Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Koh Rong Island in Cambodia. Another eco tragedy about to happen? Part 1

Otres Beach in Cambodia. Days of serenity

After a month staying in Otres Beach in Cambodia doing absolutely nothing, just chilling, hanging around on the beach, eating delicious Cambodian food and enjoying fantastic sunsets, it was about time to do something positive for the first time of our time staying in the SE of Asia.

And why not to do some volunteer work?. We were traveling together 2 couples and two kids from Spain. We stayed in Viet Nam initially for a few months and despite we did some little efforts here and there to help the local communities we wanted something more. A few days before we were cleaning the beach in Otres (freaking out the locals btw) picking plastic bags and another little rubbish. but like I said that wasn't enough for us.

Sihanoukville wasn't our scene (lets put it that way) and we did heard of a couple of islands that were located not far from Sihanoukville: Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem (also called Saloem I believe).

We were told both islands were amazingly beautiful unspoiled places, a real wild experience in the tropical nature far from the commodities that the so called civilization offers you in your daily routine. No roads or cars, no Internet coverage, no TV as the islands are not connected to any power grid (They use power generators a few hours on the evenings)…It was all about to experience the nature on its most pure ( and tropical) state.
It did sound all very promising to be honest as our goal in this trip was to try to go to places where the tourists never reach to see and if so…we wanted to be the only tourists there!
So lets see what can we do there.

On our way to the islands!

At first we were undecided which Island we wanted to go. Our idea like I said before was to do something for the locals on a volunteer basis, for around a month lets say, which it was the time we had left for our visas in Cambodia.
It was about time we stopped acting like spoiled tourists and try to do something useful for the people in the area.

Our catalan friend Ari, who was traveling with us all the way from Viet Nam, has a master degree in waste management and our plan was to show the islanders a very much needed  (so we were told) waste management project and also try to offer them some other fresh ideas for the conservation of the island, as on the last couple of years the number of visitors have been increased exponentially, mainly due to the diving activities from the boats which depart almost everyday day from Sihanoukville. Everything was like I said on a volunteer basis.

Koh Rong Island

Don't forget how much this islands have changed in the last couple or three years and the recent huge impact tourism has had on the place.
The quiet, completely isolated islands have becomed a new hot diving destination for little groups (yet) of young western tourists who party almost every night on the beach and therefore leaving a negative ecologic impact on the area.

Everybody seems to want to find 'The Beach' like in the Di Caprio movie, but very little people cares about the wrong side effects to the nature.

Koh Rong

Koh Rong, which is the bigger one, is known for its beautiful stunning white sand beaches. Its also called Monkey Island. It has 4 little fisherman villages and about a dozen guesthouses spread  all over the island. There is also a plan from a Russian resort investor to build a high end very posh resort right on the other side of the island. Airports, roads…the whole lot. Its on the cards but no one knew when it would start.
But for the moment thick vegetation and wild nature was everything you could find inside the island. No road network at all!. We can say that Koh Rong still remains practically unspoiled. Just jungle and the sea.

Koh Rong Saloem, which is the smaller one, is a bit more hilly and has a small village  too called M' Pai Bei (which means 23 in Khmer by the way). To me here I could feel more the  fisherman Cambodian atmosphere to be honest. 
There is a little fisherman settlement in the south of the island too (Koh Rong Phumi).

Koh Rong Samloem

There are about a hundred fisherman living in M' Pai Bei with their families and for the rest of the island you can't find much more than jungle, 4 or 5 small eco beach resorts&guesthouses , a remote light house and a very little navy base. Pretty much like its bigger neighbor Koh Rong.
Oh! and wild monkeys too.

Like in Koh Rong, there is no electricity, you only get some power a few hours on the afternoon thanks to the noisy generators, and there is no Internet coverage and nor roads neither cars or bikes to be seen. Something very hard to find this days. Paradise indeed.

Needless to say the beaches in Samloem were stunning but slightly different than in Koh Rong.
While in Koh Rong they were more like white sand caribbean type of beach, in Koh Rong Samloem they were more beautiful pale yellow sand and it had a completely different feeling. You can see it on the photos here which explains it better really.
There is a conservation center in Koh Rong Samloem and its manage it by an English guy called Paul who lives there. But I will explain more about this later on.

So one morning we rang and talked on the phone with the management of the scuba dive centers in both islands and they both agreed to have a meeting with us to discuss in which degree we could be able to give some volunteer help while we were visiting the places.
As both were 'Eco' we thought we would had a bit of support to our proposals.

Arriving to Koh Rong

The first island to visit was Koh Rong, so one morning we packed our gear and left from Sihanoukville to the remote island for a day. You get a little bus in the center of Sihanoukville about 8 am in the morning and they give you a lift to the boat. We were about 60 people rammed in the little coach (Hey! This is Asia) and I think almost everyone but us were young scuba divers.

Koh Rong Pier

We had a very pleasant trip that morning as the sea was pretty calm and there was barely no wind (it wasn't the same when we went to Koh Rong Saloem but i will explain that a bit later).

The journey took about 3 hours and coffee and biscuits were provided for free. Nice.  As soon as we were getting closer to the island I realized how beautiful the place was. There was jungle all around and I could see ( even from miles away) a white thin line, like a strip all along the coast line. I was pure white!

