Chi Phat Community-based Eco-tourism: Forests for Life

A Winner - Inspiring Stories from Destinations 2014

Forests nurture lives, yet living in the forest takes courage. A tale told by Sokhem, founder of Chi Phat Community-based Eco-tourism.   

When I was born, my parents named me Sokhem. In English, it means Hope. This name puzzled me, as at that time there was no hope, no future. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed my home, Cambodia. In 1980, when I was a small boy, we had no food, no land, no money, no schools, and no doctors.

My father found work as a woodcutter working around Chi Phat, a village hidden in the Cardamom Mountains. We cut and burned some forest to clear land for ourselves. We planted corn, but were still hungry. Often, I would travel with my father deep into the forest. We collected vines and tapped resin to sell. We set traps for animals, so that we might have enough to eat.

That is when I learned about the forest. Many people harvested from the forest, but my father was the most skilled, and taught me all he knew: the names of the trees, the birds, the animals and the spirits.

The first time I saw elephants, the most dangerous of all the animals, I cried in fear. My father put his hat on my head, saying, “Wear this magic hat. It will make you invisible to elephants, if you stay still and quiet”.

At ten years old, I already knew where the deer drinks in the dry season, where the owl sleeps in the rain, why the gibbon sings, and how to respect Neak Ta, the guardian spirit of the forest.

My father was never afraid of elephants, nor tigers nor snakes, but he was fearful of Neak Ta.

“Do not anger Neak Ta. He is powerful, and will make you sick and die,” he told me.

“What angers him?”

“Taking what is his,” said my father.

“What is his?”

“Everything is his: the land, the streams, the trees and all things that live here. If he favors us, he will show us wild fruit trees, and lead animals to our traps. We may take what we need to live, but no more, and whatever we take, we must share with him.”

It was never easy to survive on what we could collect from the forest, but year by year, we managed. I grew to be a young man, knowledgeable in forest life.

With the end of war, roads came, and the roads made our lives harder, not easier. Loggers and traders moved in, taking our wood and animals to sell in the capital, and abroad. People took more than they needed to survive. Loggers cut every resin tree for wood. Traders killed many tigers and elephants. Animals became scarce. The forest had survived the war, but could not survive the peace.

How we hated those new people. We were just trying to survive, the way we had since the world was young. My father aged, and became sick: Neak Ta was angry. He stayed at home, while I went to the forest with friends.

One day, while checking my traps, soldiers arrested me. They took me to see a foreigner. She had long white hair, and was sitting on the forest floor, crying. Nearby, a mouse deer lay dead in my trap.

“Why did you kill this poor deer?” she asked.

“We are hungry. We need food,” I said.

“Why don’t you work?”

“There is no work. If there was work, I could stay at home and look after my father.”

I did not know it yet, but that day, my life changed.

One month later, the village chief called us to a meeting. The soldiers were there, and the foreign lady. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen, but I was more afraid of her than of Neak Ta.

The lady, Suwanna, was the leader of Wildlife Alliance. Suwanna said she would give us jobs; we would no longer need to go to the forest. We were to become an ecotourism community. Nobody knew what this meant. Even when Suwanna explained it, few of us believed people would want to visit our forest. Nevertheless, Suwanna was right!

Suwanna helped us to set up the ecotourism community. We elected a team of workers, and I became the leader of the forest rangers. I still live and work in the forest, but I no longer set traps and fires: I remove traps; I put out fires.

Every year, more visitors come to Chi Phat to enjoy our mountains, streams, forests and wildlife. Now, 250 villagers are guesthouse owners, guides, cooks, boat drivers, bicycle mechanics, waste collectors, or rangers like me. We all still earn a little income from farming and fishing, but now, when times are hard, or our children are sick, we have an income, and no longer need to go to the forest.

I no longer fear Neak Ta. I am his ally to save the forest. I am still afraid of elephants though. Deep in the forest, we hear them, and we see them. When they come close to our camp at nighttime, the ground trembles, and we shake with fear.

I miss my father’s magic hat. Truly, I am the elephants’ friend, but I fear the elephants might forget this.

These days, my future is bright. My children are healthy, and go to school. I can look after my parents. Life is not easy, but I am hopeful. Maybe my parents chose my name wisely after all.

Inspiring Stories from Destinations 2014 was jointly organised by WildAsia and Gaia Discovery. Three winners were chosen and announced at ITB Asia Responsible Tourism event in Singapore. Gaia Discovery at ITB Asia shared how these winning entries tell a good story, and how storytelling is important to draw travellers to a destination.