Harvesting sunshine at Farmhouse retreat

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A 1,000sqm solar farm provides 228 kilowatt-peak of green energy to the Farmhouse eco-resort. SUPPLIED

As its name suggests, the eco-resort Farmhouse Smiling Gecko is situated in a rural village in the southernmost portion of Kampong Chhnang’s Samki Meanchey district, about a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Phnom Penh.

The Khmer-style resort is one of Smiling Gecko Cambodia’s projects with guesthouse-like accommodations which visitors can stay at in relative luxury despite the remote and rustic surroundings.

There amidst the peace and quiet of the resort they can explore several seasonal vegetables farms which are all planted in eco-friendly ways that help to maintain the health of the natural environment.

Visitors can enjoy the home-grown produce from the farms while sampling authentic local cuisine, go on cycling excursions around the farms and village, go fishing at any of several ponds in the area or take a closer look at traditional arts & crafts in the village by visiting the blacksmith workshop.

Farmhouse had been struggling to overcome electricity shortages in the area for the last several years but now they’ve been able to connect all of their facilities to their solar power grid, which has also allowed them to consider expanding many of their other activities as well.

The eco-resort campus consists of 17 Khmer-style rustic wooden houses divided into 34 rooms and a restaurant, spa, workshop and even a school for the children of the village – all courtesy of SGC – and all powered by green approaches to energy and construction that seek to reduce their ecological footprint.

“Green energy is important for the Farmhouse not only to maintain its own green footprint, which is something that every organisation should be held responsible for these days, but also to create awareness among the customers, employees and local community,” says Benjamin Lehmann, Farmhouse’s general manager.

Farmhouse’s 228 kilowatt-peak (kWp) of energy is provided by a 1000 sqm solar-array installed next to the seasonal vegetable farms, but the solar power is just part of the overall green package and experience offered there.

“It is an important part of the whole operation but still just one part of many,” said Ng Soleap, SGC’s executive director and one of the founders of the Farmhouse resort.

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Farmhouse Smiling Gecko where mother nature provides social distancing for visitors and tropical jungle surrounds vegetable farms and fish ponds. Hong Menea

Soleap obtained degrees from both the Royal University of Law and Economics and the Institute of Foreign Languages at the Royal University Phnom Penh years back and he then met Hannes Schmid – a professional photographer and artist from Switzerland – and they launched SGC in 2013.

Their intention was to start harnessing some of the goodwill and financial resources of Schmid’s homeland of Switzerland in order to channel it into making a positive impact on Soleap’s still-developing and impoverished homeland of Cambodia.

After some tough lessons learned early on, that’s just what they’ve managed to do with Farmhouse and the many projects attached to it.

Soleap and Schmid founded the SGC originally to pursue a range of projects from agriculture to hospitality and education, but lately they’ve had an increased focus on environmental, ecological and green issues.

Soleap says that this was the natural result of paying closer attention to his organisation’s own environmental impact and green footprint and using that as a starting point to make changes and improvements in their operations.

“Now the solar grid allows us to operate independently despite being in such a remote location and we can control our operating costs to a much tighter degree since we can fine-tune our power bill rather than suffer at the whims of the public energy utility and markets,” says Soleap.

The green energy infrastructure at the Farmhouse can save the eco-resort a lot of money and it could actually earn the eco-resort profits in the future if they are able to sell power back to the national grid.

“We want to be a role-model for green tourism and sustainable hospitality. Our industry still can do more and needs to do more to contribute to a better environment,” he says.

Money is not going to be the obstacle that prevents Cambodia’s greening process if Soleap has any say in it, however, because the true costs of ignoring the damage to the environment and squandering Cambodia’s natural resources will be too horrific in his estimation to even consider checking the figurative price tags on.

“We aim for total conversion to sustainable green energy. We want to contribute as much as we can, and all that we have, to saving the environment in Cambodia and the world as a whole,” Soleap tells The Post.

Farmhouse is a practical expression of idealism being run by people who have the courage of their convictions and the deep sincerity of their efforts are apparent-to and appreciated-by their like-minded clientele.

Soleap adds that “as a rurally-located organisation that focuses on community agriculture as an aspect of eco-tourism we are obligated to acknowledge the ‘elephant in the room’ – or perhaps it’s better thought of as a cow?”

He quickly notes the negative impact that raising livestock is having on all areas of the environment and especially with the looming water-scarcity issues – there just doesn’t seem to be any possible way the status-quo can continue on much longer.

Go vegan, in other words? Yes and no. But partly, yes. What sounds absurd for lok-lak loving Cambodia today may be required by absolute necessity in the hypothetical water-scarce Cambodia of tomorrow – an uncertain and challenging future that seems well on its way to being present day across much of the globe.

Farmhouse: Social distancing before that was even a thing

Situated on an undeveloped stretch of rural land and rolled out sparsely over more than 130 hectares, Farmhouse Smiling Gecko is a guesthouse and eco-resort that had social distancing baked-in regardless of pandemic health regulations or the local vaccination rates.

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Workers install solar panels on part of the 130ha of land at the Farmhouse in Kampong Chhnang province’s Samki Meanchey district. Photo supplied

Farmhouse has a feel to it that is both wild and tame. It has the humid tranquillity of a tropical jungle with its densely forested wall of trees running up to the edges of fields that abruptly transition into the cheerful rusticity of orderly rows of tilled-soil for vegetable farming, the placid waters of fish ponds or even the wooden decks of Instagram or selfie-worthy swimming pools.

Indeed, it must be said that the pool-side view at Farmhouse is as scenic as any ocean-side beach, with walls of verdant lush-green foliage on all sides that break off at the horizon into the vast emptiness of Cambodia’s surreally bright and sunny pale-blue skies.

There are of course abundant outdoor activities available in addition to swimming, including private cycling and hiking trails that cut through the dozens of hectares of heavily foliaged landscape. Visitors who are especially keen on gardening or organic produce can learn all about eco-friendly farming or just sample the many fruits of the land being cultivated there.

That sampling of land fruits (i.e. eating) is always best accomplished by visiting the Farmhouse’s excellent open-air restaurants. Or just the one restaurant, with one kitchen and one head chef – but you can pick where you eat from a few different spots spread about the property.

“Of course, our guests always immensely enjoy our farm-to-table food by Mariya UN Noun, our chef, and served at three different main dining area locations on our grounds with plenty of space for distancing,” Soleap assures.

The restaurant’s dining areas rest on elevated platforms with views out to the horizons and diners can enjoy top-notch versions of authentic Cambodian dishes all made from ingredients that come fresh from the surrounding farms.

“All standard operating procedures for preventing Covid-19 are in place and we have the space to allow our guests and groups and families to experience their own excursions or activities outdoors such as hiking or cycling.

“Now would be a really great time to visit us, actually, if you want a trip you can take without running any unknown risks for infections, because you will have as much of your own space as you want,” Soleap says.

Farmhouse Smiling Gecko is located in Tbeng Khpos commune of Samaki Meanchey district in Kampong Chhnang province – only 70 km or so from central Phnom Penh – but with the natural ambiance to it of a place far more distant, secluded and remote.

Visit their Facebook page: @FarmhouseSmilingGecko