Khnong Phsar, Kampong Speu Province — After a lengthy trek from the nearest village, Lim Sengleang finally reached the peak of Khnong Phsar on a clear day in June. The fresh air and striking views of the surrounding Cardamom Mountains made the hike well worth the effort, said the 26-year-old Phnom Penh resident. But the trail, beautiful as it was, left something to be desired. As Sengleang made his way up the mountain path he passed litter—abandoned bottles, plastic bags, and snack wrappers—and smelly bags full of trash.
“Maybe some tourists forget their trash when they sit and relax, then they continue walking without looking back, but others throw it away on purpose because they are tired of carrying it. They are not responsible for the environment. They don’t go for adventure, but they destroy our beautiful eco-tourism sites.”
“When we trek to the top, our bags are heavy because of food and water bottles, but when we finish those, only the lightweight wrappers remain. So why can’t we bring it back?” he asked.
“I don’t litter. I put trash in my bag even a single piece of plastic. When I come back to Phnom Penh, there is a lot of trash in my bag,” he added.
Located in Cardamom Mountain National Park, spanning parts of Koh Kong, Pursat, and Kampong Speu provinces, Khnong Phsar has become a popular tourist destination in recent years for Cambodians seeking unspoiled natural vistas. A two-hour tractor ride and five-hour trek from Tang Bampang village, the peak offers a picturesque vista and draws thousands each year who camp and hike along the mountain trails. But with the tourists comes garbage, a problem that community members and officials have struggled to tackle.
Chea Yuthea, deputy chief of the Cardamom Mountain National Park Office, said that the park has tried various approaches to garbage management in recent years.
“First, we instructed and educated the guides and tourists… to bring garbage back with them, but it’s not really an effective way,” he said.
Eventually, said Yuthea, they partnered with the local community, charging tourists a $1 garbage fee that they use to pay villagers for garbage collection. The park pays a higher rate than the market, offering 7000 riel for one kilogram of plastic, 4000 riel per kilo for cans, and 3000 riel per kilo of glass.
“It is an effective way to collect trash by buying but we have not yet reached our goal of a totally clean environment yet,” he said.
The community benefits financially, he said, but he admitted they also have little choice if they hope to keep making money as an ecotourism destination.
“If the community did not join to clean the environment, they would destroy themselves. If there is a lot of trash at Khnong Phsar, who will visit anymore? It affects their income for supporting their family,” he added.
Park rangers carry out their own trash-collection treks as well, he said, setting off each week to pick up after the tourists. They instituted strict rules for vendors who sell food and drinks at the base of the mountain, banning them from selling if there is too much litter around their stands. And when the tourists arrive at the mountain, they have them register and use the occasion to urge them to carry their trash out with them.
“Garbage management at Khnong Phsar cannot be successful without participation from the community, park rangers, tourists and everyone,” Yuthea said.
In 2020, 3676 people visited Khnong Phsar, and the site has only grown more popular. Between June 18 and 20, alone, 1200 people came.
The effort to change practices on site has taken time. Chek Phoun, 33, sells drinks at the base of the mountain and collects garbage to sell for extra income.
“I used to get in trouble from the park ranger because of trash around the foothill, I told him I don’t know how to collect it all as there are so many tourists improperly throwing out trash when they are exhausted,” she added “I hope tourists will learn how to keep trash, which they can throw out at my shop and is easier for me to collect and clean.”
Many living around Khnong Phsar used to make a living primarily by logging the forest, sometimes illegally, and selling the wood. As it has grown in popularity, residents are increasingly earning income from tourism and working to conserve the environment.
Kol Kim, 42, said he used to work as a logger but starting last May became a guide. “I get $30 for my tractor ride, and $60 for three days of being a guide, so I have to backpack, bring them water, cook food, guide them, and control the garbage.”
While the garbage buyback program has encouraged Kim to bring it off the mountain, he admitted that sometimes he is forced to burn it on the spot—especially when there are many tourists.
Burning trash, said Yuthea, is discouraged because of the impact on air quality. But it remains a common practice, particularly as the amount of tourists increases.
Tour guide Nom Rakoeun, 32, said garbage has been particularly hard to stay on top of on days with high numbers of visitors — such as last June.
“I suggest when tourists come to visit, please bring it back. Don’t mix garbage with wet stuff that cannot burn,” he said. “I hope tourists will pay attention to the garbage. I alone cannot control it well.”
Chan Sreyhuch, 25, a guide at Warrior Camp, a hiking agency, has led tours of Khnong Phsar five times and has seen the garbage increase. More education is needed, she said, for guides and tourists to understand how to properly dispose of trash. She suggested officials carry out checks of campsites to ensure campers are following the rules. “Indestructible garbage must be collected later to be sold as scrap. All of these points are difficult to implement, but when we do it, the amount of garbage on the mountain is also greatly reduced,” she suggested.
In spite of these shortcomings, environmentalists and officials said Khnong Phsar provided a model that other ecotourism sites should emulate.
San Dara Vid, founder of Garbage Youth, an NGO that focuses on waste management, said Khnong Phsar has managed its trash problem far better than most.
“Some tourists care about environment, so they try to reduce plastic, collect it and burn it, but others still don’t understand. They don’t care about environment, they just focus on how they gather and enjoy the site with their friends, they don’t focus on how someone who visits next will smell their garbage,” he said
Whenever many tourists visit an eco-community, there will be some impact on ecosystem surrounding it, he said, but garbage management can lessen the worst effects. “Khnong Phsar is better at trash management than other eco-communities even though many people visit there — though there is still some trash remaining.”
At Kirirom National Park, by comparison, officials have contracted with a trash removal company, said park ranger Sam Eoun. But because the company relies on trucks it is less effective. “The truck cannot go and collect deep inside the forests like Thmor Loy because it is the rainy season and slippery,” he said.
While the community lends a hand picking up trash, he said there was no way to get complete coverage and they regularly urged tourists to carry their trash back to them out of the forest.
“They should not burn it or throw it away, just bring it back to the trash container, and the company will go and collect it.”
Many tourists, he said “don’t value the environment. They eat and throw away [the wrappers]. Sometimes, they drive the car and throw it from its window.”
While garbage has been greatly reduced amid these policies, officials are struggling with waste of another sort.
Currently, Khnong Phsar has only two toilets on the mountain, far fewer than needed for tourists who typically spend two nights and three days trekking. The park administration has sent a proposal to the Ministry of Environment asking for 40 toilets to be built at the base, route, and peak of the mountain.
Om Maktheary, director of the Kampong Speu department of environment, said the provincial government is working on trash management and toilets at Khnong Phsar, Oral, and Kirirom eco-communities to modernize to attract tourists.
“I have called for a meeting with vendors at Kirirom to collect liquid and solid wastes and garbage,” he said “We already made a garbage incinerator, toilets and we have a tractor to collect garbage.”
“To achieve these goals, we need budget, transportation, and workforce. We are already preparing and making proposals, so we wait until the Ministry of Environment decides to give us a budget to start our plan,” he added.