Kind hearts & Cambodians

A new breed of experiences in and around Siem Reap, Cambodia – from haute cuisine and spa treatments to exclusive cultural programmes – allows luxury travellers to gear a seriously self-indulgent holiday to largely philanthropic ends. Cynthia Rosenfeld reports

A lounge area at Shinta Mani Club
A lounge area at Shinta Mani Club | Image: Shinta Mani/Krishna

You can think of this as just a drop in the bucket, or believe that every drop counts,” says architect Bill Bensley. As he speaks, he strokes a swath of silk depicting a stylised elephant, intricately threaded in red against a stark black background. On this June morning, 2m lengths of the textile, produced by a local initiative called Weaves of Cambodia, are being mounted in the Living Room Lounge at the new Park Hyatt Siem Reap ahead of its August opening. Despite the humidity and construction dust, Bangkok-based Bensley – the man behind some of southeast Asia’s most luxurious resorts and hotels – is vaulting back and forth across a maze of floorboards to show off these specially commissioned works of art. The weavers, he explains, are Khmer artisans living in the shadow of Preah Vihear temple along the oft-disputed border between Cambodia and Thailand. Many are landmine victims. “I could have easily purchased something from [venerable Thai silk company] Jim Thompson,” he notes. “But instead we get to change some lives.”

Basket weaving in the craft village of Krabei Riel
Basket weaving in the craft village of Krabei Riel | Image: Lim Leangsreng

Bensley is known in this part of the world as an enthusiastic consumer of philanthropic luxury goods, but these days he is just one among an emerging group of hoteliers, designers, artisans and entrepreneurs in Cambodia bringing their talents to bear on projects that make it possible for sybaritic travellers to take holidays with charitable intent. Ranging from haute design and original Khmer cuisine to far-reaching educational programmes, those initiatives are working their way deep into the guest experience at many of the area’s top resorts, spas, restaurants, leisure activities and cultural sites. “Voluntourism” is the term that tends to grab the travel headlines (and tug at the heartstrings). But here in Siem Reap and beyond, opportunities abound to indulge oneself utterly via programmes that also benefit others.

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One could start by checking in at the Bensley-designed Shinta Mani Club, along the Siem Reap River. The hotel’s Cambodian-born, Bangkok-raised founder Sokoun Chanpreda opened it in 2004. Its first permutation had just 18 humble rooms, but the key element was its hospitality-training centre, offering free education to impoverished Siem Reap youth. Chanpreda hired Bensley in 2006 to design his second property here, Hôtel de la Paix (which closed in 2012 to be converted into the Park Hyatt). During construction, Bensley stayed at Shinta Mani and toured the hotel’s nascent community schemes in and around the area. “One widow and her six malnourished children were sleeping under a pile of sticks. I stood there in the mud, sobbing. I had lived in Asia for 23 years and never seen anything like this,” recalls Bensley over lime sodas at Kroya, the nouvelle Khmer eatery he designed and built in 2012 as part of the hotel’s complete, and completely pro bono, transformation into Shinta Mani Club, a sleek, 39-room, colonial-glamorous showpiece. “Being involved with Shinta Mani is one of the most satisfying ways to spend my money.”

The Living Room Lounge at the new Park Hyatt Siem Reap
The Living Room Lounge at the new Park Hyatt Siem Reap | Image: John McDermott

The hotel has meanwhile formalised its community outreach initiatives under the Shinta Mani Foundation. Its operations now include a micro-loan programme and a mobile medical clinic, and the original Development Centre is housed in a purpose-built facility within the hotel that provides free training in every aspect of hospitality, from maintenance to finance. Since 2004, 100 per cent of the nearly 200 graduates of this 10-month course have found gainful employment in Siem Reap. $5 per guest per night goes to support the Foundation’s work, as do any direct contributions – though solicitation is against Shinta Mani policy: “We encourage participation by example, but only take donations that originate from the heart,” says Chanpreda.

