Responsible Travel in Cambodia – A Comprehensive Guide
Responsible travel in Cambodia isn’t all that hard. Yet far too many tourists seem to have missed the memo that Cambodia is a Buddhist nation, the temples are religious structures, and the country remains one of Southeast Asia’s most impoverished, so we thought it time to post a guide.
Learning how to travel responsibly in Cambodia – or anywhere, really – shouldn’t need a guide. It isn’t rocket science. It’s simply about doing some research before you leave, and when you arrive showing some consideration and respect, and using your intelligence – things that some people going on holidays seem to forget to pack.
We believe that travelling responsibly in Cambodia matters. It shouldn’t be a choice. This is our guide to responsible travel in Cambodia – from booking your trip until your departure back home, these are the things that you can do if you want to be a responsible traveller while you’re in Cambodia.
Our Guide to Responsible Travel in Cambodia
Do Some Research Before You Leave
One of the most important things you can do as a responsible traveller is educate yourself – from the moment you decide to travel to when you arrive at your destination. Ensure you’re informed about the history, politics, economy, society, and religion. Learn about the culture, traditions and customs.
Understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. Learn a little etiquette, including greetings, gestures and manners, and eating, drinking and dining etiquette. Remember that you’re a guest in the country, so you should treat your hosts with respect. Try to leave any pre-conceived ideas and stereotypes at home. Go with an open-mind, empathy, and a willingness to engage with and learn from locals.
Book With Local Travel Companies
Please don’t buy a package holiday through a travel agency or tour company based in your home country. Just buy your flights and book your hotel rooms in advance. Arrange your tours, excursions and activities through a Cambodia based travel company once you arrive or if you’re really keen to get organised in advance (advisable in high season or if you’re only staying a short time) then book online with local operators. Most Cambodian based tour companies – Beyond Unique Escapes, Khmer Ways, IndochineEx Adventures, Triple A Adventures, etc – all have websites. If you want something customised email them.
Why? Firstly, because travelling responsibly means travelling sustainably and spending money in local communities. You want to ensure your money goes to Cambodians and that the company, its staff and the businesses they work with are being fairly paid for the work they’re doing. You want to cut out the middlemen, because whenever there are middlemen you know that there are commissions and haggling by the big operators to keep local prices down so their profits go up.
Secondly, the local tour company will be more sensitive to the local culture, society, religion, and traditions, and will be more engaged in their community. Look for companies that are involved in eco-initiatives, support NGOs, or give back to their community in some way – even small ways. And let’s face it, they’ll also have greater local knowledge and have their fingers on the pulse. How on earth can a London, Sydney or New York-based agent best advise you what to do?
Next Best Thing: Use Regional Travel Companies
If you can’t find a local travel company online that you like the look of, the next best thing is an Asia based regional specialist. These companies tend to be headquartered in their home city, such as Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, where they probably began life as a small local travel company, and may have smaller offices scattered the region, and perhaps even an office or two in Australia, the UK or US.
This means they have specialised local and regional knowledge and greater cross-cultural understanding than the big multi-nationals. They will still be engaged in the communities they operate in through their local offices and will still be contributing directly to the livelihoods of local people, if only for the fact that they are employing locals.
Because these companies are larger than the small local companies, they tend to have bigger budgets to do more advertising, so you’re more likely to have heard of these companies than the local businesses. Examples of Asia-based companies include Insider Journeys (formerly Travel Indochina), Backyard Travel, Grasshopper Adventures, Smiling Albino, Spice Roads, and Buffalo Tours.
Use Responsible Travel Companies
Whether you’re doing research online or you’ve already arrived in Cambodia, use a responsible travel company. Don’t just book the first company your Google search produces or walk into the first tour company office you see when you arrive. Do some research online first to ensure you’re selecting a responsible travel business.
Look at travel company and tour operator websites to see if they have a statement about their responsible travel philosophy, mission or policy (this is a great example) and evidence of their work with local organisations and projects that they support, whether through fund-raisers, donations, man-power, or providing training or educational opportunities. If they’re foreign-owned, do they use Cambodian guides? Do they state whether they have a programme to employ, train and empower Cambodians? Do they partner with local businesses and/or support local NGOs or charities? Are they involved in the community, even if it’s in a small way?
