Southeast Asia is one of the most popular places in the world for travelers interested in food, culture, and adventure activities. Each country in the region offers its own unique history, which has shaped the modern culture and influenced its food. Cambodia is nearly always on the “must-visit list” for travelers no matter the budget. Whether you are a backpacker, mid-range, or luxury travel, Angkor Wat is one of the most marvelous man made wonders in the world.
But Cambodia is a complicated country, and responsible travelers must understand the nuances of traveling the history and culture, as well as the actions they can take to responsibly support businesses and organizations doing great work across the country to address social inequality, poverty, and more. This guide outlines the key considerations for sustainable travel in Cambodia, with a focus on the very real actions travelers can take toward being a responsible traveler when they are on the ground exploring, eating, shopping, and interacting.
Responsible Travel in Cambodia
Cambodia is firmly on the Southeast Asia backpacking circuit. And like the rest of the region, there are key over-arching concerns for responsible travelers. From how to ethically interact with elephants, tigers, and wildlife to avoiding human exploitation and sex trafficking, it’s a complicated topic covered in depth in the GV Responsible Travel Guide to Southeast Asia. The only broad issue not covered in that piece is instead discussed below, about not turning children into tourist attractions.
Beyond the don’ts, however, there is another side to responsible travel too, and we’re about to take a granular look at exactly how and where to spend your money responsibly. Once you’re traveling through Cambodia, you’ll find dozens of opportunities to support the local population, to directly inject your tourism dollars into the local community exactly where they’re most needed.
If you’re already doing the activity—and it fits within the framework of an ethical and sustainable tourism activity—then use this vetted list of social enterprises to ensure your travel dollars are going as far as possible on the ground. This guide includes businesses offering socially responsible tours of Angkor Wat, fair-trade sourced souvenirs, meals prepared and served by former street children, and more. Each business is a social enterprise operating with a strong social mission to use tourism as a force for positive change.
A social enterprise sells good or services and uses a portion of the profits to reinvest in the local community by addressing social issues, improving locals’ quality of life, conserving natural resources and the environment, preserving the community’s cultural integrity, and more. The social enterprise holds its strong underlying mission above financial gain, investors, or traditional commercial business ideals. Instead, the common good is the primary focus and when a social enterprise succeeds, so too does the local society.
Supporting social enterprises is the core idea behind this site. Responsible travelers often align with the social enterprise business model because it’s not only good for travelers to understand a deeper story of a new place, but by supporting these businesses responsible travelers leave a place better than they found it. Our “What is a Social Enterprise” post shares a deeper-dive into the social enterprise business model, how to locate these businesses, and why they are a core tenet of responsible and sustainable travel.
- Jaan Bai: A social enterprise restaurant, the wholesome menu features dishes crafted with produce sourced from local farmers, neighbouring markets, and the kitchen garden at the youth centre. Associated with the Cambodia Children’s Trust, the restaurant provides skills and employment for youth in Battambang.
- Kinyei Cafe: A vibrant cafe providing space to share ideas, news, and culture. Stop for a cup of coffee and yummy baked goods, enjoy live music, admire local art, and support the many disadvantaged youths learning valuable work skills.
- Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus: Take a tour to learn about community programs at this school for disadvantaged youths. This social enterprise (story profiled here) uses the arts to promote educational, social, emotional, and cultural support. You can watch a more informal show here as acrobats, dancers, contortionists ,and musicians reckon with weighty themes from Cambodia’s past, or catch a professional version in Siem Reap.
- Soksabike: Educational bicycle and walking tours around rural Battambang are an ideal way to introduce yourself to the area and learn about the Cambodian way of life. Tours are led by local university students.
The Lonely Tree Cafe: Enjoy lunch at the restaurant, or stop by the shop on the lower level to purchase beautiful Khmer handicrafts made by locals who are physically disabled due to landmine accidents or victims of poliomyelitis.
