The governments of Cambodia and Germany are jointly pushing the burgeoning tourism in Siem Reap beyond its glorious and historic temples. The cosmopolitan town in northwest Cambodia truly has more to offer – hidden places that exhibit majestic beauty just waiting to be discovered and visited. Agnes Alpuerto joined last week’s Siem Reap Beyond the Temples Familiarisation Trip, organised by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, along with other journalists, tour operators, tourism organisations and stakeholders.
We’ve all been to Angkor Wat, yes? Undeniably one of the world’s most visited religious and tourist sites, Angkor Wat is a testimony of the wealth and power of the Khmer empire. Despite it being mere ruins, it holds stories of faith, culture, dominance and influence that many of us have been drawn to.
But Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat and various ancient temples, is also an epitome of something beyond what it is commonly known for. The rural, innermost parts of the town are pictures of real Khmer identity – lifestyle, traditions, handi-crafts, carvings, nature, wildlife, people.
The children in distant districts show sincere warmth as they enthusiastically wave and smile at every passing tourist, probably because there aren’t too many visitors that take the off-the-beaten tracks and into their villages.
Yes, there’s more to Siem Reap than the legendary temples. Many equally splendid places bear magic that are just waiting to be explored and recognised.
Svay Chek Organic Farm
Set in a 40-hectare land in Angkor Thom District, Svay Chek Organic Farm boasts around 50 kinds of fruits and vegetables that are all organically grown – no chemical pesticides, no chemical fertilizers. The farm, according to its Project Manager Eric Guerin, started five years ago with the main objective to not just produce and sell organic products, but to contribute to the development of safe agriculture in Cambodia.
“When I say safe, I mean safe for the farmers, safe for the customers, safe for the environment. This is a very important work for us,” shares Guerin.
Svay Chek Organic Farm currently holds tours for local and foreign visitors who want to know more about organic agriculture and taste the products of the farm.
Guerin added that they will soon be opening organic farm classes and will continue to strengthen their work with local communities and NGOs in pushing forward the advocacy of organic and safe agriculture.
Angkor Thom Women’s Development Centre
The young women were all eyes on their sewing machines, making sure the fabrics are neatly sewn. There were more than a dozen of them inside the Angkor Thom Women’s Development Centre. While some used machines in sewing, the other women weaved dyed silk manually. Even with the availability of machines for faster and easier weaving, the center opts to retain the traditional weaving and provide jobs for women in Siem Reap. A group of women in another room were busily weaving rattan baskets with their bare hands, checking constantly how the palm stems were slowly taking shape.
Even with the manual – and considerably scrupulous – work, the products inside Angkor Thom Women’s Development Centre come cheap, giving visitors more reason to grab some scarves or bags or some handicrafts.
Institute of Khmer Traditional Textiles
The IKTT, opened originally in Kampot in 1996, produces traditional textiles through traditional practices that were once a source of pride of the Kingdom. For decades, IKTT strived to revive the beauty and prominence of Cambodian silk ikat, regarded throughout history as one of the most beautiful in the world. With its aim to produce the silk and help the local community of Angkor Thom, IKTT has also grown its own forest where it sources its silk and natural dyes.
“Here, people have different tasks. Some do the weaving, some dye the silk, some do the cleaning of the silk. Everyone has job. That’s what we are really happy about. We provide jobs and do things manually, naturally,” says one IKTT staff.
From its humble beginnings as a single building in the middle of rural Siem Reap, it has now become a self-sustaining textile community where more than 150 people live and work to produce the best silks in the world.
Chang Kran Roi
The success of the community-based ecotourism in this part of Varin District is evident everywhere, despite the fact that the area has only been given profound attention last year. With the support of the Non-Timber Forest Product Exchange Programme, the community has boosted its tourism assets – protected forest, waterfalls, bat cave, spirit mountain and wildlife.
To get access to the refreshing and exquisite stream and into the innermost parts of the community, Koyons (hand tiller machines) are readily available. Cycling or walking are also good options for a more intimate and slow-paced view of nature.
For those who plan to go on night trekking and campings, the community also offers good spots for tent set-ups or homestays that serve not just local food but utmost hospitality.
Khnar Po Village
What’s a better way to experience Siem Reap than truly and fully immersing in the local community? The village of Khnar Po in Soutr Nikum District offers an authentic and traditional homestay experience especially for foreigners. A dozen traditional stilted houses open their homes for whoever wants to personally observe how Cambodians in rural areas live. All the homestays have electricity and functional bathrooms and toilets. And as proof of real Khmer warmth, visitors are given the host family’s best mattresses, pillows, mosquito nets and shower towels.
But it’s not only homestays that make the village of Khnar Po a must-go place for locals and foreigners. The long and wide-stretched green rice field, the all-smiling children, the local crafts and the small Angkorian temples of Banteay Ampil are more than enough reasons to wake up early in the morning and take a stroll around.
Bong Thom Homestay
A more ornate sleeping space, Bong Thom Homestay near the Banteay Srei Temple consists three houses that can accommodate small to large group of tourists. The houses are built with traditional materials but are innovatively designed for a more comfortable experience of their dwellers.
Flower and vegetable gardens, fish ponds, flower strewn pathway and a spacious restaurant add up to Bong Thom’s exciting features.
The homestay also organises campings, cycling, cooking classes, farming, team building and excursions to local communities to provide means of living for the locals and a one-of-a-kind experience of Khmer culture, tradition and lifestyle for visitors.
Tagged as “Paradise in the heartlead of Siem Reap”, all the houses and the homestay’s amenities are adequately furnished and ventilated, making tourists feel at home amid nature.
These and more other places are tangible testament of just how much beauty and story the town of Siem Reap holds. Angkor Wat and other Hindu and Buddhist temples, vast rice fields, traditional and extravagant homestays, craftwork and weaving centers, waterfalls and forests are all worth visiting, all worth knowing, all worth experiencing. Part 2 of the “Siem Reap Beyond the Temples” list in next week’s Good Times2.