Chambok Community-Based Ecotourism Site
In 2001 the forests around Kirirom National Park were rife with illegal loggers, poachers, and poor villagers who chopped down the local trees to burn in order to produce charcoal, which they would sell to make ends meet.
It seemed that the destruction of the forest and the subsequent decline in indigenous wildlife due to loss of habitat and over hunting was imminent. That is, until Mlup Baitong stepped in.
“We wanted to work together with the community at Kirirom in order to protect the forest, the natural resources, and the wildlife,” says Prak Thearith, Program Coordinator at Mlup Baitong. “We also wanted to provide the villagers with income, and create a tourism site that would be sustainable for the long term.”
And so the environmental NGO began working together with the local villagers in Chambok village, ten kilometres from the Kirirom National Park entrance, to create a community based ecotourism site.
“In the beginning we were face with many obstacles,” says Thearith. “Many of the villagers knew nothing about tourism and so were very shy when it came to the idea of talking to tourists, and having tourists in their village.”
As Thearith explains, villagers also saw the forest in terms of logging and hunting and as this was their only source of immediate income, it was difficult to persuade many to make the shift to ecotourism.
But slowly and surely, Mlup Baitong made inroads with the community, and in 2001 the NGO began training the local villagers in the basic concepts of tourism, infrastructure, book keeping, communication, and English, as well as agriculture, animal rearing, and gender equality.
“We stuck to a three phase plan;” says Thearith. “In the first phase we worked closely with the villagers to teach them how to set up the village for ecotourism. For example, we encouraged them to use their ox-carts for transporting tourists rather than timber, and trained hunters to be guides as an alternative to hunting wildlife.”
In less than a year, Chambok village boasted multiple walking paths through the jungle to Chambok’s 40 metre high waterfall, guided bird watching and animal tracking tours, bicycle paths along the red earth roads around the village, ox-cart rides, bat cave tours, traditional dance performances, and village homestay and meal options.
The first tourists arrived in 2001, and with help from Mlup Baitong and the Ministry of the Environment, the villagers began to depend less on deforestation and hunting for their livelihoods, and instead began to protect and preserve their natural surroundings in order to allow visitors to appreciate the beauty of the area.
Thearith describes that first year, “In the beginning I would make many trips to Chambok along with the tourists to make sure that there were no communication problems, but eventually, as the villagers got more comfortable with the visits, we began to hand over more of the responsibility to them. This was phase two of the project.”
In 2006, Chambok received around one thousand Khmer tourists a month, and about twenty international tourists, with numbers increasing around national holidays, and these numbers have grown exponentially since.
One of the ideas behind sustainable tourism is that all revenue is kept in the local community, and in Chambok the money goes directly to the families in order to support their basic everyday needs, and to help conserve and manage the surrounding environment.
The money tourism brings to this area has brought many positive changes to the area. According to Thearith, the villagers have seen a rise in family incomes, an improvement in infrastructure in the area, a greater knowledge of hygiene, the environment, and basic reading, writing, and communication skills in Khmer and English.
“I think the villagers appreciate seeing tourists visit their community,” says Thearith. “This is why they fix up their houses, and invite visitors into their homes. At the present time there are over twenty homestays in Chambok. Also the tourists enjoy being part of the family while they are there, for example, cooking meals, and finding out about these people’s way of life.”
Today the program has reached the final phase of the project, whereby villagers are almost completely independent, running homestays, operating tours, and managing their surroundings on their own.
Mlup Baitong continues to offer technical support to the villagers, and lends a hand in linking them to travel agencies in Phnom Penh, and the international tourism market, but essentially, the village is self-sustainable, and this truly is the fundamental goal behind community-based ecotourism.