Or do they perhaps operate their own Foundation, such as Siem Reap’s Beyond Unique Escapes, which channels a percentage of profits into their foundation HUSK Cambodia, which runs a number of projects, working directly with communities to help improve the lives of Cambodian families by providing access to safe water, housing, livelihood opportunities, health and education services.
Avoid Big Brands and All Inclusives in Favour of Small Independent Hotels
Skip the big international brands and all-inclusive resorts, and spread the love around locally instead. Opt for small independent hotels, and eat, drink and shop at local businesses in the neighbourhood where you’re staying. Skip the hotel spa and luxuriate in a local independent spa, such as Bodia, Frangipani or Kaya Spa.
Click through to these links to see our recommendations for intimate boutique hotels in Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh – nearly all properties we recommend are independently owned and in most cases you will meet the owners. If you’re going to stay in a foreign operated hotel, look for hotels that treat staff well, pay them fairly and empower them.
In Siem Reap, the Soria Moria Hotel offers an Employee Ownership Scheme that allocates 51% of shares to employees and runs an Educational Development Program that has enabled 12 staff to complete Bachelors and Masters degrees.
Check Into a Hospitality Training School Hotel
Siem Reap has excellent tourism and hospitality training schools which have hotel rooms and restaurants to give their students real world experience. Income is injected back to the schools to fund their educational programmes.
Sala Baï, ran by French NGO Agir Pour le Cambodge, is the oldest, established in 2002 to train underprivileged Cambodian youths for hospitality careers. It gives 70% of places to girls and offers courses in cooking, restaurant front of house, housekeeping, hotel front office, and beauty therapy. Its graduates are employed in hotels across Siem Reap, but Heritage Suites has always been a big supporter, hiring staff and holding annual fundraisers.
Ecole d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule, established by the founder of the French Accor hotel group, runs a similar sort of tourism and hospitality school for disadvantaged young Cambodians, and its graduates are also employed widely across Siem Reap. They have four hotel rooms on their campus on National Highway 6, not far from the airport.
The Shinta Mani Resort and Club channels US$5 from every hotel room night into the Shinta Mani Foundation, which supports the hotel’s hospitality training programe, as well as mobile medical and dental clinics, a farming development centre, and interest-free business loans. The Foundations has funded houses, water wells, school supplies, and even piglets for poor villages.
Experience a Cambodian Home Stay
Checking into a homestay is one of the best ways to contribute to the local economy as income goes directly to the homestay family and community. In some cases, your money goes to a village fund to contribute to the development of the community.
At the Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism project villagers have used the money to install solar panels, build houses for the poorest residents, and clean the temple moat, among other projects. From their website, you can hire local guides, organise activities, arrange transport and tours, order meals, and have musicians play during those meals, knowing that your money is going directly to the people providing those services – something you can’t always be sure of these days.
We’ll be bringing you more information on Cambodian homestays over coming months, as we experience them ourselves.
Tip If You’re Happy With Service
While tipping isn’t customary or expected in Cambodia, it’s appreciated. Do reward and encourage good service by tipping – whether it’s a hotel porter, housekeeping, waiter, tuk tuk driver, or guide. Tourists have a tendency not to tip in countries where it’s not customary but keep in mind that Cambodia is a desperately poor country. The average monthly wage for tourism sector workers is just US$80. Many workers take home just US$2 a day, struggling to put food on the table for their family. Imagine what an extra $1, $5 or even $10 can buy.
Eating and Drinking
Eat local. Whether it’s a street food joint, market stall, casual family-owned eatery, fine dining restaurant, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s local. The best thing you can do is support small local businesses and the smaller the better. Whenever you can, purchase local food made using local produce. If you’re shopping at the market or supermarket, buy local. Check labels in supermarkets. There are organic farmers markets in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh which sell all sorts of delicious things. See our Culinary Guide to Siem Reap for more ideas.
