Cambodia is one of those places that absolutely broke my heart yet left me feeling so hopeful. Although the country has a catastrophically tragic past, I had a sense that the Khmer people try not to let it affect their spirits. I couldn’t help but reflect how my own nation would cope if our circumstances were the same. Would we have the same positive mindset and zest for life or would we falter? It’s hard to say. What I do know is that there are plenty of NGOs to support in Cambodia to continue to help the communities thrive.
If you aren’t well-versed on Cambodia’s tumultuous past, I’ll give you a brief synopsis.
Similar to Vietnam, Cambodian rebels formed an anti-establishment movement once citizens grew tired of French colonialism. Cambodia’s crusade didn’t really make any waves throughout society until around 1970 when Khmer Rouge supporters began a widespread insurgency against the government. For years, the murderous leader Pol Pot and his henchmen continued to force support throughout Cambodia until they successfully overthrew the government in 1975.
The whole point of this was to create an agrarian utopia (or a self-sufficient society) under his totalitarian regime. In order to make this happen, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge guerrillas systematically eliminated anyone and anything that would help the country thrive in modern society. He figured the best way to go about doing this was to completely wipe out intellectuals and middle-class citizens — we’re talking scholars, teachers, bureaucrats, anyone who knew another language, etc. — and eradicate their loved ones along the way. He drove people out of cities into the countryside and abolished any semblance of modern society such as money, free markets and schools.
It is estimated that between April 1975 and January 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered up to 2,000,000 Cambodians by way of starvation, torture and forced labor. After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, tens of millions of landmines were placed throughout the nation and continue to claim lives and limbs of people to this day.
Not surprisingly, the result of three decades of civil war have greatly affected the country’s progress. Since the Pol Pot army killed most of Cambodia’s skilled workers, the country hasn’t been able to flourish as much as its neighbouring countries have in recent years. In fact, about 65.3 percent of Cambodians are under the age of 30!
While this post-conflict nation certainly has made some positive progress in recent years, Khmer people still struggle each day. One of the ways travelers can help boost Cambodia’s economy is by supporting businesses and organizations that directly benefit Khmer people. I did my best to give my money to NGOs in Cambodia when I could, and I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorites for those of you who are interested in doing the same.
NGOs TO SUPPORT IN CAMBODIA
1. New Leaf Eatery
This quaint cafe is located just a short walk from the town’s infamous Pub Street and is certainly not to be missed. It’s a perfect place to cool down after walking around in the extreme Cambodian heat for several hours. As soon as I sat down I was offered a cold washcloth that had been soaked in essential oils – talk about customer service!
The mantra of this organization is simple: education empowers people and has potential to drive out poverty as a result. If you agree, definitely pay this spot a visit. Not only do 100 percent of the proceeds go toward educational efforts in the province, but the food and drink are incredible! The cafe offers international fare as well as traditional Khmer food, sells handmade goods by local artists and includes a used book section. Any purchases made are placed inside a cute, homemade bag made of recycled newspaper. The environmentally-conscious not-for-profit does what it can to make our world a little greener. New Leaf Eatery uses bio-degradable packaging, all drinks are served using bamboo straws, no paper towels are used, all food is locally sourced and all of the cooking oil is donated to Naga Biofuels.
I popped in here at a really convenient time in my life. I was bummed out about my e-reader breaking earlier that day, so you can imagine how excited I was when I discovered New Leaf Eatery also serves as a used book shop. I purchased Ready Player One, which quickly became one of my favorites.
In my opinion, New Leaf Eatery is definitely one of the best NGOs to support in Cambodia!
Location: 306 Phum Mondul, | 1 Svay Dungkum, Siem Reap District, Cambodia
2. Vimean Beauty Salon
Okay, guys. I’m super particular about who cuts my hair. Resorting to such services in Korea was mildly traumatizing and always left me incredibly disappointed. When I arrived in Siem Reap, I decided it was time for a chop. I spent about an hour researching salons that were not only reasonably priced but also well-reviewed. This is when I came across Vimean Beauty Salon, a shop run by former sex trafficking victims finding their freedom by helping other women. Now, this was perfect for my quest to find as many NGOs to support in Cambodia as I could.
So, I planned an afternoon of pampering for myself, but unfortunately when I got to Vimean Beauty Salon I discovered it was CLOSED due to a public holiday. Womp, womp. Disappointed, I stupidly walked into some random barber shop and got one of the worst haircuts of my life. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
If you find yourself in Siem Reap anytime soon, want to get a fresh haircut and leave with a happy heart, this could be a great choice.
Location: #560, Mondol 1 Village, Svay Dangkum Commune, Siem Reap District, Cambodia
3. Friends the Restaurant
If you’re keen to lend a few dollars to a good cause, this is certainly one of the top NGOs to support in Cambodia! Run in tandem with the Friends International NGO, Friends the Restaurant is a wonderful spot doing what it can to give back. While the organization has several locations in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, this particular restaurant in Phnom Penh is the only one of its kind. Its menu includes an array of mouth-watering tapas from Western and Khmer influence as well as delicious daiquiris and desserts.
If you aren’t aware of the efforts of Friends International, the organization reaches out to youth and their families who are struggling to get by. The group focuses on helping the at-risk children by sending them to school and/or training them in a variety of skills that are aimed to help them thrive in the day-to-day. The goal is to bring families together and give the children something to look forward to.
Location: #215 Street 13, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
4. Sugar ‘n Spice Cafe
Operated under Daughters of Cambodia, this cafe serves as a safe haven for women who were formally involved in Cambodia’s sex industry against their will. While socio-economic factors play a major role in the nation’s human trafficking horrors, one of the primary setbacks for women who leave the industry is the fact that they’re rejected by their communities and have zero support.
Daughters of Cambodia offers not only financial but emotional support for women in its two-step program. Once accepted, the women are given counselling for their trauma, medical support and are provided with liveable wages. The catch? None of the women are sought out. They arrive on their own accord. As a result, very few women in the program return to the industry.
I can’t speak for the entire menu, but judging by the quality of my eggs florentine, I think it’s safe to say this place is worth paying a visit. As I’ve mentioned before, be sure to order the cafe’s famous chocolate fudge brownie. I think about that brownie on a bi-weekly basis.
Location: #321, Preah Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Being a mindful traveler is something that is important to me and I hope others feel the same. If you found this post helpful or know someone who is heading to Cambodia themselves, share the love, please!
Do you have stories or suggestions regarding NGOs to support in Cambodia? I’d love to hear from you! Let me know in the comments below.