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Siem Reap: a city with a social conscious

It’s easy to forget about the social impact that our travels have. Granted, there’s no green way of flying on a jumbo jet but when you’re at your destination, the choices we make have a huge impact on the communities we visit. And in Siem Reap it’s not hard to do your bit. There’s an abundance of social enterprises – from coffee shops to hostels, all focussed on reinvesting some or all of their profits into the local projects and community initiatives. It’s a win win – you get to eat a lovely bit of cake or stay in a friendly hostel, knowing that your money is in some small way doing some good and offset your carbon footprint with a socially conscious one. 

A woman sells her wares to tourists at Angkor Wat

A woman sells her wares to tourists at Angkor Wat

Like Phnom Penh, the city has undergone huge gentrification of late, bringing barista coffee shops, concept stores and instagram-worthy vegan fare to it’s dusty streets. But many of these operate as social enterprises so you can sip your extortionately priced chai latte knowing that the profits are being pumped back into the local community and helping to sustain some brilliant projects. Such as Sister Srey, a social enterprise and lovely all-day cafe is run by two bubbly Australian sisters. Upstairs there’s comfy chairs to chill out and read a book as well as a trendy vintage clothing pop up. The food is divine – from ‘bliss balls’ (nutty protein balls served with a coconut and lime dressed salad) to some more familiar options like smashed avocado on toast and mango and chicken burgers. I could eat here every day, it’s so darn good.

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Sandwich of champions at Sister Srey

Also worth a visit is Haven – not just a lovely restaurant but a great example of a business giving back to the community, so you can fill your belly and feel good about it at the same time. They have a sister restaurant, Friends, in Phnom Penh but Haven is my favourite – it’s difficult to get a table in peak season but persevere as the menu is a delight. They have both Cambodian and international fare including great burgers if you’re sick of the sight of Khmer curries. Even hostels are getting in on the do-gooding action. Like the Mad Monkey, set up as a for-profit social enterprise, they pump a portion of their revenue into socially responsible activity.

Some would argue the city is become too westernised, too gentrified and organised. I’d disagree. You can still find this – the hot and claustrophobic central market remains the bustling hub of the city and there is an abundance of street food, hawkers and tuk tuk drivers vying for your attention. But the gentrification has also brought a training and jobs for young Cambodians, fairtrade businesses and an abudance of social enterprises – from restaurants to boutiques. Hap Guan St is the best example of this – an achingly cool, predominantly expat-owned street of design-orientated stores and ethical coffee shops.

Siem Reap's Night Market

The epi-centre of Siem Reap’s busy tourist scene is Pub Street – a popular and rather seedy backpackers’ haunt also frequented by glue-addicted street kids and vulnerable youngsters trawling from bar to bar trying to persuade tourists to buy bracelets off them. It’s somewhat unavoidable as most of the city’s restaurants and bars are clustered around the maze-like streets stemming off from it but do pick carefully how you spend your money – don’t encourage begging and child exploitation, which so many NGOs are working hard to combat. If you really want to help, here’s how…

Students at ABCs and Rice

Students at ABCs and Rice

I’d really recommend getting in touch with Tammy and Long from ABCs & Rice. It’s an amazing little charity and they are always keen to hear from volunteers. The project is simple – it’s an English school offering free education to Siem Reap’s most disadvantaged children. But to ensure the children stay in school, they are also given free meals and a ration of rice each month to take home to their families. This ensure the kids don’t drop out of school to work and is an ingenious incentive for their parents to let them go to school instead of getting them to work and bring in an income.

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Whether you’ve got one week or six months to spare, the charity will be keen to here from you. With so many dodgy NGOs out there and so many so-called ‘charities’ capitalising on volunteer tourism, this is one of the few which are really making a difference and use volunteers to support their Cambodian teachers rather than take employment away from locals. Be warned though, after a couple of weeks here you might never want to leave…

For an unforgettable experience, volunteer at ABCs and Rice

For an unforgettable experience, volunteer at ABCs and Rice

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