Ko Kong

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July 10th 2009
Published: July 18th 2009
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Ko Kong sounded so promising. It was supposed to be an area of fantastic natural beauty, just opening up to ecotourism. For some time it has been notable only as a border town, used as a stopover by tourists entering Cambodia by land and Thailand expats on visa runs. According to the guidebooks I read, its fortunes were on the up. Numerous ecotourism operations were for alleged to be setting up in the area, and the books confidently stated that by the time of going to press there will be a variety of exciting trips and activities available. It looks like the recession killed all this off, because when I got there I found nothing. I went to the nicest hostal in town, but I was the only one staying. I wandered around for a whole morning trying to find something to do or some other people. All the guesthouses and tour operators I spoke to told me they weren’t running any activities because it was so unusually quiet.

There is also supposed to be a Wildlife Alliance ecotourism project in a village near Koh Kong, where they’ve tried to substitute the income people used to make destroying the forest with activities relating to tourism. So they trained ex-poachers and loggers as guides or guesthouse owners, and you can take cycle or dirt bike trips out into the Cardamom mountains. I love to support that kind of thing because it helps alleviate the constant nagging guilt I feel over the suspicion that as a tourist my mere presence in a place is destructive. Despite the project having been granted a whole page in the newest edition Lonely Planet, I could find no information on it in Ko Kong and no means of getting there, so I assume the recession killed it off and the villagers have gone back to poaching and/or poverty. British financers, take heed. Despite what we read in the press back home, the tragedy of the recession really isn’t depressed bankers or posh kids in London having to go to state school.

I eventually tracked down someone running a boat trip out into the mangrove forests. Unfortunately my only fellow tourists, two strange German men, were fully two hours late for departure, meaning the tide was too low to go down the river into the heart of the mangroves. This sucked, but I couldn’t legitimately be

The latest in my series of shots of the world's worst toilets.
annoyed because they claimed their lateness was down to illness. We still got to skirt around the forest and walk through on a wooden walkway, which was kind of cool, then to fill the rest of the day the boat captain took us to two awesome stilted fishing villages. The photos came out quite nicely and they make the place look deceptively picturesque, but in fact the villages were massive rubbish dumps. The toilets are just holes above the water. There is no refuse collection service or landfills in Cambodia, so people either burn their rubbish or just chuck it in the sea.

Fishing villages like these are disappearing. For the last two years the government has been selling huge quantities of sand from around the Koh Kong area. The population of crabs and shrimps has halved in the last 18 months, because the sand pumps are destroying their breeding habitat. People can no longer make a living from these industries. Apparently, the government has also sold coastal fishing rights in the area to the Thai and Vietnamese, meaning local fishermen have to go several days out to sea to make a catch. It seems unbelievable that an allegedly democratically elected government could be so greedy and short-sighted. The whole country is being sold. The islands around Sihanouk have all been bought by Russian and Korean businessmen, pretty soon they will be developed and no one will be allowed to visit. Even the Angkor Wat temple complex, the national symbol, the image on the Cambodian flag, a fierce source of pride even for Cambodians who’ve never set eyes on the place, even this has in a way been sold. The rights to the profits from ticket sales are owned by the Sokha corporation (run by a friend of the priminister), a huge hotel chain, the same people who bought the nicest beach in Sihanoukville and made it a private annex of their hotel. This is unimaginably stupid. Think of all the money Angkor Wat, as one of the wonders of the world, will generate for hundreds of years to come. The government sold the rights to this for a quick profit. Only a small fraction of the 20 dollar a day ticket price goes towards preservation of the temples.


Since this is so depressing anyway, I might as well continue. When we were walking through one of the fishing villages, picking our way across planks precariously balanced above the filthy water, an agitated woman ambushed us from a side street and dragged us over to her house. The boat captain explained that she wanted us to see her baby, who was sick. He was born with a condition, nobody knows what to do and she asks all Westerners she sees in the hope that one day she’ll find an American doctor who can help. The child was three years old, clearly brain damaged and had a grossly swollen head. He couldn’t sit up because of the weight. I have never seen anything like it, but then I am rubbish at Paeds. Hydrocephalous? Could a kid live to the age of three with that condition? The woman explained that she’d taken him sveral times to see doctors in Phnom Penh. They had told her there was nothing to be done. I could see a puncture wound on the side of the child’s head so I asked, with the boat captain translating, whether doctors had tried to drain it. She said that no, the doctors had said it wasn’t anything that could be drained, but she had been so desperate she had tried to do it herself. It hadn’t worked. I thought I’d got pretty good at maintaining a kind of doctorly detachment after spending time in Cambodian hospitals, but I couldn’t get the thought of that poor woman out of my mind. Parents so desperate that they would, without anaesthetic, stick a sharp bit of metal into their kid’s head. I told her about a free children’s hospital in Phnom Penh, but she said she had already been. They couldn’t help. I didn’t know what else to say. I never let on that I had any medical connection, because I didn’t want to give her false hope. After we left, I felt awful. She’d been hoping all this time for a western doctor to come through, what are the chances of anyone else medically qualified ever turning up here, a floating tip in the arse end of nowhere? We were only there by accident because we missed the tide. They never asked for any money but I gave them some. They will probably spend it on taking him to see another doctor who can’t help. Or they’ll twig that westerners + disabled children = money, and bring him to beg on the streets of Phnom Penh like the rest.

You could easily get the impression from reading this blog that I don’t actually like Cambodia. This is not true. I love Cambodia. It is beautiful, but sad.

Oh, I have thought of one non depressing thing about Ko Kong. I stayed there an extra two days to help teach yet another English class. No sooner had I stepped off the bus than I was approached by the friendly local English teacher. Seriously, they can see me coming a mile off. It was another class of ‘kids’ not much younger than me, maybe 19 to 21. Some of them were very, very good, and they were all lovely. They wanted me to stay for the weekend so they could show me around, but I was adamant that I had to leave after the second day so they took me out for dinner and insisted on paying for me. It’s only looking back at the photo now that I realise the ones who came out for dinner were all boys. Maybe the girls aren’t allowed out at night on their own. Anyway, they have all been added to my list of now roughly 50 Cambodian penfriends.

Oh yeah, one of the monks from Phnom Penh emailed me and asked me to marry him. I thought I was taking extreme care to be culturally sensitive with the monks, but clearly I did something that screamed ‘make me your wife!’. I’m sure I will never really understand this place.

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