A few years ago, Banteay Srei district of Siem Reap province wasn’t receiving much attention from citizens or tourists. After the district’s youthful governor Khim Finan took office in 2019, it gradually began to get noticed for the improvements being made like the installation of street lights, the development of tourist resorts, clean-up of its environment and improvements to the local people’s livelihoods.

When anyone enters Banteay Srei they can immediately spot the difference, especially at night when the street lights illuminate the beautifully decorated streets of Preah Dak model village.

The villagers have set up shops selling souvenirs and hygienically prepared food and are ready with friendly smiles to welcome all domestic and international tourists.

Banteay Srei district governor Khim Finan says that installing solar-powered streetlights including one for each house in the village is only one of many development projects underway in the district.

“It started out as just a fundraiser and mobilisation of resources from the private sector for the common good of the local community. The reason for it simply being that it’s very dark at night in the countryside, especially on public streets,” Finan says in an interview with The Post.

According to Finan, the lack of lighting caused two main problems, with the first being road traffic safety and the second being the safety of individuals.

Therefore, he thought it would help if each house had one light in front of it that this would improve overall safety in the village and the residents there agreed.

Asked what was his goals were for developing the district, Finan says that his main goals are reducing poverty and raising living standards. In particular, he says he wants to turn Banteay Srei into a second tourist hub after Siem Reap town.

Finan, 38, was born in Siem Reap town of Siem Reap province, where his father was a civil servant and his mother was a businesswoman.

He was always an outstanding student and he now boasts four university degrees: Two bachelor’s degrees from the Royal University of Law and Economics, another bachelor’s in International Business Administration from American University of Phnom Penh and he’s even completed a Master’s degree in business administration in the US.

In the past, Finan has been a lecturer at Pannasastra University and has had a lot of different experiences in both private and public sector employment.

“As soon as I graduated from college, I went to work for an American tobacco company. I was one of the local managers of that company and then I moved into the hotel and tourism industry.

“Because I had a father who was a civil servant and a former army officer, I initially started out as a soldier in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. But I didn’t really love that job, so I took a break for a while and then I was transferred to the Ministry of Interior,” Finan says.

He says that he was later appointed deputy director of administration for Siem Reap province and he held that position for five years before being appointed by the board of governors to the office of Banteay Srei district governor.

Drawing on his public, private and overseas experiences, Finan is committed to transforming Banteay Srei district by developing it into an important tourist destination in Siem Reap province.

He says that his experiences abroad have given him some ideas about possible innovations here in Cambodia but change can only be effectively implemented if one understands the prevailing circumstances, but one thing that is universally applicable is applying the power of human creativity to solve problems.

“My biggest responsibility is to develop Banteay Srei district with the goal of improving the lives of the people in the community. In short, I want to reduce poverty and give people a better life and that’s what we consider to be real progress,” he says.

Finan says that local development requires attention to multiple sectors and can’t just be approached from one angle, which means examining the needs of the district and the potential of the district to develop a long-term vision for the district, and he sees the biggest potential for Banteay Srei’s development is in tourism.

“This does not mean that Banteay Srei will depend on tourism alone, but on tourism and agriculture. But I think if we continue to only push agriculture in Cambodia the whole country will be farmers but farmers are not a special feature of Banteay Srei because we are not in a particularly good strategic location for agriculture,” he says.

Solar street lights shine brightly throughout Banteay Srei due to the ‘One House, One Light’ project, seen here at Preah Dak village in the district in February of last year. Hong Menea

He cited the fact that Banteay Srei is in a mountainous area with few lowlands and a lack of water that is located far from the borders and export areas leading to more expensive costs for irrigation and transportation.

The local farmers are used to growing rice for their own consumption without expecting to export any of it, so it isn’t realistic to expect much development locally through agriculture, he says.

“If we put tourism at the centre and we adapt everything to run in the direction of tourism industry priorities, we will probably benefit by increasing the development of Banteay Srei district,” he says.

He added that becoming the tourist destination requires having a clean environment and that is why the district is focused on cleanliness.

“Tourists don’t want to visit a place that is full of garbage and plastic bags. They want to go to clean, well-organised places. If they are in the countryside they want to see pristine natural areas. To build the district into a tourist attraction it is therefore necessary to encourage the local people’s understanding of the environment, clean living and good waste management.

“So we’re turning to agro-tourism because Siem Reap town is right next to the stairs of Banteay Srei district. So if we do things right we can supply the demands of the local agricultural market, because most of the fruits and vegetables in town have been imported from other provinces or even other countries,” he says.

He encourages the people of Banteay Srei to do some kind of farming to keep the area rural while allowing tourists to visit their farms and plantations because he believes that agriculture and tourism do not need to be separated.

“If we all walk in one direction we can achieve common goals that involve the promotion of tourism and the work of promoting agro-tourism should be easy because most of the people here are already farmers so if they can be a little bit flexible then we can do it,” he says.

Finan says that it’s important that the agriculture they are doing matches well with the interests of tourists, meaning they should grow items like yellow watermelons that are relatively expensive in price and will meet a market demand.

He says that in addition to economic development he’s focused on providing public services to people and other administrative tasks such as resolving land disputes because area residents deserve to have public servants who actually serve their interests.

“All of this – if we do it well – will be a genuine achievement for the district. At the same time, we will see an improvement in our infrastructure because the focus on tourism requires it. So we’ll give priority to areas with the most tourism potential first because our resources are still limited,” he says.

Finan says that another goal of his was attracting investors to Banteay Srei through the promotion of the district’s tourism potential. He says the ultimate goal is to bring in more investors to Banteay Srei because only investors can create jobs and businesses that can generate income for the community.

“We’ve also been working on creating a Banteay Srei district “master plan”. We’ll need a lot of technical assistance on that because the creation of a master plan for development requires careful thinking and it should be done in consultation with those who have advanced technical knowledge,” he says. “But coming up with a long term plan is very important because if we don’t have a map to guide our way then our development will be chaotic and we’ll risk losing our identity and the uniqueness of the district.”

Banteay Srei district has an area of about 600 sq km with a population of 50,000 spread among 36 villages in six communes. Most of the people are currently farmers but livelihoods in the area can change over to tourism quickly if the right incentives are there, Finan says.

Finan says that Banteay Srei district has a unique culture and it is hugely advantaged by having its two main temples – Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre. Meanwhile, there are other special areas such as the sacred mountain temples of Phnom Kulen and many other community-based tourist sites that could be potential attractions.

“We really want Banteay Srei to become the number two town in the province after Siem Reap town, while still maintaining a strong identity. We don’t need to become a fully-modern or urbanised town – instead we want to develop into a unique Banteay Srei-style town with beautiful scenery that residents from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap town can come and enjoy along with international tourists,” he says.