Assisted development

Land of splendour: Bears at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
Land of splendour: Bears at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. Photo: AFP

Louise Southerden opens her heart on a trip for a cause and is generously rewarded.

Every country has a dark side. Cambodia's is just more visible than most, and more recent - decades of civil war, genocide and foreign occupation that ended only in 1993 - but that's part of its appeal. The country's uniqueness lies in its stories and the spirit of its people. And, increasingly, tourism is playing a part in its recovery.

Fewer than 120,000 international tourists visited Cambodia in 1993; in 2012, it received more than 3.5 million visitors and is hoping for 4 million in 2013, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

Reaching out: Youths at the Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children put on a show.
Reaching out: Youths at the Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children put on a show. 

Behind the welcoming smiles of the Cambodians, however, it's impossible to ignore the signs that all is still not well.

You see people with limbs stolen by landmines. Anyone over about 40 - a tuk-tuk driver, a vendor at Phnom Penh's Russian Market - remembers the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime (1975-79). There is widespread poverty, child abuse and HIV infection (Cambodia has the highest incidence of HIV in south-east Asia).

Then there are places such as the Killing Fields, just outside Phnom Penh, that break your heart and inspire you to help in some way. Michael Horton, founder of ConCERT (Connecting Communities, Environment and Responsible Tourism) has seen this countless times.

Pupils learn at Pour un Sourire d'Enfant, Phnom Penh.
Pupils learn at Pour un Sourire d'Enfant, Phnom Penh. Photo: Alamy

"Visitors come to Siem Reap [gateway to Angkor Wat] for a few days, see people living really challenging lives and feel inspired to help," he says.

"But they're here for such a short time it's difficult for them to research which organisations to support, so many leave without acting on their impulse to give; others do things that are unhelpful [see below]." Horton set up ConCERT in 2008 to match tourists with reputable charitable organisations.

Part of the problem is that there are more than 3000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in a country smaller than Victoria. Why so many? "The need is enormous, bottomless," Horton says, "and the process of registering an NGO in Cambodia is easier than in, say, Vietnam, where charities have been operating longer and are now more government-regulated."

Bou Meng at the genocide museum.
Bou Meng at the genocide museum. Photo: Louise Southerden

On the plus side, so many NGOs now offer experiences for tourists, you could almost NGO-hop across the country, ensuring that everything you do helps someone. My partner and I decide to road-test this idea on a trip to Phnom Penh and Cambodia's south coast.

Our two days in the capital are a charitable feast of experiences. We take a cyclo tour run by an NGO called Cyclo Conservation and Careers Association, which is a peaceful way to see the city while reducing air pollution (cyclos are pedal-powered) and helping the drivers, many of whom sleep in their cyclos at night.

We visit a Seeing Hands massage centre run by blind masseurs (at $US7, or $6.70, for an hour, it's the cheapest massage I've ever had, and one of the oddest - with four massage tables to a room and everyone being audibly pummelled simultaneously).

At Romdeng, a training restaurant run by Friends-International (friends-international.org), we sip tamarind, guava and honey shakes in the garden of a former French mansion and are waited on by hospitality students who are occasionally corrected by their teachers (their T-shirts give away who's who). Charitable deeds come cheap in places such as this: the set lunch is one of the best meals we have and costs only $US6.50 each. Before leaving, we visit Romdeng's small shop, which sells bangles made of old forks, bags made from recycled magazines and a cook book called From Spiders to Water Lilies.

Eating and shopping for a cause is probably easier in Cambodia than anywhere else. Other restaurants that train street kids in hospitality are Haven and Soria Moria Fusion Kitchen in Siem Reap, where you'll also find the MAD (Making a Difference) Eatery, Cambodia's first donation-only restaurant (a sign out the front says, "You ate, you donate"). Then there's the Boddhi Tree, a leafy organic cafe in Phnom Penh that was one of the first "social enterprise" businesses in Cambodia when it opened in 1997, promoting social equality and sustainability while still generating a profit.

All week we come across charitable shops: Smateria (smateria.com) makes bags from recycled mosquito nets, Mekong Quilts (mekong-quilts.com) employs poor women from rural communities, Rehab Craft (rehabcraftcambodia.org) trains Cambodians with disabilities, and Tabitha Cambodia has revived traditional silk weaving after years of war and genocide (Nurturing Threads sells its silk products in Australia; see tabitha.org.au).

Our accommodation, the elegantly historic Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh, built in 1929, has a social conscience, too. It sources interns and staff from Don Bosco Hotel School for disadvantaged youths, where Raffles' executive chef Steve van Remoortel teaches cooking; the hotel also donates towels and kitchen equipment to two other charities: Project Khmer H.O.P.E. and Pour un Sourire d'Enfant, which we visit on our way out of Phnom Penh.

Set up by French couple Christian and Marie-France des Pallieres in 1996 after they'd seen children living on rubbish dumps outside the city, Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (For the Smile of a Child, or PSE) is one of Cambodia's success stories. What started as a thatched hut where children could come for regular meals is now a vast complex of classrooms, a hospital, daycare centres and eight vocational training centres - for everything from hairdressing to mechanics - to help students find jobs after leaving PSE.