Dine at Social Enterprises and Training Restaurants
Eat at social enterprise restaurants and cafés, some of which operate as hospitality training schools for underprivileged youths. The best in Siem Reap is Marum, ran by NGO Kaliyann Mith, which specialises in inventive, pan-Asian, tapas-style sharing dishes, as well as traditional Cambodian specialties. In Phnom Penh, there is Romdeng and Friends, and in Sihanoukville there’s Sandan. They’re all part of Friends International’s Tree Alliance restaurants. Students work alongside instructors to complete structured on-the-job training and classes in English and other skills.
In Battambang, there’s Cambodian Children’s Trust’s social enterprise restaurant, Jaan Bai, supported by Australian restaurateur John Fink (Quay, Bennelong, Otto, etc) and Thai cuisine legend David Thompson (Nahm, Long Chim). The restaurant provides jobs to CCT kids and its profits are injected back into CCT.
In Siem Reap, hospitality training school Sala Baï operates a restaurant serving European cuisine, while you can dine on Cambodian and Western food at the Ecole d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule training restaurant Le Jardin des Délices (Tues-Fri lunch only; US$15, 3-course set menu). After lunch, a student or staff member will take you on a tour of the impressive facility.
Haven is a training restaurant, ran by a Swiss non-profit, serving Cambodian, Asian and European food. When I checked in April, their website said that 25 young Cambodians had completed the training programme since December 2011.
Eat Cake and Sip Coffee at Social Enterprise Cafés
In Siem Reap, you can dip your croissant into your latte as you watch the students bake in the sparkling kitchen at the Bayon Pastry School Coffee Shop. The social enterprise provides training and jobs to female graduates of the French-NGO operated Ecole du Bayon, a school near the Bayon temple in Angkor Archaeological Park. Blossom Cafe, in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, is a not-for-profit cafe focused on training and empowering disadvantaged women, and is responsible for producing Cambodia’s most creative cakes.
Also in Siem Reap, eco-friendly New Leaf Eatery (formerly New Leaf Book Cafe) is a not-for-profit that donates 100% of profits to educational projects through established NGOs. Community-minded Sister Srey Cafe channels 20% of its profits into its Hearts to Harmony Foundation which runs a community health outreach programme, provides educational scholarships and micro-financing, and makes rice donations. Vegetarian social enterprise Peace Cafe provides eco-training, runs permaculture workshops, supports holistic education programmes and does community outreach work.
In Battambang, Kinyei is a youth-focused social enterprise training cafe and community space, which also operates Soksabike Tours (see below). Kinyei’s co-owner/partner Feel Good Coffee is a roaster of chemical free, fair trade organic coffee beans with a cafe in Phnom Penh.
Things To Do – And Not to Do
Use Cambodian Guides
In a country as impoverished as Cambodia, there’s no compelling reason to use foreign guides. Nothing irks us more than seeing a foreign tour group led by a foreign guide. Even the best Cambodian guides are under-employed. If you have a deep interest in something, such as a particular archaeological site or a period of history, then a specialist guide with a PhD on the subject will offer insights that a locally-trained guide won’t have. Having said that, we know a few local guides that can match a PhD with their general knowledge of the Khmer Empire. On all the itineraries we craft and retreats and tours that we host, we only recommend and use Cambodian guides.
If you prefer not to book a tour, you can hire professional, licensed Cambodian guides through the Khmer Angkor Association Tour Guide Association (300 members) or Cambodian Tourist Guide Association (500 members). Their websites organise guides by language spoken and list the name, gender, phone number, and ‘generation’ (years of experience) of all guides. Prices are listed on the site. While these may seem steep compared to some tour prices, keep in mind that guides don’t work every day and in low season they may not work for weeks. If you don’t want to commit to a full-day, you’ll find licensed guides (in pale lemon/apricot shirts with emblems) at the temples.
When Visiting the Temples Respect the Angkor Code of Conduct
The Angkor Code of Conduct, introduced in late 2015, is as much about protecting the Angkor Archaeological Park temples, including Angkor Wat, near Siem Reap, as it is the people who live around them. Refrain from touching carvings, sitting on and leaning on fragile temple structures, moving archaeological artefacts, and leaving graffiti. Take care not to scrape temple walls and door frames with backpacks, umbrellas and tripods.
