The views on this site are completely our own and do not represent VSO. Use the links below to navigate.

1 Feb 2011

Me and the Mekong

Two bits of good news following Gilly's sad news...

First, I have now formally been appointed as a VSO volunteer here in Kratie Town.  My official title is Management & Marketing Advisor and I will be performing this role on behalf of an organisation called the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT).  They work with poor rural communities in Northeast Cambodia in order to increase their access to food, clean water, sanitation, energy and product and tourist markets.   All of this work is carried out in conservation areas in order to address the human and social aspects of conservation efforts.  I'm very excited about the role which will keep us here until February 2013.

Second, as part of my induction into CRDT, I was invited to attend a very special trip along one of the most important stretches of the Mekong River, the so-called 'Central Section'.  This runs through Stung Treng and Kratie provinces and is an area of globally critical biodiversity.  The trip was organised by CRDT, WWF and another local NGO called CED.  It was designed to bring some donors that fund projects into the very area that their money helps to conserve.  Here is a little photo essay to show you what this involved.

We set out early on Thursday morning on these 'big' boats from a small village just South of Stung Treng Town, North of where we're based in Kratie.

We stopped for breakfast and the driver of one of the other boats turned up with this mutilated fish carcass.  It had been attacked by a freshwater dolphin who decided it was too big to eat and left it gasping for life.  It was still breathing and a few of us joked that we should fry it up for lunch.  Little did we know that it was then rushed to the next village where it was indeed fried up and served to us for lunch.  It was actually quite tasty!

We stopped on a remote island in the river where the locals grow watermelons and go fishing to support themselves.  Here are some nets drying in the sun.

Areas like this where the river recedes in the dry season to leave small sand banks and rapids in between are prime spots for the lives of many animals and birds.  It was very peaceful and I wanted to go swimming.

Lots of the group were bird watchers (or 'birders' to use the technical term) and so the trip was doubling up as an opportunity to do some 'birding' which resulted in spotting some very rare species.

To see some of the rarest birds we had to decant into these smaller boats because the big ones would run aground in the shallower waters.

Here you can see a boat being constructed in the boat yard of one of the villages we stayed in over night.  David from the MAC Foundation gave one of the handmade tools a go, this ingenious hand drill.

Sorry for the odd angle but hopefully you can see how the tool works.

Here are Dim and Mao, two staff from CRDT, and the organisers of the logistics for the trip.  They did a great job.

Look how low to the water these boats are with just four people inside.  I drew the short straw and had to sit at the front which involved getting repeatedly soaked by the spray coming over the sides.

We stopped at a village inhabited by the indigenous Phnong people.  They told us about their imminent displacement from their land due to encroachment from a foreign rubber company.  They also treated us to a short performance of their local rhythmic music.

They're pretty tight, look at each person only hitting the gong infrequently to give the overall effect when combined with the others.

One of the benefits of the trip was having a lot of experts in the group who were able to tell us all about the environment we were travelling through and the associated conservation and social issues.  In this picture we see Mao, Executive Director of CRDT, Geoffrey from WWF's Bangkok office and Greater Mekong Program and Rob who is a biologist responsible for much of the research in the area we were going through.

This girl was leading these enormous water buffalo to drink in the river.  What she would have done if they'd kicked up a fuss I don't know...

A typical scene on the river.  During the wet season the leaning tree is covered by the heavy flowing water which leads to this distorted growth.

Lots of the journey was on fairly fast flowing rapids through scenery like this.  The boatmen intimately know every stretch and bend of the river and were able to guide us through safely.

Another stop to do some birding, this time right in the heart of the central section.  On the tripod is the heavy artillery, a telescope that was trained on a white chested eagle which even I was was pretty impressed with. 

Here I am, partially soaked from previous stretch of rapids but still smiling nonetheless.

Dim, Mao and me, the CRDT team in the heart of the central section.  Thumbs up!

Our team of trusty boatmen taking a well earned rest, smoking a fag and chewing the fat.

We've struck gold, or at least these people think they have.  We came across this relatively recent mining effort which is a worrying new development as it involves digging up huge sections of the river bank.  The challenge is providing enough incentive to stop the mining which is being done out of necessity rather than any malicious intent for the environment.

Mao makes some enquiries to learn more about the work that these people are doing and what they gain from it.  A lot of work for little gain is the response, but it's more than they can get from anything else so they persist.

You can't really see it from the photo but the result of the panning is this tray of tiny grains, some of which are gold and shining in the sun.

Fully extracted and ready to sell.  This vial will fetch around $3.

More water buffalo, this time in a small herd, some bathing, some just chilling out on the beach.

Our second full day ended with arriving on Koh P'Dao which is one of CRDT's project sites and home to an eco-tourism initiative.  We were treated to some traditional Phnong dancing performed by the local community arts group.  It was a great show including what I have called the coconut dance and the pipe dance.  Volunteers from the audience were then invited to join in and you know what happened next...

Nice pair of coconuts!  Half a shell in each hand and then striking them against my partner's in time with the music.  When I volunteered I didn't realise I was going to get kitted out with the full outfit.  The trousers/skirt were actually quite comfortable...

A very brief glimpse of me in action, my partner is smiling at least so that must be a good thing...

Take a bow, me and Jack from CEPF the performers alongside Samnang in white from CRDT.  Samnang runs CRDT's environmental education programme, much of it in collaboration with the community arts group (see the previous post on Koh Preh for more on the education work in action).

More of the group join for a final bow and photo.

And the last dance, this time out of costume...

The last day I woke up to this sunrise which was quite a treat.  All in all it was a fantastic trip and a great insight into the places that CRDT's work aims to conserve through building sustainable livelihoods for the people that live there.  Roll on the next two years.


  1. you look very pretty in traditional costume

  2. Hey Sam
    Fantastic trip.
    And you call this work?? Who do you think you are .. Michael Palin?

  3. Got this reply to an email from Tom. It made me laugh out loud so I thought I'd post it here as a comment for everyone else:

    "I won't make - I'm sure all too familiar - comments about Gilly's self harm efforts/a health and safety assessment of running on your hands etc .... and move straight on to congratulations on your new elevated VSO status, Certainly looking at your comments to go with the snaps brought home how relevant all this will be for your CV when you get back to Britain in the next year or so .... all this stuff about devastated forests and countryside, workers reduced to primitive tools and peanut wages, minimal public transport or other state infrastructure and your mission to encourage foreign visitors to fly in and admire the wildlife.... sounds like ideal preparation for a role in post Coalition Britain circa 2012."