Here is the first instalment of our "Change Maker's Series" of interviews with amazing people and groups around Aotearoa and the World.
Vagabonds Hostel - Koh Rong - Cambodia.
Q. Can you tell us a little about who you are and what you do?
My name's Courtney. I own a small bar/hostel/restaurant on a beautiful tropical island called Koh Rong which is about 25kms off the coast of Cambodia. I have three business partners, Dave (Aussie), Meg (Brit) and Nez (Turkish) who are all great friends of mine, our business is called Vagabonds.
Q. Koh Rong in Southern Cambodia is a far flung place way off the "Banana Pancake trail" of South East Asia.
How did you find this paradise and what were your first impressions of it?
I first visited Koh Rong in 2011 during an extended backpacking trip around SE Asia. I had heard that Cambodia had islands more beautiful than Thailand and a lot less developed (and inevitably ruined), it sounded too good to miss! I wasn't disappointed. Back then there were only three guesthouses and a small totally undeveloped fishing village at one end of the beach. I went for one night and ended up staying 10, like literally everyone I got to know during my time there. I met my future business partner (Dave) over a beer at the bar. We travelled through Myanmar together but then parted ways for a couple of years while I did a bit more traveling. Dave stayed on the island most of that time and started three businesses, one of which was Vagabonds. He had spread himself a bit thin so he was more than happy for me to buy in and manage the place, which i've been doing ever since (about 18 months now).
Koh Rong is developing fast and over the last year or so it has found it's spot on the tourist trail, but we're still decades behind the development of the Thai Islands and the negative impacts unsustainable tourism invariably leads to. It's difficult trying to find a balance between what's good for business and what's good for the local community and environment, but we try our best!
Q. How have you found working with the locals on Koh Rong?
And what have been some of the struggles and successes?
I love working with people from all over the world every day. Our Khmer staff are integral to the success of Vagabonds. There is obviously a big cultural/language barrier between our western and local staff, but that has never caused us any big problems in the past. The longer I live in Cambodia the more I understand the common traits and priorities among Khmer people and this obviously helps me as a manager to keep my staff happy and productive. At the end of the day we're all humans who deserve love and respect, knowing this has never done me wrong!
Q. Vagabonds Hostel , From the outside looks to be a space that is very inclusive of your guests.
How do you promote this and what are the limitations?
I think the fact that we're a small place really helps people feel at home. If you stay with us for more than a couple of nights you can't help but get to know our staff and other guests. I've travelled around the world alone and I know from experience the places people remember aren't the fanciest or the most expensive, but the ones that were the most inclusive. The ones where the bartender learnt your name on the first day and introduced you to your dorm mates who just happen to be hanging around shooting the shit. That's the atmosphere we want at Vagabonds.
Q When I was at Vagabonds I saw how with more long term guests that there was the opportunity for select people to become part of the crew. How do you balance the volunteers work? What do you offer as payment or exchange?
One of the first things I had to come to terms with in managing Vagabonds is that all of our western staff are on holiday. It can be hard to expect a certain level of commitment from staff when they could just as easily be outside having fun on the beach. The best way I've found to keep staff and guests happy is to create a fun atmosphere that is always full of friends.
Like everywhere else on the beach we don't pay western staff but we provide them with a bed in our staff dorm, two free meals a day and free drinks. Our staff work 2/3 days on then have a day off (which is much better than a lot of other bars on the island!) I make sure the schedule is made in advance so people know exactly what days they have off. We're also pretty flexible with letting people have extra time off to explore the islands and Cambodia more.
Q. Koh Rong is a beautiful and magical place. But like so many other areas that are truly special like Koh Rong, Big corporate influence is slowly showing its ugly head.
How is Vagabonds positioned to create value via sustainable methods for the local people
Koh Rong officially belongs to a big corporation called the Royal Group. They got a 99 year lease from the government a few years ago and planned to make it an exclusive resort island with it's own international airport. Luckily for us and the four villages on Koh Rong development stalled about 3 years ago and we haven't heard much from them lately. It's always hard to get a clear answer on things like these in Cambodia because the governing bodies are so corrupt, but last I heard from a trusted local friend is that all four villages are protected from this big corporations developments. Vagabonds falls well within the boundaries of the most developed village Koh Tui, so this would indicate that we are safe for the time being at least. Vagabonds and almost all our neighbours on the island have never paid rent to the Royal Group, instead we lease our land from local families who claim ownership. This has meant a huge increase in the standard of living for most khmer families who have been living on the island for years. The last five years has seen a complete change in revenue for locals of Koh Tui village from fishing to tourism.
There is a great NGO we work with on the island that was started by an amazing group of Aussie/Canadian girls in 2013. Their whole goal is to help local Khmers benefit from the huge influx of tourism to their island. They provide english, health and nutrition and business education to locals of all ages and also work hard to keep Koh Rong clean and sustainable. Visit their site to learn more about what they do and to volunteer where you're really needed; friendsofkohrong.org
Q.How would you see connecting to a global network of similar initiatives' helping to support what you do? Have you found networks already
I think having a network to bounce ideas and support off would be a great tool for us. As Koh Rong continues to grow we face a lot of challenges ahead in areas like sanitation and waste management. Unlike first world countries we can't rely on the government to provide us with the answers. If we could learn from other peoples experiences from around the world and maybe teach some people with ours we could all resolve issues faster.
Q Do you have any words of wisdom for other people that are wanting to create change in their local community?
Change doesn't have to be on a huge scale, it can start small and grow - or not. Small change is still change, it can still make a difference where it's needed and can inspire others along the same path.