Since I started traveling seven years ago, I’ve come to realize how truly lucky I am to be able to do so. I know a lot of people get upset and say that it’s not luck, that they’ve made the decision, worked hard to afford it, and sacrificed many things to be able to stay on the road.
And while I believe all of that is true, I also realize how incredibly privileged I am to be able to even make those decisions and make that money and make those sacrifices. I’ve met so many people in different countries who can barely afford to put food on the table for their families, never mind get a passport, book a plane ticket, pay for visas. Travel for leisure is simply not possible for so many people.
So yea, I’m pretty damn lucky. And I don’t ever want to forget it.
Whenever I visit a new country, I feel a sort of obligation to make my footprint there small and to give my money to organizations and people that directly benefit from it. In the last few years, I’ve started making it part of my travel planning research to find companies that are giving back to the local communities and spreading the wealth in a positive and sustainable way.
This post will be the first of many to come where I talk about the best places in a given country that I’ve found to spend my tourism dollars. If you have been to Cambodia and found somewhere that isn’t on this list I would love for you to add it in the comments and share it with everyone.
Responsible Travel in Cambodia
Cambodia is a country with a horrific recent history. During the 70’s the Khmer Rouge barbarically killed over a million educated and upper-class citizens as well as starving most everyone else. One of the best books I read about the history of Cambodia and how things are going now was Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. It really opened my eyes to what happened here and what’s changed since the Khmer Rouge left.
Friends (Restaurant & Shop)
Friends is an international organization that is doing a lot of great work all over Cambodia. This is one of two restaurants that the organization has in Phnom Penh and it’s the one Luke and I went to while we were traveling around.
The aim of the organization is to help marginalized and homeless youths around the city by teaching them a skill (hospitality, cooking, bartending etc) as well as teaching them English. There are incentive programs that have the students working their way up from trainee to trainer where they then become the teacher to newbies.
The food is a sort of Cambodian-Western fusion. Most dishes are tapas style, small plates that are easy for sharing. Luke and I ordered two plates – a grilled fish dish with olive tapenade and some roasted root vegetable chips. Both were really well cooked and packed with flavor. Everyone was very helpful and spoke excellent English. We had it with a fresh juice and in total, including a tip, we spent $20.
If you head to the gift shop you’ll be able to find some really beautiful handmade jewelry, t-shirts, canvas bags, or you can have one of the students give you a manicure. Inside the shop is also a nail salon.
Address: #215 St 13, Phnom Penh.
Hours: Everyday 11am-11pm
This restaurant, also working to help young people around Cambodia, serves up Cambodian food with flare. All of the dishes are traditional Cambodian recipes, but presented in a very modern and stylish way. The restaurant itself is tucked away in this beautiful little garden. Everything from the food you’ll eat here, to the cushions you sit on, to the paintings on the wall, have all been made by the students that work at the restaurant.
Address: #74 St 174, Phnom Penh
Hours: Everyday 11am-11pm
The same group, Mith Samlanh (Friends), owns and runs both of these restaurants. They offer so many different types of classes: English, sewing, painting, wood making. They also strive to get children back into the public schools and to keep them going to school.
Watthan Artisans Cambodia
Watthan Artisans is a women’s clothing and accessories boutique in Phnom Penh. I struggled not to buy absolutely everything inside. It’s all handcrafted by people with disabilities from around the country. Many are landmine victims or have contracted polio early in their lives. The store is entirely owned and run by the WAC cooperative. It was originally started by an outside NGO, but in 2004 was handed over to the artisans. All profits go directly to them.
Address: Inside Wat Than pagoda, 180-Norodom Boulevard, Phnom Penh
Hours: Daily 8am-5pm
Website: Watthan Artisans Cambodia
It’s the most heavily touristed place in the country (and indeed one of the most touristed in the world!) and yet it is one of the poorest areas in all of Cambodia. More than 80% of the souvenirs sold in markets around Siem Reap are imported from China.
I know how easy it is to go to the markets and pick up cheap souvenirs. I’ve done it many times myself. But do take a bit of time while you’re in Siem Reap and try to spend a few more dollars with the local artisans and the people selling bracelets and handicrafts on the streets. As “rich” visitors to this part of the world, a few dollars can truly make a world of a difference to the people of this region.
This was perhaps the best meal I ate in all of Cambodia. Right off one of the main streets of Siem Reap, near the famous “bar street”, this little restaurant is truly a haven from the chaos of Siem Reap.
Haven works to help orphaned young people as well as people from disadvantaged rural areas. From their website: “By teaching these young people quality work skills as well as important life skills, we support them in their transition from institution to real world as well as giving them a chance to step out of the poverty cycle. ”
We came here for lunch one day – if you are staying in Siem Reap during peak season, you’ll definitely have to book ahead. I had the Khmer Amok and Luke had the Kmer Lok Lak. Both were so packed with flavor and really beautifully presented. They have tons of vegetarian options and plenty of non-Asian meals if you’d prefer something a bit closer to home. In the end, with two main meals, two huge coconut waters, and a tip, we spent $25.
