Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Socially Responsible travel guide to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia - Ernie and Cindy's Guide
It’s one of the most charming towns on the planet if you actually spend some time with the local people of the town. We’ve heard from expats over and over “I came for a holiday and I never left.”  For Ernie and me, the town was so enticing after our first visit in 2009 that we returned in 2012 to see if we should move there and start a social enterprise to help the local community.

After only two visits, I cannot call myself an ‘expert’ in everything Siem Reap has to offer, but I can certainly share some advice on what to see, where to stay and of course, where to eat! This guide highlights (mostly) social enterprises, i.e. businesses that donate a portion or all of their profits to an NGO supporting the local Cambodian community. So not only can you get the most out of your visit, you can also give the most – with every dollar going to a good cause.

Most visitors spend 3 days/2 nights in Siem Reap. There is a whole initiative to lengthen your stay called "Stay another day" where they have much more detail on what to do if you have more time to spend in Cambodia.   It depends on what you want to see and do in the area. 3-4 full days is sufficient to get a taste of the area and catch most of the major sights. The times outlined below are in order of what we believe is priority of how you should spend your time.

1-2 Days – Grand Circuit Temples (including Angkor Wat, Ta Prom, Angkor Thom)
½ Day – Rolous Group
2 hrs – Silk Farm
½ Day – Floating Village
1 Day – Banteay Srey and Bang Melea
1 Day – Kulen Mountain
2 hrs – Landmine Musem

The Temples: Obviously, you’ve come to see the temples. 

Costs: Tickets are $20/day/person.  You can buy a 3 day pass for $40/person which is totally worth it.  I also recommend a tour guide, which is very affordable at around $20-25/day and can be hired at your hotel.  A Tuk Tuk is the best way to see everything and generally costs $15/day. Some drivers might charge you an additional $5 to go to Angkor Wat at Sunrise.  Bring or buy a scarf to wrap around your nose/mouth to prevent dust from coming up into your face. 

Grand Circuit Temples – spend a soild 1-2 days at these temples, depending how fast you can walk or how easily you can navigate through the swarms of tourists plopping on and off the tour busses.
Angkor Wat is the most famous temple and the one everyone calls the entire complex.  Many people go at sunrise to see the reflection in the pond. It’s worth it to see sunrise (and get haggled by many teenagers claiming their name is “Justin Beiber” or “Lady Gaga” to come eat breakfast at their restaurant).  My suggestion is to see the sunrise, then get the heck out of that temple so you can beat the rush to the next temple. Then come back later in the afternoon when the temple is relatively empty.
Angkor Wat, rear entry view
Angkor Thom is the next complex that contains the famous Bayon temple with all of the Buddha heads.  The victory gate into the temple is beautiful so you want to stop for photos and hear the story of the Good vs. Evil sides.
Victory Gate
Ta Phrom, famous for “Tomb Raider” is a fascinating temple because the trees have overgrown most of it. There are two sides to the temple and it’s worth looking at both sides. There’s thought that Humans and Dinosaurs lived at the same time due to a carving that can be found within the temple walls of the stegosaurus. Do you believe it to be true?
Ta Phrom

Ernie was super excited to see the dino
Ta Som is another temple with overgrown trees. I especially love the back gate of the temple for the view of the trees out of the Budda’s head. It’s worth the extra walk.
Ta Som
Other temples in the route: Pre Rup (everyone goes here for sunset, but personally, I’m not sure it’s worth the crowds), Reah Khan, Neak Pean

