We’re thrilled to announce that we’ll be offering sponsored spots for Cambodians on our future retreats and tours following the success of our first sponsored placement on our recent May retreat.
Our 10-day May Cambodia Culinary Travel Writing and Photography Retreat ended last week and while it wasn’t the first such experience we held (we hosted our first culinary travel writing and photography tour last May), it was the first time we were privileged to have a young Cambodian join us as a participant. And what a delight she was to have on board.
Sponsored Spots for Cambodians on our Retreats and Tours
Living in Siem Reap, one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, where in 2014 the annual GDP per capita was just US$744.88 (or US$62 per month) and 41% of the population lived on less than US$2 a day, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of responsibility to give back to the country in which we live.
Offering sponsored spots for Cambodians on our retreats and tours seemed the obvious thing to do. Our thinking: it would not only provide the sponsored participant with opportunities to develop skills and/or projects, it would give them an insight into the tourism and hospitality industry from the ‘other’ side.
The way we saw it, it would also enable our foreign guests to connect with a Cambodian on an equal level. Most visitors to Cambodia only engage with service staff, such as drivers, guides, and waiters on a superficial level. This experience would allow them to engage on a much deeper level, on our excursions, during workshops, and over food. And we know that nothing unites people more than a shared meal.
Meet Kek Soon, Cambodian Cook and Aspiring Cookbook Writer
Kek Soon, pictured above, is a young Cambodian cook from Kampot, on the gorgeous yet underdeveloped south coast. When we put the word out that we were looking for a candidate to join us and had a sponsor on board, Soon was recommended by Julien Poulsen, an Australian musician, member of the Cambodian Space Project and co-founder of the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival.
Julien has been busy down there helping to develop the arts scene, including establishing the Kampot Arts and Music Association (KAMA). Soon had been cooking at the KAMA café, as well as working as a cook and baker at another café, and running a cleaning business. She has also been actively involved in the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival.
Soon supports a large family including her two year-old daughter, mother and siblings. Life hasn’t been easy for her. She started working at a young age with the local fishermen – some of her earliest memories are of being cold and hungry. At the age of 14 Soon travelled to Malaysia with her mother to work as a maid and nanny to a wealthy family. Soon’s mother stayed four years and Soon remained for eight.
Soon has big dreams. She would love to open her own restaurant, from where she can also offer food tours and cooking classes to both tourists and locals. With the help of Julien and other creative folks in Kampot, she had started to develop a Kampot cookbook. The idea is to raise funds to self-publish the book and use the proceeds from sales to raise money to open her own restaurant.
Pipe dreams perhaps in other parts of the world, these things are all possible in Southeast Asia. When Julien nominated Soon and told us about her plans, the Thai cooking class instructor cum cookbook writer ‘Poo’ immediately came to mind and we accepted Soon without hesitation. Soon’s sponsors, Victoria Milner and Michael Crouch, didn’t take long to make a decision either.
Watch our video to learn more about Soon, Kampot, her food and her dreams, and how she benefited from her experience on our 10-day Culinary Travel Writing and Photography Retreat.
Meet Victoria Milner, Food Blogger and our Inaugural Sponsor
Although I knew Singapore-based Australian Victoria (‘Tori’) Milner as the blogger behind Singapore Foodie, and we had engaged on social media, I didn’t meet Tori in the flesh until a couple of years ago when I crafted a bespoke Savour Siem Reap itinerary for her and her husband Michael Crouch. I caught up with them again this year in Siem Reap when she was bringing relatives to Cambodia and asked me to plan a family-focused trip.
We meet a lot of selfless people here in Siem Reap who devote their time and attention to good causes, but Tori and Michael are some of the most altruistic visitors to Cambodia I have ever met, fund-raising for local charities and helping to build houses. I thought I’d let Tori tell their story and explain why they sponsored Soon.
Q. When did you develop a connection to Cambodia?
A. In 2013 Michael and I made a conscious decision to ‘invest’ one ‘holiday’ per year in something that wasn’t about us. We chose house-building with Tabitha in Cambodia because of a work connection of Michael’s.
That first visit was my first time in Cambodia and I was (and still am) emotionally connected by the stories I learnt, the people I met, and the feeling of needing to make a positive difference to people who’ve suffered so much through no fault of their own.
I’ve become insanely aware of the lottery of birth and just how a) lucky we are and b) how unlucky others are, and that we are in a position to do something about turning those tables a little.
Q. Why did you decide to sponsor an individual?
A. The decision to sponsor Kek Soon was entirely spontaneous. As I’ve also worked in the not-for-profit area and with people in that sector I’m all too aware of how many ‘dodgy’ or, at the very least, inefficient charities are out there, where minimal funds reach the intended recipients.
I figured sponsoring Kek Soon cuts out the middle man and given that you’re providing the opportunity for someone to learn directly, to benefit from meeting others in their chosen field, and teaching them yourself, it seemed like a good use of funds.
