Subsistence villagers in central Cambodia are preparing themselves for an increase in tourists who are curious to explore dozens of local temple ruins that pre-date Angkor Wat by up to 500 years.
With some international aid, the villagers have set up a small scale infrastructure of handicraft shop, information centre, restaurant, homestay accommodation and bicycle tours. Guided bicycle trips visit the nearby ruins that have been likened to a setting in an Indiana Jones movie.
The German government through GTZ (German Technical Cooperation) has helped villagers with physical preparation. Khiri Reach, the not-for-profit arm of Khiri Travel, is now promoting Sambor Prei Kuk, formerly known as Isanapura, the capital of a pre-Angkorian Khmer kingdom.
“Our aim is to bring more people to the Sambor Prei Kuk area and extend their stay to at least one overnight,” said Willem Niemeijer, CEO and co-founder of Khiri Travel. “The area is suitable for adventurous travelers who enjoy low-key pleasures such as forest hikes, exploration by bicycle, ox cart rides, homestays and buying locally made silk, rattan and bamboo handicrafts.”
GTZ has helped with guide training, educating locals to preserve their heritage and building a basic restaurant plus information centre and toilets for tourists.
When GTZ started work in the area there were approximately 1,200 visitors per year. There are now around 8,000, but few stay overnight.
The temples are in an impoverished area of Kampong Thom province, halfway between Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat. Most visitors pass through without stopping. That may soon change.
“Sambor Prei Kuk is at the centre of a plan to promote attractions throughout Kampong Thom province,” said Peter Bolster, program director, Private Sector Promotion, GTZ-PSP. “The provincial government has agreed to the plan which is now under consideration at the highest level of government in Phnom Penh,” he said.
Niemeijer said that inspecting the ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk can be combined with visits to other community based attractions in the province. These include Santuk Mountain, the holiest in the region, Tonle Sap protected area and bird sanctuary, the Santuk Silk Farm and an inspection of villages specialized in stone carving and making rice noodles.
Since 2005 GTZ has worked with the Sambor Prei Kuk Conservation Project to establish craft training courses for seven villages in the area. Community funds now go towards temple conservation, supporting home businesses, maintaining signage, and the upkeep of the craft hut and information centre.