Additional Temples worth checking out. Ernie and I are torn on which group of temples is better. I guess it depends what you want to get out of your trip. The Rolous group Temples are in tact, fully accessible temples.  Banteay Srei is beautiful, but small on it's own. Bang Melea is in ruins, and only worth visiting if you like climing over rocks and trees.  Both sets gets you outside of town so you can see a bit of the country side.
Banteay Srei and Bang Melea
Costs: $35 for a Tuk Tuk.  Banteay Srei is included in the Temple Pass but Bang Melea is an additional $5/person.
Budget a short day trip for these two temples and the drive out to them.  Whatever you do, you must try the sticky rice/beans that the locals sell by the side of the road. It’s sweetened with palm sugar and packed into bamboo then roasted by fire.  Your Tuk Tuk driver will know where these are sold, as they are the best in the area.
A typical stand selling sticky rice
Om nom nom
Banteay Srei is also known as the “lady’s temple” and definitely in my top 3 favorite temples.  It’s made of pink sandstone and fairly quiet since not many tourists make it outside the grand circuit.
Lady's Temple
Bang Melea is also known as the “jungle temple” because you really have to be willing to climb through the jungle, step over moss and navigate through fallen stone. This temple is basically in crumbles from the old original form.  There are even ruminants of a land mine, basically a giant ditch.
The Jungle Temple
The Butterfly Garden Center is near these two temples and if you’re into it, we hear it’s nice.

             Roluos Group Temples: Bakong, Lolei and Preah Ko.
             Costs: $12 for a Tuk Tuk.  Temples are included in the Temple Pass.

Other Tourist Attractions:
Old Market
Costs: nothing except shopping and eating
You’ll be in the old market area every evening for dinner. There is an expansive day market and 4 (or more) night markets that all basically sell the same cheap stuff made in China.  Browse, bargain and take home some fun souvenirs but don’t expect high quality items from the bazaars.  Nearby brick-n-mortar shops have some better-quality items.
Kulen Mountain
Costs: $20/person, plus $40 for Tuk Tuk
Full Day trip
We didn’t go during either visit so I can’t speak from personal experience but it comes highly recommended for a day trip. You can swim in the waterfall pool and walk along the river with lingas dotting the riversides. There is also supposedly a huge lying Buddha statue in the area. I kind of wish we had gone, but it seemed like a lot of money at the time since you’re only paying $4-5 per meal. In hindsight, we probably should have done it since we had the time.
Floating Village
Costs: $15/person for boat ticket. Tuk Tuk is $11 round trip from Siem Reap.
About a half day. You’ll be on the boat for about 1.5 hrs and it’s about 30-45 min each way.
I’m torn about recommending a visit to the floating village. In its authentic state, the village is quite unique and interesting for visitors to see. But the most popular village on Tonle Sap is becoming so much of an attraction that there are many scams.  If you do decide to visit a village, take the time to go to the authentic Cambodian one. Beyond Tours (info below) can set you up, and also take you to the floating forest.
A Common Scam:  Because of the increasing desire to ‘visit an orphanage’ while traveling to a developing country, common scams are popping up all over the place. This orphan-tourism is frightening and my hope is to educate you before you go.  Most “orphans” (estimated at more than 75%) living in orphanages in Cambodia are not actually orphans. The floating village is no different. Your tour guide or boat driver might take you to a market near the ‘school’ or ‘orphanage’ and ask you to buy a bag of rice or a box of noodles to donate to the ‘school/orphanage.’ I URGE YOU to not do this! These children are actually not in school! Many of them aren’t even Cambodians! The children are taken away from their homes and kept away from school so you (with your good intentions) can come by and drop off food that you buy from the market. They’ll take you on a tour of the ‘school’ showing you where food is cooked, where the kids play and you can even take a photo with the children.  Then they will sell the food back to the market (with the market taking a cut of the profits) and the market will resell to the next good-intentioned tourist.  The negative impact to the community is increasing – fewer children going to school, keeping them in poverty, and they’re not even getting fed.  The mafia wins and puts cash in their pockets.  We were stupid. And we were scammed.  Please be warned.
Avoid: Don’t give the snake-kids money.  Again, these children are kept away from school because they can earn much more money by begging for $1 for you to look at or take a photo with their snakes. These kids are all over the place. The parents take the money and many go off to drink and gamble, leaving their children at home starving.  Education is what can help these kids out of poverty but the more tourists that give them money; the less likely they are to go to school.
This is us after we got scammed. We felt so good about our 'giving' until we later learned the truth about it all.
Angkor Silk Farm
Pouk District (20 minutes from Siem Reap)
Open daily 8am-5pm

