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Cambodia’s dominant rural landscape makes it a playground for ecotourism experiences, ranging from authentic activities in the remote countryside to learning about the Kingdom’s unique flora and fauna. Here are the 10 best ecotourism experiences in Cambodia.
This was one of the country’s first community-based ecotourism initiatives, which has proven a hit since starting. The community is located in the heart of Southeast Asia’s largest rainforest, the Cardamom Mountains. Home to an expanse of rare flora and fauna, the remote area is full of dense forest, grasslands and mountains that stretch to the horizon and take in waterfalls, villages and exotic wildlife. The last decade has seen the Cardamoms open up, and, while much of it remains off limits, an increasing number of homestays and tours into the heart of the jungle have launched. NGO Wildlife Alliance was the first to start operating, working with villagers in Chi Phat community to open a range of authentic homestays. Former poachers have been trained as guides to take guests through the jungle on hikes or bike rides as well as a range of other activities.
This Kampot-based initiative’s main aim is to save the mangroves that are being torn from the province’s waterways to improve the fishing communities in the area. Serving as a shelter for fish and squid, the decimation of the mangroves has a direct impact on the fish that the minority Cham fishing communities rely on, with many plunging into poverty. In 2009, a group of villagers lobbied the government for help. In 2011, 56 hectares were assigned to mangroves, with an additional 337 hectares dedicated to fishing. Since then, the villagers have been cultivating mangroves in self-made nurseries that skirt the river, and more than 1,200 trees have been planted. They have also developed a range of activities, such as kayaking, day trips with local fishermen, planting mangroves and swimming in the lake. And there is a homestay option, with all profits being ploughed back into the community.
For the ultimate elephant experience, the Elephant Valley Project, nestled in the heart of the rolling northeastern province of Mondulkiri, is the place to be. Offering the ultimate lifetime experience, visitors have the rare chance to get up close and personal with the magnificent mammals, while learning about the negative effects of elephant tourism, which is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia. The sanctuary offers a permanent or temporary respite for over-worked and neglected elephants, who can kick back, relax and enjoy life in their natural habitat. So, don’t expect any elephant rides — this is an activity the project strongly advocates against. Instead, visitors can spend the day watching the beasts wallow in mud, wash themselves in the river and stomp through the jungle, tearing saplings out with their trunks.
This project’s main mission is to protect and conserve the country’s population of rare and dwindling birdlife. Since 2006, the Siem Reap-based organisation has been leading half- to 21-day custom birding and wildlife tours, led by local experts and specialist guides, to some of Cambodia’s most important and protected areas. Destinations include the Tonle Sap floodplain, the eastern plains and southern Cambodia. Birds commonly spotted include the giant Ibis, white-shouldered Ibis, Bengal Florican, Greater Adjutant, Milky Stork and Sarus Cranes. The wildlife tours offer the opportunity to see a range of species, including yellow-cheeked crested gibbon, black-shanked douc langur, plus Asian elephants and bears.
NGO Wildlife Alliance (WA) works tirelessly to rescue, rehabilitate and conserve the country’s swathe of endangered and rare wildlife from the clutches of illegal traffickers and poachers. Rescued wildlife are taken to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, where they are nursed back to health before being released into the wild. Those who are unable to return to their natural habitat live out their lives at the centre. Its ‘day in the life of a zookeeper’ programme gives guests the chance to get up close and personal with the animals, with all funds being pumped back into the project. Guests can hand-feed elephants, enter the tigers’ private den, feed baby macaques and get within a whisker of leopards, gibbons and otters.
If living among nature is your thing, then another of WA’s pioneering projects is a visit to its wildlife release station in the heart of the Cardamom Mountains. After being rehabilitated at Phnom Tamao Rescue Center, animals that are fit to be re-released into the wild are transported to the remote location where they are kept prior to their new lives. Animals, including sun bears, gibbons, monkeys, and an array of birds can be seen up close, with rangers on hand to explain their story. Visitors can help feed the wildlife and monitor their progress. Treks through the surrounding jungle also take in rare flora and fauna, thick jungle, waterfalls, and swimming holes. Accommodation is provided in the form of basic bamboo huts built by nearby villagers.
The Visit Banteay Srei project launched in 2016 with a network of villagers opening up their doors to guests in the form of homestays; businesses are also welcoming tourists wanting to get a glimpse of work life in this rural district, which sits outside of Siem Reap. The website details homestays, activities and itineraries that take in nature, food, culture, lifestyle and handicrafts. The main star of the show is Banteay Srei Temple, called the Jewel of Angkor for its intricate carvings. The beauty of this temple is that, unlike Angkor Wat, it is not over-run with tourists, making meandering round the ancient site much more pleasurable.
The rural province of Kratie is starting to welcome a slow trickle of tourists wanting to get off the beaten track. And for those wanting to see a slice of real Cambodia, then this is the destination for you. Cambodia Rural Discovery Tours (CRDT) have recruited and trained locals, who come equipped with on-the-ground knowledge of the area, to carry out a series of tours across Kratie. Trips include a variety of homestays, cycling through the countryside, visits to see endangered Irrawaddy dolphins swimming in the Mekong, boat trips and an introduction to the endangered Cantor’s giant softshell turtles. CRDT also operates Le Tonlé Training Restaurant & Guesthouse, which doubles up as a hospitality training school to provide locals with skills for sustainable income.
A visit to Kirirom, about two hours from Phnom Penh, is like entering another world – or climate at least. Here, the pine forests resemble a scene from a warm summer’s day in Europe, with the temperature dipping a good few degrees lower than in the capital. Chambok is a dedicated ecotourism site where guests can immerse themselves in nature, enjoy the cooling climes of the mountain area and learn from locals. The Chambok Community Protected Area launched in 2002 and comprises of 520 families from six villages. Guests can camp in the forest, stay with locals at the range of homestays, take part in cooking classes in traditional villages, trek or bike through the forest, take an ox-cart ride or learn traditional dancing from villagers.
Hidden completely out of the way in northern Preah Vihear province, Betreed Adventure is the perfect trip for nature-lovers and thrill-seekers alike. Its main aim is to protect 6,400 hectares of savannah land that is home to various endangered and threatened species, including banteng (wild cattle), pileated gibbons, silver langurs, barking deer, sambar deer and many birds. Visitors can also explore cave temples that date back to Angkorian times, quarries where the stones to build the country’s glorious temples were carved from, a 300-metre (984-foot) zipline and more.