Most of all, be mindful that you are visiting places of worship and sacred sites, and act accordingly – dress modestly (see below), don’t smoke, and don’t shout and have loud conversations. And while we get that you want to capture an image of an tangerine-robed monk, please do ask permission to take a photo first, and when you do, don’t stand or sit too close to the monks, don’t wrap your arm around the monk, and women should take care not to touch a monk.
Dress Modestly at Temples and Pagodas
Cover up. I mentioned this above, but it deserves another mention, because last week authorities announced that visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park, home to Angkor Wat, will be refused entry if they’re showing their knees or shoulders, and, ahem, revealing anything else, so put those away too. This applies to men and women, local and foreign.
You’ll need to wear long skirts, trousers, and shirts with sleeves. Staff will check your clothes at the ticket entrance and you won’t be allowed to buy your Angkor pass. I’m guessing there’ll soon be some boutiques opening at the new Angkor ticket office.
And whatever you do, keep your clothes on. Backpackers who have got naked at the temples (yes, it’s a thing) have been arrested, convicted of pornography and indecency, given suspended sentences, fined, banned from entering the country again, and deported.
Do Ride a Bike
The White Bicycles is a non-profit that has placed more than 50 rental bicycles at hotels and guesthouses around Siem Reap. Income from rentals is injected into clean water, educational and other projects, including one of our favourites, the Giant Puppet Project Parade.
In Battambang, Soksabike Tours, a sibling to Kinyei Cafe (above) runs sustainable and educational cycling tours into the countryside and villages.
Don’t Ride Elephants
A few months ago an elephant died of a heart attack at Angkor Archaeological Park, having been over-worked and not given enough water during the heatwave. Please don’t support elephant tourism, which, like most forms of animal tourism, is cruel. World Animal Protection puts it at the top of their list of the World’s Cruellest Animal Attractions. Read more about the situation in Siem Reap, how you can help, and the legitimate elephant sanctuaries in Cambodia where you can volunteer here and below.
Support the Local Arts and Culture
The arts scenes are flourishing right across Cambodia and the wonderful thing is that in almost every area, there’s an NGO supporting the training of disadvantaged Cambodians in some sort of form, whether it’s dance or music or painting, you name it.
Battambang has a lively arts scene, with most art spaces and galleries ran by young Cambodian artists who graduated from the Phare Ponleau Selpak arts school. Click through for our guide to Battambang’s art and architecture.
Siem Reap’s art scene is flourishing with a spate of new gallery openings this year. Start with the new Sasha Constable Gallery on Hap Guan Street in Kandal Village, which shows Cambodian and expat artists. Check out designer Loven Ramos’ arty recommendations. Try to see the Sacred Dancers of Angkor if they are performing.
We’ll be posting a new guide to Siem Reap’s arts and architecture from a Cambodia artist, along with guides to the art scenes in Phnom Penh and Kampot very soon.
Spend a Night at the Circus
In Siem Reap, see the Phare Cambodian Circus, an edgy, down-to-earth, all-singing-and-dancing Cirque du Soleil-style circus. No animals involved, just a cast of talented young Cambodians accomplished in acrobatics, aerial ballet, contortion, tightrope walking, juggling, fire dancing, you name it.
Get a Haircut, Mani-Pedi or Massage
In Phnom Penh, Friends International’s Nail Bar offers manicures, pedicures, nail art, and foot and hand massages by students in training. This is their Facebook page.
Animal Welfare and the Environment
Go Birdwatching with the Sam Veasna Centre for Wildlife Conservation
“Sustaining Cambodian wildlife and communities through eco-tourism” is the mission of the non-profit Sam Veasna Centre for Wildlife Conservation based in Siem Reap. Their goal is to provide alternative sustainable livelihoods from ecotourism for local communities at the sites that the Wildlife Conservation Society prioritises for conservation, and they have exclusive access to these to offer tours. In return for employment and income, communities sign no hunting and land use agreements, which are monitored by Ministries of Environment and Forestry patrol teams.
