Saving the Mangroves: Eco-Tourism in Kampot

Saving the Mangroves: Eco-Tourism in Kampot

As the popularity of Cambodia as a tourist destination grows, economic benefits for local communities are accompanied by a certain amount of environmental strain. As tourists become more conscious of the potential damage they may inadvertently do to places they have great interest in, the idea of sustainability and eco-tourism has taken root in Cambodia.

Although difficult to truly define, eco-tourism is essentially low impact travel, with the aim of conserving and observing natural habitats and ways of life.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism has been promoting the idea of eco-tourism and partnering with France’s University of Toulouse and Acting For Life, an NGO that specializes in sustainable tourism initiatives, to further develop the eco-tourism industry which has grown by around 20% in recent years. From the forests of Ratanakiri to the Siem Reap countryside, the mountains of Kampong Speu to the beaches of Koh Kong, eco-tourism is a popular choice for the responsible traveler.

I visited the vibrant town of Kampot, an attractive destination for foreign tourists, expats, and locals making the short trip from Phnom Penh. About 7km outside of the town is a collective of minority Cham fishermen and -women working to conserve and revive one of the region’s most important natural areas – the mangrove swamps of Kampot and Kep.

Mangrove forests are found in tropical regions across the world and are a vital eco-system, giving food shelter to vast numbers of marine life as well as the birds and larger mammals that depend on them. For centuries local fisherfolk have used the swamps along the coast and its brackish inlets for food, shelter, and protection.

We arrived at the Trapeang Sangke Fishing Community early in the morning. The site itself, established in 2014, is a nursery for small mangrove saplings, where they are sprouted and allowed to grow to a size suitable for planting. Around the young trees, wooden platforms allow access to the main parts of the site. There are two large wooden dining and lecture rooms, built in the traditional style on stilts with a thatched roof. Further along the walkway, stretching out into the river, are the guest bungalows.

After a quick swim in the salty river, our party climbed aboard a traditional wooden fishing boat, which the driver had already packed with saplings ready to be planted out at sea. There were life jackets provided for all passengers, if they wished to wear them. The captain’s mate pushed us out into the current and after a few minutes of gentle floating, the noisy outboard engine was fired up.

We cruised down the river, with mighty mangrove trees lining each side of the bank. As we chugged downstream towards the open water of Kampot Bay, a few white herons took to the air, startled by our approach, and without the noise of the motor it would be easy to imagine Cambodian life on the water unchanged for hundreds of years.

The salty air in our noses told us we were nearing the ocean after around 20 minutes on the water, and after rounding one final bend we reached our destination: the Kampot mudflats.

We disembarked into the shallow water where row upon row of freshly planted trees stood. Beyond them, towards the mainland, were bigger trees which were first grown in 1999.

We were shown how to correctly tie the small trees to bamboo stakes and secure the roots into the sea mud. Our guide explained that the trees were an important defense against storms, high tides and even tsunamis, acting as a natural barrier between extreme ocean weather conditions and the low-lying land of the Cambodian coast.

After our group had planted over 100 trees, which we promised to come back to see in a year, we boarded the boat for a short trip to the ‘Mangrove Walk’. Here another raised wooden path winds its way through the middle of a mature part of the floating forest. Close up, it is possible to see the bizarre twisting roots which push the tree trunks up above the tide marks. These knotted trunks provide protection for crabs, shrimp, and small fish which feed on nutrients and microorganisms growing there. At the end of the walkway our boat was waiting to take us back up river to the community base.

A three-course lunch was prepared for us for $3 per head. Freshly caught crab and squid from returning fishermen and -women was also on offer, with an option to have it cooked for a small extra cost.

Once the lunch of chicken soup, beef with fried vegetables and fried sea fish was over, the community chief, Mr. Sim Him, gave a demonstration of how the smallest trees were prepared for potting and left to grow in the nursery, in preparation for life in the main forest. As the heat of the afternoon bore down, activities ranging from kayaking, swimming, or simply relaxing in a hammock as the river flowed by, were all available.

The bungalows were basic but comfortable, with a clean mattress and sheets, fan, and mosquito net. Like all the buildings at the commune, the bungalows are raised over the water, and as the tide rises, the water laps just below.

In the evening it is possible to go fishing, or sit back and watch the fireflies at dusk while ladies collect shrimp and crabs.

Before leaving we spoke with Mr. Sim Him about the community project.

“Before, there were many problems in this area,” he said. “Too much illegal fishing and cutting of the trees. People were poor and actually making themselves poorer. Now, thanks to good actions, families can make more money and send their children to school.”

Since 2014, Mr. Sim has been building the resort area to attract people from all over the world to come and understand the region he has known all his life. Judging by the colorful multi-lingual graffiti painted across the walls, many have.

Trapeang Sangke Fishing Community
Getting there: From Kampot, take the road to Kep. Look for the sign on the right after 7km.
Costs: 1 night in bungalow $7-10
Boat trips $12
Trees for planting, 2500KHR each (around 50 cents)
Other activities, fishing, kayaking etc., arranged on site