While traveling this past year in Southeast Asia we had the opportunity to spend almost a week out in the jungles of Cambodia at the Chi Phat Eco Community. Although we were so lucky to spend time in various types of communities, the Chi Phat Eco Community struck us as being exceptional.
Run with the help of Wildlife Alliance, the Chi Phat Eco Community was started in the Cardamon Mountains to educate and help the community make a living from tourism instead of animal trafficking. This village is transforming from a hunting and smuggling region to an example community of protecting the Cambodia forest. This place was well run and what they were accomplishing out there just blew us away with hope.
All across Asia, Chris and I constantly encountered plastic and poverty. We wanted to do something, to give something more back and try to make sense of this world we are living in.
When we travel, we usually bring a small gift home for each of our families. After seeing so much plastic and pollution across all our travels, we just could not fathom consuming more items to give as gifts only to sit on a shelf at home.
It was shortly after sitting out in the jungles of Cambodia and having dinner with our guides that we got an idea. Prior to leaving for this Southeast Asia trip, two of our friends gifted us a Luci Solar Lantern. At the time we said ‘thanks’ and we had no idea if we would even take the lantern with us. We threw it into our bag last minute and it turned out to be one of our absolute best travel items we carried. We used it every day.
Fast forward five months and there we were sitting in the jungle eating dinner with our guides. Our solar lantern was inflated and sitting out on the dinner table giving us light. We were learning how and why some of the guides, many whom were younger than us, used to be poachers and couldn’t finish high school because of the lack of economy, the effects of the war and genocide throughout Cambodia and that region.
Sitting down to have dinner with people who could have been poachers can be a powerful thing.
Darkness slowly enclosed on us as stereotypes and myths were debunked about what it meant to be a poacher. I learned how, at least in that community, poachers were usually some of the poorest and worst off people in the community.
We listened to stories of how dangerous and desperate many of the people were that tried to be poachers. We learned how at one point there was a big crack down on all illegal poaching of any type and anyone caught got put in jail. I feel that if I was back home reading that in a newspaper my reaction might be something like, ‘Oh well done, less poachers out there now…’ As I sat there out in the same jungles that people were trying to poach in, I got a different perspective. I learned instead what that meant was in many instances the poorest of the poor just had their last and only able working person thrown in jail. This action did not seem to help solve the underlying problems of lack of economic opportunity either.
I think Margaret Mead’s quote is one of the most powerful words ever put together: Never doubt that a small committed group of people can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
Before Wildlife Alliance arrived to Chi Phat in 2001, the area was renowned for being highly dependent on illegal forest activities. Addressing the underlying causes of the forest destruction – the poverty of it’s residents – Wildlife Alliance chose to promote programs that generate income for the local residents. Hence the Chi Phat Eco Community was created.
And it is doing a remarkable job.
There is something for almost everyone at the Chi Phat Eco Community. We went jungle trekking, kayaking and hung out at the community center which has impressively fast wifi connections.
From the moment we started communicating with Chi Phat we had excellent directions and information. We arrived to the village by jumping onto the back of a motor bike, then taking a small raft across a river followed by a short walk to the village. When it was time to depart, we opted to leave the village by a two hour relaxing boat ride. Small fees, agreed upon ahead of time, were paid to the community center. By having effective systems in place, multiple different types of people had various way to earn some income.
We spent our time practicing speaking English with the kids, ate at local restaurants, bought little food items from shop owners, stayed at a local guest house and enjoyed amazing dinners served family style at a big table at the community center.
One of the reasons I think the Chi Phat community stood out to us so much was they just nailed it on training and empowering the local community. This community was thriving and learning what to do in order to keep itself striving.
Even aside from paying some money for a room, meals or a motorbike ride, going out to Chi Phat in Cambodia was also largely about the notion of sharing ideas. Yes, this community is doing a remarkable job and there are still strides to make in the village. Trash and pollution are currently a major problem. Trying to get wildlife reestablished in the forests is a huge and long term task. Trying to increase education and broaden mindsets is ever ongoing – just look at how much our own country struggles with that and we have way more resources put in place.
However it was the talking with people where we got to learn about their lives and they got to learn about ours. It is in this way that some of the locals can learn that for us back in our country, most of us don’t live with piles of trash in our yard. Speaking for myself, it was a humbling and sobering experience to see people walking around who witnessed horrific atrocities of genocide and war first hand. By hearing their stories and how some people still cannot sleep a full night through, it gave me great empathy to try to imagine what life might be like to walk in their shoes. I could understand better why picking up trash just hadn’t made it to the top of their priority list yet.
It was through the roller coasters of emotions and trying to figure out how to process them in a constructive manner that we got our idea.
We asked our family that what if this year we got them a gift, but it was a gift they would then give to someone else? Our guide and cook loved our solar lantern so much. Electricity was only available in the evenings by generator to the village and during our time we saw a good amount of battery waste on the ground too.
We thought: what if we gifted the community center some of these lanterns? They would be a useful gift that would have a direct result in helping to reduce this battery waste. We also wanted to the Chi Phat community to know that what they are working towards is so important.
We bought five Luci Solar lanterns to give as a gift to each of our family house holds.
I reached out to Luci Lights (the company is called MPOWERED) to ask if they would be able and willing to match our gift donation with an additional five lanterns. Without hesitation they loved the idea and jumped on board.
A total of ten solar lanterns has been mailed as a gift directly to the Chi Phat office representative in Phnom Penh, Cambodia who can ensure they get hand delivered to the community center. Then these lanterns will be available for any of the guides to use and be a huge help in reducing battery waste.
Our local Lowes in Hornell, NY loved the idea of helping to encourage the Chi Phat community along their way too. Garbage is definitely a huge issue throughout Asia, and well, the whole world really. The current reality is that trash on the ground in Asia is a normal thing. As more and more visitors and environmentalist come to Chi Phat they are helping to bridge the gap of all the reasons it’s important to have a system in place for garbage, composting and trash reduction. Slowly, the community is catching on.
We saw some of the guides simply going around the village and picking up trash. The guides told us their friends all think they’re crazy and they don’t understand. You have to bear in mind – this is a totally different culture. Kids can grow up and the idea of a garbage can is foreign to them because there is no strong government system in place to collect the garbage, hire people, have a vehicle, etc. People don’t throw trash on the ground because they are bad people, lazy or want to pollute. It’s because that is just what everyone has always done.
So thanks to Lowes, two garbage grabber sticks are also included in this gift donation to help in the efforts to reducing trash on the ground.
Sitting back at home now I think often to the Chi Phat Community. I wonder whom else the community is welcoming and what those people will tell their friends and family back home about their experience out in the jungle.
Chi Phat we were so impressed with all your efforts, we want to tell others how amazing and important the work you are trying to do out there is. I hope people to know that despite so many hardships, generations of people who are alive and have lived through the horrible wars and genocide your country has endured, the extreme seasonal weather fluctuations that you have, the lack of support at times from your government, the lack of support at times from your peers or family members who don’t understand the value of what you are doing, and to anyone else who has ever doubted that changing mindsets and behavior isn’t possible – thank you.
Thank you for getting up and out of bed every morning to do your part to help make the world a better place for all of us. Thank you for showing us that we all can learn new ways to care. Than you for not giving up hope. Thank you for showing us all what can happen when we work on long term goals together. Thank you for showing that even when life around you isn’t perfect, we must all simply keep putting one foot in front of the other. Thank you for sharing your stories and way of life out there in the jungle. We were so touched by our stay with you and we give you a promise that we will continue putting our best foot forward too.
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