No matter how long we’ve lived in the heart of busy cities – tall buildings, speeding cars, noisy crowds – there will always be a part of us that wants to go back to nature, to feel the wind and to chill out under the canopies. This is probably the reason people of varying ages and statuses try hiking in the hills and jungles at least once in their lives. Eileen McCormick meets Thong Chea, a hiker and an adventurer, who takes locals and foreigners on hiking journeys into the Cambodian countryside.
GoodTimes2: How did you start doing hiking and outdoor adventures?
Thong Chea: I founded Vanna Adventure Travel because of my passion for adventure and outdoor activities. The more time I spend in and with nature, I feel more connected to it. And I felt that I needed to share this kind of beautiful, calming experience with other people. As a hiker and adventurer, I am really happy to see that there are more hiking trails in Cambodia compared to the past years. There are also more developers and organisations that support the protection of forests and bring in more locals to go trekking and see Mother Nature.
GoodTimes2: Who do you coordinate with when you go trekking?
Thong Chea: We don’t like to work with individual people so we coordinate with eco-tourism communities to make sure that everyone is involved in the activities. We also do some work with park rangers, but as many of them don’t speak English, we bring guides, who also act as translators, with us.
GoodTimes2: How do you pick ecotourism locations?
Thong Chea: We don’t really search for new places. We visit communities that already have pre-existing works. We like to work with communities that show a lot of passion for the environment but have limited access to customers. We approach them and ask them to work with us. In return, they provide us food and accommodation. This way, we can be sure that the high standards of eco-tourism are maintained and practiced. Our customers come back happy.
GoodTimes2: What are some of the challenges you face when working with local communities?
Thong Chea: Some sites are more developed than others. Quite a few are still learning and drafting policies to strengthen their ability to manage their own spaces. When there aren’t strong regulations or government assistance, jealousy floats, and it hinders the people from working together. The only way we can handle these challenges is to help the communities develop stronger policies for their communities. In Kampot, for example, we have a big fishing community where mangroves also abound. The area has a mix of Khmer and Cham people. Many think it’s hard to keep these two groups together. I’ve also noticed that new communities that don’t have enough customers on off-season days become unstable. This means that we have to re-train people on handling customers when the peak season comes.
GoodTimes2: How does your company and the communities earn an income in the hiking tours?
Thong Chea: Each company has different ways of sharing the profit. For us, we give 30 percent of what we earn to the community. Note that the money is given to the community board and not to individual families or specific organisations. We want the whole community to benefit from it because we all worked hard to earn such income.
GoodTimes2: How do you deal with different skills and endurance levels?
Thong Chea: Before we set off hiking, we brief everyone on the distance and terrain. We calculate the weight of the gears they bring. For example, we tell them how light or heavy their things should be when they have to trek through water. It has also become a challenge that many people are used to changing their clothes several times a day. That’s not possible in hiking because clothes can add to the weight of their bags. When we service a big group, we split them up according to their experiences and endurance. We offer a 3-km, 5-km or 12-km hike and participants can decide for themselves. Usually, we have about 20 people in each group. And we find them happy and satisfied with their hikes.
GoodTimes2: What kind of food do Cambodian people eat when they go hiking?
Thong Chea: Cambodians traditionally like to eat soup and rice when hiking so we tell them in advance that there will be limited choices of food when we start the journey. We carry a lot of dry food – fish or beef – which we can eat during breaks.
GoodTimes2: Are there any established clubs or groups of hikers in Cambodia?
Thong Chea: I personally plan to develop a club or group that can meet weekly or monthly. I would like to get a group together so we can talk about hiking in Cambodia, provide tips and advice. I would also love to use the hiking club for charitable causes. Not really raising money through donations but maybe the club members can contribute based on what they can afford. I can also see doing trips that resemble humanitarian work. But instead of building houses, we can build toilets or trails.
GoodTimes2: Does this hobby cost much?
Thong Chea: Nowadays, the prices for these kinds of activities have increased because of transportation and other factors. We even find it hard to pay for the expenses individually and that’s why we go on hikes in a group so we can divide the expenses among ourselves.
GoodTimes2: Are Cambodians showing interest in hiking?
Thong Chea: The curiosity and interest in hiking has increased, especially among the upper and middles classes. The lower class prefers day cycling activity. But in all our activities, we welcome everyone and go on trips together.
This year, we saw the increase of individual tours, especially from foreign tourists. Big companies also now organise staff retreats and get our services. It’s a growing hobby among people and I can say that many people want to try out these kinds of physical activities.
GoodTimes2: Who is your target market?
Thong Chea: We focus on middle-income families that want to try something new but don’t have time to go on international trips. We’ve also noted that Cambodians who have spent time abroad are more interested in hiking and trekking. Aside from doing something they haven’t experienced yet, they want to leave the city for a relaxed and quiet time with nature. I also noticed that people from mid-20s to 30s are usually the ones into physical activities.
GoodTimes2: What about expats or foreign tourists?
Thong Chea: Foreigners are usually more exposed to this kind of activity, so they want longer and harder trails. They also walk in a faster pace, which we noticed has become a source of intimidation for those who can’t catch up with them. To solve this, we hold separate trips for the groups. We have Asian trekkers in our hiking groups and among them are Chinese, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Japanese and people from Hong Kong.
GoodTimes2: What basic gear do you recommend for someone just starting out?
Thong Chea: Beginners can wear sneakers so they can walk easily and not risk hurting their feet. The sneakers also protect them from slugs and other animals that might harm their feet. Trekkers can also bring military-style jungle hammocks. They’re easy to use, durable and can keep them safe from mosquitos.
GoodTimes2: Have you seen wild animals while trekking? Should trekkers be afraid of them?
Thong Chea: Most of the Cambodians are not afraid of wild animals. They are more scared of land and forest spirits. I, myself, have seen jungle cats, wild monkey, centipedes and snakes many times. I have also seen scorpions when I helped some students in their research in Kampot. We just really need to be careful and cautious when go deep into the trails.
Vana Adventure Travel’s Facebook Page is at https://www.facebook.com/vanaadventuretravel/