Cambodia: A Promising Destination For Responsible Travelers

Is sustainable travel a consideration in your next holiday plans? You’re not the only one: a survey of over 30,000 people in 30 countries last year found that sustainable travel is important for over 80% of travelers. Here’s why Cambodia should be top of your list as a responsible travel destination…

Cambodia is gaining recognition in the ecotourism and responsible travel circles, thanks to the efforts of the local tourism industry. We travelled through Cambodia for a month and were impressed by the projects we encountered, whether simply a cafe training and employing people with disabilities or enterprises employing hundreds with a far-reaching positive effect on communities.

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What is Responsible Travel?

Responsible or sustainable travel is an approach to tourism and travel that aims to minimize its negative impacts. It focuses on supporting local economies, preserving natural resources, and respecting the cultural and social integrity of the destination.

Why is Sustainable Travel particularly important for Cambodia?

Cambodia’s recent history is one of particular brutality and bloodiness. The Khmer Rouge regime took over Cambodia from 1975-79, during which time a significant portion of the population was killed or displaced. It’s estimated that up to 20% of the population died due to violence, sickness or starvation.

The brutality of Khmer Rouge regime had far-reaching consequences due to the fact that many educated people: teachers, doctors, lawyers etc. were targeted for execution.

After the Khmer Rouge was ousted, Cambodia experienced a long civil war until well into the 90s. This further hindered economic development and reconstruction efforts.

The efforts of local social enterprises have provided training, funded schools, healthcare, improved infrastructure and helped to minimise environmental impact. Good social enterprises involve and work with local people; something that is done particularly well in Cambodia.

Our picks: Cambodian Ethical Businesses and Social Enterprises that Impressed us

APOPO (Hero Rats), Siem Reap

When you start looking into statistics around landmines, the numbers are shocking. Whilst exact figures vary, the fact is that the majority of countries are contaminated by landmines. Deaths are caused decades after conflicts end. Clearing them costs far in excess of spreading them. About half of the deaths caused are children.

APOPO is a Belgian initiative to remove landmines utilizing giant African pouched rats. Light-weight, with an incredible sense of smell, the rats can be trained to sniff out explosives without triggering them This not only speeds up detection significantly but also minimizes risk of harm to humans.

Whilst APOPO works in numerous countries around the world, the only visitor centre is in Siem Reap. I’d definitely recommend visiting! The tour provides information on landmines, how the rats are trained and includes a demonstration (without live explosives!). And the best part… you get to cuddle the rats at the end!

The rats are super clean and very used to being handled! However one obstacle that needed to be overcome was local peoples’ understandable aversion to rats.

Heartprint and The Bygone, Siem Reap

Wendy and Gary are two extraordinary people. We met the Australian couple whilst staying at their hotel, a community project called the Bygone. At first we were struck by their hospitality and the beauty of the oasis they’ve created in Siem Reap. As we got to know them more and learned about the work their charity, Heartprint, does in Cambodia, we realised they are truly special!

Heartprint began as a project to build houses in a country still suffering the after-effects of decades of war and disruption. They construct houses which are safe and secure, suited to the environment and made using locally available materials. Whilst we were there, they were building a house for a family including an elderly person who had never lived in a house before.

“For us there is a huge importance on taking a holistic approach to charity. Looking after the family as a whole and taking into account everything that is needed to ensure the family have the tools to improve their lives. Our aim is to give hand ups and not hand outs.”

In 2020, the Heartprint Community Centre was opened which provides additional support to the families in the form of training and education, physical and mental healthcare, and accessibility (bikes, transport services). You can follow the amazing work they do on the Heartprint Instagram (@heartprint_cambodia).

The Bygone Hotel is also run by Wendy and Gary with the help of their local staff. It was the best place we stayed in Cambodia; a paradise of calm and wellbeing. The profits directly support Heartprint, so you can sleep even better knowing that you’re helping an excellent cause.

La Plantation Pepper Farm, Kampot

Set up in 2013, La Plantation is a pepper farm near Kampot, a region known for it’s excellent quality pepper. It was started by a French couple who bought the land and, with the help of local farmers, transformed the site into one of the most well-known organic pepper farms in the area.

Clearly excellent business people, the couple leveraged their skills to sell pepper but also enabled other local spice growers to access the European and international markets. The success of their project supports hundreds of jobs and improves the lives of whole communities in rural Cambodia.

In combination with donations, their profits also fund the schooling of local children. They ensure the children have the materials they need for their education and also work with families to help them understand the importance of sending their children to school.

We visited La Plantation and attended their free tour. This teaches you all about the farm, different types of pepper and the work they do in the community. At the end there’s a pepper tasting session! I was particularly interested to learn that black, white, red and green peppercorns are all the same plant, simply processed differently. Also, have you even heard of long pepper (right)?

Lotus Farm, Siem Reap

A short distance from Siem Reap is a paradise of green, watery fields where lotus flowers grow. Lotus is considered sacred and not without reason; apart from natural fibres for clothing, the plant can be used to produce tea, biscuits and jewellery.

Samatoa Lotus Farm make textiles out of various natural fibres: lotus, banana, silk and something called kapok (which is like a big seed filled with woolly stuff that is super soft).

What is also really cool is that they have developed a type of vegan “leather” that contains no plastic. It uses the waste ingredients from the textile production plus corn starch and vegetable oil, some heat and some magic!

Unfortunately, we didn’t visit Cambodia at the right time to see the lotuses flowering (lotus season is April to October). However, visiting the textile factory was super interesting. We had a go at making some lotus cotton, learned all about lotuses and production, and finished off with lotus tea and biscuits with a wonderful view. They also have a shop selling lovely handmade products.

Ethical Business in Cambodia

These are just 4 examples of initiatives that we came across but Cambodia has many more. Visitors to the country giving money in support of these projects does a great deal to help the people of Cambodia.

We plan to take it one step further next year and start our own ethical business in Cambodia. I won’t say what it is yet but stay tuned for more!

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