- Connecting Hands Training Cafe Cambodia: A socially conscious cafe in Cambodia’s capital, this cafe features a delicious menu and provides learning opportunities to vulnerable young women—many of whom are victims of human trafficking, violence and abuse.
- Friends The Restaurant: Stop by for a frozen shake or daiquiri, or delicious Asian and Western-style tapas. Located near the National Museum this training cafe works to help former street children and marginalized young people in Phnom Penh.
- Mekong Quilts: Under the umbrella of NGO Mekong Plus, at the Phnom Penh location you can purchase beautiful quilts made by local women from poor and rural communities across Southeast Asia. Profits are reinvested into the communities, supporting scholarships for children, agricultural training, micro-financing programs, and more.
- Nailbar: Next door to Friends the Restaurant, Nailbar provides spa services training to marginalized youth from within the local community, and provides protection to children and youth from risks and abuse.
- The Restore One Cafe: With a mission to break the cycle of poverty, The Restore One Cafe is known for its yummy burgers. A 12-month traineeship is offered to young Cambodians and teaches them skills like customer service, English-literacy, food prep, and more.
- Artisans D’Angkor: A tour featuring traditional Khmer silk-making, stone and wood-carving, lacquering and painting. Learn about Khmer culture and Angkor heritage, and shop in their boutique to help support local artisans.
- Cambolac Art & Souvenirs: Discover beautiful Picture in Lacquer art and crafts that feature Angkor temples and Cambodian nature. A social enterprise focused on employing local communities, many artisans are hearing impaired or vulnerable poor populations in Angkor’s parks.
- Charity Tours Cambodia: Take a tour of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat or visit a local community and stay with a Khmer family. Whichever tour you chose, 30% of the cost goes toward community development projects in rural Cambodia: tree-planting to combat deforestation, child nutrition, and more.
- Kompong Khleang Floating Village: Community Based Tours: Visit the floating village of Kompong Khleang on Tonle Sap and learn about the community, as well as the sites. An ethical and responsible tour run by a local who reinvests profits into the community.
- Genevieve’s Fair Trade Village:Shop for beautiful handicrafts created by local artisans and craftspeople with disabilities, helping them rise from poverty and become self-sustainable.
Haven Restaurant: A restaurant featuring a mix of Cambodian and International cuisine, Haven is a training restaurant that focuses on providing valuable work experience and training for underprivileged young adults who have left orphanages and safe shelters.
- Mekong Quilts: Under the umbrella of NGO Mekong Plus, purchase beautiful quilts at the Siem Reap location that are made by local women from poor and rural communities across Southeast Asia. Profits are reinvested into the communities, supporting scholarships for children, agricultural training, micro-financing programs, and more.
- New Hope Cambodia Vocational Training Restaurant (Siem Reap): A restaurant aimed at teaching uneducated/unemployed Khmers cooking and hospitality skills, developing their skills and confidence. Dine on a delicious lunch knowing your money is reinvested into the community to fund education programs, a health clinic, and agricultural projects.
Osmose Tonle Sap (Siem Reap): Tour the floating village of Prek Toal and peaceful water bird sanctuary. Tours support local conservation efforts, including the water bird sanctuary as well as sustainable development in local communities.
- Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus: Watch acrobats, dancers, contortionists, and musicians at this famous circus show, which grew directly from a school for disadvantaged youths in Battambang—this social enterprise (story profiled here) uses the arts to promote educational, social, emotional, and cultural support.
- Rehash Trash: A unique workshop using plastic bags to create accessories, Rehash Trash creates accessories and clothing using plastic bags collected from around Siem Reap each day. Fun, funky, and good for the environment.
Shinta Mani Angkor: An upscale boutique hotel, Shinta Mani Angkor actively gives back to the community. The hotel offers exceptional hospitality training for locals, and a portion of room rates go toward wells, education, school supplies, and medical care.
- Epic Cafe (Kampot): Working to challenge perceptions around disability through art, Epic Cafe employs locals with disabilities. A cafe brimming with positivity and good food.
