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22 Nov 2011

Cambodian Rural Development Tours

Since I started my VSO placement in February I've been planning to write a bit more about what I actually do.  I'm not being lazy, just waiting for something concrete to share besides the bits and pieces I've mentioned in passing.

I love a project and the one I'm currently involved with is very exciting, so here's a bit of context followed by what we've done about it.

Making Markets Work for the Poor
My VSO placement is funded by the global consultancy firm Accenture as part of their 'Making Markets Work for the Poor' programme.  This supports development in a different way to the common approach of sending money to build schools, buy medicines, provide food handouts etc.  It aims to analyse how market systems work in developing countries with a particular focus on the role(s) played by the poorest people within them.  This information can then be used to develop practical ways of improving the position of the poorest through these very same market mechanisms.  (If you're interested in more reading on the overall approach then this is a good starting point.)

CRDT and Tourism on the Mekong
The NGO that I am based in (CRDT) have developed community-based eco-tourism sites on two islands in the Mekong (Koh Pdao and Koh Preah).  The objective is to generate incomes for those on the islands through developing tourism that respects both the communities and the local environment.  This is only possible if visitor numbers can be increased to make tourism a viable form of livelihood for sufficient numbers of people on the islands.  Given their relatively remote locations it is difficult for tourists to get there independently and so CRDT has historically facilitated this process in the form of an informal tour booking service.  However, the office location and low levels of marketing have presented a barrier, or blockage, in the market (tourists) reaching the destination(s).

While CRDT was grappling with this problem, the wider context presented a very interesting opportunity.  Tourists visiting Kratie did not have access to even basic tour information or booking services.  This is not just for the islands managed by CRDT's communities but also the many other attractions in and around the town and province.  As a result, tourists were largely required to fend for themselves.

In another part of the country (Phnom Penh) there were also plans afoot to embark on a marketing drive to support the recently developed Mekong Discovery Trail.  This initiative promotes tours and activities in the provinces of Kratie and Stung Treng.  The obvious lack of tour booking services in Kratie was also problematic for the people involved in marketing the Mekong Discovery Trail.  This was a blockage in another form, closely aligned with the problem faced by CRDT in promoting the Mekong islands.

Cambodian Rural Development Tours
If you've been following this closely you might have guessed what happened next.  CRDT approached the Mekong Discovery Trail to propose that CRDT provide a tour booking service in Kratie Town.  This would serve the wider interests of developing tourism in Kratie, while also addressing the real needs of CRDT in increasing visitor numbers to Koh Pdao and Koh Preah.  In turn, this would boost incomes on the islands and help to improve the livelihoods of those who live there.

In terms of the market system, this move would provide a vital link where one was previously missing.  This link is the provision of a service for tourists to make it easy and safe to get to the places that they might otherwise have missed or not even heard about.

Planning and Implementation
The planning of this initiative kicked off back in May and has involved an incredible amount of hard work and effort from the team at CRDT and its partners.  I have been supporting all of this and, in the last month, our efforts reached a crescendo.  This culminated in last night's official launch of Cambodian Rural Development Tours (CRDTours) at an event held at its new office on the riverfront within the premises of the recently opened guesthouse Le Bungalow.

This more prominent location, marketing efforts integrated with those of the Mekong Discovery Trail and the forthcoming high season for tourists will give this new venture the best chance of success it could hope for.  Further, in addition to meeting its objective of getting more tourists to the islands on the Mekong, CRDTours will also generate valuable income for the development work of CRDT.

I'm very happy to have been able to support the development of this initiative but in reality the hard work starts now as we strive to make it work as planned.  Here is a little photo essay of the journey so far and do visit the CRDTours website to see what we're doing and to plan your next trip to Kratie and Stung Treng.

Bon voyage!

Back in June a handful of the team at CRDT plotted possible attractions on maps of Kratie and Stung Treng.  CRDTours benefits hugely from this local knowledge and there are still a number of places that I am still yet to visit.

