Cambodia has come a long way from its dark and bleak days of Khmer Rouge. However, the scars still remain from the endless decades of civil war and Khmer Rouge rule that followed. The wounds, physical as well as emotional and intellectual still are very visible as you travel through the country. As soon as you land in its bustling capital city of Phnom Penh, you see the exoticism of any other SE Asian city. However, dig a bit deeper and you’ll notice poverty, the grief and haunting past in the eyes of the populace. Therefore to participate in responsible travel in Phnom Penh, it becomes your duty to help in any small way that you can in restoring this country to its former grandeur. Here’s a responsible traveller’s guide to Phnom Penh which will help you in doing just that.
Your contribution to being a responsible traveller in Phnom Penh (or anywhere in the world for that matter) begins right from the places to visit and things to do and see. First of which begins with an understanding of how and why the city and the country came to its present conditions.
There’s no better place to understand Cambodia’s recent past than to visit the Toul Sleung Prison Museum (also called S21 prison) and Chuoeng Ek Killing Fields After Pol Pot’s regime came into power they took over Tuol Svay Prey High School and turned it into a prison and detention centre for interrogations and soon it became the largest in the country. In its goal of creating a classless society, the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed hundreds and thousands of their own. Many of these prisoners, were then sent to the Choueng Ek Killing Fields some 10km to the south of the city.
Close to 17000 men, women and children were killed at the killing fields. The admission to the killing fields includes an audio tour available in a language of your choice. Spend a morning and afternoon getting to know about scars that this peaceful country carries and you’ll discover a new found respect for the next Cambodia man or woman who smiles, greets and welcomes you as if a tragedy of this scale never happened just a generation ago.
Walking around a city is a great way to notice more things and understand the place a bit better. Therefore I suggest designing your own walking tour. At the same time, it’s one of the small ways that I contributed to being a responsible traveller in Phnom Penh.
Start at Independence Monument which was built in 1958 to commemorate Cambodia’s independence from the France rule. From there proceed to Wat Preah Keo or more commonly know as Silver Pagoda which houses much national treasure including a small green crystal Buddha and life-sized Maitreya Buddha made of gold and decorated with over close to 10000 diamonds.
Next on the tour are the Royal Palace and National museum that give a detailed and delightful insight into Cambodia’s glorious history before the country fell into despair. And finally, on to Wat Phnom – a Buddhist temple built in 14th century AD and standing 27 meters above ground
If walking in the scorching heat of Phnom Penh is not your thing then I suggest taking a tuk-tuk. Most hotels and guesthouses will have tuk-tuk drivers standing outside and they can customise sightseeing according to your requirements.
While the architectural style starting from an 8th-century AD is called Khmer Architecture, New Khmer architectural style came into its own only after Cambodia’s Independence in the late 1950’s. This style is a blend of 3-4 different styles names – modern, french, Angkorian and the local tradition of ordinary houses. Khmer Architecture tours conduct tours with a focus on buildings erected after Cambodia’s independence setting these within the historical context of Phnom Penh. Tours are conducted in English and are led by architecture students, architects and artisans and are ranked among the top architectural tours in the world by the Guardian newspaper. If you don’t want to go on an organised tour you can download their walking map and do it yourself.
Many restaurants in Cambodia and more so in the capital Phnom Penh, not just serve you delicious food but also take their roles in community development and social responsibility very seriously. Some provide training to the underprivileged thus making them employable while some help women break free from the sex trade and trafficking that is rampant in these parts of the world. Here’s a list of few restaurants and eateries that you can eat at while being a responsible traveller in Phnom Penh
Romdeng is a popular restaurant that makes it to every guide book on Phnom Penh. The restaurant is a part of Tree Alliance. Tree Alliance of restaurants trains a lot of disadvantaged youth and at the same time support a number of local NGOs. Excellent food and services and a making an impactful contribution is what they do. They come highly recommended for it.
Sugar and Spice cafe is located at two different places in Phnom Penh. But no matter where you go, the service and food are excellent. Supported by Daughter’s of Cambodia an organisation that fights to help women free the dark world of sex and human trafficking, the cafes are places where women are trained in alternative ways of employment to support their families.
Set in the last remaining Chinese houses in the city this restaurant and bar serves some great pan-Asia cuisine. The building was originally a Chinese merchant’s house and built in the early 1900s. Now it has turned into a hip bar and restaurant that aims to preserve the legacy of this place while being an excellent place to have a few sundowners followed by some gourmet cuisine.
