Below is an account by CWF volunteer teacher Pip Brook of her experience visiting the rural town of Kratie, home to CRDT, Le Tonle, and the Irrawaddy Dolphin; and to Koh Pdao, a fishing island on the Mekong and one of CRDTs project sites:
Roughing it in Kratie – yeah right!
Part of the orientation to my stint as a volunteer teacher for CWF is a short, but memorable, break to visit the development projects that CWFs partner CRDT conduct in the rural town of Kratie.
I go into situations like this armed with too much life experience, too many years on my side, and too much cynicism. But I was profoundly moved by what I encountered on the trip. A more welcoming, informative, passionate bunch of people you could not wish to meet. And these were just the staff at both Le Tonlé Guesthouse, CRDT and CRDTours.
Firstly, Le Tonlé Guesthouse was absolutely delightful. And what a great concept? The Guesthouse is a small haven in the dusty heat that envelops you in the dry season in this part of Cambodia. Le Tonlé is a social development idea that supports rural Khmer young people, gives them vocational training in hospitality, and finds them jobs afterwards. The students are chosen from 100s. There are strict criteria for entry, and scholarships to pay for the training. The trainees, ‘serve’ you at dinner, greet you when you arrive, and run the guesthouse. They are understandably shy, but helpful and enthusiastic.
Our trip also included a visit to the dolphin pools, a conservation project protecting the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, one of the few fresh water dolphins to be found on the planet. We cruised on the Mekong river in boats for about an hour watching the dolphins and experiencing the river itself. My biggest surprise was the lack of river traffic. I expected more for such a large and expansive river that comes from China, through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
The highlight of the trip is the homestay experience on the island of Koh Pdao, operated by CRDTours. We got to stay in a traditional Khmer house for a night and help to build chicken pens for the villagers. I did have to wonder at the motivation for getting a bunch of ill equipped foreigners to help build a chicken pen. There is an obvious dearth of labour, and I wasn’t quite convinced that I was really helping. Being watched by several villagers as we banged in nails and grappled with wire netting made me wonder whether our labour is what they really needed? But we were assured otherwise by the community leader, who informed us that we did help. Our friendly guides Tola and Pouthy both reiterated that village conditions had improved since CRDT had helped introduce toilets, showers, animal pens and bio-digesters. On Koh Pdao I didn’t experience the abject poverty I have seen elsewhere in Asia. Yes, there was no power, running showers or flushing toilets and yes, by western standards, these people are poor. But I have camped in worse places in Europe and New Zealand. It was truly moving to be among a community that is empowering people, giving them hope for a better future, meeting their needs and being so passionate and enthusiastic about their achievements. Good on you CRDT/CRDTours and CWF.
[Editors Note] CWF works in close partnership with CRDT, providing unrestricted funding through profits from student fees at our English language center in Phnom Penh. This trip to Kratie and Koh Pdao is organised by CWF as part of our volunteer orientation at the beginning of each semester, to give volunteers an opportunity to visit CRDT, Le Tonle, and island project sites, to see the impact of their work with CWF. Other trips may visit CRDT project sites in Stung Treng or Mondulkiri.
CRDT works along the Mekong in areas where the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin is known to frequent. The island village described is one of CRDTs longest running project sites, and as such conditions there have improved dramatically over the past 5 years. Projects are not simply aimed at improving livelihoods, but also in providing nutritional diversity, and alternative means of income generation and educational workshops to reduce the numbers of fishermen casting nets in areas where the dolphins may become tangled.
Le Tonle Tourism Training Center was established in Stung Treng in 2007 by Tourism For Help Switzerland, it is now owned and operated by CRDT, providing vocational hospitality training in Kratie and Stung Treng. The guesthouse is very popular and is recommended by Lonely Planet, with glowing reviews on Trip Advisor, including #1 for BnB in Kratie.