DOWN a rutted red-dirt road that threatens to swallow up vehicles when it rains lies Sambor Prei Kuk, a small community that has pinned its hopes for economic growth on locally-driven tourism.
The cluster of seven villages in Kampong Thom province is a bumpy 40-minute drive from the provincial capital, roughly halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Its residents are mostly farmers who eke out a living on the land with no access to mains water, power, or sewage systems
Locals hope conditions will improve over time thanks to the Isanborei community tourism project, which was established last year as a public-private partnership between German development organisation GTZ and the Khiri Reach Foundation, the non-profit arm of regional agency Khiri Travel.
The project aims to attract more visitors to the area by promoting Sambor Prei Kuk’s historically significant archaeological ruins and offering tourists a chance to experience traditional village life.
Tong Khy, who runs a homestay in the area, said the project had given him employment and the opportunity to improve his family’s lives.
“I hope that in the near future I will get more and more income to support my family, especially to send my three children to university,” he said.
His homestay charges with US$6 a night for each of its four rooms, with $1 going back into the community.
Expansion is on the horizon. Tong Khy said he hoped more tourists would come to the area in the future, and planned to grow his business to meet demand.
Sambor Prei Kuk’s main attraction is the three temple complexes of the ancient city of Isanapura, which served as the capital of the Chenla kingdom from the seventh century until the rise of Angkor.
Some of the ruins are now in a sorry state, having been bombed during the Vietnam war, swallowed up by the jungle and plundered for relics, but many are still definitive examples of Chenla architecture and sculpture. As a result, Sambor Prei Kuk is likely to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site next year.
Yet despite the area’s historical significance, tourism to date has been a relative trickle.
About 600 to 700 tourists visit every month in the high season, but as few as 100 visit each month in the low season, according to Sem Norm, chief of Sambor Prei Kuk Conservation and Development Community.
He hopes the Isanborei community tourism project can change that.
“If tourists come here our local people will get income. So we want people living in this area to keep up conservation and develop eco-tourism projects – to take care of the environment, forestry and culture.”
The concept of community tourism in Sambor Prei Kuk was first introduced in 2005, when GTZ teamed up with private-sector partners to develop a range of tourist services including community guides, bicycle hiring, handicrafts, catering, traditional Khmer dance performances and ox-cart rides.
Prom Visal, GTZ’s local economic development coordinator, said the recent partnership with Khiri Reach focused on improving the quality of services, such as training local caterers to improve food and hygiene standards. They have also set up a website to promote the area and established homestays, which Prom Visal said would encourage tourists to stay in the area for longer.
- Location Sambor Prei Kuk consists of seven villages scattered around the ancient temple city of Isanapura.
- History The city was the capital of the Chenla kingdom from the seventh century until the rise of Angkor, and could be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site next year.
- Travel Visitors can get a ride to the temples from the Tourist Transport Association of Kampong Thom.
- Provincial draw Provincial tourism figures show 200,328 domestic tourists and 10,191 international tourists visited Kampong Thom province in the first nine months of this year.
- Visitors An average of 600 to 700 tourists visit Sambor Prei Kuk every month in the high season.
An ancient temple is enveloped by a tree. Photo by: Matthew Backhouse
I hope that in the near future I will get more income to support my family… to send my three children to university.
“Sometimes they just come and see the temples and go, so there are no other benefits to the community. That’s why we try to build the capacity for them,” he said.
Infrastructural improvements are set to follow. Kampong Thom deputy governor Uth Sam An said at the official launch of Sambor Prei Kuk’s tourism services last week that the government would begin construction of a sealed road between Kampong Thom and Sambor Prei Kuk next year.
“Eco-tourism has much potential to create more jobs for local people and improve their living conditions,” he said.
But some domestic tourism operators have cautioned against pinning too much hope on sustainable tourism initiatives.
Speaking at the launch of the Responsible Travel Cambodia project in September, some operators said sustainable tourism products ranked low in most travellers priorities.
The success of community-driven projects was also dependent on offering adequate support to the locals who operated them.
Stephanie Deubler, junior advisor for the GTZ’s private sector promotion project, said that was why her organisation had chosen to partner up with the private sector.
“Like that, you can guarantee the ongoing sustainability of the project.
“If the private sector is already interested, chances are they will continue even when you are not here anymore,” she said.
Khiri Reach representative Oum Linda said they were committed to helping out the residents of Sambor Prei Kuk.
“We have extended the project to promote tourism activities with the overall goal of reducing poverty in the commune,” she said.
“We want to protect this community and the site, and to sell tourism-related services to tourists in order to generate income in rural areas.”
For more information on Sambor Prei Kuk and the Isanborei community tourism project, visitwww.smaborpreikuk.com