Being a vegetarian/vegan is a not just responsible way to travel but also a responsible lifestyle. though not the easiest of things to do while in Cambodia, you can find a vegetarian/vegan options if you put in the efforts. I recently wrote a piece for Mad Monkey Blog where I talk about eating vegetarian while travelling in Cambodia. Have a look and you’ll find some recommendations of some excellent places about vegetarian eating not just in Phnom Penh but also throughout Cambodia
And as much as you can contribute to being a responsible traveller in Phnom Penh, you can do the same by eating locally. Instead of buying from supermarkets or international brands buy local. Similarly, avoid fast food chains and eat what locals eat. Also, a fellow blogger Bianca has written a guide to ethical eateries in Phnom Penh. The write-up includes a more detailed list of socially responsible restaurants and cafes in Phnom Penh
There are many accommodation options available to every kind of traveller to Phnom Penh. From luxury to midrange to a backpacker. Quite a few guesthouses, hotels and hostels take their role in community development seriously. Here are a few that do.
Teahouse Asia is a tranquil oasis from the busy and scorching streets of Phnom Penh. One of the newest hotels in Phnom Penh they stand firm in their pursuit of responsible and sustainable tourism. They provide internship opportunities to the trainees from PSE in their front office and food and beverages department. And carry weekly neighbourhood clean-up activities and participate in Cambodia Hotel Association’s monthly city clean up drives.
As the name suggests it is a boutique hotel with Asia’s love of Tea as their central theme. Hence they do serve a great assortment of tea blends, cocktails and mocktails made from local tea varieties of Cambodia. Their sister resort in Mondulkiri province work towards the development of local tea plantation workers. They pay the workers fair wages and provide other amenities for the welfare of their families. On the other hand, the staff is friendly and very attentive to your needs. They always smile go out of their way to help you when you stay there. Goes without saying the rooms are super comfortable and clean.
Mad Monkey hostels provide great accommodation options are budget prices starting from $7 a night. And responsible tourism is a big motto at this popular backpackers’ haven. They provide great training and significantly higher than the average wage for the staff as compared to other luxury enterprises in Cambodia. Mad Monkey hostels are also doing some great work when it comes to community development.
The Phnom Penh hostel has already contributed to the building of 228 wells. And they have committed themselves to another 232 wells in the near future. Each of these wells supports at least 4 families by providing access to clean drinking water. Besides Phnom Penh, they have hostels in Siem Reap, Kampot and Koh Rong Samloem island in the south. Each of those hostel works on various projects of community development and responsible tourism.
House boutique hotel is an enterprise that takes steps in maintaining an eco-friendly atmosphere. Solar panels are used for energy needs and also for heating water for showers in the bathroom. They have a plastic bottle free environment and provide clean water to the guests during their stay. The bathroom is stocked with eco-friendly locally sourced toiletries. These are just some of the few things they do to reduce impact to the ecology and their surroundings.
You Khin house is a charity run guest house that supports Seamantrey Children’s Village school. The school that enables children of underprivileged Cambodia family to get quality education rooted in Khmer culture. You help in sustaining, improving and developing the school and life of the students when you book a room here. A lady named Muoy is the owner of the guest house as well as the director of the school. Her late husband You Khin was an architect and artist who designed the guest house.
Overall, people and Cambodia have come to realise the need to grow. At the same time that the growth needs to be all inclusive. None more so than in the bustling capital city of Phnom Penh. Social enterprises, especially in the tourism sector are doing a lot to support this cause. They have understood that tourism is a big draw for the country. With a long history, enchanting culture and some really stunning natural beauty it’s not surprising. Therefore as a responsible traveller in Phnom Penh, it becomes essential that we too contribute to the restoration and growth of this beautiful land to its former glory.
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Have you been to Phnom Penh? How did you like it? Is it on your wish list? What attracts you about the city? Leave a comment and let me know.
Disclaimer: I was hosted by Teahouse Asia while I was researching for this article and was offered a 2-night complimentary stay. The other enterprises mentioned in this write-up have been either personally visited by me on my own cost or have been recommended multiple times by fellow travellers, or internet reviews. If something has been misrepresented or reported incorrectly in this article, please feel free to drop a line in the comments or email me and I‘d be glad to hear your views and may edit the article to include the same