Cambodia is the country for the adventurous and open-minded type of traveler. The poignant killing fields, ancient Angkor temples and a night on pub street are on everyone’s to do list. Many travellers pass overland through Cambodia on a tour from Thailand, Laos or Vietnam, taking in the main attractions in just a few days before moving on. But if you linger a little longer in Cambodia you can find some awesome off-the-beaten-track travel adventures that also help out the local people, environment and wildlife.
1. Go elephant trekking in Mondulkiri Province
Elephants have a tough life in Cambodia. Worked hard for farming or used for tourist rides they can develop health problems and have a much shorter life expectancy than in the wild. The Mondulkiri Project gives overworked elephants a place to live out the rest of their days in peace. The elephants enjoy their new lives, chomping through lush forests, swimming in rivers and bathing under crystal clear waterfalls in their natural habitat.
For just US$50 you can join the elephants for a day and learn all about them and the Buong people who live in the region. The project only employs local guides and has a real commitment to helping the Buong community through the money they raise. They also offer overnight jungle camping trips and hiking tours.
2. Dine for a Cause In Phnom Penh
Every world weary traveler needs a break from street food once in a while, and if you’re going to splash out on dinner, you might as well choose a restaurant which employs ex-street kids. The Friends restaurant is staffed by at-risk young people who have been given an opportunity to turn their lives around through vocational training programs. Serving a high standard of european and international tapas-style cuisine and delish cocktails, it’s a pearl on the Phnom Penh dining scene. If you fancy something a little more adventurous, try their sister restaurant Romdeng, specialising in local dishes and little known delicacies like crispy tarantulas with black pepper and lime.
3. Teach English in Takeo
Get a taste of rural Cambodia by helping out at a village school with New Futures Organisation. The project provides free education to children in rural communities who have no access to government schools. Helping out at NFO is totally free, you simply pay for your travel and accommodation. Placements are for a minimum of one week although the longer you stay the greater experience you’ll have.
Volunteering is an awesome way to develop your employability skills and looks great on your resume when your trip is over. As a volunteer you’ll stay in Takeo town and cycle down dusty dirt roads to reach remote village schools. You’ll work with Cambodian teachers to plan fun and exciting lessons. Nothing can beat seeing the children’s faces light up as you help them practice their English using fun games and songs. The project employs local teachers and has services supporting the local community like their drop in centre which provides meals and support to at risk children. NFO also take volunteers with specific skills on more long term placements, anyone interested should get in touch with them.
4. Clown around in Siem Reap
One of the most exciting and unique ways to spend the evening in Siem Reap is at Phare the Cambodian Circus. The world renowned performers all began their circus careers at the Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit in Battambang. The circus school helps children and young people from challenging circumstances to channel their energy into performing arts, circus skills and music. The energy, comedy and sheer flexibility of the show will delight even the most sceptical of circus goers.
Tickets start at around US$18 per adult and local offers are usually available. You can also watch circus shows at the training school in Battambang and can often catch the circus on tour in other cities.
5. Have some jungle fun in the Cardamom Mountains
Chi Phat is a community-based eco-tourism project to the west of Phnom Penh. Getting to Chi Phat is all part of its fun– first you catch a bus towards Ko Kong and ask the driver to make a stop at Andoung Teuk. Next you then take a two hour boat ride or 40 minute motorbike taxi into the isolated village in the cardamom mountains. Once you arrive you can check in at a locally owned guesthouse or for an authentic experience choose to stay in the home of a village family. You can hire a bike or a kayak and explore the surroundings at your leisure.
The real draw of Chi Phat is the overnight guided trekking and biking activities with jungle camping! Everyone working there is from the local community and they are all paid a living wage for their services, that includes guides, cooks and home stay families. Overnight tours start from US$45 and all charges are broken down on your bill so you can see how your money benefits the people providing your services.
*Here’s a tip– visit Chi Phat during Khmer new year to see how a real Cambodian village celebrates!
So whether it’s jungle adventures, volunteering or fine dining that you love, travel slower, stay longer and enjoy the real beauty of Cambodia whilst supporting the people who live there.