10 ways to travel sustainably in Cambodia

Or – how not to be a complete arse whilst travelling.

Cambodia is a fantastic country to travel to. It’s also an extremely poor country. Many people lack access to clean drinking water and teachers are paid such low wages that they are forced to demand bribes from students with unofficial “attendance” fees. Health care is not state funded and most people can not afford the hospital fees. Cambodia also has a reputation for being a holiday destination for paedophiles and child sex abuse and human trafficking is prevalent. Within Siem Reap alone, one third of the population lives below the “official” poverty line, which means that these people live on less than 45 cents a day.

Here’s my listicle with information about how to travel ethically and sustainably in Cambodia!

  1. Don’t ride the elephants.
    This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of tourists I saw riding elephants around Angkor. Any basic google search will tell you about “breaking in” elephants in order to ride them. Read more here and here.
  2. Eat at restaurants that give back to the community.
    This was especially easy in Siem Reap where plenty of restaurants are social enterprises and part of the profits are used to fund programmes aimed at helping Cambodians. Our favourites were Sister Srey and Peace Café.
  3. Don’t visit orphanages.
    Again, I feel like this should go without saying. However, we met a well-meaning Australian couple in Cambodia who told us that they visit an orphanage every time they visit Cambodia. Child protection and NGO workers are begging tourists and volunteers to stay away from orphanages in Cambodia. It’s very easy for foreigners to come over and set up orphanages and there are no criminal background checks done to protect the children. Some orphanages even allow visitors to take children away on day trips. UNICEF estimates that 72% children in Cambodian orphanages have at least one living parent, but poverty makes it easy to persuade families that their kids will be better off in an orphanage. If in doubt, ask yourself if you would be allowed to visit an orphanage in your home country without the proper background checks. If the answer is no, then don’t do it.
  4. And don’t buy things from or give money to children.
    You encourage their parents to send them out begging or working on the streets instead of sending them to school. You also risk undoing the work of social workers who try to get children off the streets and back into schools. Education can break the cycle of poverty, so don’t encourage children to beg on the streets instead of going to school.
  5. Check out CONCERT
    It’s an organisation that aims to help tourists find the best way to support the people of Cambodia. They have information centres in Siem Reap that you can visit to speak to staff about responsible tourism. Their website also has a list of businesses, including hotels, restaurants and tour operators, that it recommends for those travelling responsibly. You can also check out this great PDF detailing shops and organisations you can visit in Cambodia to help support the local community. This brochure is a little out of date so you may need to check that some places are still open, but this brochure is extensive and includes Phnom Penh as well as Siem Reap.
  6. Shop ethically
    There are plenty of fair trade and eco friendly shops to be found in Cambodia, so there’s no excuse not to put souvenirs which aren’t ethical! Our favourites were the fair trade shop in Peace Café, the fair trade Samatoa silk shop and Doisu in Kampot.
  7. Don’t be a dick when you haggle.
    Whilst bargaining is expected, remember that saving a few dollars might seems like a small win to you, but think about how much more the other person probably needs it. This is their livelihood so don’t try and rip them off. We heard one man tell a tuk tuk driver “You can have a dollar or nothing. That’s fine with you isn’t it?“. It was horrible to hear someone talk to another human being a such a vile manner.
  8. Respect local customs.
    The amount of tourists who wore shorts in temples was astounding. Cover your legs and shoulders when you visit religious places. Also, ask people for permission before taking photos of them. They aren’t a tourist attraction.
  9. Think green.
    Conserve water, don’t drop your litter and perhaps try booking an eco tour! Also, if you travel by bus I suggest using Giant Ibis. A portion of every ticket sold goes toward the preservation of the Giant Ibis bird. They also use the cleanest burning disel fuel available in Cambodia.
  10. Give money to charity. You’ve had a fantastic holiday, now give something back. There are plenty of great charities to give money to. I personally recommend Journeys within our Communities and Anjali House.



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