When you booked yourself a trip to Cambodia, lured by the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, lush landscapes, warm temperatures, cheap cocktails and tropical beaches, you might not have spared much of a thought for it’s recent dark past. Maybe when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh by storm in 1975 and sent the inhabitants of the entire city of 500,000 residents marching out into the countryside (claiming it was only for 3 days as “the Americans were planning a bombing campaign”), most never to return, you were too young to remember, didn’t take much notice of it, or it was too far away to be part of your reality. This is at least how some of us felt on our recent trip through Cambodia.
Over a period of just under 4 years, from 1975 to 1978, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge managed to kill almost 2 million people through starvation, disease, torture and murder. Today, on a trip to Cambodia, there is no escaping the horror of the recent past. In order to understand modern-day Cambodia, it is necessary to take a trip to the Phnom Penh prison of Tuol Sleng, the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh and the landmine museum near Siem Reap. These places will give you a deeper understanding of the people and what they have been through, how they are trying to shape their future, but maybe more importantly help you to understand their present-day situation and national psyche. Cambodia is not just about Angkor Wat, cheap beer and beaches.
Travelling around, you will notice that there are very few old people – due to the recent genocide. A stunning 70 percent of the population is under the age of 35, iron deficiency is rife and everywhere you look you find people with limbs missing or no sight – mostly landmine victims. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) estimates that there may be as many as four to six million mines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. Imagine living with that all around you.
All this might sound a bit depressing, but don’t let it put you off visiting this wonderful country! It has come a long way in the past 20 years. There are many positive initiatives, Non-Governmental-Organisations and aid organisations. As a tourist you almost can’t but help feel sympathy for Cambodians and want to put something back with your tourist dollar – and I don’t mean giving money to beggars or making donations. I mean by doing what you usually do as a tourist – eating, shopping and going out. The good news? YOU also benefit from helping out, and it’s not hard.
Never in any country that I have visited have I supported so many organisations in such positive ways. Here are a few ways you can have fun, eat good food, enjoy cheap cocktails, shop for beautiful things and still enjoy your holiday – but at the same time put something back into Cambodia.
DINING OUT AND GIVING BACK:
On your travels though Cambodia, try to dine at restaurants that empower disadvantaged people – here are a couple that you HAVE to visit – you’re not just doing good eating there, the food and drinks are fantastic!
Epic Arts Café provides work opportunities for deaf and disabled people as well as a hang-out for deaf students. The Cafe is an inclusive working environment within the local community, providing employment for ten people and raising funds for the work of Epic Arts. It has tasty, healthy food, and GREAT ice-cream, and is easy to find in the centre of Kampot.
Epic Arts itself (not the cafe) is an inclusive arts organisation that brings together people with and without disabilities. Students undertake modules in Drama & Theatre, Creative Movement, Music, Film making and Visual Arts, plus lessons in Khmer and English Literacy. This provides a non-traditional skills training in management, team leadership and problem solving, delivered through an Arts- based approach.
Myself and my group undertook a “movement workshop” with 3 deaf and 3 disabled students, which culminated in us and them doing a dance performance – what an inspiring morning and what fantastic things these guys can do!
Sister Srey Café – Siem Reap
Srey means “sister” in Khmer – as a sign of respect, Khmer people greet each other with titles of family whether they know them or not. Older men and women are ‘uncles and aunties, nearer your age, they are brothers and sisters. The Aussie girls who started this cafe named it Sister Srey as a dedication to the sisterhood of Cambodia.
Sister Srey Cafe supports young Khmer students who struggle to keep a balance between study and supporting their family. Each staff member is trained in hospitality, English language skills, personal development, health and hygiene and banking. This is a stepping stone to a brighter future and a means for them to have skills and knowledge to approach the world empowered and confident.
Friends the Restaurant – Phnom Penh
“Located near the National Museum, it is famous for its legendary frozen shakes and daiquiris and its delicious blend of Asian and Western style tapas.” Friends calls itself a tapas restaurant, but the food is more than tapas – they are small – but more than adequate – DELICIOUS meals – one of the best meals I had in Cambodia. After all, you DO want to leave room for dessert – OMG! Did I mention the dessert?! Fantastic alcoholic and non-alcoholic (healthy!) drinks as well. Friends-International works with and trains young people who are marginalized or lack opportunities. These include street-living and/or working children, drug-using children and youth, those affected by HIV/AIDS, migrants, in prison, victims of multiple forms of abuse, domestic violence, or poverty. What a great cause to support!
