KOH PDAO, Kratie province (Khmer Times) – On this Mekong River island, 45 km north of Kratie City, a neat, rubber trash can stands in front of almost each wooden house on stilts.
This sight, all-too-rare in Cambodia’s rural areas, is a legacy of an ambitious, decade-long effort to draw the Kingdom’s foreign tourists away from the temples-to-beaches circuit. The goal: to draw them East of the Mekong.
The rubber trash cans were distributed up and down the Mekong Discovery Trail, a 180-kilometer path of dirt bike trails, homestays and ecotourism destinations. The Cambodian Rural Development Team, a Kratie-based NGO, placed the trash cans to clean up villages and make stays more appealing to eco-tourists.
But in recent years, the tourist flow has dwindled. On this pastoral island, the $20 monthly salary of the village trash collector hasn’t been paid since February. The NGO, known as CRDT, has told villagers to go back to their old habits: burning trash on the northern tip of the island.
For visitors, the provincial Department of Tourism ran out of maps two years ago. The Mekong Discovery Trail website is up for sale.
What Went Wrong?
Foreign aid groups, with their international contacts and marketing skills, moved on. But more importantly, on this island where life runs at the pace of an ox cart, villagers say that stimulation-addicted foreign tourists seem to suffer from ever shorter attention spans.
Only a few years ago, foreign tourists would come and stay for weeks, even months, recalls Seng Kim, a 77-year-old villager who runs a homestay.
“Mostly Americans,” he says. “They would stay for weeks. They would get to know our children and help me with the rice, and the chickens.”
“We only get a little money from the tourists,” Kim continued. “One family might get tourists for two to five nights a month – enough money to buy salt and prahok.”
Nowadays, foreigners stop here for a day or so to get a taste of rural life on larger journeys through Southeast Asia.
Visits Up, Stays Shorter
Prum Sarin, the island’s village leader, said the actual number of visits is up in recent years.
“The numbers have increased,” Sarin said. “But we’ve made less money. The customers stay for a short time, one or two nights. In 2010, we had tour groups of 15 who would stay for 14 days. They would help do work in the village. Nowadays, people stay for one or two nights. They don’t do much. They just go around and look at our village.”
What is happening here is part of larger picture: tourism to Cambodia’s Eastern third lags behind the fast growth recorded on the Sihanoukville-Siem Reap axis. Tourism to Kratie province is up in the last decade, but this growth is about 30 percent lower than the growth in tourism that Cambodia as a whole experienced since 2005.
Launched in 2006
In 2006, the Mekong Discovery Trail was launched as an ambitious eco tourism venture by the United Nations World Tourism Organization and SNV, a Dutch development organization.
The trail of bike paths leading to small rural villages and ‘off-the-beaten-track’ destinations was designed to generate income for villagers of Kratie and Stung Treng provinces. According to a 2010 SNV strategy report, it aimed to lure some tourists away from the temples-to-beaches circuit.
Today, curious tourists still find their way to the village homestays and muddy cow paths. But some destinations, especially in Stung Treng, are often unmarked. The few surviving trail maps fade on the walls of the region’s guest houses.
Chan Soukhounthy, the director of the provincial Department of Tourism, does not see any new trail development or promotional money on the horizon.
Foreign Money Dries Up
On the foreign end, SNV, the Dutch group, finished its work here in 2012
“Tourism is private-sector based and business-oriented,” Marta Saya, an SNV official, said by email from Holland. “It is hard to mobilize resources and get donors. We decided not to work anymore in the private sector, in any country – so when Phase IV of the trail was finished, we pulled out.”
At the Ministry of Tourism in Phnom Penh, Thok Sokhom, director of the Department of International Cooperation and Asean, expressed little hope for future trail work.
“There isn’t any money for it,” he explained. “We were waiting for funding from the Spanish government. Now there’s a financial crisis in Spain and the Spanish government can’t help us.”
The next stage of trail development was to focus on Kratie’s northern neighbor, Stung Treng.
“The project was intended for the whole region, not just Kratie,” he said, referring to the southern end, a traditional jumping off point for the trail.
Without outside expertise, leadership and investment, local villagers will not take the initiative to upgrade cow paths to bike paths and to set up homestays.
On this island, even with seven years of experience with tourism, villagers say it is hard to deal with foreign visitors who do not speak Khmer.
“They’ve stopped working here,” Prum Sarin, the village leaders, said of the international organizations. “They’ve moved to other villages.”
“And now we are afraid – we don’t have the language to speak to our customers, and to bring customers to our village,” he said of the frustrating language barrier. “We cannot speak English. So how can we keep up our business?”
Now that the international development groups have moved on, what is the legacy?
Seng Kim, a home stay host, said his village benefits more from the clean water systems installed by the aid groups than from the income generated from tourism.
“Before the water in the river was bad, and we were often sick,” he said of the time before 2008, the year the tourist trail opened here. “Now we have bathrooms and clean water, and sanitation. We are far healthier.”
“We know how to keep the village clean, and how to sanitize the water from the river,” he said, folding away his records of his homestay customers.
Like most villages in Cambodia, the main income of Koh Pdao remains the output of the rice farm. These paddies extend–broken by the occasional forest–down the island’s 45 kilometers.
“We have good health,” said the 77-year-old villagers. “At least we can take care of ourselves now.”
The Mekong Discovery Trail wends 180 km from Kratie to the Laos border, largely on the eastern bank of the Mekong. Map: Supplied
Source: Khmer Times