Crafting a silk shawl for NGO Weaves of Cambodia
Crafting a silk shawl for NGO Weaves of Cambodia

Getting people involved is also the model at Amansara, the ne plus ultra of Siem Reap’s luxury accommodation. General manager Sally Baughen describes the resort – housed in the 24-room former Villa Princière, which was constructed in 1962 for then Prince Norodom Sihanouk – as a “matchmaker” between the most effective local social projects and guests who want to make contributions. “Many of them are deeply moved by the genuine kindness the Khmer people show, often in the face of extremely limited circumstances. We feel a responsibility to address their philanthropic concerns as seriously as we do their needs as hotel guests.”

The dining-room terrace at Amansara
The dining-room terrace at Amansara | Image: Amanresorts

This rigour has resulted in Amansara’s Community Assistance Directory, comprised of a dozen organisations that it has carefully vetted for efficacy. A copy can be found in every guest room and includes detailed explanations of each charity’s mission and how donations will be spent, as well as suggested visits. One recent addition, Landmine Survivors Cambodia, works to counter the one-two punch of landmine trauma (the physical afflictions and the severe discrimination experienced by the disabled here). The troupe, of about 20 landmine and polio victims-turned-performers, overcomes language barriers using drama, comedy, song and dance at surprisingly lighthearted weekly evening shows by the Amansara pool. “I see tears from the audience every time,” observes Baughen, a no-nonsense New Zealander, “but by watching and learning, our guests participate in solutions for Cambodia.” The entirety of the suggested $15 fee at Amansara goes directly to the troupe; guests often choose to donate more. This both provides income to the artistes and supports operating costs – which include subsidising free community performances to educate Cambodians about the rights of their disabled.

A Landmine Survivors Cambodia contemporary theatre performance at Amansara
A Landmine Survivors Cambodia contemporary theatre performance at Amansara

Amansara’s spa has developed its own outreach project. Spa manager Vijaya Goyal spent over a year training four blind locals, two men and two women, who now perform massage therapies as skilfully as any sighted professional and help their families by doing so. Goyal further advised one, Lach Daley, on the “Aman-isation” of the ground floor of his village house, just off the road to Angkor. Now a model of cleanliness and elegance, with two treatment tables and a changing room, the Daley Massage by Blind of Cambodia space sees a busy Daley delivering expert foot and dry full-body massages to local fans and hotel guests, while his children play outside.

Phare Ponleu Selpak’s annual Khmer New Year theatre and circus show for patients at Battambang’s emergency hospital
Phare Ponleu Selpak’s annual Khmer New Year theatre and circus show for patients at Battambang’s emergency hospital | Image: Phare Ponleu Selpak

Some Siem Reap enterprises see indulgent experiences arise as a felicitous byproduct of their philanthropic work. Sala Baï Hotel & Restaurant School annually trains about 100 disadvantaged young Cambodians for jobs in their country’s burgeoning hospitality sector. Many then land positions at Amansara and nearby properties, including Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor and La Résidence d’Angkor. Students are selected through a painstaking admissions process by social workers to confirm their genuine potential as well as their extreme circumstances. “Everything, from school supplies to tuition to medical coverage, is free here,” explains programme director Claude Colombié. The 12-month course includes experience at Sala Baï’s on-site training restaurant. Open Monday to Friday between October and July, the charmingly homey eatery is a favourite among tourists and expats. “We serve quality food and receive high ratings,” Colombié notes, “but most people know eating here is about seeing good in action.”

