Hannes Schmid is known around the world for his evocative photography. He has a curious eye and a tenacious spirit that seeks out the truth. He has photographed the iconic Marlboro cowboy, endless glorious Rockstar’s, reams of glamorous models, juxtaposed with haunting poverty in Cambodia.
It was this haunting poverty that led him to start Smiling Gecko, an extraordinary foundation that offers a helping hand to villagers in remote northern Cambodia.
Cambodia holds close a brutal history and tales of horror. Pol Pot, the Marxist leader of The Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, was responsible for one of the most prolific killings in 20th-century history. Pol Pot drove millions of assumed educated families from their homes in cities and towns across Cambodia to work on slave-community-farms.
Entire families were incarcerated and died from overwork, starvation, disease, and execution. Anyone wearing spectacles or those that were doctors and teachers faced en masse execution. A staggering 65% of the country’s population today is under the age of 25; there is not one Cambodian family that hasn’t been affected by this brutal regime.
Today, Cambodia is on most traveler’s bucket list of places to visit. It is a relatively unexplored country that boasts a tropical climate, seemingly endless temples, and occupied with fiercely proud and friendly people. Cambodia is considered one of the poorest countries in the world. The children are appallingly affected; they live in slums, on the streets, face starvation and abuse.
Many families that live in rural areas earn less than $2.00 per day, which doesn’t afford them the luxury of providing education for their children or considering a brighter future. Schmid was overwhelmed with compassion from the stories told whilst photographing the particularly emotional collection of photo-essays depicting families living in the slums of Phnom Penh.
Schmid journeyed on many occasions to the capital city and became terrifyingly aware of its people’s suffering and exploitation. He vowed to return and realise his vision of taking families away from the slums and providing them with respectable and sustainable work, education and prospects of which they could only dream.
Fast forward to 2014, Schmid founded the Smiling Gecko Project, a 140-hectare site that forms a functioning farm with a big goal to create a self-sufficient community over time. Various Swiss sustainability experts and institutions helped establish the plans. Schmid’s mission is to fight against hunger and poverty, provide education and vocational training for young Cambodians, provide economic stability and provide benefits for the entire community, all whilst respecting the local ecosystem.
The Smiling Gecko project added the Farmhouse Boutique Resort to the site in 2015. The resort is located in the tranquil countryside 65 KM north of Phnom Penh and is enveloped by rolling hills and paddy fields. The exquisite traditional wooden bungalow resort is at the very heart of the project; 17 traditional stilted Khmer houses provide 34 guest bedrooms furnished with a blend of contemporary and vintage styles. Each bedroom has a terrace, an under-room patio area, and an extravagantly modern bathroom.
Swiss-born Benjamin Lehmann heads up this unique hotel in the wilds of Cambodia. He studied at the École hôtelière de Lausanne Campus in Passugg in Switzerland, regarded as the world’s best hospitality school. Before moving to Cambodia, his seven-year Asia experience saw him manage luxury brands in Koh Samui and Phuket in southern Thailand. Sustainable tourism is one of his true passions.
Lehmann believes that fast-paced living and luxury accommodation are in the past. He sees luxury as time, experience, and having the privilege to care about others. Gone are the days where premium apartments with views over Central Park are a sought-after ‘must have’; expectations and visions have changed immeasurably. His guests want to experience something truly valuable and rewarding. It’s a true paradigm shift. They want to support the local environment and enjoy down-to-earth and authentic experiences.
The Farmhouse Smiling Gecko Sustainable Boutique Resort is dedicated to creating a sustainable environment in a beautiful setting where each team member can enjoy a sense of peace, feel safe and have a sense of worth, sometimes for the first time. Their guests can relax in this extraordinary environment and enjoy an unforgettable experience and support this innovative aid project The circular model redefines positive society-wide benefits and builds economic and social capital for the community.
Lehmann talks with passion about the resort, “sustainability isn’t just about energy-saving designs or a lower carbon footprint, it is the holistic way that we engage with the world. Together, we promote better livelihoods and have programmes for natural resource management, education, rehabilitation, job creation and infrastructure improvement. We are making great strides to protect the environment and promote sustainable communities”.
The creation of Smiling Gecko puts sustainability at the centre of all dialogue, whether it relates to tourism, funding or the community. It is at the heart of all of their decisions. Happy and healthy living in nature is key. Smiling Gecko happily boasts various forms of agriculture at the farm, which involves pig and chicken farming, aquaculture and vegetables. There is also carpentry, butchery and a bakery; it is truly a farm-to-table destination like no other; all of the food and services are provided from within. The project demands a zero-plastic policy at the farm, and all day-use electricity is produced in their solar field.
Slum-born executive chef Mariya Un Noun embraces her success story. As a mother of two, the seemingly endless possibilities at the Smiling Gecko project attracted her to become part of the community. Smiling Gecko gave her the confidence and enabled her to become a chef; she spent several months training under Michelin star Swiss chefs and studying at Hotelfachschule Luzern. She possesses an insatiable appetite to provide exemplary food for the hotel guests and to be able to secure a bright and opportunistic future for her children.
“All of the people working at the resort are locals from nearby communities. Under normal circumstances, they would have no other choice than to work in cramped conditions in a sweatshop-style garment factory. Our vocational programmes provide them with a lifelong base which will allow them to work in the tourism industry successfully,” Lehmann continues.
Not surprisingly, the resort runs at full occupancy each weekend. Staycationers from Phnom Penh travel the short 65 KM for fresh air and wide-open spaces that make them feel safe from the world ravaging pandemic. Guests can enjoy nature’s luxuries in the spa, cycle around the farm or even be introduced to some of the local’s idiosyncrasies such as ant egg or charcoal farming.
For more information or to book accommodation, please visit https://www.farmhouse-smilinggecko.com/. The team at the resort and the whole Smiling Gecko community looks forward to welcoming you to their sustainable piece of paradise.
Serial Entrepreneur and Founder of Asia Lifestyle Magazine.
Originally from the UK, Asa Marsh has been based in Asia for years. Many know Asa throughout the Asian real estate market, when he guided his company Easy Living Phuket to achieve “Top 10 in Southeast Asia – 2018”