Responsible Travel in Cambodia
Tourism can be a huge force for both good and bad. It can bring much needed income and development to an area but all to often a boom in tourism, particularly in developing countries, only lines the pockets of foreign investors. Unsustainable tourism is detrimental for the local people, environment and wildlife and erodes the culture you have travelled so far to experience.
Do a little research and you can avoid those tourist attractions and volunteering projects that are money making schemes with no benefit to host communities.
Of course responsible tourism that aims to protect the environment and to respect people, their communities and their cultures, has huge socio-economic benefits. So ‘know before you go’ and you can support projects that are improving the quality of life in host communities instead of contributing to the negative impacts that we see so often.
What to Avoid
Children Are Not Tourist Attractions
Cambodia was left devastated by the horrific Khmer Rouge regime which left hundreds of thousands of children orphaned. In more recent years, as the country has recovered the number of actual orphans has fallen, but according to UNICEF, the number of orphanages has gone up but more than 75%.
Volunteering can be an incredibly rewarding experience; like any form of giving it makes us feel good. As much as we don’t like to admit it, helping others is incredibly self gratifying. When faced with an image of a vulnerable child and the message that you can help solve their problems, your default reaction is to try and make a difference. But look a little deeper, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll realise that innocence can be a saleable commodity.
In popular tourist destinations like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, the business of ‘orphanages’ can be a profitable one. According to a UNICEF report in 2011 most of the 12,000 children in Cambodia’s orphanages are, in fact, not orphans. Nearly three-quarters of them have one living parent, yet the number of children in care has more than doubled in five years.
UNICEF country head, Richard Bridle told global volunteering charity VOA he is concerned many centres have turned to tourism to attract funding and that, by doing so, they put children at risk. Bridle continued to says that even the best-intentioned tourists and volunteers are funding a system that is helping to separate children from their families. (VOA News)
You also have to consider how your presence affects the children you want to help. A constant stream of changing tourists faces can cause attachment issues for the children and with no real screening in place some volunteers could be putting children at risk.
Finally, consider if you couldn’t do it at home why should you be allowed to do it in Cambodia? This snippet from an article in a UK broadsheet seems to sum it up well…
“Many orphanages let tourists work with children. But what would we say if unchecked foreigners went into our children’s homes to cuddle and care for the kids? We would be shocked, so why should standards be lowered in the developing world? Yes, resources might be in short supply, but just as here, experts want children in the family environment or fostered in loving homes, not in the exploding number of substandard institutions ed-italia.com.” – Ian Birrell, The Guardian.
Visit the ChildSafe Think Before Visiting site to find out more. If you want to volunteer and support a community based project in Cambodia then have a look at our list of great causes on the right. Some do take volunteers and other’s don’t but you can still support them in other ways by visiting their shops and restaurants or by making a donation.
Before volunteering at a project that cares for children it’s a good idea to ask the following… How does the organisation protect the child’s privacy and welfare? How are visits to their centres managed and controlled? Do they have health and hygiene programmes? How do they support and interact with the children’s families and wider communities? Finally always ensure that the organisation you are going to be volunteering at has child protection policies and practises in place.
A Cautious Note About Animal 'Attractions'
Asian elephants are amazing, compelling creatures so its not surprising that so many travellers want to have some kind of experience with them when they are in S E Asia. Unfortunately these beautiful animals are often sorely mistreated particularly in the tourism industry. Please think twice before visiting anywhere that offers riding, circuses or painting as the elephants in involved are likely to have undergone some kind of abuse in order for them to ‘perform’ and submit.
You can still spend time with Elephants in Cambodia and contribute to their welfare at the Elephant Valley Project – find out more in the great causes list to your right.
Also avoid the growing number of crocodile farms now open to tourists. Siamese crocodiles are endangered in the wild but are very much alive in farms across S E Asia. Organisations such as PETA have spoken out against some farms and raised concerns over the welfare of the crocodiles as well as the feeding of live chickens that is being touted as a tourist attraction – a pretty gruesome one at that.
Responsible Alternatives & Great Causes
Child Safe Network
‘The ChildSafe Network is a global child protection system established by and powered by Friends-International.
The ChildSafe Network was designed to:
- Protect children & youth from all forms of abuse
- Prevent children & youth from engaging in dangerous behaviors
- Influence all tiers of society and the international community so they can create positive environments for children & youth
This is achieved by training and supporting key and strategic members of communities, raising awareness and promoting behaviour change among the general population and supporting behaviour change among tourists and travellers to reduce their social footprint. – Friends International
Check out ChildSafe’s 7 traveller tips, created to help protect children around the world.
You can apply to volunteer or work at the Child Safe Network or Friends International.
Try and make the responsible choice and choose ChildSafe wherever you can when visiting Cambodia. Look for the “thumbs up” logo and choose to a stay in a ChildSafe hotel or guest house or take a ChildSafe taxi / tuk tuk when you can.
