A Time to Reap

South China Morning Post, August 2006

For a long time Siem Reap has been little more than a launching pad into Angkor, a dusty frontier town of fumes and lurking potholes, of children with large eyes and speedy fingers. Very few tourists tend to leave with tales of overwhelming warmth, applauding the local hospitality. This may have something to do with its messy economics. As part of the country’s second poorest province the town offers a great escape for farmers tired of battling with the local scrub land. But the faster they flood in, the faster chain hotels and tour operators tend to funnel tourist dollars out, leaving what amounts to a money vacuum. In it, Siem Reap has become defined by its most successful bread winners – kids – those big eyes and speedy fingers commanding a notorious (and damn near inescapable) sympathy tax.

Yet supported by a new initiative by the IFC, local and foreign businesses have started to take all this on board, and the town is doing a slow pirouette towards self-sustainability. Visit Siem Reap now, even fleetingly, and its not hard to find a fine hotel, cooking class or lingerie line that takes your custom, puts it to excellent use, and leaves you feeling rather Angelina Jolie in the process. It’s all about knowing where to look.

Hotel de la Paix

What you get: The town’s newest five-star is owned by Bed Management, the group behind Bangkok’s ultra hip Bed Supperclub. It offers a cool mix of Khmer chic and modern technology, with an i-pod music system in every room, a suitably glamourous swimming pool and a three-storey spa.

What you give to:  The hotel promotes a program of donations and visits, ranging from orphanage support to rice sponsorship. Its Arts Lounge showcases work by Khmer artisans, while back in the kitchen the head chef promotes seasonal Khmer food (supporting local farmers) and sends off old cooking oil to an eco-organization to fuel a local project. For a higher karma rating, nearby sister hotel Shinta Mani is a beautiful four star option that operates a hospitality training school NGO, and can organize volunteer work for guests. www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com http://www.shintamani.com  http://www.biodieselcambodia.com

Le Tigre de Papier

What you get:  A cosy bar-restaurant that nestles into a strip of rambunctious eat ‘n greet venues. It also offers a popular Khmer cooking class that has students exploring the market, before cooking and feasting on a banquet for eight. Alternatively try its second floor boutique. The lingerie line – Shenga – is the first of its kind in Cambodia, being 100% pure silk with designs available off shelf and bespoke.

What you give to: Nearly 50% of the US$10 cooking course fee and 100% of its glossy cook book price goes to Sala Bai, a hospitality training school for young Cambodians. The lingerie brand is fair trade and partners with a variety of textile NGOs. It works directly with underprivileged seamstresses in the area, keeps to a monthly production maximum of just 80 sets, and to top it all off uses hand-made recycled paper bags! www.shenga.angkorw.com (855)1226 811

Krousar Thmey

What you get: After a day spent grappling with ancient blocks of stone and elusive vista points, there’s nothing like a full body massage. Conveniently situated on the route back from Angkor into town, Krousar Thmey has 12 professionally trained, sight-impaired masseurs on hand to pummel you back into action. It also offers a little education on the side by way of its exhibition hall – which features a series of slightly rustic display boards on Cambodian geography, crafts, village life and its eco-environment.

What you give to: Krousar Thmey is a nation-wide Cambodian-run organization with its fingers in many a humanitarian pie. It supports huge numbers of underprivileged children with schemes from outreach and protection to vocational training, and was the first NGO to implement education for blind and deaf kids. Also try Seeing Hands 4, another massage parlour run by the blind and open later at night. www.krousar-thmey.org Seeing Hands:(855)12786894

Sala Bai and CVSG Training Restaurants

What you get: A cracking meal, prepared with real verve. Sala Bai is a fairly sophisticated affair in the town centre that serves Asian and Western dishes, with a menu that changes daily and a range of French wines. CVSG (Cambodia Village Support Group) across the river is a more rustic operation with a simple Khmer menu and super-keen (if not always correct) service.

What you give to: Both are NGOs and free training schools for young Cambodians at risk. Sala Bai operates a small hotel on the side and is supported by Agir Pour Le Cambodge, while CVSG is Japanese-run and includes a number of community projects, including an orphanage. The staff at both relish the chance for a good chat, so it’s a great way to find out more about the area.  www.geocities.jp/cvsgjapan/katudou.html (in Japanese) Tel:(855)63760472  www.salabai.com

Artisan d’Angkor

What you get: An airy boutique stocked with locally crafted goodies, from silk scarves and throws to sculptures in wood and stone. The quality is high, and items combine traditional Khmer techniques with modern design elements. You can also visit its working silk farm 16km outside town (tours in English, French and Japanese), and the boutique café, opposite Angkor Wat.

What you give to: The initiative was started to make sustainable work for promising young Cambodians in their home villages – while promoting up market Cambodian workmanship. It also managed to pioneer a nation-wide social policy that assures staff reasonable wages and welfare benefits. www.artisansdangkor.com


Also keep an eye out for:

Earth Walkers: Started by a group of concerned Norwegian graduates, the group operates a friendly fund-raising guesthouse, places volunteers and supports countless local charities. It recently took a football team of orphaned boys to the Norway Cup. www.ewfund.org

Osmose: A small eco-conscious tour agency that funds a preservation project at the Tonle Sap Lake. Visit a flooded forest, a floating village and learn about local flora and fauna. http://jinja.apsara.org/osmose/oSmoSe_online.swf

The Life and Hope Association: To see the street kids on their best behaviour (give or take a few piggyback rides) contact this school and outreach program run by an exceptional local wat. For a more rambunctious welcome, volunteer a few hours or days to its more informal Green Gecko morning school nearby. www.watdamnak.org http://www.hugabub.com/pl/greengecko/27/1

Cambodia Landmine Museum: Run by Aki Ra, an eccentric yet very committed local luminary, this offers a delightfully ramshackle stash of wartime memorabilia. Ra himself was a child soldier and donations go to a relief fund for landmine victims, mine education and training. http://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org

Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals: Every Saturday evening at 7:15 hospital Jayavarman VIII holds a free Bach concert by an eccentric Swiss cellist and doctor, known as Beatocello. The musician also chats about the health situation in Cambodia, and the hospitals’ work. www.beatocello.com