Now the tale of Cambodian tourism takes another dark turn. It is a haunting, morbid tale of fire, theft and threat. I kid you not. Tourism in Cambodia has boomed, and as I suspected this hasn’t provided meaningful, sustainable employment for locals. But it has done more than not improve local livelhoods… it has actually destroyed them in some places. The instance in which I became aware of this was on Cambodia’s coastline, with its archipelago, soft sand and warm waters sucking foreigners in left, right and centre.
Just before we headed down south from Siem Reap we started googling ‘responsible tourism Cambodia coast’ and ‘sustainable tourism’ and ‘ethical tourism’ etc… It wasn’t a pretty sight. Amongst some articles and websites from offical looking sources, we found some sordid stuff. I had already learned to be very wary of ‘official’ sources when looking for responsible tourism in Cambodia because I know the government have a screw loose when it comes to supporting livelihoods with any sincerity. This became quickly obvious as we read the local papers in Siem Reap each day. My wariness of offical ‘eco-tourism’ (also a ridiulously misused term to the point of total redundancy) promoters and providers, was it transpires, well founded. As ye shall discover…
So the coastline was largely uninhabited before the Khmer Rouge forced mass displacement and Cambodians from other parts of the country fled there. They set up shop there, already suffering from having their homes, families, careers and liveihoods ripped apart and destroyed. The coast was a chance for people to begin again. But soon the government got wind of the beautiful scenery and pristine beaches, just perfect for a bit exploitation to promote economic growth and stability in Cambodia as it rebuilt itself after the conflict. Or not. If you want a seriously sickening account of the situation, and you’ve got twenty minutes, read this article we found (on a website aptly named secrets-and-lies.co.uk) which explains it in great detail with many saddening anecdotes. Basically – the government sold the land of willy-nilly to the highest bidder, be they foreign investors of rich men in their own ranks. They knew they couldn’t legitimately do this, so they did it by force. Land grabs were occurring all up and down the coast; locals were forced out by bulldozing and arson of their homes, with little or no help for rehousing or providing alternative employment. They had to build bamboo and corrugated iron shacks beside the road. They are right beside the road too, not even set back. I’m not sure what is going on but the whole countryside for about 2 or 3km back from the shore is divided up by walls and often cleared of trees. ‘For rent and for sale’ signs have been erected. So it seems as if the twice-displaced locals have to live, under a nice veil of vehicle fumes, sandwiched between this ongoing development and its serving infrastructure.
So, the situation is bad. We stayed at Otres Beach 2, where we could only find one locally-owned restaurant (which is so sweet and so delicious – it’s called Bamboo Shack if you want to know) amongst the Westerner owned accomodation and eateries. We stayed at a freaky hostel called Footprints that is owned by a creepy old English lady who sleeps on the sofa and who I actually heard say angrily to some of her Khmer cleaners ‘Would somebody water my plant it looks terrible’. There are two or three Westerners ‘working’ there – probably working for free in exchange for free accomodation – which I disagree with in this situation. If you can afford to get to the other side of the world, I think you can afford to pay $5 a night at a hostel and let a local have the work. Undercutting local jobs is not cool. If some rich Russian had come and taken my nannying job in return for free accommodation i’d be fuming. Anyway, this was the same situation all along the beach. So we ran away to Koh Ta Kiev. We chose to go there based on the recommendation of a local we met who told us it was locally-owned. It turned out not to be, but we did manage to stay at the only locally owned accommodation on the island. We avoided Koh Rong island (the big party island) mainly because I aint being party to a party that imposes drug-dealing on locals as viable form of income, nor am I up for going to a chilled island to have sweet sweet nature times when there’s going to be a honking great casino, luxury resorts and WiFi and other lame out-of-place stuff. I read this article on Travelfish.org and made my decision. It’s not the most hopeless article but I just wanted to try and find locally-owned un-threatened tourism. Not possible it later turned out.
Koh Ta Kiev
We took a boat ride over, after some snorkelling, with the brother of a local guy we met called Mickey. He runs a boat tour every day and was sound. And local.
