22 March 2014
Angkor Wat

Cambodia: the ecotourism alternative

Our Paris-based culture correspondent, Angela Gosmann, has shared with us this interesting piece on ecotourism in Cambodia. It's great holiday reading for our Northern hemisphere readers and others to

Our Paris-based culture correspondent, Angela Gosmann, has shared with us this interesting piece on ecotourism in Cambodia. It's great holiday reading for our Northern hemisphere readers and others too!

Since post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia started opening up to foreign visitors in the early 1990s, the country has been actively promoting tourism as a major source of revenue and a key driver of economic development. With one of the world's greatest architectural marvels – Angkor – on its territory, Cambodia didn't have too hard a time rapidly attracting an ever-growing number of tourists.

The Cambodian Ministry of Tourism forecasts some 4 million foreign visitors for 2013. True, a very large percentage of these tourists are tour-operator clients, merely making a one- or two-day detour by Siem Reap to speedily visit some Angkor highlights on a Southeast Asia regional tour. And then there are backpackers spending a week or so visiting the major Cambodian tourism spots between more thorough visits of Thailand or Vietnam. However, an increasing number of visitors also choose an all-Cambodian vacation experience.

As in many emerging economies with large tourism potential, the development of the infrastructure needed to lodge, feed, transport and entertain these millions of visitors has been very rapid. It is also often aesthetically questionable, with environmental considerations generally not being part of the equation. The sewage pipes of most Siem Reap and Sihanoukville hotels and restaurants lead directly into rivers or the sea without any prior wastewater treatment – just like those of households and industrial facilities. Solid waste, including toxic plastics, is often simply burnt in open-air pits or disposed of in dumps created in highly inadequate places.

If any studies exist on the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollutants ejected into the air by the thousands of tour buses, cars and tuk-tuk-pulling motorcycles driving tourists around the Angkor temples and Phnom Penh, the results must be truly scary. Most vehicles are light years from meeting industrialized-country emissions standards. As to air conditioning, add huge amounts of electricity consumed by overchilled hotels, bars, restaurants or museums. And then there is the pollution caused by tour bus and car drivers leaving the engine running even while their passengers are out sightseeing, just so the vehicle is nice and cool when their clients return.

However, the good news is that Cambodia can also be the perfect place for an environmentally friendly vacation – even though most visitors will leave a big carbon footprint through their plane travel. (The average daily impact of this travel can of course be mitigated by taking an extra long holiday in Asia!) But once in Cambodia, there are plenty of possibilities for low pollution activities, spending your money at local businesses, and staying away from ugly and anarchically built hotel complexes.

First, if you love biking, you'll love Cambodia. Just rent a bike in any town and you'll be amazed what you can explore with it locally – of course, tiresome, time-consuming and logistics-heavy long-distance biking is another matter! While cycling might be a limited option during the hot and rainy season, it is perfectly doable during the winter months.

Bicycles are the main mode of transportation for most Cambodians. So you'll be able to perfectly integrate with the locals and be even more appreciated by them. This also makes biking a lot safer than what you might think. Even on the main overland highways or in Phnom Penh's dense and chaotic traffic, drivers are used to sharing the road with bicycles and will watch out for you. Since most of the country is flat or only very slightly hilly, you have no excuse!

Regular bikes, perfectly suitable even in the countryside, can be rented in any city for $1-3 a day. And most guesthouses have their own stock or can arrange for a rental. After a mandatory check of the condition of brakes and tires, you're all set for a trip in and around town. In many places such as Kampot, Kratie or Battambang, a lot of sights are no further than 7 to 15 km out of town and thus perfectly reachable in a pleasant half-day excursion. And, as a bonus, you can enjoy a slice of genuine Cambodian rural life – or an insight into places impossible to cruise by car, such as the salt fields just outside Kampot.

The relatively small size of Phnom Penh makes it possible to explore the city by bike. You won't even be breathing in more carbon dioxide than if you were hopping from place to place in a much heavier polluting tuk-tuk. And if you don't want to pedal yourself, at least for short trips, you may want to help keep the last few traditional cyclo drivers in business.

Looking for a really cool ecotourism experience you can tell all your friends about back home? Then explore the Angkor temples by bike!

There are more bikes for rent in Siem Reap than apsara sculptures on the walls of Angkor Wat. And all temples on the small and big circuits, as well as those of the Roluos group, are within pedaling distance. Cycling those circuits will not be that much more time-consuming than visiting them by car or tuk-tuk. It will take some more time to cover the 7 km between Siem Reap and the southern tip of the Angkor complex, but then most temples are only somewhere between 1 and 3 km apart, allowing you to still spend most of your day temple-climbing and not pedaling.

For those temples further afield such as Banteay Srei that do require motorized transportation, choose the tuk-tuk over the air-conditioned car. It fits the same amount of passengers while burning less gasoline, and the breeze will provide all the natural air-con you need.

Biking will also result in a radically different experience of exploring the Mekong, especially around Kratie and Stung Treng. There are no major tourist sights in that part of the country, and for the classic motorized traveler there is not much to do except take a stroll around the small city centers, try to spot some Irriwaddy dolphins and visit an occasional wat on the way.

But for bikers the reward will be some gorgeous countryside and scenery often inaccessible by bus or car, plus a chance to take in some genuine village life that you would never get to experience if you were driving through at 50 km/h on something propelled by a motor. There's a dirt road – or sometimes just a two-wheel dirt track – along most of the Mekong's two river banks, lined with fishermen's and farmer's houses nearly all the way (resulting more or less in a several-hundred-kilometer-long, one-street village).

