Just a two and a half hour drive from Siem Reap, in northwest Cambodia, a rustic Banteay Chhmar homestay offers a rare chance to live like locals in a village set amidst the Khmer Empire ruins of a garrison-city.
We’ve just returned to Siem Reap from the sprawling Angkor-era archaeological site, where our accommodation was a simple Banteay Chhmar homestay in a dusty village skirting the temple moat, and it was wonderful.
Banteay Chhmar Homestay, Living Like Locals Amid Ruins in Cambodia
Remote Banteay Chhmar is a rarely visited, ramshackle, 12th-century temple city, some 30kms from the Thai border as the crow flies. It was built during the reign of the ambitious king Jayavarman VII (1181-1219), responsible for majestic construction projects at Angkor Archaeological Park, including the enormous Angkor Thom – home to the enchanting Bayon – the tree-strangled Ta Prohm, and labyrinthine Preah Khan.
Skirted by a serene moat, dotted with lotus flowers when we visited two days ago, Banteay Chhmar is stupendous – the fourth largest temple after Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat – yet it’s seriously dilapidated.
Shaded by towering trees, dripping with massive beehives swollen with swarms of “magical bees” (according to locals), Banteay Chhmar temple has a sense of unruliness about it. The small (supposedly deadly) snake we watched slither along the base of a temple wall, added to the untamed ambiance.
The atmospheric setting aside, the main attractions are the restored walls, which boast hundreds of metres of bas-reliefs, vividly depicting everything from battles between the Khmers and Chams to scenes from palace and pagoda life, two impressive multi-armed Avalokiteshvara, and four-faced Bayon-style towers.
While the temple complex is the magnet that draws travellers here, the opportunity to experience a Banteay Chhmar homestay and gain an insight into everyday village life is a reason to linger for a night or three.
Living Like Locals at a Banteay Chhmar Homestay
Our visit a couple of days ago marked the second time we’ve experienced a Banteay Chhmar homestay – the first being early last year, when we stayed with the lovely Yan Ply and Pat Caueng, the shy middle aged couple, pictured above.
While our recent trip was organised by Siem Reap based tour company See Asia Differently, which we were testing out for temple stories we’re working on, our first Banteay Chhmar homestay was part of our inaugural culinary travel writing and photography tour, which we hosted in partnership with Backyard Travel. As we are writing about our recent visit in forthcoming stories, I wanted to share last year’s experience.
On arrival at Banteay Chhmar, we made a beeline for the community centre where our small group was met by the enthusiastic Sy Mao (above), Vice President of the Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism Committee, who doubles as a tour guide when he’s not leading local restoration teams at the archaeological site.
Meals and activities had been booked in advance and Mao escorted us directly to the temple, where a lunch cooked by village women had been set up, complete with table and chairs, linen and cutlery, by the impressive sandstone walls.
We tucked into simple, hearty, traditional Khmer dishes, typically found in the Cambodian countryside, including a sour samlor k’tis, a coconut milk based soup of pumpkin, melon, fish, and sleuk bahs (the leaves of a climbing vine that are typically used in soups), and a char banle trei (a vegetable and fish stir-fry).
After eating, we began to explore the temple with Sy Mao, starting with a closer viewing of the nearby walls, carved with intricate bas-reliefs to rival those at the Bayon and Angkor Wat near Siem Reap.
We clambered over colossal stones to photograph secret carvings of Apsara dancers, and we ambled beneath the shade of enormous trees to see splendid towers with four sides of serene smiling faces, in the style of those at the Bayon temple at Angkor.
Apart from a beautiful bride and handsome groom with their bridesmaids, groomsmen, and a photographer on a pre-wedding shoot, we bumped into just one other traveller discovering the temple. The next morning, on our sunrise visit, we were completely alone.
The check-in process to our Banteay Chhmar homestay in the two-storey traditional Khmer wooden house above was a breeze. After meeting our host family, who pretty much kept to themselves during our stay – bunking down on the ground floor and giving guests bathroom priority – Mao gave us a super-quick briefing.
He demonstrated how to ‘flush’ the toilet in the spotlessly clean bathroom (a simple scoop or two of water from a cement tank into the Western toilet bowl; a cinch) and instructed us to leave our shoes downstairs (as is the custom across southeast Asia), before showing us to our rooms.
All of the homestays at Banteay Chhmar are similarly set up – the family’s living quarters are downstairs (for the duration of guest stays, anyway) and visitors sleep upstairs. If your only experiences of a traditional Khmer timber house have been Asana bar and Sugar Palm restaurant in Siem Reap, then the Banteay Chhmar homestay is worth it for this experience alone.