The 11-villa Sojourn spa resort
The 11-villa Sojourn spa resort | Image: Sojurn Boutique Villas

At similarly low-key Green Star, Australian Doug South and his Cambodian wife, Avee, serve delectable, authentic Khmer fare, from cha knhey (fish with ginger and shallots) to ontung slekrey (lemongrass eel with chilli, lime and basil). All profits (it directly and indirectly contributed over $27,000 last year) go to The Green Gecko Project, an exemplary eight-year-old local NGO that rehabilitates former street children. South first read about Green Gecko in 2007, soon after retiring from his management position at telecoms giant Telstra. “I put the paper down, contacted the orphanage, packed up my life and came over here to volunteer.” He opened the restaurant in 2010, and can be found there most nights after volunteering all day at Green Gecko’s offices.

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Siem Reap’s main lure is, of course, Angkor Wat. The 400sq km heritage site of 300-plus temples dating from the ninth to 15th centuries is still the largest religious complex in the world. Some of its most expert guides work for Beyond Unique Escapes, a tour operator founded by Anthony Jaensch and Fiona Kidston. The Melbourne transplants, both with backgrounds in customer service, arrived in 2004 to open a guesthouse. What started as a simple plan to encourage guests to purchase water filters for villagers has grown into an initiative that supports two villages (via NGO Husk) through 5 per cent of the net profits from their guiding business, two shops and Sojourn, a cosy 11-villa spa resort about 10 minutes from central Siem Reap. Jaensch and Kidston have trained and employed almost 90 locals; they also offer their visitors trips to nearby villages and may extend this to more (such as Krabei Riel). Guests of other hotels often book in at Origins, Sojourn’s thatched-roof spa. Jaensch explains that when its nine female therapists showed up for their first teaching session, straight from the rice paddies, “life had beaten them; none could look me in the eye”. This no longer applies to the bright-eyed woman who greets me by name, nor to the therapist whose confident strokes put me into a rare spa-induced slumber.

Jaensch recommends I set aside one night for Phare, The Cambodian Circus, a Khmer music, dance and acrobatics spectacle established by the Phare Ponleu Selpak (“brightness of the arts”) association. I later learn from its co-director, Huot Dara, that PPS schools 1,400 pupils (many of whom are victims of human trafficking) free of charge, and more than 600 families get direct benefits from its social services. The association began almost 20 years ago in Battambang – 170km by road from Siem Reap, where an annual show for hospital patients is among its performances – and was set up by eight Cambodian artists who grew up together in a Thai refugee camp. Siem Reap is home to PPS’s second permanent outpost, which opened in February.

If one’s goal is to escape the bustle and press of the city crowds, there is Indochine Exploration, which specialises in conservation-centred rural escapes. Its British founder, Nick Butler, built an extensive bush network during the five years he managed a bird-watching NGO. His for-profit adventure-travel outfit has incentivised villagers to abandon hunting and logging by providing guiding training and employment; they then turn their skills to sustainable exploration of Cambodia’s pristine forests in search of elephants, civets and sloth bears. “Our local guides can articulate what it means to live among this raw nature that’s light years from London. In return, we offer an alternative livelihood that helps them protect what they have inherited for their children.” Elders share animist myths with Butler’s clients, who sleep in tents he describes as “upgraded with Aman guests in mind” (read: quality beds with luxurious sheets, and fresh Khmer food served with French and Australian wines). One of the camps is set up along a reservoir just a few hundred metres from Prey Veng – of the same period and style as Angkor’s Beng Mealea ruins, yet virtually unknown.

Another eco-initiative, Osmose, brings tourists to the 22,000-hectare Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve on Tonlé Sap Lake – among the last refuges in southeast Asia for water birds such as the spot-billed pelican and masked finfoot. Osmose’s community-led tours take visitors into the lake’s floating-village communities; it has changed fortunes here in part through Saray, a women’s cooperative it established and now supports, whose members weave water hyacinth into 100 per cent organic bath and spa mats and accessories, used at Amansara and Shinta Mani and sold in Prek Toal village. Visitors are encouraged to test their own knotting skills, often to the amusement of the weavers. But as Osmose board chairwoman Nathalie Saphon Ridel notes, “It’s these human interactions that travellers remember, long after they can no longer distinguish one temple from another.”

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