Temple enthusiasts wishing to see something a little more off the beaten track can now do so with Baray Reach Dak community tours, a new social enterprise run by villagers in the Northern Baray in Angkor Archeological Park.
Set up last year with the support of Apsara National Authority, Unesco and the Australian government, the tours provide trips on and around the Baray which, after being dry for over five centuries, was re-flooded by Apsara in 2007.
Georgina Lloyd, project officer for Unesco’s Angkor Heritage Management Framework, explains that the enterprise is one of the organisation’s pilot projects, and a key factor was to ensure that communities living in the park could earn a living from the tours.
“Most of the benefits from tourism here actually flow outside – they don’t stay with the local communities,” she says. “We wanted to provide direct links, so together with Apsara National Authority we worked with two villages north of the Baray – Phlong and Leang Dai villages.”
The re-flooding of the Northern Baray was carried out as a flood preventative measure for Siem Reap town, but also to provide a reliable water source for the local rice fields.
But Lloyd says that during the process some villagers lost some of their rice fields, so the community tours idea was born as a means of compensating them, and also to give them a steady source of income.
“We approached these two communities with the idea of setting up a tourism enterprise around the Baray, in the forest and on the water, and they were immediately engaged with the idea,” Lloyd says. “We have some fantastic people that we work with, a lot of youth. Most are aged between 18 and 30 and they’re really enthusiastic.”
Three tours are available. The first two include a forest nature walk with a local guide, and a trip in a traditional wooden boat. The second tour takes in Neak Poan, the ‘island temple’, and the third is a shorter sunset boat trip from the Welcome Centre at Preah Khan.
The forest itself is a haven for wildlife, abundant with flora and fauna, while the Baray, a natural reservoir, attracts many birds.
Lloyd says the tour lets visitors learn more about the forest. She says people don’t realise how many “environmental assets” are in the park. “And the community has the opportunity to talk about how they use the trees for medicinal purposes, for traditional uses and so on,” she adds.
“It’s also the only place now really – apart from some more secluded places on the lake – where you can get a traditional wooden boat. It’s so serene and beautiful. The other really fantastic thing is if people do tour two they can actually now approach and arrive at Neak Poan by boat. It’s a really unique way to arrive at the site.”
With the tours being run exclusively by the villagers, the community can raise funds not only to pay staff salaries, but also to put money aside for the future.
“The tour is 100 per cent run and managed by the local community,” Lloyd says. “All the tour guides and boat drivers are from the villages. They run their own Facebook page, and they do their own marketing and finances now.
“These are all skills they’ve acquired through the project, which is fantastic. They decide exactly how they want to use the benefits from the tours, and they have their own maintenance fund and community fund.
“Recently there was some flooding up in the villages during the wet season and they used some of the fund to buy rice and other food for some disabled villagers.”
Lloyd says the tours have been a great success, and the community now has its own development plan for the future which includes eventually introducing bicycle tours and selling local products made in the villages.