The simply furnished rooms may have been Spartan but they nevertheless included the essentials: a decent bed with mosquito net, a table and couple of chairs, a fan, and a torch. There was also an explanatory booklet that included among other things the key phrases you might need in Khmer, such as “Tae niek youl te?” or “Do you understand?”
Later that night when we opened our window shutters to create a cooling breeze we also let in a wonderful cacophony of sounds that served as our lullaby – Cambodian wedding music wafted over from the next village, a baby cried from the neighbouring bamboo house, dogs barked, and, much later, in the wee hours of the morning, a rooster crowed to wake us, and birdsong signalled the dawn was approaching.
The real highlight of our Banteay Chhmar homestay, however, was our hosts. Ply appeared, smiling widely, to welcome us each time we returned from the temple or wherever we had been, a baby on her hip or reaching for cold beers – which we bought from her little ‘shop’.
The next morning we chatted to the kind couple, with the help of a translator, and asked them how they felt about giving over half of their home over to strangers.
“I like this a lot,” Yan Ply told us. “I can still go to the rice fields to work, but now I also have a shop.” The income from the homestays enabled Ply to set up the small stall in from of her house where she sold cold drinks, including beers, basic cooking ingredients, and snack foods.
“I like it, too,” her husband Caueng Pat agreed. “We have benefited from the income from the tourists who stay with us. We could open this shop, but I can also hire more people to help us in the rice fields.”
“And I like to meet foreigners,” Ply added, with a smile.
Banteay Chhmar Homestay Programme – A Successful Model for Community Based Tourism
Our Banteay Chhmar Homestay, like the others in the villages surrounding the temple, is part of a community based tourism project that provides travellers with the opportunity to live like locals in rural Cambodia, while generating an income for the families involved and a pool of funds for village development.
The Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism initiative was launched in 2007 with funding from French NGO Agir Pour Le Cambodge. The project, in hand with temple conservation work, was further developed from 2009 onwards with financial assistance and other support from the Global Heritage Fund and Heritage Watch.
When we first stayed, Banteay Chhmar had a population of some 3,600 families, totalling around 15,200 people, and there were just nine homestays, offering thirty rooms, translating to a capacity of some 25-50 visitors a night.
A total of 70 villagers are involved in the programme in different ways, working as guides, providing transport, cooking meals operating ox cart rides, and entertaining guests with performances of traditional Khmer music during dinner, which, like our lunch, was enchantingly set up by the temple.
Some fifteen volunteer committee members train participants in everything from hygiene to basic English skills; coordinate bookings, transport, accommodation, meals, and activities; and also manage the roster system to ensure that bookings, and the resulting income, is distributed fairly amongst those involved.
Participants in the programme earn money from visitor fees, while a percentage of the income goes into a village fund that has financed initiatives such as a garbage collection service, cleaning of the moat surrounding the temple, and solar panels. An added bonus is the donations from visitors, which have paid for the community centre restaurant and adjoining children’s library.
In the last two years, overnight visitors to remote Banteay Chhmar have doubled and income for villagers has almost tripled, thanks to the project. In 2012, 671 visitors checked in, compared to 2014, when some 1,288 people experienced the charms of a Banteay Chhmar homestay. The income from tourism stays jumped from US$13,977 in 2012 to US$36,013 in 2014.
The benefits of the project were evident on the smiling faces of our hospitable hosts, Ply and Pat, who warmly welcome strangers into their homes in one of the cleanest-looking villages I’ve seen during our time living in Cambodia. The temple grounds, littered with plastic bags and water bottles, could do with a similar clean-up.
While delighted with how the programme is going, coordinator Tath Sophal, nevertheless has some concerns.
On the afternoon we arrived, we saw only a handful of travellers exploring the temple and strolling the village. The next morning, however, we arrived at the community centre restaurant for breakfast to find a large Intrepid Travel tour group.
“I do not want too many tourists to visit our place,” Tath Sophal admits reluctantly. “I think that about 2,000-5,000 people a year will be okay. Too many more tourists will make more impact on the environment, with too much plastic waste that we cannot control.”
Ultimately, however, in the short-term, the benefits outweigh the negative impacts.
“If more tourists come,” Tath admits, “We can inject more money into schools and the development of the village.”
How to Book a Banteay Chhmar Homestay
You can book a homestay through the Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism group via the Visit Banteay Chhmar website.
The price is US$7 per bedroom in a family home – guest bedrooms are upstairs with lockable doors, proper beds with mosquito nets, fans, and a torch.