‘M’Lop Tapang, a local non-profit organization, has been working with the street children of Sihanoukville, Cambodia since 2003. We provide shelter, medical care, sports, arts, education, training, counselling, family support and protection from all types of abuse.’ – M’Lop Tapang
If you are in Sihakoukville then stop by one of the Tapang’s Shop‘s located on the road to Serendipity Beach and inside the Sandan restaurant. These shops are not for profit and sell products made by young people and mothers in the Tapang training programs. All the money raised at these shops goes back into supporting the street children of Sihanoukville. Check one out if you are in the area, they are great for unique souvenirs.
Dine at the Sandan restaurant to enjoy a delicious meal (the food really is great) and provide experience for the vocational training students.
M’Lop Tapang have occasional volunteering positions to work with their staff to provide specialized training, or to help reduce the workload of their staff in an administrative role. You can find out more about volunteering at M’Lop Tapang here.
The Cambodian Rural Development Team is an NGO based in north east Cambodia who strive for a country that is free from poverty and environmental degradation.
Since 2004, CRDT have delivered community and rural development to over 3,000 families in support of conservation of critically endangered Mekong River Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie and Stung Treng, and the protection of tropical forest biodiversity in Mondulkiri.
The CRDT run two social enterprises that raise funds for the organisation, provide training to disadvantaged youth and promote responsible and sustainable tourism to bring much needed economic benefits to rural areas.
The first of these is CRDTours who offer some amazing experiences with small rural communities in north east Cambodia. All of CRDTours programmes are carefully monitored so that tourism brings benefits to the area in a sustainable way without damaging the local culture or environment.
The second is the Le Tonle tourism training centres where disadvantaged youth learn English and are taught hugely valuable skills in hospitality. Le Tonle have two centres in Stung Treng and Kratie complete with guest houses and restaurants – if you stay or eat here you will be supporting a great cause and directly helping the trainees who will be serving you.
Trailblazer Cambodia Organisation
Trailblazer Cambodia Organization (TCO) is a local Non-Governmental, Non-Profit Organization. TCO encourages rural villagers to be self-sustaining, running projects like agricultural training and organic vegetable production as well as empowering them to create self help groups and village organisations. The aim of TCO’s work is to improve health and the overall quality of life, contributing to poverty reduction in Cambodia.
Mission: To contribute to the alleviation of poverty in our target areas of Cambodia and improve the overall quality of life for the families who live there.
Sustainability is very important to us, as is ensuring that we act to meet the actual needs of the community rather than what we think they need. – TCO
Trailblazer Cambodia Organization welcomes volunteers locally and internationally. In the last year they have welcomed volunteers from Germany, Switzerland, Scotland and the USA.
There’s no cost to volunteer but no accommodation or transport provided either so you will have to make your own arrangements.
Find out about volunteering at TCO here.
Chi Phat Community Based Eco Tourism
Set up by the Wildlife Alliance, the Chi Phat CBET discourages hunting by giving previous poachers a new way to earn a living; as jungle & trek guides they learn that animals are worth more to them alive than they are dead.
Trek, cycle, kayak or boat in the Cardamon Mountains to discover the real, peaceful Cambodia, far from the crowds. Guides, once poachers, lead you on jungle treks to waterfalls, grasslands and mountains that they know well, but few others have seen. – Chi Phat Community Based Eco Tourism Center
Situated in the beautiful Cardamon Mountains, Chi Phat CBET offers the chance to discover an untouched part of Cambodia and stay in some unique accommodation. You can choose from a wide range of home stays, guest houses and some bungalows all named after wildlife found in the region. The properties are available to view on Booking.com and you can also book them here however this reduces income to the owner so if you can, book through the Chi Phat website. They confirm your booking immediately via email.
There are a range of treks available on bike or foot with varying levels of difficulty as well as options to kayak, go night fishing or even take a cookery class. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can trek deep into the forest and sleep there overnight.
Elephant Valley Project
The Elephant Valley Project was founded by The Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E) a non government organisation.
E.L.I.E.’s primary goal is to improve the health and welfare of captive elephants and assist in their wild counterparts protected in the Province of Mondulkiri. – The Elephant Valley Project
The Elephant Valley Project is based 11km from the town of Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia, near the border of Vietnam. It is approximately 6 hours travel from Phnom Penh and about 12 hours travel from Siem Reap.
At The Elephant Valley Project you have the opportunity to see elephants in their natural environment. You can choose from 1,2,3 or 5 day options with packages to suit everyone’s time frame and budget. Find out more about visiting here.
Long term volunteering opportunities are also available, starting at a week and can last… as long as you want!
Sam Veasna Center
The Sam Veasna Center organise a variety of day trips from Siam Reap to see rare birds in their natural habitat at Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia protected sites.
