With the aim of increasing opportunities for Kampong Cham communities while providing luxurious pampering for visitors in a serene setting, an organisation is hand-crafting a meditation retreat on one of the province’s peaks. Words by Marissa Carruthers.

Hanchey Eco-RetreatThe sound of wedding music rings in the air from the small village that sits at the base of the hill’s slopes, a gentle breeze lessens the harshness of the mounting midday heat and sweeping vistas take in fields dotted with grazing cattle, the Mekong River, clusters of wooden houses, distant temples and Cambodian countryside that stretches as far as the eye can see.

Tranquillity is in abundance by the bucketload at the peak of Hanchey hill, which sits about 20km outside the city of Kampong Cham.

“This is a truly wonderful place,” says Vandong Thorn, pointing out expanses of dry paddy fields that submerge under water when the monsoons cause the Mekong to burst its banks, bamboo farms and rolling hills that melt into the haze of the horizon.

As executive director of the NGO Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA), Thorn is currently overseeing the construction of a yoga and meditation retreat nestled atop the hill. Using unique building techniques, eco-friendly materials and stunning architecture, which sees the buildings blend naturally into their surroundings, Thorn and his team have high hopes for Hanchey Eco-Retreat.

Founded in 2005 by seven monks, including Thorn, BSDA offers a new lease of life to Kampong Cham’s underprivileged communities through providing education and vocational training, as well as a range of support services.

With BSDA already operating hospitality, Apsara dance and technical training centres, as well as Smile restaurant in the city centre, five years ago Thorn started thinking about ways to expand operations to further boost the economy and employment opportunities and raise the province’s profile, while generating additional funds for the NGO.

Tourism was on the increase in Cambodia and a slow but rising trickle of travellers were stopping off in the province, so he decided to tap into the global wellness trend. The seed was planted to create a retreat that works in harmony with Kampong Cham’s calm, rural charm.

“The project started off small,” Thorn recalls, adding plans started to snowball once the full potential became apparent. “Kampong Cham isn’t a huge tourist destination and we wanted to make something special that nobody had done here before. Something that is eco-friendly, as well as spiritual and fits with the Buddhist philosophy.”

The answer lay in the yoga and meditation retreat that is nearing completion on Hanchey hill. The five-hectare site, boasting uninterrupted 360-degree views that take in glorious sunrises and sunsets, will house a hilltop retreat with swimming pool, bar and massage cabanas, 23 villas with private terraces looking out onto the Mekong, a spacious meditation centre and restaurant, all amidst lush landscaped tropical gardens.

Plans quickly got underway and work on the first phase – the meditation centre, restaurant, swimming pool area, reception building and 10 villas – started in October.

Construction workers were recruited from nearby villages, as well as an architect, engineer and construction supervisor. And three small training teams were brought in from Thailand to school the workers in advanced bamboo building techniques, brick-making and earth brick construction.

“These techniques don’t exist in Cambodia so we are equipping the local community with new marketable skills and a portfolio of buildings they were responsible for,” says construction technical advisor Gordon Evans, watching a group of men standing in the shade of a tin shelter. One is sanding down large bamboo poles while the others gather around a trainer making furniture from the polished materials.

“We’re taking semi-skilled labourers and turning them into skilled labourers, and trying to make sure every penny we spend is kept in the area,” he adds.

Elsewhere, men stand beneath the sprawling shell of what will be the meditation centre, the skeleton of the giant bamboo roof resembling a piece of modern art. They study detailed architectural plans, measuring the drawings before continuing with their work.

“Most of the workers had never seen scaled drawings or plans before,” says Evans. “Now they understand the importance of building documentation and have gained another important skillset.”

In keeping with the environmental ethos, 99 percent of materials are eco-friendly and mainly come in the form of bamboo harvested from farms within a 30km radius of Hanchey and bricks made onsite using the clay-rich soil.

“This really is an eco-friendly, sustainable building,” says Evans.

With completion of the first phase slated by early 2018, when the first guests will be welcomed, hopes are high that the eco-retreat will lift the area while providing holidaymakers from home and abroad with an idyllic break in the heart of Cambodia.

“Kampong Cham has all the charisma and beauty that Cambodia is all about; it’s the Cambodia many people don’t see, and it’s the best part” says Evans.

Hanchey Eco-Resort is seeking investment to complete the second phase of the development as well as a professional yoga teacher.

For more information, visit bsda-cambodia.org.