays ($4/night) and 13 small guesthouses ($5/night). Homestays are vetted by CBET staff, who visit each home monthly and ensure the family provides a mattress with clean sheets, blankets, mosquito net, and a binder with an information sheet about the host family as well as phrases and useful pictures for visitors to communicate with their hosts. Meals can be arranged with host families, or the CBET kitchen attached to the office serves three buffet-style meals per day for a few dollars.

The CBET office has a two-inch binder of all the adventures they offer with guides from the community (many of whom will tell you stories from their previous lives as poachers and loggers). Hoping to cover more miles of trails on the one day we have to explore, Eben and I book a mountain biking day trip to a jungle waterfall. Reasonably priced, most adventures cost less than $35 per person per day, which includes all the equipment, guide fees, meals, and water. Even more impressive: 80% of this goes directly to the guides and homestay families, supporting alternative livelihoods that curb the number of illegal loggers and poachers, with the other 20% funding the CBET committee’s training and administrative costs.

Turquoise and coral fishing boats ply the waters outside of the Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo: Sierra Gladfelter

After checking into our homestay and sampling our family’s homemade organic banana chips, I settle down in the office with Veasna Yan, CBET’s Project Manager, and the village chief Hoeng Prum to ask them more about Chi Phat’s development.

Chief Hoeng Prum remembers clearly that Chi Phat was rampant with illegal logging and poaching in the adjacent forest when the Wildlife Alliance (WA) first approached the community in 2007. International demand and the swelling Chinese market for traditional medicine and exotic ‘delicacies’ were driving an industry violent and inspired by survival.

Tragically, most poachers are subsistence farmers and fishermen like those in Chi Phat living on the margins of protected areas and struggling to feed their families. Considering the average income of Cambodians hovers at a dollar a day, trafficking animals brings big bucks (a macaque goes for upwards of $60, and that’s before it makes it into the hands of a middleman). It was with this in mind that WA held its first meeting with the village’s 550 families in a desperate attempt to save the Cardamoms and its disappearing wildlife.

“At the time, everyone hated NGOs and the Wildlife Alliance because the people understood [the Wildlife Alliance] would hinder their livelihood,” Chief Hoeng Prum recalls of the village’s initial response. Accepting their need to approach the villagers differently, the WA conducted a survey and went to interview local families one by one. “People answered openly that they did illegal logging and poached to support their families,” Hoeng Prum explained. “I was a poacher at the time. We all were.”

When the WA returned to the next village meeting, they proposed turning Chi Phat into an ecotourism destination to provide alternative livelihoods for the community that, at the time, had no other option but to hunt and log. Though several locals sat back to watch the project unfold, unwilling to get involved until it stood the test of time, 400 families immediately agreed to give the idea a go.

The WA set up a Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) committee, asking villagers to volunteer in the initial phases of development. Live and Learn, an NGO partnering with the WA, trained the community in English language, hospitality management, and guide services. Poachers, with knowledge of the forest, were asked to register as guides. Chief Hoeng Prum was one of the first to convert. Meanwhile, the Cambodian Community Based Ecotourism Network (CCBEN) promoted Chi Phat as a destination in tourist hubs around Cambodia.

In October 2008, tourists started coming to Chi Phat for the first time. Four hundred thirty-six guests arrived during the first season, and the project received its status as a Community-Based Organization (CBO) just a year later. Tourists to Chi Phat reached a record high of 2,315 in 2012, having doubled almost every year since its founding. Today, there are over 500 families participating in the program, with nearly the entire village active in some capacity, from transporting guests on motorbike from the highway to cooking and packing lunches for tours.

The next morning, Eben and I arrive just after dawn to collect our packed lunches (wrapped in banana leaves and in an all-natural woven palm container) and have breakfast. A 22-year-old named Vanak introduces himself as our guide, and we follow him to choose a mountain bike from the bamboo shed next door. We will cycle 30 miles of paths through the Cardamom jungle, completing a loop into the depths of the protected forest and returning along the fringe where banana farms and villages press inward.

Mountain biking through acacias

Mountain biking through an acacia plantation on the edge of the Southern Cardamom Protected Forest. Photo: Sierra Gladfelter

Not long after we leave the stilted homes of Chi Phat, we turn off on a dirt track and cruise through fields cleared for cattle and along corridors of banana plants. Butterflies descend on us like confetti. Soon, we duck into an acacia plantation where the slender trunks stack in rows to the horizon. Vanak explains a company that won a land concession with the central government planted the trees three years ago. Supposedly, they will return the land to the protected forest in a decade or so when the wood is harvested. Village farms also infringe on the forest boundaries, and it’s hard to tell when we finally cross into wilderness. All day we break in and out of this fractured, unkempt line.

Vanak has taken tourists out into the jungle for the past two years, after learning English at the Botum Sakor Community Development Organization just a few miles downriver. Often, elephants, wild pigs, and deer crash out of the forest during his treks. Today, we are lucky to hear the haunting calls of pileated gibbons chanting across the canopy. Vanak dismounts from his bike and picks us a branch of berries; we follow his lead as he pops the tiny fruits into his mouth.