SHOPPING AND GIVING BACK
Friends ‘n’ Stuff Shop – Phnom Penh
Before you go and gorge on divine food at the Friends restaurant, pay a visit to their shop next door. Full of fabulous handmade, recycled, funky and fabulous gifts for yourself and your friends! The products are made by the parents of children in need, from various Friends projects as well as other consignment items. After some serious shopping, you can relax here with a manicure and massage by the beauty training students at The Nailbar. Friends ‘n’ Stuff has a small shop at the Russian Market as well.
Lucky Iron Fish – Phnom Penh or Siem Reap
Iron deficiency is a huge problem in Cambodia – leading to fatigue, dizziness, illness etc. By cooking with the lucky iron fish (fish are lucky symbols in Cambodia) iron-deficiency can be dramatically reduced. This is where you come in – for every iron fish you buy, one is given to a Cambodian family. (Iron deficiency is a worldwide problem, you might want to give one to a pregnant friend). If you want to purchase one whilst in Cambodia, pop into the funky Trunkh shop in Phnom Penh (just across the road from Friends restaurant) or in the up-and-coming fun and funky Kandal Village in Siem Reap. Trunkh is worth a visit anyway, but if you find out too late about the Lucky Iron Fish, you can always order one (or ten!) online.
ENTERTAINMENT AND GIVING BACK
Phare Circus – Battambang or Siem Reap
Phare Performing Social Enterprise provides gainful employment to Cambodian youth from difficult social and economic backgrounds, and sustains the parent organization Phare Ponleu Selpak NGO school thereby contributing to the rebirth of Cambodian modern art (which was nearly lost altogether under the Khmer Rouge, as they murdered most artists). PPS was formed 20 years ago by 9 children and their art teacher when they returned home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. As survivors of the war, empowered by the creative self-expression learned through their art-making, the group wanted to share this gift of the arts with the underprivileged children of Battambang.
I loved the performance that I went to see – fun, entertaining, creative, and skillful! A must-see if you are in Battambang or Siem Reap!
BEAUTY AND GIVING BACK
Seeing Hands Massage – Siem Reap
One of the best things about visiting Cambodia is how cheap the massages are. How often do you manage to get a massage at home? Don’t know about you, but where I live I often don’t have the time, and sometimes not the money because they are so expensive – so not very often. In Cambodia you can get cheap massages all over the place, but why not make it more meaningful. Warning: although this is a good cause, read the Tripadvisor reviews first so you know what you are getting yourself into. Might not be for everyone!
Giving back in the wrong way:
Baby Milk, Rice, Orphanage and other Scams
Where there is good, there is also bad. Make yourself aware of the scams and traps made to suck money out of unsuspecting tourists. Think twice before you go and visit an orphanage – orphanage tourism is a booming industry whereby you might get the chance to go and help out at an orphanage. Often these kids come from poor families and are rented out to the orphanage to get money off the tourists. The message in Cambodia is to steer clear of ANY orphanage.
Here are a few more useful links:
Don’t fall for the baby milk or orphanage scam when you are in Siem Reap! Read on:
This is a great article on many of the scams that you can easily avoid (just by reading this article) when you are in Cambodia: http://revealingworld.com/scams-in-cambodia/
Read this article to find out why you should not visit an orphanage, and the scams behind the booming orphanage industry: http://phuketwan.com/tourism/inside-cambodias-shocking-orphans-tourists-scam-17862/
Did you know that too often donations don’t help orphans, but they create them? Visit this website to see how Childsafe is empowering people to protect children: http://thinkchildsafe.org/
Cambodia will be more than an exotic holiday for you – it will be an emotional experience that will leave a meaningful impression on you forever. Not to mention giving you plenty to think about while you enjoy your cheap cocktail.
Check your guidebook or Tripadvisor to find more places you can spend your tourist dollar wisely, and be prepared for a fantastic time in this wonderful country. Alternately join Venus Adventures on a women-only trip to Cambodia!