Soksabike: Building a Truly Sustainable Tourism Business

New cycle touring startups are often billed as sustainable, but one Cambodian organisation is taking its responsibility to the local community as seriously as the transport it uses. Soksabike offers a unique mix of cultural sensitivity, eco-awareness and boosting prospects for local communities. By Maureen Wyse.

Battambang, Cambodia. 30 November 2017. In 2010, a group of people associated with Battambang's university decided it would be a good idea to try to boost local vocational training opportunities for university students, primarily by hiring local university students as tour guides and working with them to develop tours. This morphed into Soksabike, partly because using bikes helped preserve and protect Cambodia’s natural environment without adding any pollution, and also because the slow pace allows tourists to get a better insight into the lives and routines of rural Cambodians – and not least, because bicycles are the most common form of transport in Cambodia.

 Cycling in rural Cambodia offers real access to local communities. Courtesy M. Wyse

Cycling in rural Cambodia offers real access to local communities. Courtesy M. Wyse

Soksabike also acts as a training ground for local young people, and gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and capabilities far outside their normal envelope. For example, Ah Pum is a nineteen year old student at a local university. He arrived at Soksabike as a shy student with limited English language skills but with a deep desire to learn more about his Cambodian heritage. His time at Soksabike widened his horizons significantly.

 Ah Pum joined Soksabike as a shy student, but has now learned valuable skills to become a tour leader. Courtesy of M.Wyse

Ah Pum joined Soksabike as a shy student, but has now learned valuable skills to become a tour leader. Courtesy of M.Wyse

Just months after he joined, Pum is now a confident tour guide, leading tours of visiting riders on his own. His infectious smile and positivity continuously draws in tourists, our team, and local families.

Recipe for Success

Soksabike organisers say that the opportunity to learn from and engage with customers while training, along with input and assistance from an experienced guide, is what makes the program so successful. Not only do customers get an amazing tour, they also help make a difference in the lives of local people.

This is also due to the Soksabike organisers’ emphasis on comprehensive sustainability, not just using bicycles to minimise exhaust gases. Its business model makes sure that tourist dollars go back into the local community, not into a tour operator’s account. On tours, the guides take travellers to rural villages around Battambang. As the cycle guides are locals themselves, they both gain confidence by being able to share their own experiences and culture with guests, and gain status locally by acting as translator and helping visitors engage with local families.

 Pum helps explain traditional methods of making rice paper in a local village. Courtesy M. Wyse

Pum helps explain traditional methods of making rice paper in a local village. Courtesy M. Wyse

This approach also gives tourists the opportunity to see “real” Cambodia; its model also helps establish a communication channel between tourists and local Cambodian families, and ensures that tourism is aligned with community interests – through the local people that run the tours. And lastly, it offers insights and education to tourists on different aspects of Cambodian life and culture - not just staged folk dances and temple ruins. The organisation's efforts have been recognised by its selection as a finalist in the World Travel and Tourism awards in 2016.

And although Battambang may not be the number one stop on many travellers’ lists when they look at travelling to Cambodia, the slower and friendlier pace of life makes it easy to get out into the rural villages and experience authentic rural family lifestyles. Visitors get to stop their bike rides and see how local families make rice paper, or cook bananas for mealtimes.

 Demonstrations on preparing bananas area regular favourite with tourists. Courtesy M. Wyse

Demonstrations on preparing bananas area regular favourite with tourists. Courtesy M. Wyse

This means visitors can talk directly to local people, and find out significant Cambodian history such as how families got their land back after the Khmer Rouge took over, or how the rice wine maker learned French from the occupying Europeans back in the 1950s. “The relationship that Soksabike have with these people is invaluable,” said one visitor. “We really enjoyed biking round the countryside and meeting local people. We were so grateful how they welcomed us into their homes and gave us a real insight into their lives,” they added.

Direct contribution

As part of its commitment to social sustainability, Soksabike also donates a portion of every tour fee to the families and small businesses that riders visit on the tour. This ensures that money is going directly to the community; the organisers emphasise that this extra income makes a huge difference to the daily lives of the local people. For example, the contribution helped one family send their children to school - something that may not have been possible without truly responsible, sustainable tourism.

The organisation also gives its employees insights into the importance of sustainable business in the wider sense. It offers training on subjects like environmental protection, bicycle maintenance, and conflict resolution, as well as offering job interview training with a larger scale bicycle tour operators. This comprehensive approach has paid off by bettering the prospects of many local people, and especially the students who work as guides.

Soksabike’s holistic approach and training program has not only allowed Pum to improve his English, but his confidence and cross-cultural communication skills have progressed more quickly than could have been expected - he’s even done some presentations about responsible tourism and guiding all in English. Admittedly, the training was hard work and demanding, but Pum will likely use the skills and knowledge he has gained to move on to greater opportunities once he finishes the program. That is real sustainability.

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 Phnom Sampov has a rich and sometimes dark history to discover. Courtesy Battambang Tourism

Phnom Sampov has a rich and sometimes dark history to discover. Courtesy Battambang Tourism

If you like the sound of what Soksabike does, go to their website at http://www.soksabike.com, and see what they have to offer as a destination as well as an engine for sustainable social improvement. One area nearby worth visiting is Phnom Sampov, a legend-soaked mountain covered with temples and pocked with caves, some of which were used by the Khmer Rouge for interrogations, and worse. Other caves house thousands of bats which wake up in the evening and fly out in streams across the night sky. Alternatively, ask to go to Banan, an ancient temple way older than the famous Angkor Wat. And if you like ethnic arts, Battambang has a good selection of art galleries, as well as Phare Ponle Selpak, a cultural centre that teaches performing and visual arts to local students.