We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay on Koh Ta Kiev but happily the place nearest to where we got off the boat was Nak’s Shack! It was a dream! Nak is the man. Nak is from Ream just over on the mainland and his mother bought five beach bungalows a few years back when the original French owner’s suddenly upped and left. I guess Nak is in the lucky position that his mother could afford the bungalows, but this is obviously rare. Anyway, he didn’t want to move to the island as he was only 19 when his mum bought property there, but he’d dropped out of his studies and had a year of nothing so he agreed. He moved over with his girlfriend and a few other people, built five more bungalows/shacks, one of which he lives in, and built a cafe. He runs a really relaxed, friendly, quiet place and he’s such a nice guy. We spent a lot of time with him and soon discovered that his livelihood is not safe either.
The Cambodian government sold Koh Ta Kiev to the Chinese.
Actually they leased it for 99 years to them, but it’s as good as sold, if not worse due to lease requirements for development. The Chinese slashed right through the island jungle, laying out plans for a main road from one end to the other. It is so far unsurfaced however, but there are plans to build it up with a casino and 5-star hotel for starters. Nak said that is is within the contract that the Chinese do not leave the place undeveloped, and I imagine this is so that the Cambodian government can continue to reap the profits as the Chinese pay for planning permissions, ‘environmental’ surveys (another humourless joke by the Cambodian government). It’s been made very difficult for Nak to invest in his business because he is not being offered any more than a one-year lease at a time on the area of land he has his bungalows on. He’s just managed to secure until mid-season 2018, then he thinks that will be the end of Nak’s Shack. Mid-season too, to add insult to injury.
I asked him whether he could work with the Chinese developers to negotiate staying on. He said he’s rather do anything but. Nak is really clever, insightful guy and studied (but didn’t complete as it was boring!) banking. But he says he’s probably just become a tuk-tuk driver; he’d rather do that than work with the Chinese who have the rights to his own country. Fair enough – behind Nak’s Shack is a stilted building that imposes over Nak’s little bungalow bedroom. There are random people going in and out. I asked who, and he said there are Chinese men living in there, literally acting as presence, breathing down Nak’s neck to remind him he’ll soon have to do one. Nak says he smokes as much as he does (a lot!!!) because what else is there to do…
The environmental impact.
I put it to Nak that perhaps there was an environmental lobby or organisation in Camobdia that he could work with to make a case against he relatively low-impact business being closed down. He said that the environmental groups were phony and in cahoots with the government; allowing illegal access and exploitation of the forest, and particularly of Ream National Park.
We also spoke to an Aussie who run another little low-impact shack and tent site about twenty minutes down the beach. He said that he’d tried super hard to address the issue of ‘What do you do with the rubbish when you invite tourists to an island and they don’t drink tap water, they do drink soft drinks and beer, and the plumbing can’t handle toilet paper?’
He collected all the rubbish generated by his business and separated it carefully for recycling. Recycling was taken over to the mainland. The rest… well they had to burn it. So, he went to the Chinese with plans to build a proper incinerator to burn the rubbish as carefully as possible. The Chinese said no, that this was an environmental hazard. They told him to bury the rubbish on holes in the sand instead, so it could decay nicely releasing harmful toxins from the plastics, textiles and toilet paper bleach as it did so. So he had another plan. At great expense to himself, he would collect the landfill-destined rubbish and shipped it over to the mainland every few months, where it would go into a privately hired dustbin lorry to be taken off to landfill (dark times anyway!). However, it soon came to his attention that the rubbish was actually bing dumped at the nearest convenient location – into the Ream National Park. So this Aussie guy went to collect it all again and drive it load by load to landfill himself. Besides the really negative impact on the National Park ecosystem, it would have given his own business a terrible name; one of the only businesses around that tries very hard to remedy it’s carbon footprint.
So, I know not what to do! Just digest the knowledge. And support Nak’s Shack while we still can!
And if you want to read about another disturbing trend in Cambodian tourism, which I have no experience of myself, then read this article about orphanage tourism. Oh, and don’t be fooled by the vinyl signs strategically placed around Sihanouville on the coast that claim to support responsible tourism, and that it is a moral obligation. The sentiment is true; the source is not. Don’t let it fool you that the government are taking care of things; they are simply well versed in such proclamations! you have to research far and wide to find legitimate business stories. Hopefully you can find a few on this blog.