Cambodia’s recently opened Mekong Discovery Trail is a fun, cheap and effectively low-impact approach to improving the socio-economic problems of northeastern Cambodia’s poor Mekong region, where 77 per cent of locals exist on less than $2 per day.
Established by a Dutch NGO (www.snvworld.org) and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (www.unwto.org), the trail has funded development of a modest local infrastructure that enables travellers to cycle or hike signed riverside footpaths, to go dolphin-watching, and stay with families in traditional Khmer villages.
It also offers guidance to buying local foods and handicrafts.
The project area runs 180km north-east from Kratie along the Mekong towards Laos. Typically travellers ignore this beautiful corner for the more popular Angkor Wat in Western Cambodia. But here any money spent goes straight in the pockets of local Khmer communities — no middlemen.
The eco-trail also aims to preserve rare Irrawaddy river dolphins — fewer than 70 now live in the river.
“We hope that tourism will provide alternative livelihoods to take locals out of fishing and conserve the dolphins,” UNWTO’s Marcus Sandford tells me over a cold beer in the city of Kratie.
Kratie hugs the mighty Mekong and has clearly seen better days. I hung around for a few days enjoying the colourful market and feasting on exotic fruits such as lotus flower-pods, which resembled rubbery showerheads.
Next to my guesthouse, thousands of monks flocked to Kratie’s mustard-coloured temple (wat) for a Buddhist celebration. Each night I sipped a sundowner by the Mekong, watching its swirling waters glisten blood-red.
Renting a motorcycle, I then set off with the trail’s handbook on a two-day Mekong adventure.
Crossing the Mekong by river-ferry I spent my first day bumping along dirt tracks, crossing dodgy bridges, through riverside Khmer communities.
The locals see few visitors. So whenever I stopped, hoards of children appeared hollering ‘varang’ (foreigner).
At Wat Neak Kro Thearan, a posse of children followed me around the Buddhist temple’s vivid interior of a golden Buddha backed by psychedelic murals.
I stopped to photograph weddings where brides habitually wore scarlet; hit traffic jams of water buffalo and paused to take in the muddled islands and rapids of the Mekong’s braided channel.
How did my presence help the local Khmer communities? Stopping in the villages I bought local fuel, ice-shakes made from blended bananas, pineapples, and pungent durian, and paused to eat sticks of krolon (bamboo tubes of sweetened sticky rice) or barbecued fish and rice.
I also put a few Cambodian riels into the local economy by enjoying the trail’s newly arranged homestays. A few days upriver I would stop with a delightful family near the Laotian border in a thatched two-storey house at O’Svay village to spend an evening listening to gripping tales of their lives under the Khmer Rouge regime.
On this motorcycle excursion, however, I was the first paying guest to stay at Cambodia’s largest active monastery, Mouy Rouy.
The monks showed me the colourful temple, surrounded by mango trees, and explained they revered a supernatural monk who could morph into a crocodile. I sat chatting to them long into the evening as croaking frogs and clucking geckos electrified the sultry night air.
Temple cymbals and bells roused me early next morning, so I drove through the Mekong’s dewy mist to Kampi Dolphin Pool. My boatman was an ex-fisherman who was now earning far more by punting tourists out into deep-water pools to see the dolphins than from fishing.
Floating on the Mekong’s silky surface, we hovered motionlessly, waiting. It wasn’t long before the dolphins appeared, emitting a laboured wheeze before breaking the surface with their bulbous heads.
Glistening in the morning sunrise, five floated serenely around our boat for nearly an hour.
I felt somewhat saintly that my choice of holiday was helping to secure their future.
Choosing an eco-friendly holiday presents a minefield of choices as seemingly every holiday these days is prefixed with either ‘green’ or ‘eco-’.
But how many of these are actually kosher or simply greenwash? I once read a brochure boasting about the green credentials of a massive new five-star hotel and golf complex carved out of virgin rainforest in Malaysia.
This wasn’t just greenwashing: it was taking the piss.
There are many things to weigh up when choosing an eco-friendly holiday.
My trip to Cambodia put money directly into the pockets of impoverished local communities, yet my long-haul flight pumped a significant amount of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Where do you start to make an informed and balanced choice? First stop should be the excellent www.responsibletravel.com.
From eco-built ski chalets in Austria to wildlife holidays in Costa Rica, this online guide selects thousands of travel options and offers a practical assessment of how each holiday makes a difference.
Long-haul travellers who are concerned by the damaging effects of air travel can go to www.climatecare.org and work out and offset carbon emissions by contributing to schemes aimed at reducing atmospheric carbon; www.flysmart.org also offers suggestions on how to travel more sustainably.
To really put something back into a community, consider volunteering. See www.travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk.
There are plenty of ways to travel that don’t involve planes.
Cider and steam trains
For a slice of rural West Country life, Somerset County Council
is promoting car-free travel: everything from sampling Somerset cider and smoked eels to Exmoor National Park. See www.visitsomerset.co.uk/site/things-to-do/days-out.
Baguettes and battlefields
Big savings in carbon and cash (if booked early) for European weekend breaks by rail. Arras (www.ot-arras.fr) in Northern France is two hours from London by train. It’s a pretty town with sumptuous Flemish Squares and cycle routes to the surrounding World War I battlefields.
Save 80kg of carbon per person each way by choosing trains over flying (www.raileurope.co.uk)
Green-powered adventures await on the National Cycle Network (www.sustrans.org.uk). Take National Cycle Route 4, and pedal from London to Bath before returning by train. Much of the section beyond Reading is via the beautiful and historic Kennet & Avon Canal.
Get a group of friends together and hop on a traditional narrow boat to cruise Britain’s extensive waterways. Plenty of ideas at www.ukboathire.com/green_holidays.htm.
Darwin’s ultimate wildlife-watching adventure offers close-up photo-safari encounters with giant tortoises, monster-sized iguanas, and blue-footed boobies. But
to make sure this remains sustainable, check your vessel is Smart Voyager Certified (www.smartvoyager.org):
a local accreditation ensuring that boats meet high environmental standards and contribute to developing local Galapagos communities.
» Kenyan safari
Events like the annual wildebeest migration across the Masai Mara ensure Kenya
is unsurpassable for big game experiences. It’s also top drawer for eco-camps and lodges that benefit local communities. Porini Camps (www.porini.com) runs totally eco-friendly tented camps where a substantial amount of the profit from clients goes to the local Masai, whose land the camps rent.
Costa Rica is the best-known eco-tourism destination in the world, with its rainforest hikes, active volcanoes and cloud forest canopy walks. One of the most rewarding experiences, however, is volunteering on wildlife projects. I spent two fantastic weeks working to protect 900kg giant leatherback turtles from poachers at Pacuare (www.turtleprotection.org).
» Africa’s green climb
Africa’s toughest climb (5895m) is tightly controlled to benefit Kilimanjaro’s environment and provide local employment. The National Park insists that all rubbish is carried off Kili, gas-stoves are used to preserve
trees from cooking fires, and fair rates of pay and good welfare standards exist for porters. Less-travelled ascents such as Kilimanjaro’s Rongai Route have little human impact.