Costs: $10 for Tuk Tuk. Free shuttle departs from Artisans Angkor main showroom on Stung Thmey Street at 9:30am and 1:20pm.  Entry is free but you might be enticed to buy something in their air-conditioned shop.
Silk Worm Cocoons
Free guided tours of the entire process to make silk, starting from the mulberry bushes that the worms feed on, all the way through the dying and weaving processes.  It sounds a little boring, but actually it’s quite an interesting and intricate process to creating the silk we love to wear.  You’ll spend about an hour here looking at live silkworms (you can see them mate!) and being mesmerized by the dying and weaving process.  There’s also an ice cream shop on site for a cool break after your visit.
Lady Ga Ga's Dress from a concert in Cambodia! Made out of silk worm cocoons.
Landmine Museum Costs: $3/person donation requested (required?). $15 for Tuk Tuk round trip.
Aki Ra's CNN Hero Award on display at the Landmine Museum
The Landmine Museum was founded by a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, Aki Ra, also a CNN Hero.  Visit the website or even the museum to hear his incredible story. The museum is not large and displays thousands of mines Aki Ra and his late wife recovered from the killing fields. He lives on site with his 3 children along with an entire center of children who are either landmine victims, polio victims or children of landmine victims who can no longer be supported by their natural parents. You won’t be able to access the children’s living area but you might catch a glimpse of them playing volleyball behind the museum.  The Landmine Museum helps support education for these children by providing school supplies, uniforms and extra school fees. Jill and Bill, a married American couple, run the museum and will likely be one of your tour guides. They work with Project Enlighten who provides university scholarships for several students from the center.

Beyond Tours is owned by married Australians, Anthony and Fiona, who also own Sojourn Boutique Hotel (see below) and several other socially responsible businesses.  They offer a variety of responsible tourism tours including the Main Temples, Beng Melea, and the Floating Village. You can also get a unique experience through the “Day in the Life” Tour $32/person, Cambodian Cooking Classes $35/full day, $22/half day or several Cycling Tours.

Originally founded by Daniela from the US, the team is now led by an outgoing mix of Westerners and Cambodians.  They offer several adventures from a custom built itinerary, to the three week bike ride across Cambodia, PEPY Ride! Their blog is worthwhile reading and you’re bound to learn much about Cambodia, Social Enterprises and Responsible Tourism.  We love the whole team at PEPY Tours and PEPY NGO! They were so hospitable and welcoming during our visit!

Low: Seven CandlesGuest House
Rates: $20 for double occupancy
Wat Bo Area:
307 Wat Bo Road
Breakfast not included, Free Wi Fi. Toiletries not included so bring your own soap/shampoo. There is no safe in the rooms, but there are keys to the old wooden desks.

Seven Candles is owned by Ponheary Ly and her family. Ponheary is a recipient of the CNN Hero award for her work in the local community where she makes it possible for hundreds of children to go to school who can’t afford uniforms, books and school fees.  The entire family, 3 generations, lives at the guest house and several can be hired as tour guides for the temples and surrounding areas.  Lori Carlson from Texas also lives on site and heads up The Ponheary Ly Foundation and is the author of humorous reading materials found in your room. Ponheary’s story is amazing and if you have a moment to sit with her, you’ll be inspired by how she has lived her life.

Medium: Soria Moria
Rates: $40-65/night
Wat Bo Area
Buffet Breakfast included, Free Wi Fi, Hot tub on Roof, New small swimming pool, Tuk Tuk pickup from Airport.

Rooms are large with tile flooring and western style bathrooms.  Fridge, TV and Air Conditioning in room. 

Ken and Kristin are the Norwegian owners/founders of Soria Moria and are heavily involved in the Responsible Tourism initiative in Siem Reap.  Soria Moria employs many trainees from the major hospitality schools in the area. They have also recently turned over 51% ownership to the staff, a very innovative approach in the local area. Each staff member shares in the profits and is dedicated to providing you with great service.  Ken also heads up a local NGO called NEDO (Norwegian Educational Development Organisation). As revenue streams in addition to Soria Moria, Ken also founded White Bicycles where you can rent bicycles from several hotels/guest houses for $2/day, and Love Cards which are handmade greeting cards by Cambodians.