Meals are served at the Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism group’s community centre restaurant and cost US$2 (breakfast) to US$4 (lunch, dinner) per person.
All temple tours and activities, including village walks, ox cart rides, traditional music performed by local musicians cost from US$7-15 per group and can be booked on the website.
How to Get to Banteay Chhmar
If you’re travelling to Banteay Chhmar with a tour company such as Backyard Travel as part of a package they will include your transport, which will be included in the price.
For independent travellers, it’s best to make arrangements to visit Banteay Chhmar, including transport, through the Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism group via the Visit Banteay Chhmar website. Not only is it more convenient but you’re giving back to the locals by providing much needed income.
Other transport options to Banteay Chhmar include buses, mini-buses and shared taxis from Siem Reap or Battambang which require a change in Sisophon.
See the Visit Banteay Chhmar website for more details and prices.
The fastest, most direct, and most comfortable way of getting to Banteay Chhmar is by private taxi from Siem Reap, Battambang or Poipet for $100-135 return. Prices vary depending on the quality and age of the vehicle and the quality of the driver and his ability to speak English, as much as the distance.
There are two main routes to Banteay Chhmar along good sealed roads from Siem Reap to Banteay Chhmar: the most popular route via Sisophon is a distance of 162kms and takes around 2.5hours, while the newer Korean-funded road via Srei Snam and Kouk Mon is 182kms long and takes almost three hours.
How to Visit Banteay Chhmar Temples
The main Banteay Chhmar temple complex is a short stroll from the village homestays and are easily explored on foot.
Bicycles can be rented for US$1.50 a day from the community centre to get around the village and can also take you to the closest satellite temples.
You’ll need to hire a moto driver for $5-10 per day to visit the satellite temples that are further afield, such as Banteay Torp, 12kms away. If you want to visit the more remote temples near the Thai border then you could visit these by taxi on your drive home.
The temple ticket is $5 per person, which is a multi-day entrance fee covering the main temple and satellite temples, including Banteay Torp.
You can hire excellent local guides for US$10 per day – guides might also work as farmers, on archaeological projects, and also own homestays, so they have a rich knowledge of the local area.
Other activities, including ox cart rides to satellite temples, traditional music performed by local musicians during temple dinners, and a visit to Banteay Torp cost from US$7-15 per group.
Is a Banteay Chhmar Homestay For You?
I love the homestay experience and the opportunity it affords to get up close and personal to see how locals live. I live for that insight into everyday life that you can get a taste of on a village tour of the kind offered by Beyond Unique Escapes, specifically their Treak Village Walk and Talk and Day in a Life of a Village. But nothing beats actually staying in a home.
Yes, the lodgings are spartan and amenities are rudimentary. The open-plan, open-to-the-elements downstairs living area will have a concrete or earth floor. The kitchen might consist of a couple of clay braziers on a cement hearth, the ‘sink’ a big plastic container, the ‘table’ a wooden or bamboo platform or rattan mat on the ground.
The downstairs bathroom will be basic, however, keep in mind that for many Cambodians villagers the ‘bathroom’ is outside, the ‘toilet’ is the jungle beyond their backyard, and people might wash in a nearby pond, creek or lake, or carry water from a well poured into a plastic container to wash themselves.
By contrast, the Banteay Chhmar homestay bathrooms are sophisticated. Mostly tiled, there is a large concrete tank to store water, a shower hose, and a Western toilet, introduced for your benefit.
Furnishings in the houses are minimal, yet there are proper beds instead of the wooden platforms with thin mattresses that most Cambodians sleep on. Yes, the timber walls are paper-thin and the floorboards have gaps, which let creepy crawlies in – that’s what the mosquito nets are for!
The experience is something like the family camping and caravanning experiences of your childhood (only with strangers) and, say, renting a room in a private house with shared bathroom on Roomorama or AirBNB (only it’s a rustic Cambodian village home).
However, not everyone likes the idea of staying in someone’s home, sharing their bathroom, and living in such close quarters, especially if those ‘someones’ are strangers – and even when the guest accommodation is as separated as it is in a Banteay Chhmar Homestay.
If you think that might be you, read these stories (here and here) by American travel writer Don George, who was completely overwhelmed by the experience at first, and admitted to hiding away in his room, but by his last day was sorry to have to go and wished he could take his village home with him.
Or don’t. After all, the best kind of travel is that which takes us out of our comfort zones.
I first wrote about the Banteay Chhmar Homestays for the Phnom Penh Post in June 2015 and have reproduced some of my research relating to the community tourism model here. Prices were accurate at the time of research.