We also took time to discuss and plot the various needs of tourists and the stages that they go through in planning where they visit, how they get there and what they do.  We considered the different sources of information at these different stages to help support our future marketing efforts.  Here's Tola adding one of his contributions.

It would never be possible to offer everything at once so the team used a system to evaluate and prioritise opportunities.  These were assessed according to the ease with which we could implement them and the scope they offer for making money for CRDT.  Here Samnang puts a choice on the sheet while Mao contemplates his next move.

It is always important to consider who the other relevant organisations and individuals are, as these provide a key component of the context in which we will be operating.  Our mapping exercise attempted to provide a simple listing, but also some categorisation of the broad types of organisations: customers; partners; competitors; regulators etc.

We then used these categories to plot the relative levels of influence that these people and organisations have against their own likely interest levels in our project.  As you can see, this provoked a strong debate which benefited from the ease of movement offered by the post-it technology employed.

The result of these and other meetings and activities was a draft plan of action which was presented to the Mekong Discovery Trail and CRDT's Board of Directors for approval.  With this step complete it was down to the nuts and bolts of project implementation, of which the most highly visible component was the design and construction of the new office.  This experience provided one of my favourite pieces of insight into how things get done in Cambodia.  The 'design' of the office was presented to the builder in the following format.

Construction was then almost stalled because the builder and his team of labourers were occupied with the crucial rice harvest which has started in the last month or so.  We upped the cash to be paid and this allowed us to have the completion date we wanted.  However, no further technical drawings of the building were prepared before construction started in earnest. 

On my return from Ratanakiri I was very happy to see the mainframe already erected with concrete feet on the pillars to stop our office being blown away or stolen.

Next on was the thatched roof made from a local type of grass dried and layered to offer protection from the rain.  (This is yet to be tested as we're fortunately in the dry season right now.)

Finally was the bamboo 'walls', the raw materials delivered each day from the countryside by Kratie's traditional horse and cart.

Finally, on Sunday, 20th November 2011 we were able to move in with many members of the team pulling together on the weekend to kit out the new office.  Here we are in (almost) ascending height order.

This is Tola who will be based in the office most of the time checking out his new territory.

This is Mao, Executive director of CRDT, sizing up our signboards for the front of the office and display on the street.  Currently a small legal snag is delaying the display of these but a letter received today should help to ease that soon.

Here we see Tola with a customer who got a deal before we had even formally opened and, on the right, Nick Ray, author of Cambodia's Lonely Planet guidebook.  The next edition will be out in Autumn next year, featuring CRDTours.

Here's Rory, our in-house designer and now architect, blowing up a balloon and Ken from VSO in Phnom Penh checking his messages as we prepare for the official opening of CRDTours.

Tola is all smiles in the booth which is now a more colourful home as a result of our decorating efforts.

 Here's me chatting with Ken and local guide Haki ahead of the drinks and nibbles arriving for the launch.

 Mao addresses the audience, a mixture of CRDT staff, local business people, VSO volunteers, journalists and community members who had travelled into Kratie for the event.

 Hands in the air for CRDTours launch photo taken from the balcony of Le Bungalow guesthouse.

 Here we all are again, gathered in front of the booth happily celebrating CRDTours' official opening ceremony.

 Back to reality with a bump as more decorating efforts make the office bright and colourful for Tola's firsy day at work.

 This is the view that tourists will see when they walk along the riverfront past the CRDTours office.

Tola at his desk waiting for his first customer.  News of them and hopefully much more to follow as the project evolves.  Thank you to everyone in the team who has worked so hard to make this happen, I am sure it will be a huge success and contribute to the development context discussed earlier.


  1. Nice one Sam, this is great stuff and really engaging work for you. Loved the adoption pics as well. Lots of love to both of you!

    Kate (L)

  2. Thanks both, it's very stimulating and I'm lucky to have this opportunity. It's far from plain sailing every day but I think that everyone involved is learning all the time and that's what counts.