In the late afternoon, the sun starts setting and night begins covering villagers in darkness, but not in Banteay Srei district, which has benefitted from the government’s One House, One Light Bulb initiative and is now angling itself as the alternative to Siem Reap city for tourists.
The initiative aims to fully electrify target areas and Banteay Srei district governor Khim Finan says it has allowed him to kick-start a campaign to transform his district into an eco-tourist destination.
“We want nights to be bright like daytime. The security issues in villages are cut and the traffic accidents are also reduced with the lights,” says Finan.
Pov Mali, who sells local products made of rattan, says lights are important for her village.
“We gain benefit because now we can leave our things outside. Previously, many strangers were passing by at night. I feel the village is safer because the lights are on at night,” says Mali, who sells her products to local and international tourists.
Finan, who is gaining popularity on social media, says the lights have also led to the potential for eco-tourism in the area.
The district governor wants to see Banteay Srei become the alternative destination to Siem Reap city, focusing on nature tourism. Visitors who love city life can stay in Siem Reap city and those who value nature can experience rural lives in his district, he says.
“We are not trying to design Banteay Srei as another Siem Reap city. We will create our own Banteay Srei identity, adapting our style as we showcase the rice fields, mountains, green lush forests, horseriding, boat racing and camping,” says Finan.
To improve tourism, Finan wants travellers to spend nights in his district because currently, the average tourist spends only a few hours in Banteay Srei.
“If they stay the night, they need to spend on accommodation, travel, facilities, meals and other activities. But if we want them to spend a night here, we need to do more,” he says.
Banteay Srei is home to the well-known Banteay Srei Temple among the other large temples such as Angkor Wat, Bayon and Taprum.
Kulen Mountain is another attraction as those who want to reach the mountain peak have to go through Banteay Srei land.
“The speciality of Banteay Srei is Khmer noodle and palm sugar and recently people are learning about Banteay Srei’s melons. Banteay Srei is the only district to grow melons and sell them at tourist markets,” says Finan.
Beoung Chhouk, a natural reservoir, posts a beautiful landscape and can become more attractive with eco-tourism, he says. Kbal Spean Mountain is a natural adventure and cultural resort.
“Banteay Srei’s agriculture can also be turned into agro-tourism activities. This is what I, as the district governor, want our farmers to pay more attention to as agro-tourism provides benefits.
“Firstly, their products gain higher prices than normal markets and secondly it doesn’t depend on outside factors.
“It also means that if we have tourists here, we should sell our products at our sites without transporting to markets because Siem Reap has millions of visitors per year.
“We have many other crops such as dragon fruit, jujube, Pailin’s juicy longans, durian, cashew nut, melon, mango, sweet potato and mountain rice. I believe if people pay attention to agro-tourism, they can set prices higher than at markets,” he says.
The district administration is studying tourism infrastructure, including streets, security, cleanliness and hygiene, because he says the environment is a huge issue.
“The connection with the environment, the fresh-air sites and the special experience offered can lead to potential tourism in Banteay Srei,” says Finan.
He says that if people understand the importance of nature tourism and hospitability, they can earn an income without seeking jobs in other countries, reducing poverty in Banteay Srei.
“If tourists spend a night here, I believe we can reach our goal. We don’t expect to build modern hotels but rather homestays. Some tourists want to experience staying with our people, or camping here or camping on the mountain.
“I believe Banteay Srei can provide tourism jobs, not only in its territory but also the surrounding districts,” says Finan.