Built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII and situated some 15km from the Thai border, Banteay Chhmar is often compared to the more well known Angkor Thom in size and structure. The complex is full of sandstone bas-reliefs that tell stories of ancient Cambodian battles (Toshiba PA3535U-1BRS battery).

The bas-reliefs along the surrounding wall of the temple are some of the finest in Cambodia. Yet the stories are incomplete due to sustained looting, which continued as late as 2002. Huge sections of the outer wall have been chiselled away, and are now scattered around the world in private collections. While the loss is felt as you wander around the massive complex, it also drives home the importance of visitors to this remote site. These tourist dollars are helping with the current preservation of the temple and improving the livelihood of the surrounding villages (Toshiba PA3534U-1BRS battery).

Global Heritage Fund (GHF), a non-profit organisation based in California, specialises in tying conservation of historical sites to the needs of the local community to make tourism relevant and profitable, while ensuring local inhabitants are stewards of their own heritage. James Hooper, the manager of Global Heritage Fund UK and International Project Development specialist, sees great potential in Banteay Chhmar (Toshiba PA3399U-2BRS battery).

Banteay Chhmar is a perfect example of how Global Heritage Fund works with local groups to build sustainable tourist infrastructure, says Hooper. Through their partnership with the Community Based Tourism (CBT) office, Global Heritage Fund has been able to speed along the conservation work by providing the technical know-how and needed funding. Additionally, it assists with emergency structural issues within the complex. Years of shifting earth, some looting and the advancing trees have taken their toll on Banteay Chhmar. It feels as though the forest is reclaiming the temple for itself (Toshiba PA3399U-1BRS battery).

GHF wants to create temporary, low-impact viewing platforms, so guests can see the complex from a bird’s eye view. The platforms would allow visitors a safe way to experience the heart of the temple, which currently is inaccessible because of unstable stone structures. Hooper explains that these temporary structures work well because they avoid heavy construction which could do long term damage to the site. For now, visitors walk on the ground amongst the ruins, witnessing the temple as westerner explorers first discovered it (Toshiba PA3399U-1BRS battery).

The local community has a clear list of plans needed to improve services to tourists. According to Sophal That of the CBT, about 40 percent of visitors spend a night in one of the villages’ six homestay locations, the only overnight option. The homestays make up just a part of the CBT?s infrastructure around the Banteay Chhmar complex. The rest of the 74 council members are part of the hospitality network for visitors, which includes ox cart rides, silk weaving, woodcarving, traditional music concerts, rice wine distillation, beekeeping, bike tours and the women’s cooking group. The later are trained by Sala Bai and the 5 star Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap. An ox cart ride to visit some of the local small-scale businesses provides an interesting (but bumpy) two-hour addition to the main reason for your visit (Toshiba PA3285U-1BRS battery).

Future plans include English lessons for the tour guides and homestay families, improving the homestay facilities, establishing a CBT-run restaurant, and simpler transportation around Banteay Chhmar. Hooper has complete faith in his counterparts. We’ve never questioned their business sense, he says. For us, it’s all about training them to be ready for the changes that are coming down the line (Toshiba PA3465U-1BRS battery) .

And change will come. A sealed road is planned to start construction this year with a completion date hovering around 2012, at which point the villages of Banteay Chhmar will be a mere hour-and-a-half drive from Siem Reap or Battambang. This opens the day-trip potential for large groups coming out of Siem Reap (Toshiba PA3450U-1BRS battery).

While more tourists are exactly what the community needs, busloads may be unfortunate. The isolation is what gives Banteay Chhmar its charm currently no matter what time of day you visit, you are likely to be the only visitors. For the time being, there is no waiting for the hordes to move so you can snap a photo without people. There are no tuk tuks, no elephants, no mega-buses. There is just the temple, nature and friendly people there to help. All this makes now the right time for a visit (Toshiba PA3285U-1BRS battery ).

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