A Guide to Responsible Tourism in Siem Reap
Kate Springer visits the social enterprises getting Siem Reap back on its feet.
While exploring Siem Reap’s beautifully crumbling temples, vibrant Old Town and colorful countryside, it's easy to forget that just over 20 years ago the country was emerging from decades of war that virtually left Cambodia starting from scratch.
Over two decades have passed since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, and the country is getting back on its feet with the help of homegrown community projects that aim to educate and elevate the country's most hard-hit families.
On a recent trip to check out Siem Reap, I visited a few nonprofit tour companies, shows and restaurants that are invested in rebuilding Cambodia—and showing travelers a good time while they’re at it.
On my three-day trip, I leaned heavily on AboutAsia’s bespoke tour service to design my jam-packed itinerary and help me get around—but it’s not just the insider knowledge that drew me to this company. AboutAsia is all about community involvement, celebrating local hidden gems, preserving Cambodia’s natural beauty and, most importantly, providing education to underprivileged children. All the profits from its luxury tourism arm go to AboutAsia Schools, which supports 110 schools, provides teacher training and supplies community centers.
From US$145 ($1,124), including guides and accommodation at a five-star hotel. www.aboutasiatravel.com.
All tangled up at Ta Prohm
You can trawl through Siem Reap’s Old Market for a handmade gem amid all the touristy kitsch or you can head straight to the Well Made in Cambodia Market for a taste of all the homegrown talent. Put on by the Shinta Mani hotel every Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, the market celebrates local craftsmanship and artisan creations—think handmade jewelry, homemade rum, candles, textiles, bags, snacks and more. Bring a big shopping bag for your haul—or just buy a new one there.
Free. Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday from 4-9pm.
Pick up spirits and good karma at the Well Made in Cambodia Market
Sister acts of kindness
Serving up the best coffee and brunch in town, Sister Srey has nailed the eclectic-cool decor and friendly atmosphere of your favorite neighborhood cafe. But it’s not all style and no substance: Sisters Lauren and Cassie opened up the cafe in 2012 to train and educate young Cambodians juggling studies and supporting their families at the same time. Twenty percent of profits are donated to the Hearts to Harmony Foundation—which supports Khmer people by providing education, healthcare and hygiene services.
200 Pokambor St., Riverside, Old Market Area, Siem Reap, (+855) 97-723-800,
Have a cup full of joy at Sister Srey
The circus of life
When I first heard about the Phare circus, I was a little hesitant—immediately seeing flashbacks of creepy clowns and screaming children. But under its big red tent, Phare has all the personality and passion, with none of the cringe-worthy foibles, of your typical circus. And the mind-bending stunts provide for more than your average acrobatic performance: On my visit I saw the Sokha show, which told the story of Cambodia’s rise, fall and resurgence through a mix of charismatic acrobatics, fierce music and powerful paintings. The artists and musicians all graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak association (www.phareps.org), a non-profit art, music, theater and circus school formed in 1994 following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Lot A, Komay Rd., Siem Reap, (+855) 92-225-320. Tickets US$18-35 ($140-$271) from www.PhareCambodianCircus.org.
A rice retreat
Talk about off the beaten path—Villa Chandara is a ways away from the city center, down a long pockmarked dirt road in the middle of rice country. Dinner here is all-inclusive, so expect prosecco on arrival, free-flow G&Ts, wine and beer as the sun sets—all while local musicians play traditional Khmer tunes in the background. Dinner consists of a five-course meal of authentic Cambodian cuisine with highlights including a fantastic fish amok and fried bananas for dessert. The villa is owned by a local Cambodian, who lives and works there with his family, but managed by AboutAsia which sends all of the proceeds towards the AboutAsia Schools Foundation as well
as the neighborhood’s local school.
Pickup from hotel. US$95 ($736) per person, inclusive of transport, food and beverage. www.villachandara.com.
Track down a delicious experience at Villa Chandara
Food for thought
Part of the Kaliyan Mith NGO, which works with street children and at-risk families, Marum Restaurant is a training café. It’s also part of the Tree Alliance of restaurants across Cambodia, where most of the staff members are of high school age, studying while at the same time training to enter the hospitality industry. The kids running the show may be young, but the food is fantastic—think smoked fish and mango salad, Khmer pork salad with fresh mint, taro and chive dumplings, and stir-fried red tree ants (I know, but it’s better than it sounds). All profits from the restaurant go towards supporting the trainees’ education, social programs and family welfare.
8A, B Phum Slokram, Siem Reap, Cambodia, (+855) 17-363-284, www.tree-alliance.org.
Marum: A colorful setting for lunch
Siem Siem But Different
Want to beat the crowds while checking off the must-see sites? Here are a few insider tips.
Angkor Wat: Most of the crowds actually tend to go to 12th-century Angkor Wat first thing in the morning, so a late arrival is surprisingly strategic. Enter through the Eastern gate, rather than the well-trodden main corridor, for a leafy and quiet approach to the architectural marvel.
A sun-streaked Angkor Wat
Ta Prohm: Hit the road by 6:30am in order to get the most out of your visit to famous Ta Prohm, aka the “Tomb Raider” temple, which was built in the late 12th century. A biking tour is highly encouraged, as it not only enables you to take dirt paths between hidden temples—like nearby Tai Nei and Ta Keo—but also cuts your walking time in half.
Bayon: In the very center of the ancient city of Angkor Thom sits Bayon. The incredibly intricate temple would not look out of place in a “Game of Thrones” episode, with 216 beautifully carved stone Buddha faces, pointing in each of the four cardinal points. The crowds thin out by late afternoon, but leave yourself time to catch the sunset over the nearby moat.
Where to Stay
Sitting side-by-side on a quiet street near Old Town, Shinta Mani Resort and the more romantic Shinta Mani Club are two of Siem Reap’s top hotels—and they easily lead the pack in terms of service and responsible tourism. The hyper-contemporary Shinta Mani Club is the more intimate of the two properties, with just 39 breezy rooms and a quiet yet classy lap pool. The hotel runs the eponymous Shinta Mani Foundation, and US$5 of every hotel stay goes towards the NGO’s initiatives: education, small business start-ups, help and healthcare for the Cambodian community.
From US$162 ($1,256). Junction of Oum Khun and 14th Street, Siem Reap, (+855) 63-761-998, shintamani.com.
Get a room at the Shinta Mani Club