Why we travel can admittedly be for reasons of self-gratification – to get off from work to recharge, to tick off something from your bucket list, to try the local food, to see unique places, to get your dose of adrenaline rush, to scout for street art (did this in Georgetown, Penang), to take cool pictures.
My recent travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia has made me realize that there is nothing wrong with having all these selfish intentions. We all have different passions which influence the way we travel and why we travel. But it doesn’t have to be just that. Traveling with a conscious effort to make a positive impact to the place and people you’re visiting can put a whole new meaning to our travel experience.
I’m sharing with you seven ways on how you can leave a positive impact while visiting Siem Reap. Simply put, here are different ways on how to travel Siem Reap with a heart.
1. Watch Phare Cambodian Circus
All performers at the Phare Cambodian Circus are beneficiaries of free professional arts education at the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA). PPSA helps street children, orphans and the underprivileged Cambodian youth improve their lives through arts. Proceeds of the tickets will help sustain the school’s operations and support the performers.
Phare, the Cambodian Circus is unique in that it combines theater, circus arts, music and dancing in one show while showcasing Cambodian stories. I watched their “Same Same But Different” and found the stunts as breathtaking. The performers are entertaining and funny (typical Asian humor, to which I can very much relate to, of course). They look happy with what they’re doing and it just shows in their energy while performing.
2. Learn how to paint at the Small Art School
Small Art School is near the touristy area along Siem Reap River but it’s tucked away from the dense hotels and restaurants. Even the place was unknown to my tuk-tuk driver and he actually had to use his Google Map to locate the school.
I was greeted by two large dogs at their gate upon arrival. Being someone who find it hard to be friends with dogs, I hesitantly entered until I was ushered in with an assuring smile by Ms. Yuko. Going in, my eyes wandered with awe at the art works displayed in every corner of the room. I was inspired even more so learning that all the paintings and drawings are products of the school’s young Khmer students.
Small Art School is founded by Ms. Tomoko Kasahara, a Japanese art teacher. The school was built by Tomoko out of her own pocket to teach free art lessons to young Cambodians who are willing to learn art but could not afford it.
I took a one and a half hour painting class with Small Art School, which I booked through Visit.org. Before that, the last time I held a paint brush for art’s sake was during my elementary days. My mind actually went blank when Ms. Yuko asked me what I would like to paint. Thankfully, I was guided by young Khmer artists and teachers, Sokpheak Doung and Hay Chhoem. My seatmate during the painting session was a Japanese child accompanied by her parents. That moment seated beside the small child, both of us expressing ourselves with strokes of the paintbrush was a mixture of both inspiration and pressure. I was encouraging myself, ”If a child can do it, so can I”. Haha!
Profit from the painting class will help support young local artists and provide children with access to free arts education. At first I thought I was the one helping them by booking their painting class. However, in the end it was me who had been enriched a lot. I really appreciate the efforts of the teachers and the founder of Small Art School for selflessly helping develop the art skills of the Cambodian youth.
That’s my young art teacher, Sokpheak and my…uhm…masterpiece (Photo from Small Art School)
3. Dine at Sister Srey Café
I went to Sister Srey Café because I needed a shot of caffeine and access to the internet. I later found out that this establishment supports Khmer students and the local community. They train their staff in hospitality management and English language. They send their degradable solid wastes to Green Gecko Farm for composting and they select suppliers that are also offering support to the community.
Sister Srey Café is located along the Siem Reap River, one block away from the Old Market.
4. Buy local products
If you’re looking for souvenirs or just in the mood for shopping, Siem Reap has plenty of options that offer locally-made products.
Old Market or Psar Chas
The Old Market, also known as Psar Chas is the most convenient place to shop as it’s in the heart of Siem Reap’s commercial area. It sells everything from fruits, vegetables, seafood, meat, handicrafts, T-shirts, shoes, bags and other souvenir items. Be cautious not to buy imported items. The most important thing is to think carefully what souvenirs you want to take home. Ask yourself again and again whether you really need that item. Buy only what you need. Avoid buying things that will just end up occupying space in your cabinets without use.
Angkor Night Market
The Angkor Night Market is another shopping area which is looks a little more sophisticated than the Old Market. it is composed of stalls selling clothing, handicrafts, art works and other souvenir items made by local communities and NGOs.
