TWO girls hold up a series of rubber bands tied together in an elastic chord. A third runs towards them. Using a flip flop in her right hand, she forces the makeshift bar towards the ground and propels herself over it. All the assembled girls cheer as she emerges on the other side. She has just achieved the Sambor Prei Kuk high jump.
About 30 kilometres from Kampong Thom on the way to Preah Vihear Province, half of which is on a dirt road, Sambor Prei Kuk is one of the best examples of pre-Angkorian remains in the country. Dating back to the 7th Century, the 290 temples are divided into three complexes – Prasat Sambor, Prasat Tor and Prasat Yeai Poeun.
It is a Sunday morning and the girls are taking a break from selling scarves known as kramas to tourists, or at least they would be if there were any tourists. It is one hour before the first tuk tuk rolls in. Cho Lom Hong, 14, has sold scarves at the small stalls just outside the northern temple complex since the age of eight. Her scarves cost US$1. “Some days I earn nothing,” she says. “Sundays are good. I can earn around $4 or $5.”
I offer to buy a krama from her, but she only has two rather dust-ridden pieces, one of which she sells to me almost apologetically. Clearly this Sunday is more for playing games than for selling kramas.
Hong cycles 2km to Kampong Cheutil High School each morning from the nearby village of Sambor, returning to the temple each afternoon to sell her kramas. Her grasp of English marks her out from the other girls and she would eventually like to become a tour guide at Sambor Prei Tuk.
Moun Vuthear, 30, charges $6 for showing tourists around the temple complex, $1 of which he gives to the local community. He is one of the six tour guides working at Sambor Prei Tuk. “Some days I do not earn money, especially during the rainy season, when I help my family in the fields,” he says. “On a good day I earn $10.”
Vuthear is employed by Isanborei, a community tourism project set up by the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and Khiri Reach in 2009.
In addition to employing tour guides, the project rents out bikes, offers cart rides, arranges traditional dance performances at Hong’s high school and organises homestays. It has a shop at the site where tourists can buy goods woven from rattan.
The latter initiative was part of the original GTZ project, whereby women from villages were trained as weavers to provide them with income.
Pov Sokha, 45, is weaving a basket as we arrive. Before being trained by GTZ in 2004 she farmed rice. Now she mixes the two forms of work, weaving once the rice is harvested.
“Since I have known how to weave, our family is better because we have an income,” she says.
Spending 2,500 riel on the raw rattan, Pov Sokha receives 15,000 riel for each basket she sells. She produces six to seven baskets each month.
Both Pov Sokha and Moun Vuthear agree that the planned upgrade of the road to the temples is crucial for the community’s economy. It now takes about a bumpy hour to reach the site from Kampong Thom. Moun Vuthear believes road improvements will be completed by 2012.
The lack of quality access to the site has not deterred Khiri Reach, the non-profit arm of Khiri Travel from becoming involved in the project.
The Thai-based tour company now offers its clients the option of homestays at three villages close to Sambor Prei Kuk: Okru Keo, Kampong Cheutil and Sambor. People either sleep on mattresses in a communal area or in private rooms, and eat food prepared by the villagers.
“The hospitality, the friendliness of the people is amazing,” says Khiri Travel’s co-founder Frans Betgem.
He first came to Sambor Prei Kuk on an FAM trip organised by GTZ in 2008. For him, part of the attraction of the area is experiencing the “real” Cambodia that few tourists coming to the country actually encounter.
“I love the temples, the forest, the whole atmosphere,” he says. “There are lots of structures still underground. It’s kind of the Indiana Jones experience that is always what people are looking for.”