Also, Wednesday nights are $1 tapas at Soria Moria! It’s very popular among expats so a reservation is necessary.

High: Sojourn
Rates: $110 for terrace rooms; $180-190 for private villas
Treak Village
Buffet & Menu Breakfast included, Saltwater pool with swim up bar, Car pickup/drop off from Airport

Sojourn means ‘a short stay’ and is owned and operated by Australians Anthony and his wife, Fiona, who also own several other socially responsible operations in town, including Beyond Tours (tour agency), HUSK (trash collection, property rebuilding), Wild Poppy Boutique (clothing shop) and Softies (plush toys).  Sojourn is a short ride away from the town center and hidden in the local Treak Village. You’ll see HUSK trash collection bins along the route.  Several staff members come from the local hospitality training schools and are sponsored by EGBOK Mission (, an NGO supporting underprivileged young adults and connecting them to employment opportunities in the hospitality industry.  Products in the room are made by Sentaurs D’Angkor

The restaurant at the hotel serves IBIS Rice and is absolutely amazing with a full breakfast fruit & pastry spread in addition to an ordered menu item.  Stay in one (or two) nights for dinner and you won’t be disappointed!  The swim-up pool bar has happy hour every day and a variety of delicious cocktails.
Saltwater pool
Black concrete bathrooms, modern & sleek!
Luxury: Shinta Mani
Rates: $210-250/night
French Quarter
Free WiFi, Pool, free fruit, airport pick up for $10 USD

Luxurious rooms with wall-mounted TV’s iPod Docks, bathrobes and slippers.  Décor is very modern and minimalist with clean lines and splashes of bold colors.  We didn’t stay overnight here, but we stopped for lunch in their air conditioned restaurant (a rare gem).  The food was delicious, a little higher priced than in town, but worth the additional trip to sit in AC and relax after a hot morning out on the tourist route. The outdoor bar area has beds suspended from the ceiling where you can eat breakfast, lunch or dinner in bed!  Shinta Mani funds the Shinta Mani Foundation which helps to lift individuals in local villages out of poverty through development programs and basic assistance like water wells, housing and school materials.

Lunch in bed?
Swimming Pool

·      Haven
Sok San Street, 20m past X-Bar on the right
Hours: Mon-Saturday 11am-9:30pm, closed Sundays.

Haven is run by 2 Swiss women who opened the trendy restaurant in December 2011. It serves as a training restaurant for young adults ‘orphans’ (orphans, lost 1 parent, or abandoned children) who have out grown their orphan centers and have no place to go.  Training is free for the students.  The restaurant is clean, modern and is open air seating. The staff is very friendly and all smiles and the food is quite delicious! Average prices are slightly higher, about $1-2, compared to Cambodian run restaurants, but for an extra buck, you are helping to provide a job to a young adult who may not have had a hand up otherwise.

·       Green Star
South end of Wat Bo Road (literally at the T Intersection)
Closed Sundays

If there’s only one Cambodian Restaurant you pick, this one should be it. A not-for-profit restaurant run by Doug and Avee that fully supports the Green Gecko Project, an incredible children’s center founded by Tanya. Doug comes from Australia and fell in love with Cambodia, later deciding to retire and move to Siem Reap. He then met Avee, the brains behind Green Star and an amazing chef.  We let Avee bring us whatever food she was cooking up that day and the food did NOT disappoint! Some recommendations are: Tasty Corn Kernels, Spicy Fried Egg Plant with Pork, Green Star Sliced Beef (try the Kampot Pepper and lime dipping sauce!) and the Stuffed Chicken Wings (not on the menu but an absolute must). For dessert, Avee cooked up cinnamon apples in a wonton skin, I can’t remember the name of the dish, but even I who is allergic to gluten, craved this dessert for days after trying a small bite. Doug and Avee spent two nights chatting with us and sharing their story.

