Cambodia has a terrible recent past and the marks of the Khmer Rouge's 3-year rule are long lasting. The cultural and intellectual elites disappeared, most population was moved to rural areas and the country was heavily land mined. The guerrilla fighting lasted until 1998 and definitely still is on everybody's minds. With this came other sorts of problems, HIV/Aids, human trafficking, sweat shops, etc.
So what does this have to do with us visiting Siem Reap? We made a conscious choice to look for businesses (restaurants, souvenir shops, spas) that are responsible employers who provide their staff a chance to learn a trade, to earn a fair wage and to preserve their dignity.
Can you get a 15min massage for $1 in Siem Reap? Sure you can! But how much will the employee get out of that $1? How will she be able to pay rent, send the kids to school and buy food? How well will you feel knowing that?
I had never been anywhere where there were so many NGOs and social businesses trying to make a difference for the local communities. And I do hope that Cambodia and its people will prosper in a way that is sustainable and respectful to their human rights and their cultural identity.
Here are 3 suggestions of what you can do while in Siem Reap:
The highlight of our trip, apart from the Angkor Temples, is Phare, Cambodian Circus. Such a wonderful project! The NGO provides kids from difficult socio-economic backgrounds with an education in the "normal" school curriculum, visual arts, music and performing arts. That way, they learn not only to read and write but also a trade. The circus has shows every night in Siem Reap. For $15 you get a great show and the chance to make a difference in the lives of these extremely talented kids and young adults. For $35 you get priority seats so you'll be really really close to all the action. The small circus tent quickly becomes filled with this vibrant energy and there is no way you cannot be impressed by the hard work that goes into presenting such an awesome show every night! This is also an important initiative in relaunching the arts in Cambodia after an especially somber period.
We had a fantastic dinner at Marum, a restaurant which serves delicious food while providing training to young people. These are kids who otherwise did not have an opportunity to get proper jobs and would not be able to get themselves out of poverty. The atmosphere at the restaurant was great and we enjoyed both the food and the wine a lot. The restaurant is ran by Friends International which also has other social businesses in Cambodia and Laos.
We got the 1hour massage (twice!) at Lemongrass Garden Spa for $10. That is certainly still much cheaper than what I would pay in Portugal or Singapore. It's a small-family owned business. The staff is trained, given uniforms and paid above-average wages. That is a totally different picture from what you see on the $1 spas, where dozens of women wait sit on plastic chairs on the sidewalks waiting for customers. Kind of depressing to watch honestly.
Are these the majority of responsible businesses in Siem Reap? No, they are not. So it does require some planning if you want to make an impact. There are many choices though, so do not be discouraged by the cheap t-shirt and harem pant stalls or the western food restaurants around Pub Street. Some preparation at home might reward you with beautiful memories and an overall feeling of satisfaction.
I truly hope this post serves as an inspiration for your next trips!