Cambodia, March 17, 2017: While walking towards the edge of a plateau, with a setting mid-day sun, to the left a work crew can be seen putting grout into the beams of an unusual building, made almost entirely from bamboo, whose flowing curves show certain similarities with a seashell. The indifferent Mekong River sprawls northwards.
Admiring the view, the co-founder and director of the NGO Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA), Vandong Thorn says, “You see all the Cambodian pictures here. You see rice fields, you see the ponds, the river, the village and traditional houses.” Thorn found this site, perched on top of a mountain just over 20 kilometres from Kampong Cham city, just two years ago.
After buying the land from farmers a company that was gradually chipping away at the mountain with bulldozers as it sold off its soil, BSDA has taken the initiative of building an eco-tourism retreat, unique to Cambodia both in its incorporation of Buddhist principles and its sustainable design.
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Thorn, who has been a monk for 20 years, takes a very un-dogmatic approach when it comes to orthodox ideas regarding religion. For him Buddhism is “just philosophy, not religion”.
Thorn proudly says, “If [Buddha’s teachings are] reasonable for you, you believe it. If it’s not reasonable for you, you don’t follow.” In the philosophy Thorn has found an ethos that could lend itself to social welfare and guide his NGO, based on the principles of hard work, charity, harmony and equality.
He hopes to harness these principles at Hanchey Eco-Retreat by employing locals, paying them appropriate wages and using the revenue for the funding of on-site vocational training for poor area residents.
All of the buildings at the eco-tourism site are engineered in the shape of the lotus flower which is a well-known symbol in Buddhism, a meditation center featuring eight open doors, representing the Eightfold Path.
The site will have villas for guests, as well as the vocational training center, which can provide accommodation up to 100 students per year, and a “model organic farm” for agricultural training programs. In an attempt at sustainability, the project designers have decided to build the site nearly entirely out of natural materials – principally,mud bricks and bamboo and such elements.
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“Most of our buildings, when we’re finished with them, we can throw on the compost heap,” Gordon Evans, a technical adviser on the project mentioned, “Bamboo will rot, the earth [bricks] will rot, [and] it’s a very small ecological footprint that we have.”
In mud pits throughout the site, the rich clay soil is being mixed with rice chaff, straw and water, before being pressed into bricks that make up the foundation of the structures. In a tank at the base of the property, bamboo is soaked in a vat of boric acid and borax, a natural compound that substitutes sugar with salt to help prevent insects.
Although bamboo is available in a huge amount all throughout Cambodia, it is regarded to be a temporary building material because of its susceptibility to insects. It was a brave decision indeed to devote much of a project like this whose building phase costs nearly half a million dollars to a material like bamboo.
According to Ngun Heng, a local resident who is the general manager for the retreat, “Some people in my family, when they heard that our buildings are from bamboo, just said ‘Why? We never heard of using bamboo like this.” Ngun also mentioned bamboo is very popular material for chopsticks or toothpicks but not for entire structures.
A team of consultants from Thailand was brought in by BSDA to explore the possibility of using it successfully throughout the resort considering the fact that the use of bamboo is more frequent in Thailand. The crews were advised on how to treat the material to keep insects away and the degree to which the beams could be bent to accommodate the flowing organic shapes of the structures. This has been the cause for something of a local spectacle.
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“When we build everything from bamboo like that, the local people are surprised, I can say 50 people or 60 people per day come [to see]. I’ve already put the word out not to come, but they still do, Ngun added.
Even though Swiss NGO Ecosolidar has been providing enough money, for the building phase, the project is still almost $100,000 short of its requirement to fund the furnishing and operation costs for the resort. If they can get other investors or sponsors for this project, the resort should be ready to open in approximately one year.
Thorn envisions a spot where tourists can look forward to experiencing the traditional Cambodian way of life – especially those looking to indulge in yoga, meditation and the study Buddhist philosophy and principles.
According to Evans, “So many people come to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville, go to the beach, and they’re done. This isn’t for those people”; Even though it has been pointed out that there will be a swimming pool and bar for those looking for a get away and just kick back and relax.
The project is located next to Wat Hanchey, a historic pagoda with Chenla temple ruins dating back as far as the seventh or eighth century; Thorn has linked the project with his neighbours.
A road has been built by BSDA that connects with the pagoda and Thorn hopes to introduce interested tourists with the monks, as well as to potentially have them tag along with them on village visits.
Wat Hanchey abbot Tang Chheng studied meditation from his predecessor, Tol Phoung, who is well known for having walked all the way from Cambodia to Myanmar on foot to learn about meditation there. Thorn also hopes to tap into this deep institutional knowledge for his guests.
When asked if he minds tourists coming to visit the pagoda, the abbot says he “would be happy for their coming here”.
He says, “When they go back, they will tell their friends and family about our beautiful pagoda and resort, which means more tourists and more income. Those who work for the project are from the area They can improve their lives without immigrating to other countries to work.”
– prepared by Durba Mandal of NewsGram. Twitter: @dubumerang