All paved roads run parallel to the left bank, so cross over to the right bank on one of the local ferries (chances are high you'll be the only foreigner on board!) and you are immediately in very remote and genuine countryside. But, don't worry, there will always be a bike repair shop in some hut just down the road, should you have a flat tire.

However, don't engage in this if you're not prepared to answer the literally hundreds of "Hello, hello!" that all the village children will shout at you after having spotted you from 200 m away. They will drop everything to come running toward you, waving frantically, although they'll forgive you for not waving back if potholes make it hazardous to turn around or let go of the handlebar.

Many wats are located next to the village school so expect a VIP welcome from hundreds of kids if you hit the place during recess! Adults are usually more shy but will still appreciate your greeting and offer you back their nicest smile. Check out the website of the great Mekong Discovery Trail initiative, where you can download documentation on several half-, full- or two-day do-it-yourself cycling itineraries along the Mekong banks and islands, complete with things to see and taste along the way, as well as all ferry crossings.

Discovering Cambodia on a bicycle is also a great way of ensuring your money goes to the locals. You can be certain that neither the bike-rental or repair guy, nor the elderly fisherman who operates the ferry with his grandson, nor the woman selling you your lunch are staff of an international tour-operator company or other sort of big business! Speaking of lunch, anything from khmer sandwiches to watermelons to sticky rice stuffed into a bamboo stick is available along the way.

Biking aside, there are also plenty of other opportunities to spend an eco-responsible vacation in Cambodia. Some of the following will have a greater (positive) environmental impact than others, but even the smaller actions will help – after all, many a little makes a mickle! As far as lodging goes, there is of course the concept of "eco-lodges". However, be aware that many places just use this name as a way to attract customers and couldn't care less about the environment (build some wooden bungalows or palm huts and you're an "eco-lodge"!).

Make sure that yours is a "real" one whose environment-preserving features can range anywhere from solar panels to an eco-friendly sewage or rainwater-collection system, to the absence of air conditioning (a simple fan often does wonders) or to electricity only being switched on for a few hours in the evening. A great (and relaxing!) way of avoiding electricity-savvy lodging is spending some time on one of the country's less-mass-tourism-developed islands such as Koh Rong Samloen or Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island): they offer plenty of low-key bamboo-hut accommodations with no connection to the grid, powered only by a generator that usually runs from about 6 to 10 p.m.

In cities, rather than staying in a modern concrete structure, you can opt for a guesthouse set up in a traditional wooden house, thus helping to preserve the country's traditional architecture and culture. A great example of such lodging is the Tonlé Tourism Training Centre in Stung Treng, a highly recommendable initiative: the house is primarily a school that trains underprivileged local youths to professions in the tourism industry. Their 4-bedroom guesthouse and dining service is a way for them to "practice" – you will meet extremely nice, helpful and professional youths eager to show what they've learned and make your stay perfect… and practice their English!

Wherever you stay, make hotel or guesthouse staff aware of a now-widespread custom in many Western hotels, i.e. changing sheets and towels only every other day, or only when the guest specifically requests clean ones. Also, think whether you really need more than one towel (you usually find at least two per bed, and double rooms most often being the only option for single travelers makes matters worse).Hand back to the receptionists those you know you won't use.

When it comes to food, eating at market or street stands is not only a pleasant and cheap experience but also helps save loads of waste (throw-away plastic dishes, cups and cutlery are largely inexistent) over buying wrapped take-away meals or getting food for a picnic in a supermarket. As to other miscellaneous eco-friendly behavior, if you choose to visit a floating village, in some places such as Kompong Chhnang you can opt either for the regular motor boats… or for a small two- or three-seat oar-propelled wooden boat the locals use to get around, in which any fisherwoman will be happy to take you for a ride.

Of course you either will need to allow more time for your excursion or choose to see a little less. But you will pollute much less, pay about 50% of the price per hour, and enjoy a peaceful ride where motor noise and smell have been replaced with the pleasant sound of the oars and the water lapping against the boat. Plus these wooden boats will take you all the way into the "alleys" of the floating village (the much larger motor ones can only navigate on the "main drags").

Last but not least, Cambodia is a great destination for outdoor adventure off the beaten tracks. I've seen long-distance bikers, for whom the largely near-flat country makes the trip quite easy. Highways usually have extra-wide shoulders functioning as bike and moped lanes for the locals, so you're quite safe from traffic. But above all, Cambodia offers various possibilities of jungle and mountain hiking in remote places that don't run the risk of becoming mass-tourism destinations any time soon. Most are protected forests or national parks, such as the Cardamon Mountains near the Gulf of Thailand, or the Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces in the far-off eastern part of the country.

You're in for a long and tiring bus ride to get there and for a trek of something between 3 days and one week (if you're seeking a more thorough experience than just a walk to the nearest waterfall 5 km from the highway). Going with a guide is mandatory not only because of the complete lack of hiking maps but also to be safe from landmines. The scenery is reputed to be gorgeous, and especially the "wild east" is perfect for wildlife watching… and meeting some of Cambodia's smallest ethnic minority groups. There is a choice of local "responsible trekking" agencies and eco-tourism projects that will help you make your low-carbon-footprint adventure even more easygoing on the planet.

It's up to you to show Cambodians that the development of tourism in their country does not necessarily need to equal heavy pollution, big businesses, underpaid and overworked local employees unable to reap but the tiniest portion of your money, and anarchic, soulless construction. Their country has so much more to offer, and promoting it is the best way for them to be proud of it!
Tags: asean, cambodia, tourism, angkor wat, ecotourism

Social share