MY VISIT TO ISAMBOREI HOMESTAY AT SAMBOR PREI KUK TEMPLES
By Anais Schall
After Siem Reap, the ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk are probably the most popular tourist destinations in all of Cambodia. On my vacation to this South East Asian tropical paradise, I too intended to pay a visit to this legendary place. The new friends I made while travelling told me that Sambor Prei Kuk has over 100 temples and more are being excavated. Some of these were supposedly in pristine identifiable condition. In fact, Sambor Prei Kuk was an entire ecotourism site, out of which, one part – Isanborei was even given World Heritage recognition by the UNESCO. How could I not go and see this splendid marvel that Sambor Prei Kuk promised to be. Sambor Prei Kuk is located in the Kampong Thom Province in the Prasat Sambor district. I hopped onto a VIP minibus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and requested the driver to drop me off at Kampong Thom City. From the pickup point, I head to Sambor Prei Kuk in a tuktuk – these are fabulous three-wheel vehicles that allow you to breathe in the countryside and make for a fun ride.
The Temple Ruins
If your understanding of Cambodia and its temples are influenced by movies, as mine has, you will not be disappointed. Angkor Wat was every bit as mystique as I had imagined it to be. But it was also very crowded. So you can imagine my happiness when I set foot in Sambor Prei Kuk and found it amazingly peaceful. Apart from a few curious tourists, who like me, had come to revel in the legendary stories that the ruined walls of this temple held, Sambor Prei Kuk was pretty much vacant and freely explorable.
I entered to find some priests gathered around a fire, pouring ghee into it and chanting some mantras. Hinduism is vastly followed here. The temple also holds many resemblances to Hindu deities. Sambor Prei Kuk dates back to an era when the 7th century Khmer Empire used to be one of the strongest and most feared reigns across the world. Since then, until now, much of Cambodia has changed and evolved almost to a point where it is unrecognizable now. What has remained constant though, is the Cambodian people’s love for bathing. The community is known for having 3 sometimes 4 baths a day, owing to the heat in the region. Even today, you will see people washing up before they take up a new task and even after they’re done with it. Sadly though, out of all the bathing pools that ancient Isanborei (back then, known as Isanapur), only one has been discovered and appropriately preserved.
It is noteworthy, how every architectural wonder in Cambodia is like a joint effort by both man and nature. Sambor Prei Kuk is no different, if anything; you can see more of Mother Nature’s beauty in this part of Cambodia. As you go a little deep in the interiors of Sambor Prei Kuk, you will find large trees entwined with the temple ruins. This is normal here and yet it mesmerizes you each time you look at it. It is almost as if the roots and branches of trees have pulled the buildings in a tight embrace.
many ways, the Sambor Prei Kuk at Isanborei was more impressive than the globally popular Angkor Wat. While it has its own charm, there is something very raw, very real and something very, very intriguing about Sambor Prei Kuk Amongst the three sections of the temple, were the ruins of Prasat Yei Poun, much older and grander than Angkor Wat.
Isanborei Eco-Tourism Site
The part of Sambor Prei Kuk that is now a World Heritage Site is Isanborei or earlier as it was called Isanpur. It was only when I stepped outside of the temple premises and into the real world of the Isanborei community that I realized how much more there was to do in this region. Big business groups and tourists usually just come for a day trip here and leave after seeing just the temple. The people of this region rely majorly on farming to meet ends. I passed by children who helped their parents in the fields instead of going to school. They have no choice, really. You will see this all across Sambor Prei Kuk.
You can choose to rent a bicycle and traverse through this part of Sambor Prei Kuk or walk it out. I chose the latter. The villagers here don’t see a lot of tourists, so be prepared for the initial look of shock and suspicion you will get from them. But within a few minutes, you will be getting a few Chom Reap Sor (hello) from strangers. Most of them don’t know English but they have picked up the basics and so feel free to chat up. Life for them is tough but it is fantastic how happily they see it through.
Some other people in the community rely on activities like making handcrafted products out of locally sourced bamboo and teaching tourists how to cook local Cambodian dishes. But the lack of awareness does not allow too many tourists to come their way and thus is not enough to help them sustain.
I personally saw excellent potential in the place and would urge people visiting Isanborei to give the tourism there a chance. I decided to stay back and try out the homestays. Now when you go for a homestay, you must always be prepared to live the way the locals live – that is the whole idea. So get set for an adventure, because you’re about taste a slice of the regional culture here. You might face some trouble in communicating also, as most people here don’t speak English. The tourist guides are very helpful and they have been trying to teach the locals a few basic English words. So you might get a ‘hello’ from some of them here.
To live as the locals do, you will be living in a traditional Khmer house – a rural walled structure built with colonial flavours. The houses here are built in keeping with the traditional belief that one must not wash up or defecate in the same area as one cooks and eats. So the bathrooms are either outside the house or one floor above. I’ll be honest with you; the only part that can be problematic here is that taking a bath if unusually difficult. For one, the Cambodians have no showers. So you’ll be bathing with a bucket of water and a tumbler. A useful tip: wash your hair before you come here. It is difficult to do so with a bucket and plus the water is super cold and there is no way to heat it. The bathrooms have no jet sprays or faucets, so either a toilet paper or again – the usual bucket and tumbler. Also, carry a flashlight; you will need it at night. The electricity gets cut off by 10 pm here and there isn’t any nightlife here to speak of.
Mornings are particularly delightful here! You will sleep early and wake up at dawn to the sound of chickens running and birds singing. The locals make quite an effort to keep you comfortable in the homestay and it is extremely endearing to see that. Sleep will come easily to you and they try and supply you with everything possible to make you feel at ease. I slept under a mosquito net and it was quite an experience!
Breakfast and other meals consist of their usual staple: rice. This is served with an extra helping of locally grown, organic veggies and herbs.
I spent the next day traversing through the Kampong Thong – not your usual glam touristy place, but still a fine experience of the local flavour. With a little patience in this region, I got to see a lot of exotic birds. So if that’s something you’re into – go for it.
All in all, the Isamborei homestay is a brilliant experience. It makes you feel a lot of things; it is adventurous and humbling at the same time.