Tourists come to Cambodia to see the temples at Angkor Wat. Yes, some people make it down to the beautiful coast or even out to the pristine islands in the Bay of Thailand, but thanks to a lack of infrastructure (and imagination) this country has remained a one trick pony.
And what a trick it is. Angkor Wat, which is perhaps most familiar to Westerners as that beautiful place Angelina Jolie destroyed in Tomb Raider, doesn't disappoint. The ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples here are intricately carved, incense cloaked and filled with orange-clad monks. It is no wonder that Siem Reap, the city that services the temples, is becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction.
Unfortunately, the chronically poor Cambodians who have been eagerly anticipating the flow of tourist capital into their pockets for the last decade are still waiting and will likely have to continue waiting for some time. Even as Asian tourists flock to their beautiful religious sites by the busload, Cambodians have woefully few ways to profit from a tourist trade controlled by foreigners. Further exacerbating the problem are the numerous questionable charities that solicit funds from travelers: Donations evaporate into thin air and the needy do not receive any help.
Visitors to the temples at Siem Reap, the capital of Phnom Penh, and the beautiful Bay of Thailand coast who want to help Cambodia, a country still dealing with the scars of a horrific Communist experiment, will have to be careful. In the last few years, investigators discovered that at least two charities using tourist volunteer labor to help poor children were being run by pedophiles and that a handful of other charities really weren't charities at all. Determining which organizations are real and which are not is difficult because many of the would-be experts, the workers at large international charities, are in the country on short term contracts and lack expertise. All things considered, it would be best for volun-tourists to stay on, or pretty near, the beaten track.
Charity here can also be about the decisions travelers make. Cambodians are trying to build a tourist infrastructure that will bring much-needed money into the country, but many industries are struggling to get off the ground because, thanks to the purges of Pol Pot, there are few experts left in the service industry. Tourists who frequent training restaurants and hotels will be doing a good thing and will likely have more intimate and positive interactions with the people looking after them.
One more piece of advice for the philanthropic: Splash out. Cambodia has its own currency, but over 90% of the money in circulation in the country is in U.S. dollars and everything, specifically hand-crafted goods, is cheap. Getting money to artisans or even merchants is a good deed.
Getting to Cambodia is shockingly easy. Flights from California through Taipei or Seoul on Eva Airways and Air Malaysia typically cost $1,600 and very cheap flights on discount carrier AirAsia connect Phnom Penh to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
Voluntourism in Cambodia
Destin-Nation Cambodia: Treating Wounds Outside the Temples
Tourism is a growing industry in Cambodia. For years, the country had only a smattering of high quality hotels accompanying the glut of bland, characterless box hotels built to service Chinese and Korean group tours. Luxury tourism would be a tremendous asset to Cambodia if it took off, but there are still not enough skilled service industry workers in the country. A few boutique hotels have taken it upon themselves to help train hotel workers.
The best of these places may be Boddhi Tree, a quaint and nicely decorated spot in Phnom Penh. Don Bosco Hotel School, near the coast in the resort town of Sihanoukville, is not beautiful, but offers clean accommodations and is staffed by very eager students.
The service isn't great in these hotels, but to be honest the service isn't great anywhere. At least at Don Bosco, that is kind of the point.
There are also some more luxurious hotels, notably the Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap, that are excellent citizens and use their profits to help the community through donations and programs. Better hotels tend to be more charitable than those in the middle range.
Every year, countless new graduates and mid-career wanderers flock to Southeast Asia to volunteer their services as English teachers. The result of this unskilled migration: Many schools have high rates of teacher turnover and few skilled instructors. Volunteers wishing to teach English can do so effectively if they make smart choices and have a little patience, taking the time to undergo training in Teaching English to Speaks of Other Languages, or a similar program. Short term teaching gigs can work if they address specific needs - volunteers will likely be teaching adults rather than school children.
LanguageCorps offers an excellent training and teaching programs in Cambodia, but volunteers will likely want to ask around outside the schools to see where an English instructor is needed. Hospitals, rural NGOs and even colleges often have a need for native speakers.
The virtue of HFH is that it is a massive international charity accountable to shareholders all over the world, so these people know what they're doing. The organization has been particularly creative in Cambodia, where they have worked on several projects with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and experimented with a wide variety of building materials. HFH is excellent at identifying need and addressing problems.
The work is hands on and can be hard, but the results are also immediately apparent. Fortunate travelers may find themselves showing impoverished families their new homes. Feel free to yell "Move that bus" if it makes you happy.
Be careful. Not all orphanages in Cambodia are what they seem. The good samaritans who approach tourists on the street, particularly in Siem Reap, are often using children to turn a quick buck, so be hesitant with the donations that so often accompany volunteer service.
A safe organization to volunteer with is Assisting Cambodian Orphans and the Disabled Organization, or ACODO, which operates a shelter and educational program in Siem Reap. Visitors to Angkor Wat can help children simply through positive interaction here. It is easy to forget, because much of the city is so crowded with tourist infrastructure, that Siem Reap is one of the poorest places in Cambodia. Travelers do not have to head out into the rural, hard to reach provinces to make a difference.
Marine Conservation Cambodia runs an interesting program on the virgin islands in the Bay of Thailand that allows volunteers to help with marine surveys and document the ecology of a delicate place.
The islands off the Cambodian coast are nearly all slotted for development by international firms (or Russian crime syndicates) and will likely begin to disappear under cranes and high rises by the end of this decade. If the habitat surrounding this place is understood, it will be easier for environmental advocates to protect. The fact that the MCC turns a profit is actually fairly reassuring as it means the program is more sustainable.
A lot of workshops where sick or impoverished Cambodians make products for tourists have sprung up in both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The goods sold by these charitable endeavors vary widely in quality, from intricately hand stitched blankets to rather poorly carved wooden toys, but the profits from all of them create a reasonable and (more importantly) sustainable quality of life for the less fortunate.
Two excellent examples of this good work are KeoKjay, a designer clothing store that sells fun bohemian garments made by HIV positive women, and Friends and Stuff, which sells a diverse selection of bags, scarves and the sort of quirky ephemera makes perfect gifts for friends and family.
Tourists can also be responsible by being lazy. Foreigners are charged massively inflated prices at local markets and many savvy travelers quickly learn to haggle vendors down. Don't. Paying a little extra, especially to food vendors, is a helpful way to put money into the economy without it ending up in the pockets of the government or the coffers of a clumsy NGO.
Because Cambodian street food is not terribly appealing to the average traveler, many vacationers wind up eating in their hotels or sticking to the expat bars in the backpacker section of town. Uninspired. Phnom Penh has two excellent restaurants that also serve as training grounds for waiters and cooks. Friends and Hagar Restaurants in Phnom Penh both have excellent food and serve as successful training grounds.
Friends, it should be said, is the real standout. Travelers who order the meatballs will be surprised by how much flavor has been packed in to such small morsels and the key lime pie is probably as good as any that kind be found on this side of the Pacific.
Those who do summon up the courage to eat street food will be paying money directly to people who need it. Whether a thought that warms the heart takes the edge off the heartburn will be determined on a case by case basis.