Finding social engagement in Cambodia

When you cross the border from Thailand into Cambodia, you immediately feel it: this is a poorer country. The roads are bumpy and dusty, the shops are smaller and installed in someone’s shed, garage or even on a scooter, there are more people by foot or bicycle, and the local currency goes up to notes of 20.000. But you also feel this country is in full development. The people are positive and the kids are the cutest. The population overall feels young and active. And all are creative in how they make a living and what they can transport on one simple scooter (from 5 persons to 3 pigs).

– rice farming is the principal agriculture in Cambodia –

typical street view in Cambodia, an agrimotor doubles up as a truck to transport/sell any kind of product while driving on the street –

Cambodia has become a mid-economy country over the last decade. But if you look more in detail, it’s mainly the rich getting richer and the poor staying poor. Never ever have I seen so many luxury SUV’s driving around. And although you might say it’s because of the bumpy roads, I don’t think an average hotel assistant with a 300$ salary could afford.

In this country, where a lot of social projects have been cut over the last years (because official data says it’s going well with the country), the need remains high. The dark days of the Khmer Rouge have only recently ended, but the after effects will be visible for many more decades. As an example: the whole intellectual elite and schooling system has been completely wiped out less than 40 years ago. It takes time to get your teachers and universities up to a good level again. And hence the level of every student.

We were happy to discover however many socially engaged projects along the way, many more than in any other country we’ve seen before. And we also discovered this interests us actually more than Cambodia’s temples 🤭

Some of our favourites:

Socially responsible dining

My colleague Ellen suggested us to eat at a restaurant of the Tree Alliance. They have 7 restaurants, spread over Cambodia and Laos, where they train street youth and marginalised youngsters in hospitality. And it was pretty delicious too!

And you see many other restaurants (I must say, mainly in touristic areas) sharing their profit with their staff or a social project. Not bad for us food lovers, that all our eating also support the good cause!

Socially responsible shopping

We discovered different shops dedicated to a specific social project, selling beautiful products handmade by woman at home so while looking after the kids they can make a living and increase the family income and living conditions. The profit also goes back to support the local communities of these women with scholarships, microcredit to start their own business, health training etc. Many of these projects have been around for over 25 years and became big professional organisations with an impact of reasonable size! Check out these websites for more information or maybe some shopping: Mekong Quilts and Friends ‘n stuff

Socially responsible business

In Kampong we visited La Plantation, a pepper farm (not the red chili one, but the black and white ones). A belgian/french couple invested a lot in re-establishing the pepper industry that too was wiped by the Khmer Rouge. What sounds like any kind of business, was developped with total respect to local culture, offering work to the local community and supporting the local school. It’s a beautiful place and it shows that any kind of business can create a positive impact on the local people.

It’s definitely much better than what we have seen and heard about Chinese business development in this country …

Humanity & Inclusion

Thanks to my work at IKEA, I had the chance to meet with different (inter)national NGO’s over the last years, and get to know their activities better. But the field work is something else than a meeting in Brussels, so I felt very privileged to visit a project of H&I (formerly known as Handicap International, but recently evolved into Humanity & Inclusion). They have their roots in Cambodia, where the founder (a French physiotherapist) wanted to help the numerous unrightfull victims of land mines, left behind after the war.

The Physical Rehabilitation Centre in a province north of Phnom Penh is the last one that is still run by H&I. They treat patients with physical disabilities as from 1 week old in order to allow them an as ‘normal’ life as possible and become full part of society. It consists of physiotherapy, casting, walking devices (crotches, wheelchairs, prosthetics), trainings for health carers (mainly mothers and family) and social support. It’s impressive to see how much impact they can have on individuals ànd their family with their limited resources.

And the need for these kinds of organisation is still very present, with governmental healthcare definitely having its limitations (the Cambodians who can afford all prefer to go to the hospital in Thailand or Vietnam) while new patients keep coming in (whether because of limited prenatal care or the rising number of road accidents).

So… In case you still have a Christmas present to figure out, or if you have received an end-of-year bonus and you can spare some of it, you can’t do wrong with supporting one of these organisations. They all deserve a little help!

– Christmas decoration on a backdrop of the Angkor Wat temples in a Cambodian restaurant really feels a little out of tune –

We ended our chapter in Cambodia by realising that

1. Cambodia is not the best cycling country in the world;

2. We have (found the confirmation of) a more than average interest in these social entrepreneurial matters. So whatever we will do after all this cycling, we definitely want to create a positive impact on people’s lives too! And we have a few more months to figure out what that means specifically…

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