As I clambered unsteadily from the speedboat onto the wooden jetty that jutted out over the clear blue waters, I was cheerfully greeted by the two owners of the hostel I'd booked to spend the next few days at.
In the 5 minute walk along the deserted stretch of sand to the large treehouse that served as the bar and reception, they proudly explained their plans to expand the operation. They would hack back the luscious green jungle surrounding us to build a series of wooden bungalows overlooking the pristine golden sands. It would span virtually the entire length of the beach.
I tried to conceal the horror that must have been clearly etched across my face.
You see, Cambodia's breathtaking coastal region is currently under assault from the inevitable opportunists and unscrupulous developers who are attempting to capitalise on the Cambodian government's seeming willingness to commodify it's own piece of paradise.
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Developments on Cambodia's Coastline
At the risk of sounding like a regressive snob, it's always sad to see this process at play: visitors are drawn to a remote area of stunning natural beauty, people attempt to capitalise by expanding to accommodate and grow that interest, but end up spoiling the very thing that drew visitors there in the first place.
We've seen both sides of this coin in our time in South East Asia, with many people comparing the Cambodian coastline to how Thailand's islands were twenty or thirty years ago. They were undeveloped and green with pristine beaches and clear waters.
Having visited a few of the Thai islands more recently we can assure you they've changed immensely. Many are now party islands with huge amounts of infrastructure built specifically around tourism. Bar streets abound, the notorious full moon parties now take place twice monthly (go figure!) as commercially sponsored events and there's a palpable feeling of resentment in the air from long term residents towards visitors.
Cambodia's coastline seems to be on the cusp of crossing over from hidden gem to full blown developed destination. Koh Rong is already known as a wild party island. Sihanoukville has acquired a particularly seedy reputation, though parts of it such as Otres have still managed to retain their cool charm despite being further along the development path. Koh Rong Samloem still has parts of the island that are virtually untouched but the government is rapidly selling off many of the most desirable locations.
What's Wrong With Development?
Places inevitably do change over time and in Cambodia the argument in favour is that these developments will bring money into a country that is in dire need of investment. It’s one of the poorest countries in South East Asia with around 30% of the population reportedly surviving on less than $1 per day.
Poverty was clearly visible to us during our visit, from the large number of people living on the streets to witnessing shocking evidence of child prostitution. Money coming into the country should be a good thing, so why does it still leave such a bitter taste in my mouth?
Well firstly, much of the major investment is coming from overseas meaning the vast majority of the profits aren't being seen by the average Cambodian. Instead the money goes to line the pockets of reputedly shady foreign businessmen. Ask anyone in Cambodia and they’ll tell you that the islands are owned and run by a series of cartels of various nationalities, not by Cambodian people. There are regular reports of disputes between warring mafia factions, dodgy dealings and numerous ongoing court cases that are so farcical it’s difficult to believe they're actually true. The islands are simply the playgrounds of foreign billionaires.
Secondly, the focus doesn't seem to be on sustainable development - it's poorly regulated and executed in a haphazard fashion with little thought for essentials like sanitation or rubbish disposal. On all of the islands that we visited there was evidence of relatively large development going on as well as on the mainland in Sihanoukville, Kampot and Kep. That there is little thought to the sustainability of these developments can probably be accounted for by the characters that are behind them and their singular financial motivations.
Thirdly and most importantly, the fishing villages, small businesses and wildlife that have occupied these areas for so long are under serious threat, with many Cambodian families having already been pushed out with no compensation. Swathes of green, tropical forests are making way for swanky new developments and it is normal, local Cambodian people who are losing out.
Are We Responsible Travellers?
We had the fortune of visiting at a time when much of the natural beauty is still in tact and many of the islands are still remote and unspoilt. I'm sure plenty of people will point the finger in our direction as being part of the problem, just by virtue of visiting the islands. And in some respects I guess we do have to bear a portion of the responsibility.
As difficult as it is to admit, we were certainly guilty of feeling overwhelmed to the point that it was easier to just try and blank the issues out. We went to the islands, took advantage of the developments and, truth be known, despite these issues being in plain view we had an absolutely incredible time.
How then do you weigh up the positive impact that travel and tourism can have when done correctly, against the negative effects that unregulated, profit-driven development has on communities? How do you ensure that you don’t leave a place worse off than before you visited? How do you become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? We don't have the answers and we're really interested to hear where you stand on these issues so please let us know in the comments below.