Specialists in bird-watching, with eight highly knowledgeable, English-speaking Cambodian guides, the Centre offers an array of birding and wildlife viewing experiences in Cambodia. They run anything from half-day birding tours around Siem Reap to one-day tours combining birdwatching and temples, such as a trip to the remote archaeological site of Sambor Prei Kuk to spot the newly discovered Cambodian Tailorbird among others.
Serious twitchers will love their longer journeys, including a 7-8 day trip to spot three critically endangered bird species, the Giant Ibis, White-shouldered Ibis and Bengal Florican, as well as Greater Adjutant and Milky Stork, Sarus Crane, including a day observing Southeast Asia’s largest waterbird colony on the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) at the Core Reserve of the Prek Toal flooded forest and an optional one-day extension to see the Mekong Wagtail, Asian Golden Weaver, Small Pratincole and Irrawaddy Dolphin at Kratie.
Visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and Floating Villages with Osmose
NGO Osmose is an eco-tourism operator in Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary on the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) which has supported and assisted over a hundred poor families in the floating village communities through the provision of schooling, medical and social services, along with income generation from tourism projects.
You can explore the floating villages by traditional paddle boat, visit the bird sanctuary in the flooded forest, learn weaving and buy woven products made from water hyacinth at the Saray cooperative, which generates income for some 40 women, enjoy a traditional meal at the community restaurant, and experience a homestay in a floating house.
Help Rescue Wildlife through the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity
You can support the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), located at Kbal Spean, 12km north of Banteay Srei, on a guided tour. The Centre rescues and rehabilitates native Cambodian wildlife, most of which arrive having been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. Certain endangered species or animals not fit for release transferred to their breeding section. They also offer village based tourism activities that generate non-forest based income for local families, a portion of which goes into a community fund which can be used as seed money for other income generation projects.
The ACCB is also a partner in a vulture conservation project, having funded seven feeding stations within the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, along with ongoing vulture research and protection activities, and a vulture restaurant at Sesan in Stung Treng province in northeast Cambodia. They also support wildlife monitoring and bird nest protection activities of the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear Province in northern Cambodia.
Guided tours of the ACCB at Kbal Spean (90 minutes; minimum donation of US$3 per person) are offered at 9am and 1pm sharp from Monday to Saturday. The ACCB entrance is next to the car park at Kbal Spean on Mount Kulen. During the tour you’ll see an array of animals as you learn about efforts to save Cambodia’s wildlife. If you have a Phnom Kulen temple pass (which you need to buy from the office not far from the foot of the mountain) you can also visit the archaeological sites of the so-called ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata, including the Kbal Spean riverbed carvings and waterfall. Contact the ACCB via their website to book village tours (half-day; US$10 per person plus US$3 donation to ACCB). If you can’t visit, the Centre also accepts donations online.
Volunteer at Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries
In Mondulkiri province, The Elephant Valley Project mahouts are paid a wage to retire their working elephants and continue to care for them, and protect them from poachers. You can observe and walk with the elephants but not ride them; volunteers are also welcome. At the Mondulkiri Project Elephant Sanctuary, Mr Tree rents an area of forest from the Bunong tribe to protect it from logging and provide a home for rescued elephants. He offers jungles treks where you can walk and swim with the elephants.
The Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary is an animal and environmental conservation project ran in partnership with Thai-based Save Elephant Foundation. Located on a million acres of jungle habitat, it’s the last refuge for 36 species on the critically endangered and highly threatened species list, including the Asian elephant. It’s financed through an ethical eco-volunteer programme and donations.
Buy Ibis Rice
If you’re settling into a Siem Reap rental apartment and doing some cooking, buy Ibis Rice, an award-winning wildlife friendly-certified malis (jasmine) rice. The Ibis Rice project is a partnership between the government and NGOs, including Sansom Mlup Prey, which provide farmers with incentives to engage in conservation by offering a premium price for their rice if they abide by conservation agreements to protect the rare Ibis water bird and other species. Agreements cover land-use, limiting the conversion of wetland areas to rice fields, and outlaw the hunting and collection of the rare waterbirds and their chicks.
