Conservation & Environment in Cambodia by Swithin Lui
My name is Swithin Lui and for the last three months, I have been a volunteer on the Diving & Marine Conservation project on Koh Rong Samloem in Cambodia. During that time I have earned my Open Water & Advanced Diving qualifications, completed countless seahorse and reef check surveys (for Marine Conservation Cambodia, the Cambodian government, and the United Nations), trained other volunteers in doing so, created a backpacker accommodation site in the jungle and made some unforgettable Khmer and Western friends.
When I first got to the island the project was going through a transition stage. Many long term volunteers were leaving and as the end of the wet season was taking its toll on the waters, the weather and diving patterns were sporadic. As time went on and I became a certified diver, the weather made the diving schedules more organised and the volunteers were spurred on by an increased sense of motivation.
Diving on the Conservation Project
Soon enough there were four dives a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon. New volunteers would follow our instructor for diving lessons, while the seahorse survey, reef check survey and bleaching survey teams would take the boat out once or twice a day to perform their individual tasks. Staff and volunteers were always available to take time out of their day to teach newcomers and answer questions. Many volunteers also chose to go on jungle treks or help clean the beaches during this free time.
As a member of the reef check ‘Dream Team’, I often found myself looking forward to the next survey from the night before. When we were working on the GPS site dives for the United Nations, we would often take the long tail boat out for four or five hours at a time with two teams doing two surveys. Not only were these dives meaningful for marine conservation while giving the chance to dive off the coast of a beautiful island in a third world country, but even the non-diving aspects of the survey were rewarding.
When the other team was diving on a survey, Nic, my partner and close friend, and I, would take the hour and a half to explore more areas of an island that we knew so much yet so little about. There were occasions where we would swim up onto Lazy Beach, a renowned beach resort on the other side of the island, from the water with masks and fins to the shock of the tourists and staff alike, who had no idea how two volunteers just managed to appear out of the ocean on a secluded beach, two and a half hours from the mainland!
There were other times where simply wrote tributes to life in the pollen sand of an unknown shoreline, building totems out of logs and sticks in commemoration. After both teams completed their surveys, we would head back to our base and enter the data information on a computer. Sometimes in the afternoons, we would help one of the other teams with a survey if they needed more help, go on a reef survey at a closer location, do training or a land based project and that was a day’s job well done.
The importance of the village community
As my time passed on the island, I realised more and more how much the project is not only about marine conservation, but also about the M’Pai village. In the morning and evenings, volunteers would actively teach the village children English, while the staff taught the older villagers. Volunteers would help the village with any task that was needed, which ranged from solidifying the local well or pushing broken boats onto the beach. We would also offer them medical assistance and it was not uncommon to see a villager being treated for infections, cuts and general illnesses during dinner.
The relationships between villagers and volunteers is very close, many on a first name basis, and towards the end of my stay, it was nearly impossible to walk back to my bungalow through the village without being invited to eat squid, drink whiskey or dance. It became a formality that locals and volunteers ‘went out’ together for the night in the village, often playing pool together. On the day I left, I was touched to find that many of my Khmer friends were waiting on the pier at 8am to say goodbye.
Free time on the Conservation Project
On the weekends you could usually choose to stay on or leave the island. In the beginning, the thought of staying on the island during the weekend bored me to death. As I became ‘closer’ with the island (and yes the island is a conscious entity that one develops relationships with) the weekends became a much more exciting prospect. Whether it was setting up bonfires on the beach, tracking water buffalo, exploring the jungle and coasts or swimming to Snake Island, there was so much to do and so little time to do them.
Otherwise, Sihanoukville is just a boat trip away and Kampot/Kep as well. My fondest memories of Cambodia were spent on the road with large groups of volunteers exploring all that this fiery country has to offer.
My last three months in Cambodia rank among the most enlightening and spiritual journeys of my life. Not only have I taken away from it some wonderful relationships and valuable lessons but I’ve also been able to finally take the time to concentrate on my passions in life that are most important to me; these being writing and photography. I’ve learned more about fish and substrates than I’ve ever wanted to know and diving is just plain awesome!
Advice for future volunteers in Cambodia
If I were to leave a future island volunteer with a piece of advice, it would be to never sit still. When you’re tempted to lie down in that hammock to nurse your morning headache, do it snorkelling on House Reef instead or sweat it out in the heat of the jungle. When the project or village needs your help with a task, go out there and give it 100%. There are always a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t do something right now, but as I found out the hard way, there will never be a better place or a better time.
On my first week on the island, I asked another three month volunteer how she felt about the island as she was just preparing to leave. She told me that in the first month, you tend to feel restless and you’re always dreaming of something you left back in the ‘real world’. The second month you begin to feel an inexplicable love and connection to the island, which feels definitely like home. The third month, all you want in the world is to get engaged and stay here forever. I almost did.