Four Rivers Lodge: Working with Water

Despite being devastated by a massive deluge of water from nearby mountains, an iconic Cambodian Wilderness Lodge is determined to come back – floating on the same river that almost destroyed it. By Jeremy Torr.

 4 Rivers pontoons rest serenely on the Tatai River as the sun sets over the Cambodian jungle. And then the rains came . . . . Courtesy 4 Rivers.

4 Rivers pontoons rest serenely on the Tatai River as the sun sets over the Cambodian jungle. And then the rains came . . . . Courtesy 4 Rivers.

Cambodia, September 30 2018. It was around dawn on July 17, 2018, when the monsoon rains that had been soaking the Cardamom Mountains for the past few days peaked into a massive downpour. The mountains are always very wet through the July-August period, but this year the rains were extra heavy. There was another cause for concern: the new dam construction on the Preat River, some 10km upstream from Tatai Bridge. People living on the river knew that if the dam got too full, the emergency sluices would likely be opened to protect the dam wall.

Their fears were realised. Around 7am, a wall of water came hurtling down between the jungle-lined banks of the Tatai River, carrying with it a mass of flotsam including huge tree trunks and heavy branches; waterborne battering rams just waiting to hit something. What they hit was the 4 Rivers Lodge, a floating eco-lodge anchored on a bend in the river just south of the Tatai Bridge.  

 Valentin Pawlik built his dream of a floating eco-lodge on the Tatai River. Courtesy 4 Rivers.

Valentin Pawlik built his dream of a floating eco-lodge on the Tatai River. Courtesy 4 Rivers.

The 12 pontoons and floating reception area took a severe pounding, with the water and debris ripping down tents, wrecking the water and electricity systems and tearing out the anchor ropes and dragging many sections several kilometres down the river. Owner and founder Valentin Pawlik was devastated. One-inch diameter mooring ropes had snapped under the enormous pressure and the metal sub-structure of the resort was twisted and broken into several pieces. Forty people, trapped on the damaged pontoons, had been swept almost 8km downriver. Miraculously, nobody was severely injured, or worse.

“It is with great sadness that we inform you that 4 Rivers will be closed for the foreseeable future,” said Pawlik. “The floating platforms are to be completely rebuilt. We will turn our focus on rebuilding a stronger and safer 4 Rivers Floating Lodge.”

Sustainable resurrection

Just a few months later, Pawlik’s partner and general manager Anna told Gaia Discovery that incredibly, the lodge was preparing to partially reopen in November – with a stronger, safer construction, yet with just the same commitment to sustainability.

 Close to nature is not really correct - you are in it! Courtesy 4 Rivers.

Close to nature is not really correct - you are in it! Courtesy 4 Rivers.

Pawlik, a pioneer of the bamboo cultivation and processing industry in Cambodia, had come up with the idea of a floating lodge on the water in Cambodia as an alternative to the usual glamping destinations on landed tents.

“Our footprint on the environment is very minimal,” he explains. “And the whole of 4 Rivers is modular. I built it keeping in mind that one day we might have to move. The most obvious advantage of [the floating approach] is that the place will become just as it was.”

Pawlik says that the lodge was a conscious effort to balance the lack of environmental concern in Cambodia when it came to logging. He was impressed that the location, within the boundaries of the National Park, was completely surrounded by forest. “We wanted to keep it that way: in countries with good forest management, wood is an eco-material. Unfortunately that is not the case in Cambodia. So we wanted to show that we can do nice things without cutting down any trees,” he added. The sustainable ethic doesn’t end there. Tucked away in a bend of the river behind a low-lying island, 4 Rivers uses composite and recycled construction materials, runs off renewable energy, uses a controlled and managed trash system, and processes its grey water before releasing it back into the environment.

 The only way in is by boat. No phones. No WiFi. Bliss. Courtesy 4 Rivers.

The only way in is by boat. No phones. No WiFi. Bliss. Courtesy 4 Rivers.

The lodge offers 12 pontoon-based tents which come delightfully fitted out, with a spacious bedroom and bathroom featuring twin sinks and a cool wooden shower. But the highlight is the deck with loungers, parasol, and a table and chairs – and even a ladder to climb down into the river if you want to cool off. The tents are all linked together in two arms, and connected to the central pontoon housing a library, restaurant and reception.

Some 20-minutes by boat ride from Tatai Bridge Road, the lodge is not far from Koh Kong township and the Thai border. The situation is stunning, just down the road (or river) are Koh Kong Island and pearl white beaches, upriver are the Tatai Waterfall, and Cardamom Mountain trekking. Just don’t wander off on your own – many of the mountain trails were mined during the IndoChina wars.

 Each tent has its own bedroom/lounge with deck access. Courtesy 4 Rivers.

Each tent has its own bedroom/lounge with deck access. Courtesy 4 Rivers.

Or you can stay on board, laze on a lounger or in bed (the tent walls can be rolled up for a stunning view of the river, or kept zipped up for privacy) and slowly acclimatise to the sound of birdsong and gibbon calls, or just watch the clouds swirl over the thick rainforest over the mountains. It’s unique, and simply yet elegantly comfortable. And it fits beautifully into the pristine rainforest river setting.

“Continuously educating our team, making them believe and transfer our “eco-preaching” to them is vitally important,” says Pawlik. This includes leading teams cleaning up the river banks, placing trash bins in villages around the area, using biodegradable packaging materials and more. The aim, he says, is to “keep the place as close to what nature has made it.”

And they are still working on it. Anna Pawlik said the rebuilding is being slowed by that fact the only access road was also damaged by the river, making access very difficult for the construction teams.

“But we are rebuilding better, much stronger, and will have some of the tents open this November,” she smiled. “There’s no doubt its challenging, but we will becoming back better and stronger,” she said. “We are looking forward to it!”