Souvenirs and Shopping
Buy Fair Trade Cambodian Made Products
Try to avoid the night markets and tourist stalls selling cheap clothes and souvenirs made in factories in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. I know it’s hard not to buy your dad an Angkor beer t-shirt and you’re desperate to leap into some elephant pants. But the chances of those things being made by slave labour, including children, in sweatshops are extremely high.
Instead, shop at small local businesses that practice Fair Trade principles, i.e. hire adult workers, treat workers well, pay them fairly, provide paid holiday and sick leave and so on, and buy directly from local artists, artisans, designers, and jewellers who are using locally made materials and employing and training Cambodians.
One example is Madeline Green of Ammo who commissioned the construction of a well-ventilated state-of-the-art jewellery design studio. She and the Cambodia master jeweller she trained take on young or disadvantaged Cambodians as apprentices, including former street children from Green Gecko. You can visit to watch them make beautiful jewellery out of recycled bullet casings, and buy some pieces to take home.
Buy from NGO Workshops
There are many wonderful NGO-operated boutiques and workshops in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampot, which give jobs to the disadvantaged, former street children, victims of trafficking, and people with HIV, disabilities or who have lost limbs due to landmine accidents. In other words, people who would otherwise have difficulty securing a job. At some workshops you can watch art, handicrafts, and jewellery being made.
In Siem Reap, Wild Poppy stocks the clothes and Softies kids toys made by the women at HUSK’s sewing centre.
Buy Eco-Friendly and Recycled
Friends International’s Friends ’n’ Stuff shops sell everything from jewellery to wallets made mostly from newspapers and other recycled materials by the parents of marginalised youths. The idea is that they provide an income for their families as an incentive to keep the kids in school.
Shop at the Made in Cambodia Market
A great one-stop-shop is the Made in Cambodia market in Siem Reap formerly at the Shinta Mani Resort but opening at the end of July from noon to 10pm daily at the Kings Road Angkor complex, where stalls are ran by NGO workshops and independent artists and designers.
Run out of time to go shopping? You can buy beautiful things online. For starters, there are handicrafts, children’s toys and gifts on the Hope Handicrafts website. All of the products are made by Cambodian women, with all proceeds supporting the education of children at Human and Hope Association in Siem Reap.
Say No to Plastic Bags
Cambodia has a serious problem with plastic bags. Travel around this beautiful country and you’ll see discarded plastic bags littering yards and rice paddies, rivers and ponds. It’s sad to see, particularly in a country that is so ‘green’ in other ways. For instance, traditionally, most of Cambodia’s street food snacks and takeaway food has been wrapped in banana leaves.
Many of the boutiques I’ve mentioned here, from Friends ‘n Stuff to Wild Poppy will pop your purchases in recycled paper bags that they’ve made from newspapers. However, if offered plastic bags elsewhere please decline them. You can buy some lovely cotton bags from many of the businesses listed on this page. You’ll also find beautiful baskets and woven bags at the local markets.
The situation is so bad that a Plastic Free July Cambodia has been launched, with a range of green initiatives, events and ideas on their site, along with some scary statistics on plastic bag use in the country.
Giving Back, Doing Good, Treading Lightly
Don’t Visit or Volunteer at Orphanages
Don’t even think about visiting or volunteering at orphanages. In Cambodia, there’s a massive orphanage tourism industry and volunteer industry that are flourishing by profiting from tourists and volunteers. Most of the children at these institutions are not orphans. By visiting and volunteering at orphanages you’re helping that industry thrive and giving poverty-stricken families incentives to lend or sell their children to these charlatans.
If the orphanage is legitimate and the children are indeed orphans, imagine how traumatic it is for those children to continually form emotional bonds with kind strangers who leave their lives as quickly as they entered them. There are other issues too. Children in orphanages are vulnerable and subject to abuse both within the institution and by donors. Children are not tourist attractions. Let them be children and play and learn. They shouldn’t have to perform, sing songs or look cute so you’ll donate to their institution.
If you want to help, donate money to a responsible registered NGO, which works hard to keep children out of institutions and in a family environment. For more insight read this interview with Tara Winkler of Battambang-based Cambodian Children’s Trust on why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia. It’s one of our most visited and most shared posts.