Later, Vanak points out scraps of mahogany scattered by an ax on the forest floor. Someone has been here cutting trees along the trail. Vanak notes the location to report to enforcement teams, and we are on our way. From then on, every time we pass a local on motorcycle on the path, I expect to see a leopard draped over the rear of the bike. “Most are honest banana farmers,” Vanak assures us. “The poachers and loggers come from other villages now.”

Deep in the dark tangle of forest, we duck under fallen shafts of bamboo and vines draped over the trail. The path is technical here, and at times I dismount, not trusting the log bridges over monsoon washes. Finally, reaching the lip of a plunging gorge, we stash our bikes and carry our packed lunches down to the base of a volcanic waterfall. We break on the rocks and eat in the shade — eggs fried with chives and packed over rice. Shedding our clothes, we dive into the lukewarm water and paddle to the spray where the stream leaps above us.

As we fly downhill on the path back to Chi Phat, charred fields, acacia plantations, and gaping holes carved from the jungle for farms flash past and remind us of the delicacy of this forest’s protection. Back in the village over dinner, I chat with folks at the CBET office about the challenges still facing the Chi Phat community and this stretch of the Cardamoms.

“It has been a long and tedious process decreasing poaching,” CBET Project Manager Veasna Yan reflects on the original goal of the initiative. Luckily, the Wildlife Alliance has had a decade-long relationship with Cambodia’s Forestry Administration, training and funding enforcement teams comprised of a mix of military personnel and trained members of forest villages like Chi Phat who would otherwise have no option but to become poachers themselves. Together, they patrol 1.7 million acres of the jungle from a series of six stations fanned across the mountain range.

Teams dismantle and burn hundreds of snares each month and confiscate chainsaws and mobile sawmills. Occasionally, offenders are caught sneaking lumber out of the hills in passenger cars, or with animals hidden in chambers under the seats of motorbikes. When a great deal of wildlife is snatched or the team catches a dealer, he or she will be sent for trial at the Koh Kong provincial court and likely end up in prison. Confiscated wildlife is either released or sent to the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center for rehabilitation. If just one or two animals are found alive, or the offender is a local person setting snares for food, he or she will be given a warning. The enforcement teams must be sensitive to the fact that it’s often the patrollers’ own neighbors who are doing the poaching and arrests for petty crimes can fray relations at home. Even so, the team has been so successful that today Chi Phat is almost poaching free.

“The Conservation Corridor exists because of the Wildlife Alliance’s presence and their strong grasp on the region,” says Sopheap Phoung, an ex-enforcement officer now dedicated to educating local children on the importance of natural resources. “Ultimately, more tourists means it’s possible to keep the local people busy and with stable income.”

Although the WA financially supported the project during its first five years, it has gradually reduced support as the community builds up funds to run self-sufficiently.

“They are walking away little bit by little bit,” Chief Hoeng Prum explains. Currently, the WA contributes 50% of the budget. Nonetheless, the chief is convinced that when the project is finally on its own, the project at Chi Phat will continue to flourish so long as the CBET team continues to do what they’re doing, with fair pay going to all participants.

On our way out of town the following morning, we stumble on a hand-painted sign for the Botum Sakor Community Development Organization and wander over. The founder and director, Sopheap Phoung greets us at the gate in a tanktop and flipflops. Although he is in the middle of coordinating volunteers who offer two weeks of their time to teach English and environmental education at his school, he sits down to chat. We discover he worked for years with the Wildlife Alliance and trained countless teams of rangers in enforcement. A few years ago, he retired — not because the work is not important, but because the education that can prevent the need for law enforcement in marginalized communities is too often overlooked.

Photo: Sierra Gladfelter

Sopheap built a school to supplement the local public school by providing English classes and environmental education as well as adult education, such as how to make cooking briquettes from leaf litter to reduce coal and wood consumption. He recruited students from Chi Phat and Aundong Tuek, and currently has over 90 students in regular attendance. The school runs without regular funding, and programs are supported by Sopheap’s own money and irregular donations. We discover that Vanak, our glowing mountain bike guide, learned to speak English and was inspired to care for the Cardamoms at this humble school.

As we walk the dusty highway to the bridge where we will catch our bus, it’s impossible not to feel brighter. Despite the darkness that lingers in these mountains — animals stolen for black markets, trees drug from virgin forests, and communities pinned with little option but to kill their land to survive — hope can rise with little but the energy of a few people.

Although hundreds of communities across Cambodia remain tied to unsustainable livelihoods, Chi Phat has managed to carve out another way of surviving in the Cardamoms. Rather than feeding the greed of distant markets at its own expense, Chi Phat has chosen to nourish the forest and species closest to it. Its success is testimony to what can be accomplished when a community rallies behind one vision. Though only one of countless villages sprinkled through the jungles of Cambodia, Chi Phat shines as a beacon for the future of a rising Southeast Asia.

Get there

Chi Phat can be reached from the bridge in Andoung Tuek by long-tail boat (2 hours, $25) or motorbike (45 minutes, $7). Buses leave Phnom Penh for Koh Kong frequently; just tell your driver where you want to be dropped off in advance. The public boat advertised in Lonely Planet does not exist.

To book a long-tail boat or make reservations in advance, contact the (CBET) Office:

  • 092.720.925

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