In the past two years, overnight visitors to remote Banteay Chhmar have doubled, and income for villagers has almost tripled, thanks to the Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism project.
It’s easy to see why. A stay can be arranged without fuss on the straightforward website, and it’s only an easy (and interesting) two and half hour drive from Siem Reap to the villages surrounding Banteay Chhmar temple, on a much-improved road.
Upon my small group’s arrival, we were met by the welcoming Sy Mao, the vice president of the Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism committee, who doubles as a tour guide when he’s not leading restoration of a rarely visited 11th- or early 12th-century sandstone temple, built under Jayavarman VII.
We had booked meals and activities in advance and a French-style “picnic” – at table and chairs, complete with linen, china and cutlery – awaited us, overlooking impressive gallery walls decorated with detailed bas-reliefs to rival those at Angkor Wat and Bayon.
We tucked into generous bowls of the kind of traditional Khmer food typically served in the countryside, so simple and fresh, it tasted as if the vegetables had not long ago been picked and the fish just caught.
After lunch, there was a late afternoon scramble around the dilapidated temple, which included a closer viewing of the bas-reliefs depicting scenes from battles and everyday life, a clamber over enormous stones to photograph hidden carvings, and a stroll beneath shaded trees to see several Bayon-style towers with serene faces.
Aside from a glamorous wedding party on a pre-wedding shoot, we spotted just one other visitor exploring the temple. On a sunrise visit to the site the next morning, we were alone.
Check-in to our village home-stay in a traditional two-storey Khmer timber house was a breeze. While basic and simply furnished, there was a mosquito net, fan and torch in the two bedrooms upstairs, and a spotlessly clean bathroom downstairs. The highlight of the accommodation, however, was our hosts.
While the shy owners, middle-aged couple Yan Ply and Pat Caueng, kept to themselves – bunking down on the ground floor and giving guests bathroom priority – the lovely Ply appeared, smiling widely, to welcome us each time we returned.
“I like this a lot,” Yan Ply told me the next morning. “I can still go to the rice fields to work, but now I also have a shop. And I like to meet foreigners.”
“I like it, too,” her husband Caueng Pat agreed. “We have benefited from the income from the tourists who stay with us. We could open this shop, but I can also hire more people to help us in the rice fields.”
Banteay Chhmar has a population of some 3,600 families, totalling about 15,200 people.
There are just nine home-stays in the village, offering 30 rooms, which translates to a capacity of 25 to 50 visitors a night. A total of 70 villagers are currently involved in the project in different ways, providing transport, cooking meals, working as guides, operating ox cart rides, and entertaining guests with performances of classical Khmer music during dinner (also enchantingly set by the temple).
Training of participants in everything from English to hygiene, and coordination of transport, accommodation, meals and activities is managed by the 15 volunteer committee members from the village. A roster system is used so the opportunities and income are distributed fairly among those involved.
Participants in the program earn money from visitor fees, while a percentage goes into a village fund that has financed initiatives such as a garbage collection service and cleaning of the moat. Donations from visitors have also paid for a restaurant and children’s library.
Banteay Chhmar Community-Based Tourism was launched in 2007 with funds from French NGO Agir Pour Le Cambodge and developed from 2009 on with support from the Global Heritage Fund and Heritage Watch.
In 2012, there were 671 visitors checking in, compared to 1,288 in 2014, leading to a jump in tourism income from $13,977 to $36,013.
While coordinator Tath Sophal is delighted with how the program is going, he still has some concerns. On the afternoon we arrived, we saw only a handful of independent travellers exploring the temple and strolling the village. The next morning, we arrived at the community restaurant for breakfast to find a large Intrepid Travel tour group.
“I do not want too many tourists to visit our place,” Tath Sophal admits reluctantly. “I think that about 2,000 to 5,000 people a year will be okay. Too many more tourists will make more impact on the environment, with too much plastic waste that we cannot control.”
Ultimately, however, in the short term, the positive benefits clearly outweigh the negative impacts.
“But if more tourists come, we can inject more money into schools and the development of the village,” he said.