Chi Phat is located deep within the Cardamom Mountains in the Koh Kong Province, in southwest Cambodia. It was just a 2-hour ride from Sihanoukville and we hopped off our bus in what felt like the middle of nowhere just as the torrential rains arrived. Whenever we mentioned the name ‘Chi Phat’ to anyone, whether it be the guesthouse owners or other travellers, they looked perplexed and claimed they’d never heard of the place. It was slightly worrying, particularly as the community based ecotourism project we were visiting hadn’t replied to our messages. But thankfully Chi Phat did exist and was accepting visitors!
Chi Phat is a two-street village offering a base from which to explore the surrounding countryside, all the while helping locals to benefit from tourism. The idea for Community Based Eco Tourism (CBET) arose as an alternative income to practices such as poaching, logging and non-sustainable agricultural practices, which previously sustained the lives of local people living in Chi Phat. CBET not only replaces a lost income but gives locals an incentive to preserve their beautiful landscape and dependent wildlife. The whole village is involved in a number of ways; hosting visitors in their homestays and guesthouses, some employed as tour guides, waiters, trip organisers and much more. It also made our experience all the more special as we achieved more genuine contact with this local community via CBET.
Chi Phat is located on the Phipot River, 20km upstream from Andong Teuk village and we were required to hop on the back of a motorbike for 40 minutes to get there, but hurtling through the countryside was all part of the fun. The rainy season has made the Cambodian countryside a luscious and vibrant green. We were shown to one of the 40 homestays and guesthouses in Chi Phat, organised by CBET. They ensure that accommodation is equally allocated on a rotational basis so no one misses out (the same goes for tour guides).
The CBET community centre and hub of the village was a beautiful bamboo construction complete with bar and restaurant. However as we pulled up to our guesthouse, we were greeted with something a touch more basic. In fact, this was the worst accommodation we’d stayed in to date. We aren’t fussy when it comes to accommodation, providing we have a clean room in a good location with ideally a private bathroom. You can achieve all of this and more on a very small budget in Asia so we’ve always been pretty pleased with our guesthouses. Admittedly, our hosts in Chi Phat are not hotel tycoons but locals inviting us into their home. We went for the upgraded private bathroom deal, which included a toilet, cold shower, but weirdly no sink, just a tap beneath the showerhead for brushing our teeth and washing hands. Every time the shower was used we were left with a puddle in the bedroom from a tile leakage. The sheets were fresh enough but the lumpy pillows smelt so strongly of sweat and must that we couldn’t bring ourselves to sleep on them. There was an array of unexplained stains on the bedroom walls and trail of ants adorning the skirting boards. Luckily we had a decent fan and once we tucked ourselves under the mosquito net at night we managed to get some shut eye.
We opted for a one-day tour with CBET and were quite glad we didn’t decide to sleep in a hammock overnight on a 2-day camping trip as the insects were incorrigible. Our guide, Lee Aeng arrived at 7:30am to pick us up from the community centre after a hearty breakfast. He immediately admitted to us he’d been out drinking until the early hours of the morning (celebrating a local election) and was feeling a little worse for wear. He appeared fresh faced and smiling nonetheless but had to make various pit stops to revive himself with Red Bull and a very sugary slushie (that we also tried ourselves). By midday he was ploughing through the forests at a decent pace, leaving the two of us lagging behind in the heat. With temperatures at 35 degrees and humidity hovering around 90%, even the easy – medium trek felt like a challenge.
Lee Aeng had been working for CBET for 10 years after abandoning the poaching trade. He had pretty good English and had mainly learnt on the job, conversing with tourists. He explained that he picks up a few more words every time he carries out one of the treks. We taught Lee Aeng the meaning of very useful words including hangover, certificate, strange, native and property. He seemed very motivated to expand his vocabulary and it was quite a challenge for us to describe some of these words without using even more complex descriptions that would confuse him further.
It felt great to stretch our legs after a week being vegetables on the beach, and the baking heat was really making us work for our lunch. We’ve gotten used to living our lives with a constant film of sweat on our brows and Lawrence claims he even enjoys and finds satisfaction in sheen on his skin! Naomi does not.
We climbed over Bald Mountain viewpoint and on to Silver Meadow, an island of grass surrounded by forest as well as visiting a dried up waterhole. The landscape and foliage changed rapidly as we walked, ranging from green meadowland, to amazon jungle territory, to temperate evergreen woodlands.
Chi Phat is now bustling with wildlife thanks to CBET and their conservation efforts. Poaching is strictly forbidden and anyone caught will be fined and jailed. We spotted a non-poisonous snake slinking up a tree trunk and some HUGE spiders chilling in dangerously low spun webs (head level). But there are also sun bears, wild boars and deer that roam the land.
We were very ready for lunch after trudging 13km through the jungle. The community centre had provided us with a traditional ‘packed lunch’ for our journey. Rice was wrapped neatly in a banana leaf and little bags of omelet and pork were added to our organic plates with a dash of soy sauce. It was all very civilised.
After lunch it was back the way we came to complete the 26km round circuit. The way back felt much quicker; perhaps we were recharged after our big lunch. After arriving back at the community centre we shared a coke with Lee Aeng and eased our shoes off, the most satisfying part of the day. Naomi’s feet revealed a monstrous blister (we’ve learnt her right foot is a smidge bigger than the left) and we could feel our weary legs stiffening. We were looking forward to a cold shower and a big dinner, which Chi Phat supplied us with in abundance.
CBET provided us with all of our meals. The food was all local, fresh and delicious. We had an endless supply of refills and top ups and they made it their mission to feed us as many pancakes as our tummies could take. The people in Chi Phat were unfailingly friendly and we were very impressed with the whole operation, in spite of our dodgy accommodation.