SVC and WCS Cambodia are dedicated to fulfilling the aims of ecotourism: long-term environmental, socio-cultural and economic sustainability.
The ecotourism generates income and employment for villagers in remote sites who provide food, accommodation and local guiding for the visitors.
On an SVC tour you will see some amazing wildlife, take in some of Cambodia’s beautiful landscape and culture, and help support remote communities through sustainable tourism.
Find out more about SVC and the range of wildlife tours here.
Free The Bears Sanctuary
Free the Bears aims to protect, preserve and enrich the lives of bears throughout the world.
Cambodia is home to 14 globally endangered species, including the Asiatic black bear, Malaysian sun bear, Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger and the Pileated gibbon. There are various national parks and protected forests in Cambodia, however, land encroachment, illegal logging and wildlife poaching gravely threatens all of these protected areas.
Keeping or poaching bears is illegal in Cambodia and despite recent efforts to increase penalties both hunting and killing of sun bear and Asiatic black bear continues. Free the Bears Fund has been working with the Cambodian Forestry Administration since 1997 to provide a sanctuary for confiscated bears at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is located 40km from the capital Phnom Penh. At the bear sanctuary, twenty one forested enclosures have been built over 7 hectares to house a mixture of Sun bears and Asiatic black bears. The bears enjoy enclosures that encourage natural behaviour and provide them with the enrichment they need to ensure they are always happy and healthy.
Free the Bears now offer the chance to volunteer and work with bears at their sanctuary in Cambodia.
In exchange for a small fee (all of which goes directly to support the bears) you can now come and help our keepers look after the bears for up to eight weeks (one week minimum stay). Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) is very large and houses many species. Volunteers will be working with our groups of rescued Sun bears and Moon bears.
You don’t need to be experienced in animal care, just willing and enthusiastic with a strong interest in wildlife and conservation. Before the volunteering starts you will be trained by experienced animal keepers and you will be supervised at all times. Free the Bears just ask that you always listen, pay close attention to the keepers and follow their instructions carefully. Find out more about volunteering at Free the Bears here.
Don Bosco Hotel School
The Don Bosco Hotel School was established by the Don Bosco Foundation in 2007. It is not just a school but also a real hotel where the students learn on the job and gain a range of hospitality skills that are now hugely valued in Cambodia’s growing tourist industry. Don Bosco supports the disadvantaged Cambodian youth in providing them a thorough education in the hospitality business.
In addition to hospitality skills, Cambodians and volunteer teachers from all over the world teach English, tourism and computer skills. When you stay at the hotel the profits go back into the foundation so it makes for a feel good stay with really pleasant students who provide great customer service.
The Don Bosco Foundation also runs technical schools for teenagers between 16 and 22 years old, male and female, in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Kep, Battambang and Poipet. Here they can learn a variety of vocations from web design to agriculture.
Lotus Outreach International
Lotus Outreach’s mission is to ensure the education, health, and safety of at-risk women and children in the developing world. In Cambodia they have three main areas of work: economic empowerment, scholarships and access to education, and anti trafficking and violence against women.
For each of these areas Lotus have a number of projects to help empower and support women.
In Cambodia, an old adage enjoys popular currency. “Women are like cloth and men are like gold,” it claims, meaning that once cloth is soiled, it ought to be thrown away for it cannot be cleaned. Tragically, this chauvinistic attitude still reigns, hovering oppressively over the hopes and dreams of an entire nation’s female population. – Lotus Outreach International
The work that Lotus does in invaluable in bringing gender equality and economic empowerment to women in developing countries like Cambodia.
Angkor Hospital for Children
If you are a medical student there may be some placement opportunities available at the Angkor Children’s Hospital, you can find out more here.
Respecting Cambodian Culture
Here are a few do’s and don’ts to remember when travelling in Cambodia…
Don’t purchase historical artefacts, ensure you only purchase replica items.
Don’t take pieces of stone from temples and other historical sites no matter how small and undecorated they are.
Don’t touch someone on the head it is regarded as highly disrespectful.
Don’t point or gesture with your feet or put them on furniture. This is again considered disrespectful as feet are considered the lowest part of the body in Cambodian culture. Never point your feet towards monks, always sit with your feet behind you in temples.
Don’t shout or lose your temper – loud, brash behaviour is not appreciated by the majority of Cambodians.
Do dress appropriately particularly if visiting a Buddhist temple or a rural village where attitudes can be very conservative. Cover up your legs and shoulders and do not wear revealing clothing.
Do lower your body slightly when passing between or in front of people.
Do make the effort to learn a few Khmer words, the effort will go a long way with locals.
Do take off your shoes before entering someone’s house or a religious building.
Do ask permission before taking any photographs of Cambodian people or monks.
Find out more information on respecting rural cultures in Cambodia here.