Advertising in Koh Rong

When you arrive there is a little wooden pier with a couple or 3 bars on the beach. Behind the beach on a little hill there are some huts where the visitors can stay for the night.

The atmosphere was pretty much of young people I have to say, also few lost hippies but  mainly scuba divers. We had a drink and some breakfast in one of the bars and we waited for our contact to appear... but sadly after an hour or so no one turned up.

Local Village in Koh Rong

At this point we started to be a bit concerned as we didn't have much time and we were supposed to get the same boat back to Sihanoukville the same afternoon. We didn't wanted to waste all day there in that bar. We didn't have the chance to see a bit of the island yet!

So we asked the staff on the bar and we were told the person from the management who was supposed to meet us (Someone called Pierre If Im not mistaken) was busy that day with a diver course so they told us someone else would come instead. Right. 
Not a good start.

The beach in Koh Rong

After a couple of drinks more on the little wooden bar in the beach, this young english guy from the Diving center shows up finally and introduces himself as a diving monitor. He was nice and polite. I forgot his name but I remembered he first apologized as he told us he knew very little about waste management (obviously) but he agreed to listen to us and also get us on a little tour around to show us the place.

Local woman walks around in pajamas

We told him the first thing we wanted to see was the village where the residents lived. And so we did.
Then another woman from the diving center came with us too. 

As soon as you walk behind the beach strip, all the sudden you realize how the locals really live. There was dirt everywhere, plastic thrown everywhere, rubbish, etc…. and the waters from the little pond where they were living were very filthy (to put it nicely). They just seem to toss everything there. There wasn't any kind of control with the dirt.
There were even pigs and other little farm animals who were throwing all their poo to the dirty waters.

Koh Rong little village

We were witnessing what was not shown on the local leaflets or the Internet advertising. This poor people were living amongst rubbish like you see on the news on tv in any 3rd world country. It was literally a thrash dump.
Everything of course, was well distant from the tourist hubs for rent.

Dirt everywhere

While we were doing the tour I took a few photos but always on a very discrete way. I didn't want to bother the locals and also I wasn't sure if that would bother the Scuba Diving staff too. But hey! We were there to help. 
I managed to take a few shots here and there when no one was looking anyway.
We were shocked.
It felt pretty sad. A mixture of dirt, neglect and extreme poverty.  Far from the paradise promised a few yards away. What a contrast indeed.

There was a huge pig caged in there. Dumping all the dirt below him on the pond

The beach like I said still keeps its pure beauty. Palm trees, white sand and those amazing pristine waters you always dream to swim one day in, but in some other parts close to where the fisherman were living, at the bottom of the sea you could see a surface on the sand of a worrying grey dirt color. It looked like a kind of layer of lead dust to be more precise.

Huts for the tourists

Im not an expert on management waters but our friend Ari told us that this was the first signs of a serious water contamination, like a kind of thin layer of sulfur.
The main fact, she said, were the toilets on the facilities in the island. They were the conventional ones and didn't have any device to separate the waste, number 1 from number 2, the solid from the liquid if you know what I mean.
The only solution is to install eco toilets she said. That would make the difference as they didn't have a septic tank on the area (If they had one at some point It was obviously not big enough).
Ari kindly did offer the guy to hand made a real size wooden prototype of those eco toilets and we told them it would be no problem to show it to them sometime in the next days when we were supposed to be back on the island. She also offered to do some lecture about the whole project to the local staff.

Lots of dogs around

That obviously wasn't all. There was some education needed behind. Set some rules for the party goers, banners, a bit of a speech in the boat for the diving groups and general visitors before reaching the island etc... A kind of a protocol of behavior for all the people coming to the island.
Its not all about making money with the scuba diving activities and the beach parties, its also about the care of the place. If things carry on like this, whats gonna be left? This paradise and its purity will be quickly gone.

So after a bit of a tour around the village as I could feel that our hosts were was getting rather than bored or very little interested (Kind of like someone told them to do a task that wasn't their field or line or work), so we decided we had enough and we headed to the beach to have a last drink and wait to catch our boat back to Otres Beach.
We certainly were in shock to see in first person in which condition the local people lives in. We didn't expect to see that.
Boat came and we all went back to Otres. 

And that was it really. The week after my friends bothered to make a prototype and they tried to contact the Diving center again. But they seemed to be very busy with their diving activities and nothing more came out of it. We felt somehow a bit frustrated with the lack of interest shown from the Diving management, even more considering we were willing to work for them for free.
Maybe it was not the best time for them I don't know. What I really know is that something needs to be done, someone has to do it and it has to be as soon as possible.

I really hope they show more interest on the future and they focus their energy a little bit more in the 'Eco side' (as they are advertised as) than the business side and I also hope the so neglected Koh Rong natives find a decent way of living complementary to their traditional duties. 
Its no joke the impact of those increasingly crowded groups of people visiting the island on daily basis. As it is the boats and all the things people carries around. Plastic bottles, petrol, not to mention the beautiful coral reefs on the area and the fish resources.

Also, like I mentioned before hundreds of people every week using the beach toilets where everything is tossed to the sea shore. And many many more things Im sure I forget to mention…. but then again I'm not en environmentalist. But I can recognize the damage made by man when I see it.

So it was time to visit the second island Koh Rong Sanloem.

And fortunetly that was a completely different story.

See you in part 2

© Pedro Vila

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