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The view from Wat Hanchey, next door to the resort. Eliah Lillis

The Kampong Cham retreat blending bamboo and Buddhism

An eco-tourism project in a remote area near the provincial capital is incorporating unusual style, sustainable design and an opportunity for tourists to connect with the country’s Buddhist traditions.

With the midday sun beating down, Vandong Thorn walks towards the edge of a plateau. To his left, a work crew is putting grout into the beams of an unusual building, made almost entirely from bamboo, whose flowing curves resemble a seashell. Before him, the Mekong River sprawls northwards.

“You see all the Cambodian pictures here,” Thorn says, admiring the view. “You see the rice fields, you see the ponds, the river, the village and traditional houses. It’s merging all of it together here.” The co-founder and director of the NGO Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA), Thorn found this site, perched on top of a mountain just over 20 kilometres from Kampong Cham city, in 2015.

After buying the land from farmers, and from a company that was slowly chipping away at the mountain with bulldozers as it sold off its soil, BSDA has begun building an eco-tourism retreat unique to Cambodia both in its sustainable design and its incorporation of Buddhist principles.

A monk for 20 years, Thorn takes a very un-dogmatic approach towards religion, calling Buddhism “just philosophy, not religion”.

“If [Buddha’s teachings are] reasonable for you, you believe it. If it’s not reasonable for you, you don’t follow,” he says. Thorn saw in the philosophy an ethos that could lend itself to social welfare and guide his NGO, based on the principles of hard work, charity and equality.

At Hanchey Eco-Retreat, he’s hoping to harness these principles, employing locals, paying them good wages and using the revenue to fund on-site vocational training for poor area residents.

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A worker scoops mud that will be made into bricks for foundations. Eliah Lillis

All of the buildings at the eco-tourism site incorporate the shape of the lotus flower a symbol of Buddhism and a meditation centre features eight open doors, representing the Eightfold Path.

There will be villas for guests, as well as the vocational training centre, which can accommodate up to 100 students per year, and a “model organic farm” for agricultural training programs. In an attempt at sustainability, the project designers decided to build the site nearly entirely out of natural materials – principally, bamboo and mud bricks.

“Most of our buildings, when we’re finished with them, we can throw on the compost heap,” says Gordon Evans, a technical adviser on the project. “Bamboo will rot, the earth [bricks] will rot, [and] it’s a very small ecological footprint that we have.”

In mud pits throughout the site, workers are mixing the rich clay soil with rice chaff, straw and water, before pressing them into bricks that make up the foundation of the buildings. In a tank at the base of the property, bamboo soaks in a vat of boric acid and borax, a natural compound that substitutes sugar with salt to prevent insects.

Although bamboo is plentiful throughout Cambodia, it is viewed as a building material for temporary structures because of its susceptibility to insects. To devote much of a project whose building phase costs nearly half a million dollars to bamboo was a bold decision.

“Some people in my family, when they heard that our buildings are from bamboo, just said ‘Why? We never heard of using bamboo like this’,” says Ngun Heng, the general manager for the retreat and a local resident. Ngun says bamboo is often used for chopsticks or toothpicks but not for entire structures.

To explore the possibility of using it throughout the resort, BSDA brought in a team of consultants from Thailand, where its use is more frequent. They advised the crews on how to treat the material to prevent insects and the degree to which the beams could be bent to accommodate the flowing organic shapes of the structures. This has caused something of a local spectacle.

“When we build everything from bamboo like that, the local people are surprised,” Ngun said. “I can say 50 people or 60 people per day come [to see]. I’ve already put the word out not to come, but they still do.”

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Workers put roofing on the reception area at Hanchey Eco-Retreat. Eliah Lillis

While there is enough money, provided by Swiss NGO Ecosolidar, for the building phase, the project is still $100,000 short of what it needs to fund furnishing and operations costs for the resort. If they can find other investors, the resort should be ready to open in approximately one year.

Thorn envisions a destination for tourists hoping to see the traditional Cambodian way of life – especially those looking to do yoga, meditate and study Buddhist philosophy.

“So many people come to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville, go to the beach, and they’re done. This isn’t for those people,” Evans says, while also pointing out that there will be a swimming pool and bar for those looking to kick back and relax.

Located next to Wat Hanchey, a historic pagoda with Chenla temple ruins dating back as far as the seventh or eighth century, Thorn has linked the project with his neighbours.

BSDA built a road that connects with the pagoda and Thorn hopes to bring tourists to meet with the monks, as well as to potentially have them tag along with them on visits to the villages.

Wat Hanchey abbot Tang Chheng studied meditation from his predecessor, Tol Phoung, who is renowned for having walked all the way from Cambodia to Myanmar on foot to study meditation there. Thorn is hoping to tap into this deep institutional knowledge for his guests.

When asked if he minds tourists coming to the pagoda, the abbot says he “would be happy for their coming here”.

“When they go back, they will tell their friends and family about our beautiful pagoda and resort, which means more tourists and more income,” he says. “Those who work for the project are from the area They can improve their lives without immigrating to other countries to work.”

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