Visitors are welcome and well managed. We watch a 10-minute video about PSE in the shop that sells student-made products and cards (one card buys one meal for one child) before being shown around by a former student, 20-year-old Devid Ouch, who is studying French at university in Phnom Penh and dreams of becoming a lawyer to help children in need. You can also dine at PSE's training restaurants (both called Le Lotus Blanc) here and in Phnom Penh, and stay in the eight-room hotel on site.

Charitable tourism might have started in the tourist hubs of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but as tourism spreads to the south coast, our next stop, charitable organisations follow - sometimes in unconventional ways.

In Kep, we stay in a solar-powered treehouse at Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort. Built in 2009 by Australian-Cambodian couple Owen and Jasmine Beck, this sustainably run lodge puts as much emphasis on improving the lives of its staff and their families as it does on protecting its rainforested surrounds.

"The staff are all young, poor and uneducated," Owen Beck says. "One of the boys said he was 25 but was only 15; he gets his ones and twos mixed up."

Some had never been to Phnom Penh (two to three hours away by car) until the couple took them a few years ago; in 2013, they'll do a trip to Bangkok (a 10-hour drive from Kep). They're teaching their staff English (see breakout) and, next year, French.

One of Cambodia's most innovative charitable projects is right next to our treehouse: Cambodia's first skate bowl, built by Owen as part of Skateistan (skateistan.org), a Kabul-based NGO that now operates in Cambodia as well as Afghanistan, using skateboarding to empower and create opportunities for young people.

Further along the coast in the riverside town of Kampot, we have lunch at Epic Arts Cafe (epicarts.org.uk). Like many NGO-run eateries, it feels like a regular cafe - the food is Western and Khmer, there's Lavazza coffee, the service is efficient. The only clues that it's run by people who are deaf or disabled are the self-completing menus (just tick what you'd like to order) and booklets with diagrams of sign language that can be used to ask the staff for, say, bread or water with your meal.

That evening, after a sunset cruise on the river, we visit the Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children (kcdi-cambodia.com), where 30 orphans learn to play traditional instruments and practise every weekday afternoon and evening; we buy their CD, which was crowd-funded by Kickstarter.

Back in Phnom Penh, our last stop before flying home is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, or S-21. A former high school, it became one of the Khmer Rouge's most notorious prisons, a holding pen for an estimated 20,000 people accused of being enemies of Pol Pot and subsequently executed in the Killing Fields.

On our way out, we pass two elderly men - the last survivors of this terrible episode in Cambodia's history - sitting behind wooden tables in the shade, selling their books to raise money for the Association of Khmer Rouge Victims.

We buy a copy of Bou Meng: A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21, for $US10, and talk with Mr Meng through his interpreter, a girl standing beside him who translates questions from tourists trying to understand what it must be like for him to return to this place every day.

As we go to leave, we shake hands and this 82-year-old man with Coke-bottle glasses and a hearing aid holds my hand in both of his and bows his head to touch them.

It's one of the most memorable moments of the trip, a wordless reminder of the value of letting one's heart break open.

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Air Asia, Footsteps Worldwide and Raffles Hotel Le Royal, Phnom Penh.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Air Asia X flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Perth to Phnom Penh via Kuala Lumpur. Flights from Sydney to KL (8hr) start at $357 return, including taxes. Air Asia flies from KL to Phnom Penh twice a day (1hr 45min) from $91 return, including taxes. See airasia.com. Cambodia visas can be obtained online for $US28 ($26) at mfaic.gov.kh/evisa.

Staying there Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh has 133 rooms and 37 suites from $US270 a night. See raffles.com. Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort in Kep, on Cambodia's south coast, has eight rooms and two treehouses from $US22 a night. See jasminevalley.com.

Touring there Footsteps Worldwide arranges group tours through Cambodia (and elsewhere in south-east Asia) as Footsteps in Asia and tailored trips as Footsteps in Style. See footstepsinasia.com and footstepsinstyle.com.

FIVE MORE WAYS TO HELP

Drive a tuk-tuk across Cambodia

The Cambo Challenge, in November, involves 15 teams of two or three spending 11 days driving tuk-tuks around Cambodia. The cost, $US1950 ($1850) a person. See cambochallenge.com.

Build a house for a rural family

Tabitha Cambodia runs house-building programs to help families that can't afford the $1500 it costs to build a house in rural areas. Building teams cover their own costs and the cost of the house. See tabitha.org.au.

Free the bears in Cambodia

Go behind the scenes at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre by working for up to eight weeks (minimum one week) with rescued sun and moon bears. The centre also needs skilled volunteers such as architects, gardeners and graphic designers. See freethebears.org.au.

Teach English in an eco lodge

Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort in Kep needs volunteer English teachers to teach its staff for one month, in exchange for your own bungalow and three meals a day. See jasminevalley.com.

Volunteer at New Hope for Cambodian Children

New Hope, near Phnom Penh, cares for 240 orphaned and abandoned children with HIV. Volunteers pay $US200 a week and teach English or computing, or help in the preschool or nursery. See newhopeforcambodianchildren.com.

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