My Village Homestay Among Khmer Ruins

On the road with Khiri Travel – a guest blog by Ryan van Velzer — Sambor Prei Kuk village is a small detour from the city of Khampong Thong, a rest stop in route to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. A community of farmers, the village has existed in a similar fashion for hundreds if not thousands of years.The homestays are setup up by locals like Bunteng, a 31 year old farmer, husband, father and the village coordinator for the 10 homestays scattered across the seven villages that make up his community.

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For the last three years he has worked in conjunction with Khiri Travel for the prosperity of his community. Through providing travellers with an authentic village experience, he hopes to create new jobs, protect local wildlife and provide extra income for the village.

The homestay I visited belongs to Bunteng’s mother-in-law. A small clean home built in the traditional style, it’s bursting with life. In the shade beneath the home (built on stilts), children play, neighbours lounge in hammocks, a chicken herds her chicks and a dog nurses her puppies.

Bunteng takes pride in preparing the homestays for travellers. While preserving authenticity, he makes sure to provide guests a clean environment including the grounds, toilets, showers and beds. There’s limited electricity from 6 to 10pm, provided by a generator used by the entire village, so guests should take care to bring a flashlight and extra batteries for any technology they can’t live without.

Food

Bunteng cares about the food. The jasmine rice comes from the paddy behind his mother-in-laws home. Entirely organic, the rice is grown without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers, a common practice throughout the community. Despite the lower yield, he takes pride in knowing the rice has fewer chemicals, more nutritional value and better flavour than the commercially grown alternative.

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What isn’t made on the property is bought from neighbours, providing extra income to the surrounding villages. The produce and even the rice noodles are all made within the community.

The pork, beef, chicken and (yes) dog are all raised and eaten locally. Bunteng laughed when I asked him how they preserve the meat without electricity for refrigeration; his answer was that the meat is always fresh because it’s bought from his neighbours and killed, prepared and eaten all on the day of purchase.

History

The people of the Sambor village are also the guardians of ancient history. There are, hidden in the jungles around the village, the ruins of Hindu and Buddhist Temples dating as far back the 7th century. Once a large temple complex, it has since been ravaged equally by nature and man. What remains are three temples, built at different points in history between the 7th and 11th century.

The first temple, known as Sambor Temple, is a short bike ride from the Bunteng’s homestay.  In the middle of a small forest, the crumbled brick walls grow thick with moss. Inside the walls, the ruins of small altars with eight faces are dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. The main site, is square with an entrance facing the East, made of lime, brick, cement and sandstone. Although people long ago stopped worshipping Shiva at the site, a small Buddha statue sits inside surrounded by incense and offerings from Sambor villagers.

The second temple is known as the Lion’s Temple. It too is a short ride through the forest. Built with three false entrances (spirits only), the main east facing entrance is guarded by two large stone lions. Though lions were originally placed at each entrance only the front two remain; the others were taken to a museum, destroyed by weather or stolen by raiders.

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The last temple is Bunteng’s personal favourite. Just beside one of the red clay roads that pass through the village is a large tree growing out of the ruins of a temple. The tree is roughly a hundred to two hundred years old. A type of parasite has grown out of a fallen tree and has engorged the ruins. Its roots coil around the temple; its trunk protrudes off to the eastern side searching for light.

Activities

In the evening, as the sun sets and the heat subsides the locals gather to play volleyball at a court beside Bunteng’s house. Travellers are invited to join in. It’s obvious that while it’s fun, the kids and Bunteng take the game seriously. Previously a high school athlete and captain of his school’s volleyball team, Bunteng leaps high above the net to spike the ball and score points. It’s apparent that he taught all the others to play and retains the energy and competitive spirit of his former years.

After the game, we take a walk around the village and head back to shower and change into fresh clothes. In the meantime, the local kids whom we played volleyball with trickle over to the house with plastic jugs of palm wine which is made from the bark of palm trees and left to ferment for 24 hours. As dusk settled in we gathered around a plastic table in the yard and traded vocabulary in the different languages we knew. Clinking our glasses of palm wine together, we exchanged cheers in Khmer, Thai, German, French and English.

After a few glasses, a plate of barbeque was set on the table to whet our appetites for dinner. This was the aforementioned dog meat. Apprehensively, encouraged by my new friends, I took a piece between my fingers and stuck it in my mouth: salty, chewy, and not altogether unlike beef. It was actually pretty good — well except for the lingering memories of childhood pets.

Welcome to Sambor Prei Kuk.