Despite mass tourism overrunning Siem Reap, the province is still one of the poorest in Cambodia. Now several hotels have pledged to help communities fight back against poverty
Trundling along the road leading to Siem Reap, it's easy to misjudge the town's wealth. A plethora of grand and ostentatious hotels spring out, attempting to lure the well-heeled traveller with golf courses and lavish buffets.
The magnetic pull of Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex in the world, attracted over one million people to the area in 2008, nearly half of Cambodia's entire visitors. But lurking beneath the swelling tourist numbers and the façade of five-star luxury is the true Siem Reap, a place of poverty.
The main benefactors of the country's booming tourist industry, which is worth $1.6 billion, are not the local villagers but the many foreign-invested hotels. Yet times are changing and pro-poor tourism outfits are gradually emerging to give long-awaited help to communities in the area.
Here is my guide to pro-poor hotels in Siem Reap.
Budget accommodation - The Villa Siem Reap
The Villa Siem Reap is a small hotel with a friendly vibe that donates seven per cent of its profits to educational and sanitation initiatives in Siem Reap. Over 35 per cent of the Cambodian population does not have access to safe drinking water and the hotel has established The Villa Water Filter Project which funds vital fresh water supplies in nearby villages.
In addition, the purple-infused hotel supports 'Ibis Rice' farmers who protect and monitor the giant bird and conserve natural habitats. The Villa also gives local villagers a percentage of its tour fees and supports one of the town's children's hospitals.
My verdict: A cheerful place to stay if you're looking to do your bit in Siem Reap. Rooms from $18 per night.
Mid-range accommodation - Shinta Mani
This boutique hotel claims to be one of the founding hotels in the town to support local communities. Its staff are graduates of the adjoining hospitality school, where students from deprived families study for free on a ten-month course. Their schooling is funded by a percentage of the hotel's revenue and guests' donations.
The students learn various areas of hospitality including culinary skills to front of house duties and English. And previous graduates have a 100 per cent employment record in Siem Reap's tourist industry.
I was invited to watch a cookery lesson where Monty, a partially blind 24-year old, was cooking up a storm. Before attending the school he was one of the thousands of street children begging from tourists. He told me through a beaming smile how he now dreams of being a top chef in one of the resorts.
Guests at the hotel can also sponsor projects in local communities. Arif, the super-friendly general manager, said, via donations, the hotel's guests have provided villages with water pumps, fishing nets and sewing machines. Donors with a spare $1,250 in their wallets can also fund the building of a village house, which can otherwise take up to five years to complete.
Shinta Mani is a quaint hotel, with 18 über-stylish rooms, a small swimming pool and restaurant. And it was here that I received one of the most genuine welcomes I've ever had at a hotel.
My verdict: Stay here for a fantastically friendly service. Rooms cost from $90 per night.
Top-end accommodation - Hotel de la Paix and La Petite Indochine
The Robin Hood effect continues at the 117-room Hotel de la Paix. You could be forgiven for thinking that it's yet another imposing hotel jostling for visitors in the overgrown accommodation jungle.
However, it currently funds a sewing training centre where disadvantaged women participate in a ten-month course. They are also given literacy lessons - many have never learnt to read or write - in addition to basic English classes. After graduation they receive a sewing machine and a start-up kit to begin their own business in their villages.
The hotel employs graduates from the Shinta Mani Hospitality School and the similar Sala Bai hotel school. Donations are optional and sponsored programmes are discretionary add-ons.
In stark contrast to the town's poverty, the five-star Hotel de la Paix has top-notch facilities including a personal butler service, spa treatments and a gallery. It also prides itself on the design by Bill Bensley who is regarded as a whiz in the South East Asian architectural circle.
My verdict: Hotel de la Paix offers a plush stay with exceptional service. Rooms are from $175 per night (they will also match prices from other hotels).
Over a third of Siem Reap's non-governmental organisations (NGO) have set up businesses to boost their income. The Global Child has followed suit and branched out with one swanky four-floor suite, La Petite Indochine.
It's a slice of utter luxury in the heart of Siem Reap with a plush bedroom, living room, study and rooftop terrace. Although it's steep (the price, not the terrace) at $250 per night, it is a fraction of what you would pay for the equivalent in the West. And what makes it all the more loveable is that 100 per cent of the profits go to help street children in Siem Reap gain an education.
The Global Child provides a safe learning centre for street children to learn maths, Khmer, English and a range of other subjects. They are paid one dollar per day for their attendance to make up for the money they would lose from begging or selling postcards to tourists.
My verdict: Stay here for luxurious privacy, the suite is available for $250 per night.
Other pro-poor must-dos
If you don't have the budget to splash out on pricey accommodation you can help out by:
Attending the Beatocello concert (www.beatocello.com/Assets/richner_appearence.html) held every Saturday night at 7.30pm at Jayavarman VII Children's Hospital. Donations support the vital work at the hospital where there is a maternity ward for HIV mothers. Free entrance.
Donating blood at Jayavarman VII Children's Hospital (www.beatocello.com). Run by a Swiss NGO, the top-grade hospital is in need of blood and monetary donations to fund its work and the Health Education Centre.
Visiting the land mine museum run by Aki Ra who has spent the past decade raising awareness and removing land mines around Cambodia. The country has the greatest number of amputees per head of population in the world and donations at the museum contribute to Aki Ra's vital work. $1 entry fee. www.cambodialandminemuseum.org
Going to Joe-to-Go for a caffeine fix before your sunrise trip to Angkor Wat. You'll be helping fund The Global Child's initiatives to provide education to Khmer street children. Old Market, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Tel: (+855) 0 92 532 640. Open from 7am to 9.30pm.
Renting a bicycle from one of Siem Reap's hotels that supports The White Bike charity which gives 75 per cent of the rental money to help fund community projects. www.thewhitebicycles.org