A short ride from the erstwhile capital of the Khmer Empire, once-impoverished Preah Dak is now the model village in a visionary campaign to bring ecotourism to rural Banteay Srei.
On a bright Sunday morning in Siem Reap, I jump in the back of a remorque for an excursion into the countryside of northwestern Cambodia. Riding along with me in the motorcycle-pulled cart is an effervescent tour guide named Mony Leap and a couple of her clients. A rural road takes us past tidy farmhouses and rice fields glimmering with wet-season rain, the bucolic scenery tarnished only by the belching exhaust of trucks as they overtake us. This is my first trip to the village of Preah Dak since moving to Siem Reap 18 months ago; it’s also the first time that Leap, who grew up in the surrounding Banteay Srei district during the Khmer Rouge years, has led a tour there.
After 25 minutes, we ditch the remorque at a colorful Buddhist temple where smartly attired residents have congregated to celebrate Pchum Ben, an annual 15-day festival honoring their ancestors. The atmosphere at Wat Preah Dak is festive, which sums up a remarkable year in a village that’s seen its landscape transformed thanks to the progressive vision of a young governor.
From the temple, Leap leads us on foot through fields and past thatch-roofed huts to the main street of Preah Dak. We’re quietly astonished by what we see: tidy wooden houses fronted by modest gardens and waste-segregation baskets, all with solar panels on their rooftops. Leafy champa saplings decorate the roadside along with flowerbeds and shiny new lampposts crowned by more solar panels. There’s not a scrap of litter to be seen, not even a cigarette butt.
Preah Dak isn’t just a step up from your average Cambodian village in its orderly contentment — the place is immaculate. And that’s why Mony has brought us here: to show off a so-called “model village” that is the flagship for ecologically driven projects across Banteay Srei, one of a dozen districts that make up Siem Reap Province.
In a destructive year for Cambodia’s economy, the work of 37-year-old district governor Khim Finan seems particularly farsighted. His aim is to capitalize on the area’s natural and rural attractions by laying the groundwork for ecotourism experiences around Banteay Srei’s 36 villages, of which Preah Dak, with 518 households, is the largest. Though best known for its namesake temple, whose matchless collection of 10th-century mural carvings have attracted admirers for decades, Banteay Srei is also home to the lotus-filled waters of Boeung Chhouk lake and part of Phnom Kulen National Park, whose forests harbor waterfalls, ancient rock-cut fertility reliefs, and the ruins of the ancient hilltop city of Mahendraparvata, birthplace of the Angkor Empire. As for Preah Dak itself, there are handicraft shops purveying bowls and baskets made from sugar palm trees, and restaurants dishing up wholesome mounds of num banh chok: hand-milled rice noodles topped with a fish gravy, crisp vegetables, and herbs.
Since entering office last year, Finan, a former entrepreneur and president of the Siem Reap–based Innotality hospitality group, has checked off an impressive list of projects designed to improve the lives of his constituents. Apart from water-conservation and waste-treatment programs, these include the One House, One Light initiative, which introduced solar lighting to Preah Dak in a US$430,000 pilot project that is now being extended across the district. Finan has also instituted monthly rubbish collections and classes on clean and environmentally friendly living, with prizes for owners of the best homes. And in May, as the Covid-19 crisis deepened, he oversaw the creation of 40 hectares of volunteer-farmed “social rice fields” to produce grain for 2,000 poor families affected by the downturn. September saw the first harvest.
Despite his early successes, Finan acknowledges there is still work to be done. “We have to ensure that we highlight the district’s unique identity, like its lush green forests, ox-cart riding, rowing, and mountain climbing. If we want to develop Banteay Srei quickly and successfully, we should start with ecotourism.”