Address: Chocolate Rd, Wat Damnak area, West of Angkor High School, Siem Reap
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11:30am-3pm and 5:30pm-10pm (kitchen closes 1/2 an hour before)
Lacquerware is incredibly popular in Cambodia. Wood is painted or carved and then covered in lacquer to give it a super bright shine. This particular place in Siem Reap sells all different kinds of lacquered products – jewelry boxes, plates, bowls, candleholders. Everything in the store has been made by hearing impaired Cambodian adults as well as people from isolated and rural areas.
The pieces in here are so beautiful. It almost seems impossible that they could be made of wood because of how shiny they are. We picked up a few souvenirs from here and spent about $20 on two items.
Khmer Kids Art Gallery
I’m a huge supporter of art programs in any country. I think kids really benefit from having a creative outlet and this gallery serves to give these sorts of programs to children all over the Siem Reap region.
You can visit the art gallery and purchase art directly from there. They believe in showing their students that it’s possible to make a living through their art. 50% of every piece of art sold in the gallery goes straight to the artist (the other 50% goes to the organization to keep the programs running in the area). We picked up a few pieces that I truly believed were beautiful. There are books of student’s artwork that you can buy as well as t-shirts and canvas tote bags. Or you can simply make a donation.
Location: 10 minutes walk from Old Market area at the south of Wat Damnak. It is the same street as Tangram restaurant, Petit Villa boutique hotel
Website: Khmer Kids Art Gallery
This shop on Serendipity Beach is a great place to pick up a few souvenirs while also helping the local people prosper. M’Lop Tapang work to help young people around Sihanoukville.
From the Website: “M’Lop Tapang strives to provide a safe haven for vulnerable children of Sihanoukville, offering care and support to any child at risk. We offer access to education, reintegration with families, life-skills training and creative and recreational activities, while ensuring protection from all forms of abuse.”
This charity offers children a safe house where they can come if they don’t have somewhere else to go (or if they feel unsafe at home). It also aims to keep children in school and assist with their education in any way possible.
Website: M’Lop Tapang
Starfish Bakery & Cafe
Someone told me about this place while we were on Koh Rong, so we looked for it when we got back to the mainland. The Starfish project aims to give people a “hand up, not a hand out” by training them to be self-sufficient and giving them a trade that they can then use to earn a living.
From the website: “Starfish focuses its activities on: Affordable quality health care, secure home environment, improving livelihoods through loans and grants, water and sanitation, support for women living with children in prison.
In addition to the bakery, there are also massage services and an Internet cafe to use. The coffee is excellent.
Address: Street 208 (100 m from junction with 7 Makara Street) – small street alongside Samudera Supermarket.
Website: Starfish Bakery & Cafe
Friends of Koh Rong
Rumor has it that this beautiful little island is about to be bombarded with tourism. The Cambodian government has given a 99-year lease to a conglomerate that plans to build several high-end resorts on the island.
Friends of Koh Rong started as a way to help the locals cope with all of this and to make the best of what’s inevitably to come.
From their website: “Friends of Koh Rong envisions a world where all young people can grow up safe, happy and healthy, striving to create successful futures for themselves.”
They want to show the people of the island how they can create sustainable incomes for themselves. This has included everything from teaching English, art and culture, to demonstrating proper nutrition and healthcare to young people all over the island. They accept volunteers (you can read their requirements here), but mostly, the organization could do with plenty of donations (which you can read more about here).
Epic Arts Cafe
Epic Arts wanted to create more job opportunities for Cambodians with disabilities. Many of the staff in the cafe are deaf, so you order your food and drinks using a little menu sheet where you put a check-mark next to what you want.
As the name of the cafe suggests, they are also using many of the profits to encourage the growth of the arts in the area not only for people with disabilities, but also children and teenagers, too.
From the website: “Epic Arts uses the arts as a powerful tool for transformation that explores and celebrates the richness of diversity through creative experiences. We work with people of all abilities and backgrounds through our Inclusive Education, Community and Social Enterprise Programmes to encourage a change in perceptions and attitudes at both a personal, and public level. We promote the message that every person counts, every person is a unique and creative individual and every person is equal.”
Address: Sovann Sakor, Kompong Kandal, Kampot
Website: Epic Arts
Orphanages in Cambodia
I just wanted to address this since it seems to be becoming a kind of popular tourist attraction. While we were traveling through Cambodia we saw so many signs along the road pointing down to orphanages. The signs actually said: Tourists Welcome.
After a bit of research and talking to other travelers about it, I’ve learned that many of these places aren’t really orphanages. Many of these children aren’t orphans at all, but children from very poor families. Tourists go to these orphanages and think they are giving donations to help the children, but then end up right in the pockets of the people who are running them.
Please think twice about visiting an orphanage, not only in Cambodia, but anywhere in the world. It’s so difficult to really know what is legitimate and what is basically a scam at the expense of unknowing families and children. If you want to give back in positive ways, I simply recommend you do your research.
These are great websites where you can find charities around the world to support whether you’re traveling through somewhere or feel like you want to give a donation once you’re back home.
- GlobalGiving – a website packed with charities from all over the world who are looking for donations.
- GlobeDrop – this is a great way to find legitimate schools and other charitable organizations in countries you are traveling to. They ask for specific things that you can bring them like pencils, notebooks, toys, etc.
If you know any other great organizations to check out in Cambodia let me know in the comments!