Creating the Garden of Happiness

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The garden offers views of sunflowers, khun ream, tom ho, and two types of marigolds. Hean Rangsey

Not long ago if you were to cross the Japanese-Friendship Bridge over to Chroy Changvar peninsula and head north along National Road 6 on your way to Kandal and beyond, you would have found precious little that was eye-catching, pleasing or particularly notable.

The past few years have brought prodigious change to what was once just a barren and dusty roadside and there are now such a beautiful bounty of blossoming flowers there that more often than not you’ll now see many people parked along the road there.

Many of them are surprised by the spectacle of the many colourful flowers and on a breezy day without too much humidity almost no one who visits or passes by can do so without pausing to snap a picture.

The 1.5 hectare flower garden is dubbed Soun Sang Sopheakmonkul, which roughly translates to English as “Garden of Happiness”. It is covered in a cornucopia of flowers including sunflowers, khun ream, tom ho, two types of marigolds, cockscomb and gerbera.

Between the orderly rows of flowers there are swings, benches and other seating as well as novelty photo backdrops like eagle’s wings or a heart decorated as a hat. There are also shaded kiosks where visitors can rest if the sun gets to be too much for them.

The visitors to the Garden of Happiness are many and varied – families, groups of friends and even work colleagues. Some like to rush about taking selfie after selfie given the beauty of the place while others just quietly sit on the swings and take advantage of a rare moment where they aren’t expected to be anywhere or do anything for anyone – they can just relax and breathe in the floral scent of the surroundings.

At the kiosk mentioned earlier, people can also order meals – just simple Khmer dishes – as well as beverages of all kinds.

The Garden of Happiness was founded in January of last year by a young entrepreneur named Vey Sokneang.

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Sunflowers in bloom for Khmer New Year. Hean Rangsey

“This is my dream. I realized I wanted to create a garden and park for people to come and enjoy the beauty of nature when I was 20. I don’t really know where the idea came from but my passion for it was so real that I needed to act on it.

“When I told my parents, they weren’t exactly against it but they also didn’t understand it and just couldn’t get what was going on in my head,” the 23-year-old founder tells The Post.

Sokneang started out with no resources whatsoever aside from this idea that was taking up a gigantic amount of space in his imagination. Not having any better plan, he decided to just go door to door and house to house and ask if the residents would share some seeds with him or donate any small amount of money towards the project.

The villagers saw him as little more than a curiosity – an odd neighbour with strange requests for seeds – but they gave them to him freely all the same. Encountering such kindness from people who weren’t even really sure what he was trying to do made him vow that one day when his dream was a reality he would let all of the kind people who helped him into the garden free of charge so they could enjoy its beauty for the rest of their lives.

Sokneang saved up a hundred dollar bill and used that to purchase seeds from China, but unfortunately that plan didn’t go well. The seeds that he purchased were not the seeds that they actually sent him and they didn’t grow into the plants he expected them to. In fact, they weren’t even flowers or suitable for a garden like his at all.

“At first I failed again and again because I had no knowledge about it. I’d just watch videos on YouTube of how landscaping is done professionally at parks around the world but most of it just didn’t apply to the situation here.

“Eventually we figured out that this was our idea and if it was going to work then it would be because we took charge and use our own creativity to design the place ourselves. In the early days when we first opened the park we maybe had two or three people a day coming through. Now we get up to 200 people per day. It’s such a big leap for me,” he says.

Having seen that he turned his dream into reality, Sokneang’s father is thrilled that his son proved to be far more clever than crazy when his obsession with this garden idea first began.

Now his father doesn’t even need to support Sokneang with investment money or financially but he still helps out with the gardening and landscaping just to enjoy the place himself and beam with pride when he sees big crowds of people coming to visit his son’s park.

Sokneang has studied horticulture on his own thoroughly enough to know how to keep his garden in bloom year round with flowers that grow in each season or every season. He divides his park into an area where guests can enjoy the flowers in bloom and then a growing section where the plants are not yet mature so that he can alternate between the two over the course of the year.

He admits that it is a challenge at times because flowers don’t all grow simultaneously and each species has a different planting time and a different lifespan or different shade or water requirements.

Sokneang and his father water the flowers daily and watch them closely for any signs of trouble like pests in order to guarantee the park is always in full bloom.

“Most guests visit on the weekends and for big festivals such as Khmer New Year, Chinese New Year and Pchum Ben. Currently our entrance fee is 3000 riel per person, but we are thinking of increasing it to 5000 riel because we’re adding more designs and features.

“However, the park is always free of charge for children, monks and people with disabilities – and they are always welcome to visit, at no cost,” he emphasises.

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A woman takes a picture of cockscomb flowers at the garden. Hean Rangsey

Aside from the entrance fee and the sale of food and beverages, there aren’t many other ways that he can turn a profit on the place, but regardless of the money he says he just loves seeing the smiles on people’s faces or seeing families visit together and have a fun day out they can always remember.

There aren’t many rules governing the Garden of Happiness but the few that there are must never be broken and aside from cleaning up after yourself and not littering the main rule is an obvious one:

Do not pick the flowers. Don’t even think about it. Look, but don’t touch. Touch, and you’ll only ever be able to look from outside the garden gates thenceforth.

Garden of Happiness is still a work in progress and Sokneang has many big improvements planned. He wants to add more props and photo backdrops as well as a fish pond where visitors can feed the fish and if the pond is large enough he says he’d like to have a dock with some small rowboats that people can take out on the water.

But first he has some advice for the rest of his generation in Cambodia: Think bigger. Try harder.

“I want all the youths – particularly from 18-25 or at the age where, as the Khmer saying goes, “the bamboo shoots become the future bamboo” – to learn to be brave and to pursue their dreams. Hold on to your dreams tightly, no matter what gets in your way.

“I hope they work towards becoming people who are valuable to their families and society. Too many Khmer aren’t even aware that they could have a dream or a goal or the possibility to achieve something, but the people who do know what they want need to chase after it without hesitation.

“You must take life seriously because if you do things just for the sake of doing them then the chances of getting the results you want are basically impossible. But if you know your dream and you refuse to give up on it – even if you fail ten times or more than that – I believe your day will come if you never surrender to the obstacles in front of you.

“As they say in America – if at first you don’t succeed just try and try again,” he says.

Sokneang also has a side-business doing landscaping and gardens at people’s private homes or businesses as well as selling seeds and plants. He can be contacted via mobile at 093 76 12 25 or 095 86 96 26 or visit his Facebook page: @VSNGroup2019

The Garden of Happiness itself is about a 30-minute drive from the Chroy Changvar bridge and it’s open every day from 7am-7pm in Spean Thmey Village of Roka Kong II commune in Muk Kampoul district of Kandal province just outside the capital.