It was one of Cambodia’s last regions to maintain a Khmer Rouge strong hold. An arid plain sliced by the Mekong River, impoverished northern Cambodia has never been much of a tourist attraction; the few travellers who venture here are usually passing through from the Lao border to Phnom Penh. A project recently launched by UNESCO and the Netherlands’ Aid agency, SNV, is hoping to change that, making tourism a catalyst for economic development.

Koh Trong has the trappings of an idyllic tropical island. But it’s nowhere near the sea. To get there, you must drive five hours north from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to the town of Kratie, along a potholed road scattered with oxen, bicycles, chickens and children. When you reach Kratie, find the concrete staircase leading to a makeshift boat dock.

Hold your breath as you walk the brittle plank to the old wooden ferry that will cross the Mekong River, here a swathe of murky brown water gliding towards the sea. Bring some patience: the ferry will leave only when it is full.

Safely on the other side, cross the beach and clamber onto the back of a motorbike taxi driven by a jovial middle-aged woman wearing pastel pyjamas. Your luggage can go on the front of the bike, or between you and the driver. Just hold on tight as she negotiates the “road” – a thin path of bamboo sticks suspended over the sinking sand.

Bobbing along behind my pink-pyjama driver, I get my first glimpse of Koh Trong.

On one side of the road are stilted wooden houses, hovering like praying mantis. On the other, thickets of bamboo, towering five or six metres, veil the Mekong. Adults snooze in hammocks tied between mango trees, and barely clothed children play hacky sack with rolled-up old socks.

After 10 minutes we pull into the front yard of one of these houses. It’s the home of Vanny Vorn and the reason that a small group of travel analysts, aid workers and I have travelled here.

The island of Koh Trong and Vorn’s homestay are the pilot project of the Mekong Discovery Trail, a project finalised last year between the Cambodian government, the World Tourism Organisation and the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV). The initiative aims to encourage intrepid tourists to travel to the northern reaches of the Mekong River.

Establishing maps and itineraries, and teaching designated local people basic tourism skills, the organisations are hoping travellers can stimulate economic development in rural Cambodia.

Upstairs, Vorn lays a cloth on her polished wooden floor and encourages us to sit, cross-legged, and eat lunch: stir-fried morning glory, curry of pineapple and buffalo, sour fish soup, rice and local Angkor beer.

Moments later, a thunderous clap booms overhead and a monsoonal downpour falls on Koh Trong. Rain billows in through the windows and through holes in the iron roof, splashing the sour fish soup and sending us ducking for cover.

The amiable Vorn, a gentle Khmer woman with three teenage daughters, speaks no English but soldiers on with a point-and-choose book of food items and other necessities produced by the trail initiative to help bridge language barriers. Like the rest of Koh Trong, her house isn’t connected to electricity, which means there are no fans or airconditioners. The heat is incessant and staying overnight can be rough. Guests sleep on bamboo mats or thin mattresses under a mosquito net, side by side, in the main room.

“It’s not a five-star hotel,” says a consultant for the Netherlands Development Organisation, Marjorie van Strien, meaning that it’s not for everybody. “But it really gives you a wonderful glimpse into an older way of life in Cambodia.”

It costs $US3 ($2.85) a person to sleep overnight at Vorn’s house, or $US8.50 for bed, breakfast and dinner. Yet the benefits are enormous: the former pomelo farmer (a south-east Asian fruit closely related to the grapefruit) now earns enough to send one daughter to high school in Kratie and another to university in Phnom Penh.

The Melbourne-born team leader of the Netherlands organisation, Trevor Piper, says about 80 per cent of Koh Trong’s inhabitants live on less than $US1 a day, or what the World Bank declares as extremely poor. Since the Mekong Discovery Trail began on Koh Trong in 2009, it has improved the livelihoods of the island’s vegetable farmers, fishermen, pony keepers and pyjama-clad motorbike drivers, to name a few.

The community has established a fund into which 10 per cent of tourism money earned is funnelled to buy more tourist equipment – bicycles, boats – and generate more jobs.

That afternoon we take a pony cart around the island, a long strip of greenery in the heart of the Mekong River. We clip-clop to the far southern end, stopping to watch a man weave baskets from strips of bamboo. In the north we stop at a temple and for $US9 plant a hardwood sapling with our names attached.