Artisan’s Angkor is a social enterprise seeking to promote traditional Khmer arts and handicrafts while providing training and employment to the local people. I went to their workshop on Stung Thmey Street, a few minutes walk from the Old Market. The workshop is open to the public, hence, you can watch the artisans transform wood, stone and metals into works of art. They offer a free ride to their Silk Farm, about 20 minutes drive from Siem Reap center, but I opted to visit just the workshop.
Finished products of Artisan’s Angkor are displayed in their shop in the middle of the two workshop buildings.
It was interesting to learn that the skilled workers of Artisan’s Angkor were the ones who restored some of the heads of gods and demons at the south gate of the picturesque entrance to Angkor Thom, as mandated by the government.
Restored heads at Angkor Thom entrance
60 Meter Road
This place was recommended to me by my guide from Green Era Travel. Sixty Meter Road is a 15 minute tuk tuk drive outside the Siem Reap center. It is where locals hang out in the late afternoon to evening, especially during weekends. Stalls for clothes, shoes, bags, toys, fruits and cooked food are lined up along two sides of the road. On the other lane parallel to the stalls, picnic mats and hammocks for hire are lined up, together with street food vendors. The other side of this lane also has a small funfair.
Unfortunately, I was a bit too early when I came. The stalls along the road were just starting to be set-up, while I need to come back to the SIem Reap town center at that time. I’d love to come back to this place and experience the Cambodian style of dining at the mats should I ever come back to Siem Reap again.
The Old Market at the Siem Reap center is a convenient place to shop for something Cambodian, but admittedly, most of the shops here cater entirely for tourists. If you want to shop where locals shop or just observe what a real Cambodian market feels like, then Psar Leu is the best place to visit. Psar Leu is a large covered market located about three kilometers away from the Old Market. I hired a tuktuk from the Siem Reap center and the two way trip, including waiting time is 5 USD.
5. Choose a responsible tour company
Hiring a local guide even for a day has the advantage of you discovering more about the local people, their culture, the history and even off the beaten places that are not in the guidebooks. It’s also a way of supporting the local people.
There are a vast number of companies in Siem Reap offering tours. That is why doing a little bit of research is called for if you really want to make sure that your money will go to a company that supports the community, doesn’t exploit animals and considers reducing their impacts to the environment. Websites and online reviews can sometimes look too good to be true but this can be a place to start with your homework.
I found a great company, Green Era Travel, where I booked tours for Angkor Wat Temples, Phnom Kulen Mountain and Kampung Phluk Village. Green Era Travel advocates responsible tourism by reminding their guests of the proper behavior and dress code when entering temples, minimizing air travels for Indochina tours, implementing proper disposal of trash and recommending local restaurants for trying out local foods.
Green Era Travel is also supporting local NGOs and charity organizations such as Kid’s Hope Foundation. Donations are used among others for supporting the school fees and supplies of underprivileged children, providing pumps for accessing water and developing local communities.
6. Stay in a homestay
Staying in a homestay will give you the opportunity to interact with the local people in a way you won’t experience staying in hotels. Interacting with a receptionist at a hotel is very different from interacting with a homestay host who offered their homes for you to stay as a guest.
For 5 nights, I stayed at Ratanak’d Residence. Ratanak’d Residence can be booked through Homestay and Airbnb. The house is located about 2 kilometers away from Siem Reap center where the other hotels, shops and restaurants are conveniently located. However, I did not regret staying that far from the town center.
The house where I stayed is built in traditional Cambodian style wooden structure. It is surrounded by trees and is quiet. I wake up to the sound of birds chirping. I got insights into local life which hotels simply can’t offer. Ratanak, my host, was very accommodating. Traveling solo, going back to the homestay at the end of the day gives me the comfort that is close to the feeling of being in my own home.
Apart from memories you’ll make with your hosts, staying in homestays is also a way of helping the locals earn income.
7. Use local resources responsibly
Siem Reap receives over 2 million tourists a year, increasing the local population by two or three times. Imagine as a tourist how much water, electricity, fuel and other resources you are consuming during your entire visit to a foreign country. Multiply that with the number of other tourists who consumes the same resources as you do.
We can choose to be responsible tourists and make conscientious efforts to use water and electricity sparingly, to order only the amount of food you can consume and to prevent as such as possible the generation of plastic bag wastes and other solid wastes. For concrete other examples on how to travel green, I invite you to read my Hows and Why of Traveling Green.
Doesn’t it feel good visiting some place foreign and achieving your travel goals while at the same time leaving the place knowing that you left a positive impact to the community? Make every money you spend on travel count.
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