·       Joe-to-Go
       Located on North/West of Old Market behind the Central Café
Open 7am-9:30pm everyday

Joe-to-Go is small comfortable restaurant where you can get classic Khmer dishes such as Amok Chicken or Fried Rice. There’s also a variety of western dishes.  Stop in for a quick snack or a full meal.  The Mint Lemonade is wonderfully refreshing. Proceeds from both the downstairs restaurant and the upstairs fashion boutique Beau Fou support The Global Child Project, an NGO focusing on providing education to underprivileged children.

·         Viva (Mexican)
       Located in the Old Market
It’s the only non-social-enterprise restaurant on my list. Everyone says it’s the ‘best Mexican’ in Siem Reap… which you should take with a grain of salt since it’s Mexican Food in Cambodia. We usually like to eat local foods when we travel, but our 2nd trip to Siem Reap was 2 weeks long and we were craving Mexican.  The food is actually not too bad!  Handmade corn tortillas, nicely marinated meats and of course crunchy tortilla chips are all we need to go along with our margaritas! So if you need a break from Asian food, and you have a craving for Mexican Viva will not disappoint.

Others that we tried to visit, but didn't make it to:

·      Le Café at Paul DeBrule Located at the French Cultural Center in Wat Bo Area
Monday-Saturday 7:30am-8pm
The premier hospitality school in Siem Reap. They have a restaurant on their campus where students train in cooking, serving and hosting guests.

·       Sala Bai
155 Phoum Tapoul, Near the new Park Hyatt (formerly the Hotel de la Paix)
Breakfast 7-9am, Lunch 12-2pm Monday-Friday. Closed evenings, weekends and public holidays
Reservations Required
The other premier hospitality school. Proceeds contribute to the Sala Bai training project.
Coming Soon: Where to shop!

A note on tipping: Tipping is not customary in Cambodia. Locals generally round up to the next even dollar.  But if you are happy with the service, tipping is highly encouraged.  Remember that many Cambodians living in the town only make about $50/month, which many Americans will spend on one meal. So while $2 or even $10 is extra change to you, it makes a significant difference for the people serving you.  They have worked hard for you and are not begging on the street so please show respect as they have shown to you. 
Common Scams: I hate to even say there are scams in the area because we love Siem Reap so much.  Generally, Siem Reap is a pretty safe town and the people are friendly. But with the increase of Tourism over the past several years attracts common tourist scams.
·       Street Beggars: Like any developing country, there are many people living below the poverty line. In Cambodia, 78% are in deep poverty on less than $2/day.  It’s no secret that you are bound to see a few hard-up people while visiting Siem Reap.  I caution you, however, and plead with you to not give money to street beggars – adult or children.  Some of the beggars in Siem Reap are very sophisticated. They rent babies to carry around and will ask you to buy them milk or diapers from the store. Once you are out of eyesight, the woman returns the milk to the store, receiving some cash while the store takes their healthy profit. After turning a few of these tricks, she returns the baby to their family and pockets the cash. These people are not contributing members of the society but are leeching off the goodness of your heart. 

Daniela from PEPY says it best when she calls this “voting with your money.” Do you want more kids on the street begging? Then give them your money and you are voting to keep the child on the street and not in school.  It’s just the same as when you buy your favorite laundry detergent at home – you’re voting to keep that brand on the shelf. 

We heard a story that a street kid, missing one leg as a victim of a land mine, would sell small items for $1. You probably don’t need the book or the 10 bracelets that you just traded your dollar for, but you want to help the kid out, right? Wrong. This kid was making $1000/month selling on the streets! Think about this and compare it to your average hotel staff that makes $60/month as a trainee or $100/month as a manager.  The kid takes home that money to whoever is ‘managing’ him and usually walks away with little to nothing: no food, no clothes, no clean home to live in.  Just say “day ah koon”, which means “no thank you” and they will generally walk away.
·       Orphanages: More than 75% of the children living in orphanages are not actually orphans.  Tourists often have good intentions and want to help out orphanages. “Orphan tourism” is probably one of the most ridiculous terms ever created – and it’s sad to know that such a concept even exists that humans actually had to give it a name.  We heard stories upon stories, endless recounts of the negative effects of orphan tourism.  “Hug an Orphan for $10!” This sounds ridiculous, are you serious? And people actually do it – in fact, probably thousands each year – thinking they are helping out the local community. But the money goes to the ring leader in charge of the organization and rarely do the kids ever benefit.  

