To mark the launch of an initiative to boost tourism in the Banteay Srei district of Siem Reap, Marissa Carruthers samples what the area has to offer.
A weathered wooden landing juts out into shallow waters dotted with lotus flowers. Tall grasses sway in the gentle breeze, and emerald paddies stretch to the horizon where the silhouettes of rising hills contrast against clear blue skies. The only sounds are the chorus of insects, soothing birdsongs and the odd call of a gibbon from the surrounding woodland.
Choosing to launch the Visit Banteay Srei campaign midway through monsoon season was always going to be a risk. While it’s true that the Cambodian countryside is at its finest in the wake of a bit of wet, when the harsh dusty landscape is replaced with lush green and still ponds boasting pristine reflections of surrounding sugar palms, interrupted only by wading water buffalo and farmers working the sodden land, walking around in the rain is never any fun. However, the risk paid off as we fluked a couple of rare days of sunshine wedged in between downpour – the perfect conditions to dive into rural life.
As we lapped up the serenity of our lunch spot – a picnic overlooking Banteay Srei boray, which skirts the ancient Banteay Srei temple that sits about 30km from its big sister, Angkor Wat – tourists are scarce, nature is on form and sweeping views take in vistas boasting all that is great about Cambodia’s vibrant countryside.
“There is so much more to do than visit the temples here,” says Saloth Eng, a German International Cooperation (GIZ) Regional Economic Development programme (RED III) advisor who has spent almost two years working with communities in the district to develop top notch community-based tourism (CBT) initiatives. “There is the nature, rural communities, homestays, farms, forests; so much more.”
Using tourism as a tool to provide poverty-stricken communities with a sustainable income, villages have come together to tap into the global CBT trend and showcase firsthand Banteay Srei’s abundance of natural beauty while giving a glimpse into authentic rural life. As part of the project, locals have opened up their homes, businesses and lives to visitors, and a dedicated website (visitbanteaysrei.org) and map marking the district’s highlights were launched in October.
Sampling some of the delights on offer, we started our trip at Siem Reap town centre early that morning, taking a silent 20-minute drive – thanks to the use of Blue Mobility’s electric car – to the neighbouring area. Stepping straight into country life, we stopped off at one of several restaurants at Preah Dak for a traditional breakfast of nam ben chok noodles – the village’s signature dish – that were freshly cooked in front of us. A short stroll down the street led to a row of sugar palm sellers flogging everything from hand-carved wooden items to skor pen sweets and palm wine, all made in the houses behind.
Next up was Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre ($4/$2). Home to more than 30 species of Cambodian butterflies and moths, Southeast Asia’s largest – albeit relatively small – fully-enclosed butterfly centre offers a colourful educational experience. The netted enclosure is bursting full of giant butterflies delicately painted in reds, blues, yellows and greens flapping through the air or resting on the rainbow of flowers and plants that fill the space. Guides are also on hand to talk, and walk, guests through the transformation from egg to caterpillar and cocoon to butterfly.
The close by Cambodia Landmine Museum is another worthy destination. Run by Cambodian deminer Aki Ra, the museum contains a sobering collection of just a handful of the deadly landmines and UXOs discovered during the mass clearing operation. Featuring harrowing stories of landmine victims, the museum also aims to educate visitors on the important work that will continue decades into the future to clear Cambodia of the many remaining explosives that litter the land and water.
With our lunchtime picnic spot setting expectations for stunning landscape views, surrounding Banteay Srei didn’t fail to impress. A trip to Khmer Natural Dragon Fruit Farm in Rohal Village, where the organically-grown fruit offers a sweeter bite than usual, presents more majestic scenery from the spacious balcony of the central wooden house. Guests can meander through the neat rows of prickly cacti, plucking their own fruit ($2 per kilogram) to take home or enjoy onsite, or take a short boat trip on the pond – a bomb crater – at the back of the farm.
Sticking to the nature trail, Kbal Teuk Community Forest boasts an abundance of rare flora and fauna, such as bompong lok – carnivorous pitcher plants that devour insects – and an array of indigenous orchids. Marked trails snake through the forest and rickety bamboo bridges stretch over swamps then shallow, clear waters, with guides on hand to point out the forest’s many hidden treasures.
And sitting at the base of the trail to Kbal Spean is the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB). Daily tours at 9am and 1pm ($3) show guests around the site, which is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and reintroducing wildlife back into its natural habitat. Gibbons can be seen hanging from tree tops, macaques monkeying around, a variety of giant cranes stalk their territory and turtles peek from their ponds.
With plenty more on offer and a plethora of homestays up for grabs – ranging from a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net to villas resembling upscale boutique hotels – I certainly know what I’ll be doing for my next birthday especially as you can hire out the whole house.