The main activity for guests on Koh Trong is to observe village life. The island is adorable and the locals warm and eager to make friends. But it’s also hot – stiflingly hot – so it’s easy to understand why most travellers don’t stay more than a night. “It’s like the chicken and the egg,” Piper tells me. “The villagers need money to make their houses more comfortable for tourists but tourists provide that money.”

Luckily on Koh Trong there are other options. Tucked under towering mango trees, Sala Koh Trong has five guest rooms on two floors of a newly built house, with stand-alone villas and a pool under construction. For now it is still basic but with en suite bathrooms, Western-style toilets, beds with mattresses, and sporadic electricity run from a generator, it’s like the Ritz for these parts. The next day we take the ferry back to Kratie and continue 190 kilometres north to the border with Laos. The first time I came to this border, from the Lao side in the late 1990s, the area was still occupied with remnants of the Khmer Rouge, the militant group that enforced a social engineering project in agrarian communism so radical and brutal it killed about 2 million Cambodians and Vietnamese.

What a difference a decade or so can make. These days you can take a boat to spot the rare and elusive Irrawaddy dolphin, a snub-nosed mammal closely related to the killer whale. In Kratie, the 18th-century Wat Roka Kandal temple has been restored and exhibits local craft, all for sale. In Stung Treng, the last town before Laos, the women’s co-operative Mekong Blue produces fine silk scarves.

An hour by car and boat north of Stung Treng is Preah Rumkel, a dusty one-car village clinging to the bank of the Mekong River. It has half a dozen homestays established in 2008 by Mlup Baitong, a local non-government organisation. But they vary considerably in cleanliness and facilities: allocation is on a rotation system, so visitors have no choice in their accommodation for the night.

Half of our group bunks down at the project office, the other with a nearby family. The heat at Preah Rumkel is tedious and the air is thick with repellent-impervious bugs. We track down the island’s beer and ice stocks and drink enough to instigate a few hours’ kip on the office verandah. But it’s a long, still night.

Morning arrives with the crowing of a rooster and the shuffling of feet under the house. From my threadbare mat on the floor I catch a glimpse of the Mekong, silvery blue in the morning light. Fishermen throw nets from skinny wooden boats as the rising sun washes the sky in a dusty shade of pink. It’s a perfect, well-earned travel moment.

Keen to head off before the sun turns the day into a sauna, we hire a merry young boatman to take us up the river. On a muddy bank we meet a trapper who guides us for two hours through scrubby jungle to the tumultuous Sopheakmith Falls, a series of short but muscular rapids spanning the Mekong. Bearing the full brunt of the world’s 10th-longest river, the falls are awesome; the cool spray a welcome relief from the humidity of the jungle. It’s popular with local picnickers but, sadly, few take their waste away and rubbish blankets the site.

We plan to retrace our steps through the jungle but the temperature is already nudging 38 degrees with 100 per cent humidity. After a show of hands, we agree to hire a vehicle and drive back to our boat instead. We don’t get far. Workers on the newly constructed road have neglected to include the culverts, which sit idly to one side, so the monsoonal rains make a mudbath of the road. We push our van through one, two, three bogs. But the fourth bog proves to be a little more complicated, spanning 20 metres and with metre-deep ditches and an overloaded truck jammed deep inside one of them.

With a wink, our driver runs off into the forest, returning half an hour later with a two-wheel tractor with a trailer, driven by a man with one leg. We pile on and head off in the direction of our host village.

It is almost 4pm when we finally drag ourselves up the front stairs of the Tonle Guest House, a little Khmer house in Stung Treng that will be home for our last night. Established in 2007 by the French-Swiss group Tourism for Help, the Tonle Guest House recruits children from remote jungle villages and teaches them hospitality skills and English.

The guest house is simple. There are only four rooms and one shared bathroom but it is wonderful, with real beds, fresh linen, tasty Cambodian food, all-day electricity and a big lounge, overlooking the river, on which to drink cold beer. But best of all, you can be sure your holiday money is going to a worthwhile cause.

Staying there

Sala Koh Trong has five rooms with shared or private bathrooms from $US25. See Le Tonle Guest House has four guest rooms from $US6.

Touring there

The Mekong Discovery Trail has a collection of free-to-download itineraries between Kratie and Stung Treng that can be tackled by foot, bike, car or boat. Pick up maps and brochures from tourist offices in Phnom Penh, or see

This article appeared in the September 10, 2011 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.