Unicef is working to reform Cambodian laws to enforce the priority of alternative child care:

1)      If a child cannot be cared for by their natural parents, Kinship care is the best preferred alternative. That is, being cared for by releatives such as a grandparent or an aunt/uncle.

2)      Community care is the next priority, where neighbors care for the child in the same village of the child’s family. Pagoda care is a common form of community care.

3)      Local Foster Care where an alternative family outside of the child’s village but still within Cambodia, cares for the child.

4)      The very last alternative is residential care such as orphanages or group homes. 
Because so many tourists want to see orphans (why? Would you put your own child on display?) so, many business men and women are attracted to this ‘industry’ and are now opening centers and grabbing kids off the streets or out of their homes to live in the center so they can profit off tourists. These kids are kept malnourished so tourists feel bad and give more money. They are kept out of schools and are often abused.  Don’t be part of the problem.  Don’t visit or donate to these ‘orphanages’. Only about 10% are legit and doing good work. I can recommend a few if you are looking to donate.
Currently, international adoption is illegal in Cambodia but a new law allowing international adoptions is going into effect Jan 2, 2013.  Yes Cambodian children are arguably the most adorable in the world, but I still do not support international adoption and taking a child from their home country before they are willing and able to make the choice themselves. 

Child Safe has a terrific marketing campaign that you should definitely read.

We thank everyone who made our visits a wonderful experience. We are indebted to you for your kindness to meet two strangers; for your generous hospitality; your willingness to share stories and friends; and your wonderful hearts as you continue to help Cambodia: Allie, Ken, Doug and Avee, Tanya, Pita, Bob, Jonas, Nari, Michael, Andreas, Anna B, Rithi, Sarah, Anna M, Kimline, Savong, Annie, Ben Severene, Ponheary, Dayvy, Hanah, Sam, the Village Chief of Military School and Wounded Warriors, Megan, Jill and Bill, Anthony, Im Eath, Dara.


Travel Insurance Quotes said...

Much thanks for sharing the wonders of Cambodia through those pleasing images and itinerary. These places are truly inviting. The pictures alone show the fun that Siem Reap can offer.

Cherilyn Inouye said...

Thank you for sharing, Cindy. I am planning our honeymoon and want our experience to be fun, romantic, cultural, and adventurous, but it is also important for us to be mindful, socially responsible tourists.

Elizabeth Chiang said...

A few comments to add after going to Siem Reap.

The sticky rice is called Cambodian Kro Lan. It can be found on National Highway 6 just west of Damdek (at least, that's the label on google maps for the area). The tuk tuk drivers won't necessarily know what you mean if you just say "sticky rice."

Also, I recommend going to Kampong Phulk if you want to see a "floating village." It is south of the Rolis group of temples. A boat ride is $20 pp and it goes down the river, out to the lake, takes you to a restaurant and brings you back. It is not nearly as touristy as Chong Khneas, which is where a lot of the scams are and what's more advertised as a floating village visit. It's not quite so interesting during the dry season since there aren't as many people out and about but it's still neat to see.

Cambodia is hot! If you're traveling to some of the further temples, it may be worth your while to rent a car/driver (with AC) instead of a Tut Tut.

I preferred smaller temples with less people then spending a lot of time at crowded areas like Angkor Tom. The temples on the big circuit tended to be less crowded, especially as it gets later into the afternoon. Several of the Big Circuit temples are pyramid temples, so not as good to visit when it's hot in the afternoon so it's better to hit these in the morning.

The food at Green Star and Sojourn is Amazing. And don't miss $1 Tapa and drinks night at Soria Moria!

doug south said...

Cindy. Just came across your Blog. Thanks so much for your generous comments on our restaurant,Green Star. I must say it was a pleasure meeting & talking to you guys.

As an aside I actually stumbled across an episode of your both a few days came in first on that episode. Great seeing you both in action.

All the best, Doug & Avee