Reconsider Your Need to Volunteer
Voluntourism, like orphanage tourism, is big business in Cambodia. Websites that facilitate volunteer experiences charge hefty fees and when you understand how much things cost here you have to ask where that money is going. Australian clients I had for one of my itineraries gave my tuk tuk driver US$1,000. He built a house with that. Most of the fees for volunteer experiences are around US$2,000. So how many houses are they building per group?
Please do thorough research before signing up. Investigate the foreign facilitator as much as the local organisation where you’re hoping to volunteer. Some countries have websites listing registered charities and NGOs, including their financial records, such as the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission website. Not all volunteer opportunities are legitimate and even some seemingly legitimate ones are questionable if you look at their financial statements and see that just a small fraction of their funds raised have been used on projects in Cambodia.
If you aren’t a qualified expert in your field, say, a specialist doctor who can train Cambodian medical staff or a professional builder who can teach construction skills, ask yourself why you’re volunteering. Just because you’re a native English speaker does not mean you’re able to train English teachers to teach English. Are your house-painting skills really needed when underemployed locals could be paid to splash some paint on a local school?
While everyone means well, in many cases volunteers can do more harm than good. If you want to ‘do good’, yet you’re not a skilled expert with training experience, then consider donating money to a registered NGO or charity instead, with a strong track record for getting things done. That organisation can pay locals who desperately need work an income to build houses, paint schools and install wells. And they can hire qualified, specialist experts, local or foreign, to teach and train Cambodians to do those jobs.
Seek Out Responsible Volunteer Experiences
Having said all that, there are responsible volunteer experiences, and they’re generally in the areas of animal welfare and environmental conservation. Often due to remote locations and lack of funds, many organisations are unable to find let alone pay local staff, animal welfare organisations, conservation parks, and animal refuges and rescue and rehabilitation centres, are always in need of volunteers. As unskilled as you may be, you’re not going to do much harm by making toys for bears or feeding elephants (see above). In fact you’re going to be doing a lot of guilt-free good. More on those opportunities in another post also.
Minimise Your Social Footprint
Growing up in Australia we were familiar with the need to minimise our environmental footprint and whenever we went camping or hiking in national parks we knew to be careful not to damage any plants on hikes, to clean up after ourselves, and to take our garbage away. But I had never considered my social footprint until moving to Cambodia.
Travellers can have an impact on the places they visit and while it’s largely positive, interactions with vulnerable children can negatively affect their welfare. Try to pick up the tiny blue ChildSafe Traveller Tips leaflet, which you’ll see at hotels, tour company offices and shops, outlining ways that travellers can help protect kids in Cambodia, some of which we’ve covered above, such as not giving money to child beggars; skipping the school and orphanage visits; avoiding short-term volunteer experiences that involve kids; reporting any incidents of child labour, child sex tourism via the ChildSafe hotline or to police.
Donate and Contribute
While donating your time or bringing over old clothes or things you no longer need makes you feel good, donating money is better, as organisations can use this to hire locals or spend funds in the areas where they’re most desperately needed needed.
Some organisations welcome donations of clothes, school supplies, sporting gear, etc, but always make contact before your trip and check in advance what is needed. Although rocking up to a village and playing Father Christmas and handing goodies out might feel nice, it can create feelings of jealousy and damage relationships and divide communities. It’s far better to deliver donations to a charity or NGO who can then distribute the things fairly and where they are most needed.
Many of the organisations I’ve linked to on this page accept donations. One that I particularly love and I’ve seen their work firsthand is the Hope and Human Association, an entirely locally-run, grassroots organisation providing education, vocational training, and community projects.
You can donate Ibis Rice to disadvantaged families and NGOs through Sansom Mlup Prey Cambodia, which will deliver the rice and send you proof of delivery.
Check the website of non-profit social enterprise ConCERT for more organisations, ideas and information and don’t hesitate to contact them for advice. The organisation has a vision for a Cambodia free of poverty and a mission “to turn people’s good intentions into the best possible help for the most vulnerable people in Cambodia”.
We’ll be regularly updating our guide to responsible travel in Cambodia so feel free to leave suggestions in the comments below for responsible travel tips, organisations or social enterprise businesses you think we should add.