An ethical and informative tour with Community First of one of the most unique villages in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The first time I visited Siem Reap, we did almost everything a first-time visitor should. We visited the temples, explored a number of the city’s pagodas, ate some of their local cuisine and visited the local conservation park. But, there was one thing (well, actually two things if you include the landmine museum) that kept coming up in conversations with locals that we didn’t have the time to fit in – a tour of the floating villages and the world’s biggest freshwater lake.
The second time around, I was adamant that we would see the floating villages just outside Siem Reap. Before I left, I made sure I did my research on the tours that were offered in the region, and ended up settling on a small tour with a company called Community First.
Why did I choose Community First?
I have touched on responsible tourism in places like Siem Reap before, and my decision to go with Community First as a tour company stems directly from my stance on that, and their dedication to responsible tourism practices.
While I was doing my research, there were so many things that popped up that made me set on seeing the area with Community First. The two most important being:
Community First are a not-for-profit organisation that donates almost half of all their tour money to a local school in the floating village.
‘Almost half’ is 45% of their takings on each tour. They are very transparent with the tour fee breakdown on their website – so much so that they even go in to detail about the mandatory ‘commissions’ that hotels take when they book guests on the tour – so you know exactly where your $35USD is going.
In a country like Cambodia, a huge portion of the population are only earning somewhere around $100USD a month. When you look at what some of the tour companies charge for a tour and compare that to what the tour guides earn (I asked one about their wage once, and it was still only around $5000USD a year), it really makes you wonder where the rest of your dollars are going. In a lot of cases, probably straight to the conglomerate that owns the tour company. That annoys me to no end. In a developing country, there is so much opportunity to better the community (in the right way) and not just fill your own back pocket; hence my appreciation for Community First.
Knowing that I was going to be helping the Cambodian people while they so kindly let me see their country made me feel a heck of a lot better about doing so.
All of the Community First staff grew up in the villages that we were invited to explore
The guides know the village like the back of their hand, and they know all of the community members too. They are showing you around the village that they spent their childhood in, so you get more of an honest insight into the daily life in the village. There is something really special about seeing a village in this way, and not just as a typical tourist.
The drive to the village took just over an hour, so while we drove we met the other 8 people on the tour, and got to know our tour guide a little better. Our tour was one of the fuller ones, but they never usually get any bigger than 12. It was a lovely drive through working farm land, small towns and even smaller villages.
The snack stops
The first stop we made was along the national highway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. There were literally hundreds of little stalls lining the highway, all selling kralan (bamboo sticky rice made with coconut cream and black beans). We each picked up a kralan which became the first of many afternoon snacks along the way.
Before explaining a little more about the life out in this part of Cambodia, our guide told us that each tour, they make a point of stopping in at a different stall so as to share the income around. I was particularly touched by this as there are so many tours that strike up deals with one singular cafe or restaurant, which takes the authenticity out of the experience; not to mention takes away from other providers in the area.
After our stop for kralan, we stopped in another small village to visit one of the most popular traditional bakeries. They are the major suppliers of traditional Khmer sweets and baked goods in Siem Reap. Based on first impressions, you would never think so!
A stark contrast to the commercial bakeries here in Australia, everything is still done by hand, over hot coals. Oh, and it was all done outdoors too! It was amazing to see the bakery owners at work, without a machine or oven in sight. We ended up picking up a few bags of rice flour doughnuts, dried fruits and pretzel-like snacks to take with us on the rest of the trip.
Visiting Kompong Khleang
As we were visiting the village in the dry season, we were able to drive all the way in to the village – something you can’t do in the wet season. Apparently the area floods so much in the wet season that you have to take a boat for the last 30 minutes of the trip!
We were taken straight up to one of the stilted buildings, which turned out to be the village school – the very school that our money was going towards supporting. Much like the rest of the builds in the village, the school was very basic and a little precarious at times. It was hard to believe that around 50 kids sit in there for class each day. Our guide informed us that the bench seats in the classroom were purchased this year from the funds that are raised through these tours, and the small pile of books were both purchased from funds and donated by guests on the tour. There is still a long way to go for the school, but it was so lovely to see exactly where our funding was going.
We wandered along the red dirt street for another 10 or so minutes, meeting villagers, playing with the children and taking snaps, before we got on the bus to be taken to the boat ramp.
Boating through the floating village and onto Tonle Sap
The final part of the tour was a 45-minute boat ride down the river and on to Tonle Sap. It was a noisy ride, but that seems fairly common down that stretch of waterway.
Once we left the main village, the tall, stilted houses started to thin out and the landscape made way to house boat after house boat. Apparently the people living on the stretch of the river closer to Tonle Sap are quite nomadic, and will relocate as the tides change from season to season. Obviously they lead quite the simple life, with a lot of the homes being no bigger than a backyard shed. There were kids playing on the banks of the rivers, women cleaning fish on the little porch of the house, and men standing in waist deep water fixing the motors on their boats. It was a completely different landscape to any I have ever seen before.
By the time we made it out to the middle of Tonle Sap, it was sunset time. Unfortunately we visited on a very overcast day so missed a beautiful sunset, but they have been said to be spectacular from the middle of the lake. We climbed onto the roof of the boat and watched the storms roll in, before heading back down to the main deck to make the trip all the way back to the heart of Siem Reap.
If you ever take a trip to Cambodia, I would urge you to do your research into the tour providers that you book. They may take a little longer to find, but there are definitely a lot of companies that give back to the community.