As you tuck into a lavishly-topped, wood-fired pizza and glass of ice-cold beer after a lazy, hot day at a Sihanoukville beach it can be easy to forget that you’re sitting in a country long-ranked near the bottom of all the charts measuring human and economic progress. We don’t say this to make you feel guilty. In fact just by being here and devouring that pizza and beer, you’re already making a contribution to Cambodia’s graduation from bottom of the lists.
It should be said that Cambodia is making huge progress, and the tourism sector is an important part of that. The proportion of those living in poverty — that is living on less than $1.25 a day — more than halved between 2004 and 2012, down to 18.9% of the population, according to a 2014 report from the Asian Development Bank. However, many remain on the border and are extremely vulnerable to crossing the line. The loss of just 30c (1,200 riel) a day could be enough to push them over.
But before looking at what you can do to help, first a note on what not to do.
It’s incredibly easy to give in to the banter, charm and winning smiles of the street kids who hawk on the beaches or beg on the streets around Sihanoukville. In fact, resisting them can seem mean, but that is exactly what you have to do. Every dollar given to a child keeps them on the street and out of school because it rewards the people that put them there, and not the children themselves, who have no choice, reap none of the rewards but all of the risks and harm. On the streets, they are not only not learning (ensuring that they, and their children, will also never graduate out of poverty), but it also exposes them to sexual predators, drugs and traffickers. Giving to street kids affirms a perverse, cruel and damaging racket that is built on corrupting the natural playfulness of children and the aspirations of human sympathy. Don’t let it do that.
Another grotesque market that has developed in tandem with the growth in tourism numbers is orphanage tourism. This is not quite such a big deal in Sihanoukville as it is in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but if you are ever encouraged to visit an orphanage anywhere, just ask yourself this: “Would this happen at home?”
NGO Friends International has developed a powerful campaign built around the slogan “Children are not tourist attractions”. Without even needing to go into the fact that the majority of Cambodia’s “orphans” are not orphans at all, and often kept in miserable states to better pull on heart strings, that slogan perfectly expresses the simple fact that under no circumstances should children ever be used to lure in tourists and their dollars like they were animals in a zoo. Taking a step back, it is easy to see the obscenity involved in this emerging ‘industry’.
Fortunately, there are lots of more positive ways that you can have an impact, even by eating some more delicious food.
Sandan is a hospitality training restaurant run by M’Lop Tapang, an NGO that has worked with street children since 2003. It is part of a network of restaurants created by Friends International, a Phnom Penh-based NGO that has worked with street children in Cambodia for more than 20 years. Last year, 92 young Cambodians were part of the training programme at Sandan, learning valuable vocational skills, as well as educational, health and social support, that will help them to craft their own futures.
The restaurant itself is a smart venue, serving a contemporary menu of Khmer dishes with a twist. Just 100 metres from the Golden Lions Traffic Circle, the main dining area is a green and leafy outdoor courtyard, though there is seating inside as well. Star dishes include Romdeng’s chargrilled eggplant with pork and coriander ($5), an amalgamation of unforgettably delicious flavours. The Khmer Muslim beef and peanut curry ($7) is worth repeated visits, and there is much more to excite taste buds. Vegetarians are well catered for as well, with interesting and creative dishes.
If food isn’t your thing, Tapang’s Shop on Serendipity Beach Road has a selection of home-produced or adapted clothing, fashion accessories, homewares and toys that are made by 19 parents who, between them, have 70 children who all directly benefit from every purchase. Parents involved in the programme are not only given the training that they need, but also a sewing machine and other support so that they can work from home and continue to care for their children while they earn. There is also a Tapang’s Shop inside Sandan.
Another highly-respected organisation is the Starfish Foundation, which has a site in the centre of town off 7 Makara Street, behind Sokimex on Ekareach Street. We visited their gorgeous cafe when they were still in the same spot they’d been occupying for the last 14 years. A month later, they moved to a site 40 metres down the road, but we’re sure the same great food, attentive service and dedication to their beneficiaries will remain the same. Their bakery produces especially delicious cookies, cakes and more.
John Bosco was a Catholic priest based in Turn during the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of that city. Hoping to offset some of the negative consequence that many people suffered, he devoted himself to improving the lives of street children with an education system based on love and support rather than punishment. The first Don Bosco Night School for Boys opened its doors in 1845. His ideas grew and evolved into the Salesians of Don Bosco, which was formally recognised in 1873. Today, the Salesian communities primarily operate shelters for homeless or at-risk youths, schools, technical, vocational, and language instruction centers for youths and adults, and boys’ clubs and community centres.
In Sihanoukville, Don Bosco runs a technical vocational college, as well as a hotel training school and restaurant on the roads to the southeast of the main town. The full-service hotel has seen more than 400 students graduate from programmes teaching cooking, food & beverage management, reception and house-keeping, as they learn on the job from qualified and experienced trainers.
The rooms are immaculate, spacious and classically decorated while the hotel is set in attractive grounds with a huge pool, and the best gym that we saw in Sihanoukville. With room rates as low as $25 a night, it’s good value too, although those who like being in the thick of things may not enjoy it so much. If you don’t want to stay there, you can still enjoy a meal in the highly praised restaurant, which serves up a mix of Khmer and Western food, together with a small but very well-chosen selection of wines.
Don Bosco Hotel and Restaurant: Ou Pram St, Sihanoukville; T: (034) 934 478; www.donboscohotelschool.com
Sandan: 2 Thnou Street, Sihanoukville; T: (034) 452 4000; www.tree-alliance.org.
Tapang’s Shop: Serendipity Beach Rd, Sihanoukville; www.tapangs.org