Koh Rong has been experiencing a massive influx of tourists lately, and while the increased tourism has benefited locals, there have been many negative effects as well. Despite the massive amounts of development on the island, local villagers have found it difficult to translate the tourism boom into income, in part because of their lack of English-language skills which left them unable to find employment at the newly-opened restaurants and accommodation on Koh Rong.
Canadian Kelly Beker and Australian Fran Antoniou first came to the island as tourists-cum-English teachers and ended up staying on and starting Friends of Koh Rong, an organization that provides English education and support to the local community as well as promoting conservation and sustainable development. We got in touch with Kelly and Fran to learn more about what the Friends of Koh Rong are up to.
How has Koh Rong changed lately?
KB: “Koh Rong has experienced massive growth in the past year. Accommodation has tripled, which means more rubbish and less water. More Khmers are moving here and it is much more popular on the Southeast Asia trip circuit. From only two incoming boats a day, now there are five daily boats from Sihanoukville. More locals are studying English and many families have quickly erected guesthouses and other businesses. What was once a village is now the ‘downtown’ of Koh Toch.”
FA: “With the increase of people coming (whether tourists or businesses) there is less and less community spirit. Only a few businesses now work together to accomplish things, and it’s commendable for those that do.”
Why did you start Friends of Koh Rong?
KB: ” When I got to the island in January 2013, tourists frolicked the beach alongside children who were not studying. Upon realizing how little was being done to prepare the locals for the tourism boom to come, myself and a few other travelers decided to unpack our bags and make sure some form of help began. We saw a great need for English education, so the local people could join in on the great job opportunities to come.”
What sort of problems does Friends of Koh Rong address?
FA: “We work alongside the local community, empowering them to benefit from the tourism that is changing their lives forever. Our core values are to educate and empower the locals and youth of Koh Rong and help them to work better as a community and in a sustainable way. We offer free English lessons five times a day as well as running weekly beach clean-ups, dance, music, and art classes. We have smaller projects in waste management and water conservation.
Tourist awareness has become a big part of what we do in attempting to help the island develop in the most sustainable way possible. As we are the only NGO working in this village, there are many issues that we are sometimes forced to deal with. For example, after three fires on Koh Rong during high season we ran fire safety classes. We are currently in talks about building a water reservoir for locals to use. With the help of M’lop Tapang we completed a child safety workshop with all children in Koh Toch and plan to do this in all other villages of Koh Rong.”
KB: “Not only is it of extreme importance for the locals here to learn English, sustainable development has become a huge focus of our work. If all we can do at this point is educate, that is the key to change, in hopes this island isn’t further destroyed by rushed development.”
What obstacles have you encountered?
FA: ” The circumstances of the island are unique. It has been very difficult to implement many programs we would like to as money and fear often supersedes the community interest. ”
KB: “To get registered as an independent NGO is no easy task in this country. We are also in search of a Khmer CEO to pay a full time salary, and translate classes and run administrative tasks, like getting registered.”
How can Koh Rong lovers help?
KB: “Expats and tourists can help by spreading the word. Since we are not currently registered, it means we can’t apply for grants–we are still standing today from our overseas donors and the generous backpackers passing through. If people want to give their time rather than money, we are always open to new fundraising events both on Koh Rong and abroad. Volunteering as an adult tutor in the evening is also an option, as well as joining in on weekly beach cleans. The more travelers know about us the more conscious they are about their footprint here on the island. The more people abroad learn about us (from kind expats and tourists spreading the good word) the more likely our projects will continue to be funded.”
FA: “The development of Koh Rong is dictated by tourists. If you have conscious travelers then the island will have a better chance of developing sustainably, Song Saa island being a great example. Travelers and expats can help by supporting local businesses, respecting culture and empowering individuals.”