Banteay Srei’s villages spruce up to attract nature tourists

Living areas must be neat and clean. Backyards should be filled with flowers, plants and vegetables, while animals roam freely.

These are the “model” dwellings of villagers in Banteay Srei district’s Preah Dak village in Siem Reap province, and they’ve become part of the tourist draw for the district, which is home to the 10th-century Banteay Srei Temple.

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Banteay Srei district governor Khim Finan (right) says beautifying the district will make it a more attractive tourist destination. Photo supplied

The tidying and beautification of homes in the village which neighbours Angkor Wat and is famous for its Khmer noodles is part of district governor Khim Finan’s “One House, One Light Bulb” project to push Banteay Srei as a new and attractive tourist destination for those who value nature and rural life.

The 37-year-old district governor works with groups of students from two Phnom Penh universities – Pannanastra and Western – to design houses as model homes. Villagers are encouraged to redecorate their homes in the same fashion and compete for a prize.

Finan tells The Post: “Banteay Srei is a tourist district and we are pushing a project of [showcasing] nice houses district-wide because it contributes to a good environment. Besides, good hospitality attracts tourists.

“First, we construct environmentally-friendly villages, and then we have hospitality training for villagers.”

Preah Dak was the first village on the project’s list, but it will spread district-wide.

Finan launched his “2020 Beautiful Banteay Srei” campaign earlier this year. In addition to creating the Preah Dak model village, classes on clean and environmentally-friendly living will be offered and all 36 village chiefs in the district will need to collect rubbish once a month.

“When we completely organise some houses in Preah Dak village, we will invite people in the whole village to challenge each other, and if we find winners, they will get prizes as incentives.

“We are conducting this mission from one village to another, then communes until [it covers] the whole district,” he says. 

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Champa trees were planted with the help of villagers along the road in Preah Dak. Photo supplied

Banteay Srei, Finan says, is a district built for agro-tourism with its lush natural landscapes and rich culture. The Banteay Srei Temple, which resembles a smaller Angkor Wat and features famously intricate carvings, centres the district.

“Preah Dak is a heritage village or a traditional village that has existed for a long time on the wide plain since the Angkor era,” he says.

Residents recognise him as he installs street lights and helps villagers sell their agricultural products. He’s also organised the planting of trees and plants along the village’s streets and residents have responded by tidying up their homes.

But what is a perfect model home? Finan says his idea is to have simple traditional houses that are rubbish-free, and surrounded by flowers, green grass, vegetables and animals.

“This is [the] daily life of our rural people. More importantly, we want our villagers to learn how to live in cleanliness and we help divide their house spaces so they are uncluttered and include a proper place for laundry and rubbish,” he says.

Finan says flowers used in the project are from a locally grown species. Different species would cost more. The goal, he says, is to promote rural tourism by showing Banteay Srei’s real identity.

Some houses, he says, will be designated as homestays for tourists to spend the night.

Twenty-two volunteer architecture students from Pannasastra and Western universities led by Professor Ros Sivan, spent a week to help organise and build three home gardens.

The students spent their own money and to buy materials from villagers to set up small gardens made of bricks, bamboo, sticks and net. House owners provided accommodation and food for them.

The district governor says he wants Banteay Srei to become an alternative, nature-focused tourist destination compared to Siem Reap.

“We are not going to design Banteay Srei as another Siem Reap city. We will create our own Banteay Srei identity, adapting our style as we showcase the rice fields, mountains, green lush forests, horse riding, boat racing and camping.”

He wants travellers to spend nights in his district because currently, the average tourist spends only a few hours. 

“If they stay the night, they need to spend on accommodation, travel, facilities, meals and other activities. But if we want them to spend a night here, we need to do more and provide the necessary facilities,” he says.

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Student volunteers help to organise and construct home gardens in Preah Dak. Photo supplied

Finan says Banteay Srei’s food specialities include Khmer noodles, palm sugar, melons, dates, dragon fruit, jujubes, Pailin longans, durian, cashew nuts, mangoes, sweet potatoes and mountain rice.

Along with Banteay Srei Temple, the district boasts a natural reservoir and a beautiful landscape.

Just 12km away is Kbal Spean, an ancient site along a riverbed nestled in the forest with 11th-century Hindu sculptures and stone carvings.

Finan says when he started his project, it wasn’t easy to get people to work as a community.

But “One House, One Light Bulb” eventually gained wide support. In response to officials planting Champa trees on sidewalks, people living along streets started laying down brick walkways to their homes and grew plants around street lights.

“Today people are more open and some households are beginning to landscape their gardens.

“Of late, we’ve seen many travellers stop in Banteay Srei at [the] Khmer noodle corner and people are selling roasted chicken, roasted stuffed frog and grilled bananas,” said Finan.

“Villagers now understand that organising our villages to be beautiful will really benefit us. Now, the villagers are more than happy to take part in projects that provide value to the whole community and it benefits the individual as well,” Finan says.

He says if people understand the importance of nature tourism and hospitality, they can earn an income without seeking jobs in other countries. And this will help to reduce poverty in Banteay Srei itself.

By : Raksmey Hong – PHNOM PENH POST

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