- Cambodia Rural Development Tours (Kratie Town): Cycle along the Mekong River, live in a local community and work on conservation projects, or savour local delicacies, each tour with Cambodia Rural Development Tours supports locals communities and environmental conservation.
- Le Tonlé TTC (Kratie, Stung Treng): A social enterprise focusing on providing vocational training to disadvantaged youth from Cambodia’s north-eastern provinces. Stay at the guesthouse or dine at the restaurants.
- The Small Hotel (Sihanoukville): A budget hotel, The Small Hotel supports the Goodwill Centre, which provides a safe place for local children, teaches life skills, promotes health and hygiene, and offers Khmer and English lessons.
- Elephant Valley Project (Sen Monorom): Spend a day shadowing two families of elephants through the jungle to learn from local mahouts about local conservation efforts. This program features an alternative approach to elephant care, rehabilitation, and conservation.
The database of social enterprises in Cambodia is always expanding as GV Ambassadors map the world of projects and businesses that need support from responsible travelers. Wondering how we pick a social enterprise for inclusion? Make your time in Cambodia a better force for good by visiting and supporting businesses committed to environment, social, and community welfare.
Interested in Volunteering?
Cambodia is the country in Southeast Asia most fraught with concern surrounding international volunteering scene. Volunteering at orphanages is almost completely frowned upon at this point. Although long-term volunteers (a year or more) may find legitimate organizations working for the betterment and health of children, there is so much corruption in the Cambodia orphanage volunteer scene that it’s often best to steer well clear of it. The orphanage scams first broke into international news nearly a decade ago, and yet it’s still a very disturbing ongoing issue.
The orphan industrial complex is one aspect of the large issue of child tourism in general. Many travelers come to the region intent on interacting with local children, many of whom are in vulnerable situations primed for exploitation. Before you engage in any tour that visits a child center—schools, orphanages, or day cares—read up on the issue and research more at the Think! ChildSafe site.
In most cases, volunteers should instead look for social enterprises to support and instead learn about the development in Cambodia before you dive into trying to help. If you’re super keen on getting involved in development in Cambodia, but you don’t have months to dedicate to volunteering, start a company like PEPY Tours, which is a social enterprise that believes “you have learn before you can help.” While the list of social enterprises generally focus on all tourists, these multi-day tours are ideal for volunteers since your guides are super knowledgeable and can help you understand the complicated volunteering scene in the region.
So, it’s complicated in Cambodia. But if you have a minimum of three months (becoming the standard length of time required for many volunteer opportunities as organizations attempt to combat the deep issues in their international volunteering industry), you can use the GV database to research independent volunteer opportunities in Cambodia.
Additional Resources for Responsible Travelers
If you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, or Southeast Asia in general, these travel resources are essential for travelers focused on sustainable and responsible vacations.
- The Responsible Traveler’s Guide to Southeast Asia
- Review: Travel Insurance Options for International Volunteers
- 8 Behaviors of Socially Responsible Travel
- Should You Give to Child Beggars?
- How to Pack for Long-Term & Round The World Travel
- Travel Planning Resources
- ALA Free Travel Guides for: Thailand and Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
- Lonely Planet Cambodia
- The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook
Books to Read Before You Visit Cambodia
Understanding a country’s history and culture is a fundamental aspect of responsible and informed travel. Plus, you’ll enjoy your travels so much more when you have context to wrap around your interactions and experiences. These memoirs offer a heartbreaking and humbling entry into the country’s sex trafficking industry, as well as the legacy left by the Khmer Rouge. Bring one of these books on the plane, or download to your e-reader before you leave, you’ll be thankful for the nuanced insight you gain by better understanding the aspects of Cambodia you’re unlikely to talk about over coffee or with your tour guide.
- First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
- When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him
- The Road of Lost Innocence: The Story of A Cambodian Heroine by Somaly Mam