Cambodia can be a hard place to relax. Walk the streets of Phnom Penh, its capital, and you’ll see beggars whose signs say they were victimized by the Khmer Rouge, a brutal Communist regime that according to the New York Times killed or caused the death of 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979 . Barefoot children ask for money in cafés. Wander the city’s darker side streets and you’ll feel mildly sketched out.
Despite these signs of war and desperation, there are Cambodia-based organizations and small businesses promoting tourism that are working toward poverty alleviation, social betterment and environmental sustainability.
A great source of information on hopeful projects in Cambodia is Stay Another Day , a nonprofit promoting sustainable tourism in Cambodia , Laos and Vietnam . Stay Another Day’s website has information about 16 anti-poverty and sustainable-tourism initiatives in Phnom Penh alone, including Smateria , a fair-trade handicraft workshop where local artisans make handicrafts from recycled materials, and The Cyclo Centre , a local NGO providing social services and English lessons for bike-rickshaw drivers.
Phnom Penh is the hometown of Friends-International , an award-winning nonprofit offering social services and vocational training for at-risk youth in seven countries. Friends-International was co-founded by Frenchman Sebastien Marot, who on a visit to Phnom Penh in the early 1990s was upset to find 20 children sleeping on the sidewalk.
Marot and his friends started a street kid-oriented drop-in center. Over the years, Friends-International has launched several for-profit spin-offs, including two Phnom Penh restaurants : Romdeng, where teen-chefs cook modern Cambodian food in a colonial-style house, and Friends the Restaurant, which dishes Western-style café food in a yellow building adjacent to Friends-International’s sprawling vocational training center. A nearby craft store, Friends 'N' Stuff, sells tastefully made fair-trade gear.
Before you leave Phnom Penh, check out the Cambodia Community Based Ecotourism Network . Founded in 2007 with support from European development agencies, the CCBEN has an online database of conservation and ecotourism projects across Cambodia.
The CCBEN database includes the locally owned and operated tour company Hanuman Tourism , which offers “temple safaris” to four temples in northwestern Cambodia, and PEPY Tours, an ecotourism company affiliated with the U.S.-and-Canada-registered NGO PEPY — "Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself.” PEPY Tours claims to offer a “complete and delicious cocktail” of sightseeing, volunteering, adventure and educational excursions.
The legacy of war persists in Southeast Asia. The countryside of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is still littered with land mines and unexploded ordnance, aka UXO . In 2008 alone, Cambodian authorities reported that they discovered and destroyed 13,665 antipersonnel mines .
Against this grisly backdrop, some Cambodia-based organizations support land mine victims and call attention to Cambodia’s violent recent past. One is the Cambodia Land Mine Museum . Founded in 1997 by a former child soldier, the museum sits inside the Angkor Archeological Park , about 30 minutes by car from the popular tourist destination Siem Reap and six hours by bus from Phnom Penh.
If you have a few days or weeks to spare on your Cambodia trip, consider volunteering. Like working with kids? Contact the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project , which facilitates art projects for at-risk children from the port town Sihanoukville. Teen volunteers might consider the Cambodia Orphanage Project , which is coordinated by the U.S.-based tour company Rustic Pathways .
Another volunteer option: Contact Volunteer in Cambodia , a Phnom Penh-based organization that recruits volunteers to teach English. Proceeds support the Cambodian Rural Development Team , a local NGO that promotes water security, aquaculture, renewable energy, gardening, animal husbandry and eco-tourism.
Prospective volunteers with medical training might consider working at a Cambodian clinic. One U.K.-based company, Projects Abroad , sends physio- and occupational therapists to Cambodia’s National Baby and Children’s Centre or the Kien Khleang Center in Phnom Penh, a project of the U.S.-based NGO Veterans International Cambodia .
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.