Jackson Bahn - Diving & Marine Conservation in Cambodia
I have just returned from Cambodia and am still not sure that my three months there were not a dream, save for a few souvenirs, a dark wetsuit-tan, some clothes that are far dustier than when I left and an overflowing head of good memories.
Arriving in Cambodia
My three months in Cambodia were spent on Koh Rong Samloem, a small island in southern Cambodia, doing the Diving & Marine Conservation Project. After one night in the Projects Abroad apartments in Phnom Penh, I was whisked down to Sihanoukville, the city nearest Koh Rong Samloem, from where I took the two-hour boat ride to the island.
As I neared the island, still too far away to discern any features of the village, my mind raced through all of the thematic media that comes to mind when there is no personal reference for what one is witnessing; Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and of course, Castaway and Lost. Fortunately for me, upon landing I discovered no vengeful magicians or mysterious smoke monsters. What I did discover was an immense concentration of friendly and welcoming people, both volunteers and villagers, inhabiting a beautiful tropical island.
Walking through the village, large backpack looming ridiculously over my head, I was assaulted by what would become a very regular barrage of “hellos” from the children of the village. For them greeting volunteers was not about the boring exchange of a single “hello” or “Suas’day,” but rather an exercise in shouting “hello” as many times as they could by the time you were out of earshot.
Continuing on to the volunteer bungalows, I was once again assailed by (somewhat more discreet) greetings, this time by fellow volunteers and Projects Abroad staff, who, though they met several new volunteers a week, were still interested and excited to meet me, show me around, and make me feel comfortable in an admittedly wholly unfamiliar environment.
My Diving and Conservation Project
Two weeks later I was through my PADI Open Water and Advanced Diver courses and was trained in Seahorse, Reef Check and Fish Surveys. I had cleaned innumerable meters of beach and village, danced traditionally, horribly (like spaghetti I am told) at a village wedding, and made many new friends with whom to share the experiences.
Experiences are what the whole project is about. I understood island dynamics to be a sort of economy, but not one of money or goods, rather, an economy of experiences. Each volunteer has the opportunity to invest in the economy in the form of time and effort; studying fish species and survey methodology, going on jungle treks, cleaning the beaches and village, getting to know villagers and other volunteers, and embarking on personal projects.
Those who make large investments reap far greater rewards of experiences. They become survey leaders, see a huge diversity of wildlife, learn some Khmer (the official language of Cambodia), and have a far greater understanding of every aspect of the project and the island, enabling them to look back without regret for lost opportunities.
But of course, the island is enjoyable for its own inherent charm. For beautiful sunsets and sunrises every day. For Hornbills nesting nearby and the communities of geckos and lizards that inhabit each bungalow and, if you’re lucky, the occasional dusk sighting of a few monkeys. For becoming genuinely excited when you see a rare species of fish or a seahorse. For staying up until the early hours of morning with new friends, swinging from the ten hammocks that you have strung up on one very cramped porch, learning about how people live all over the world. And finally, for waking up early every morning excited to meet a day that will surely feel like the coolest day of your life.