Q. Would you encourage others to donate their money/time to sponsoring individuals/NGOs?
A. Absolutely. I already do in different ways. I work in a co-working space in Singapore with social enterprises and am exposed to many organisations doing great things (not just charity). I buy gifts and anything I can from those organisations above commercial organisations. Along with our friends we do several donation drives and volunteering events throughout the year.
I’m also very much against setting up new charities or NGOs when there are so many out there already. The financial inefficiencies that result could be so better spent if money was channelled to central organisations. There’s another whole argument there though about NGOs like World Vision etc but that’s another story.
Why We’re Giving Back in this Way
We know that to some it seems crazy that a travel and food writer and photographer couple who have only relatively recently diversified by segueing into the travel business side of things would start ‘giving back’ before even generating their first profits. Well, we’re not entirely mad.
This first year we’re seeking donors to cover the costs of sponsored spots for Cambodians on our retreats and tours, so all we’re really giving up for now is our time – to identify candidates, seek out donors, coordinate placements, and mentor and follow through with participants. Once we’re in a financial position to – ideally this time in 2017 – we’ll match those funds so that more than one Cambodian benefits from each retreat or tour. More details on that soon.
But how could we not give something back to a place and its people, its culinary culture and tourism and hospitality industry that has given us so many enriching experiences since we first visited six years ago.
The notion of ‘giving back’ to the places we travel to and live in is one of the guiding principles behind Grantourismo and our slow, local and experiential travel philosophy. It’s one of the reasons we launched the site with our 2010 grand tour of the world.
If you’ve followed along for a while you’ll know that in every place we travel to or live in we seek out and share opportunities for travellers to ‘give back’ to places, whether through shopping more sustainably or donating to good causes.
We’ve never been more conscious of the need for visitors to tread light and travel more responsibly and ethically than we have here in Cambodia – a destination where orphanage tourism is big business and children are kept from school to beg and sell trinkets to tourists to earn an income.
As I said above, we feel an even greater sense of responsibility to ‘give back’ as residents of Cambodia, where in 2014 the World Bank estimated the GDP per capita was only US$744.88, just 6% of the world’s average, and the Asia Development Bank estimated that 72% of the population lived on less than US$3 per day, 41% on less than US$2 a day.
Think about that. Over half the country’s population lives on less than you’d pay for an espresso each day, while over a third of the population struggles to put a meal on the table each day for their family.
Some 91% of poor households in Cambodia are in rural areas, with the ten poorest provinces being located around the Tonle Sap or Great Lake, not far from where I write this. It might be hard for foreign visitors to believe, but one of the poorest provinces is Siem Reap, Cambodia’s main tourist destination, and our home.
Knowing these things, and being confronted each day by the poverty, makes it impossible to run a small business in Siem Reap without considering ways in which we can give back, even if they may be small ways.
As a travel and food writer and photographer team who do everything from craft bespoke trip itineraries to create websites and consult on social media, it made sense to contribute to our own industry and share some of the experience we’ve gained in the three decades we’ve worked as creatives.
Over the years we’ve lived here, we’ve been asked from time to time whether we could offer classes or coaching in writing and photography. Apparently there are very few opportunities for Cambodians to develop these skills, particularly writing in English, the language of the tourism and hospitality industry.
It struck us that our food and travel writing retreats and culinary tours could provide the perfect vehicles for creative young Cambodians to acquire skills, develop projects and/or gain an insight into an industry that they might ordinarily only experience from the ‘other’ side, the service side, not as travellers and particularly food tourists might.
While we’ve only made a start on the work to be done to assist Soon to develop her projects, this bright young woman from Kampot has said that she’s already benefited in so many different ways. Please watch the video we made on her last morning in Siem Reap to learn how the experienceaffected her.
While I knew that having a young Cambodian on the retreat would be wonderful for the other participants, I could never have predicted the profound impact it would have. Maybe we lucked out with Soon, who is indeed a very special person, but, Soon’s personality aside, our participants gained insights into Cambodian culture and society that they wouldn’t have had with tour guides and tuk tuk drivers.
That there were tears in all our eyes when it came to the goodbyes and that the parting words of most of our participants were “See you in Kampot!” says a lot about the success of the experience.
Nominate or Sponsor a Cambodian to Do our Retreats and Tours
We have already set dates for a retreat and a tour in October 2016 and we’ll soon be setting dates for 2017. We are currently accepting nominations for two sponsored spots for Cambodians on our food and travel writing and photography retreat and culinary tour in October.
The candidate must be a Cambodian national, must have studied, worked in or is looking for a job in the tourism or hospitality industry, and must be interested in writing or photography.
We are also looking for individuals, small businesses or companies willing to sponsor the cost of the package for two participants.
If you have any questions, please leave them in the Comments below. If you have candidates in mind for the sponsored spots for Cambodians on our retreats and tours or you would like to become a sponsor of a candidate, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org