Nor is he alone in his outlook for the district’s potential. Rory and Melita Hunter, the Australian couple behind the eco-chic Song Saa Private Island resort off Cambodia’s south coast, are bringing their own brand of responsible tourism to the area in the form of Song Saa Reserve, a 233-hectare development centered on a lake just west of Banteay Srei temple. Touted as the country’s first fully integrated, sustainability-driven eco-resort, it will, when completed, encompass hotels, residential villas, a Khmer cultural center, a hospitality training center, and an affiliate of Bali’s Green School, all running on renewable energy. The site will also have permaculture gardens and a reforestation nursery that will serve as the hub for a planned planting of one million trees over the next five years.
“This project scales up our ethos and approach and allows Cambodia to show the world how tourism, done right, is a powerful means for lifting people out of poverty and protecting the environment,” Rory Hunter said at the announcement of the project.
One passionate environmentalist at the heart of this ambitious undertaking is Caroline Chau, who heads up Green Bamboo Village, an eco-lodge set for a 2023 opening within the Reserve. The retreat will include seven freestanding cottages and rooms alongside a central pavilion with a restaurant and wellness center, all constructed from bamboo. Its sustainability plan — solar power, water recycling, organic food, comprehensive waste management, zero net energy — mirrors the same ideals as Song Saa itself.
Chau, the daughter of Cambodian refugees who fled for France as teenagers in the late 1970s, didn’t set foot in her ancestral homeland until she was 22, on a visit to discover Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage. Fifteen years later, she’s here for other reasons. “I’m returning to give back,” she says. “I hope Green Bamboo Village will inspire people and be replicated in other countries.” Environmental innovation aside, the project is a deeply personal one for Chau. “Both my parents lived in Preah Dak until they were 10 years old, just before the civil war. They grew up on the main street. When I show them pictures of the village today, they are very surprised.”
Chau adds, “I used to visit a lot of poor villages, but the first time I went to Preah Dak, I saw the evolution there and how the people are so happy. I’m thrilled that someone in government is allocating time and resources to the environment — this is how we can sustain the country. If you work with the planet and with nature, you benefit.”
A former marketing director at French water and waste management company Veolia, Chau first heard of Song Saa while studying bamboo design and sustainable architecture at Bamboo U school in Bali. “I was amazed. Song Saa is not only luxury villas; its foundation helps people on the island — with security, education, healthcare — and protects the water. It’s an ecosystem. Then I saw that Song Saa Reserve was looking for investors. So I contacted Rory Hunter, and that is how everything started.”
Chau, whose passionate advocacy lies at the heart of Green Bamboo Village, says she is discussing a potential tie-up with Hanchey Bamboo Resort, a clutch of beautifully designed bamboo bungalows and pavilions in the Mekong Valley just upriver from the southeastern city of Kampong Cham. “There is so much to learn about this material — that’s the mission of the whole project. It is not only to do a business, or one more hotel, but to have a social and environmental impact on the community.”
With Covid-19 stalling progress, Song Saa Reserve won’t materialize any time soon. Until it does, visitors looking for an overnight stay in the district have a growing number of rustic guesthouses and homestays to choose from. Bong Thom, with a clutch of cozy wooden cabins and A-frame villas (not to mention a fabulous swimming pool), is a good option in San Day village. Ten kilometers to the north, Steng Toch offers basic rooms, tents, and a bamboo-furnished restaurant and bar on the red-dirt road opposite Boeung Chhouk lake.
For now, Finan will continue to preside over his district’s fortunes. “If residents understand the importance of ecotourism and can leverage on their warm hospitality, poverty in Banteay Srei will not be here for long,” he says.
Beyond Preah Dak and the district’s namesake temple, attractions in the area include the Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre, the Cambodia Landmine Museum, and the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity. Local tourism association Visit Banteay Srei provides a good overview of sights, businesses, and itineraries on its website.
For overnight stays, options range from higher-end Bong Thom Forest Lodge (doubles from US$150) to budget-friendly Steng Toch (from US$20) in the commune of Boeung Chhouk. More information about the progress at Song Saa Reserve and Green Bamboo Village Ecolodge & Retreat can be found at songsaareserve.com and fb.com/greenbamboocambodia, respectively.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020/February 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“East of Angkor”).