For Khoun Tola, Cambodia’s tourism industry has provided him with more than just a job; he also gained a way to elevate his fellow countrymen and women from the poverty they were born into.
Raised in a small village south of the capital Phnom Penh, Tola was determined not to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers and go into gruelling agricultural work. At the age of 17, he moved to Phnom Penh where he worked to pay for his education, eventually graduating from the Royal University of Phnom Penh with a degree in tourism management.
During his studies, the 31-year-old developed a passion for eco- and community-based tourism, seeing it as a way to showcase Cambodia’s natural beauty while providing a sustainable form of income to some of the country’s most underprivileged communities.
“I really wanted to use everything I had learned to help develop the country and help the disadvantaged and poor young people,” he said.
Upon graduation five years ago, his ambition and drive immediately landed him a job with Cambodia Development Rural Tours (CDRT), which runs tours and initiatives in remote areas, giving visitors the chance to delve into rural Cambodian life. “This was one of my favourite subjects and something I really wanted to focus on,” said Tola.
In the last five years, Tola has helped drive the project forward, developing a network of homestays and unique tours that take guests into the heart of the Cambodian countryside that take in locals along the way, such as spirit masters, bamboo sticky rice sellers, fishermen and Cambodians who are tirelessly working to protect the endangered nature that dots the country.
He has also played an instrumental role in pushing forward CDRT’s hospitality training programme, Le Tonlé Tourism Training Center, which recruits the poorest Cambodians aged 16 to 35 – those whose families earn less than US$1 a day – living in Kratie and neighbouring provinces, and equips them with skills to work in housekeeping, cooking, waiting and reception.
To date 95 per cent of graduates have found employment.
“Seeing the students move forward is incredible,” said Tola. “Seeing them grow from being so shy, having never seen a foreigner, to speaking English and having confidence makes me so happy because I came from that.”
Determined to grow the business further, Tola and the team are currently working on developing more tours into the country, as well as launching a cooking programme for students.
An additional five rooms are currently being added to the Le Tonle guesthouse in Kratie, next to the restaurant, which provides income for the hospitality training project, as well as a place for students to hone their new-found skills.
“There is so much potential and so much more we can do, and I am happy to be part of this,” said Tola.