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When I was in Cambodia, I spent a day with Beyond Unique Escapes, a local tour company in Siem Reap that offers responsible, community focused tours across Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
I like to read up on tour companies before I book because I always worry about potential exploitation of people or animals, and I want to make sure the companies I use are supporting the local economy.
In doing this research, I was really impressed with how this company worked alongside locals to create unique experiences for tourists.
There were cooking classes and bike and walking tours, but I ended up booking a “Day in a Life,” which allowed me to immerse myself in village life. I picked this because of the guaranteed small size with a maximum of 8 people and because the tour involved and benefitted locals.
Much to my surprise, I was the only one who signed up, so I had a private guide for the day.
We traveled to a small village located about 16 kilometers outside of Siem Reap. My guide was a Cambodian middle-aged man. He was married and had children, and like many Cambodians, he was affected by the genocide.
We talked about his life as we traveled by ox and cart to the village (Yes, you read that right. It was part of the experience.). The organization partners with families who struggle to meet their daily needs. In this partnership, the villagers help host the guests, and they are compensated for their time.
My guide was able to show me how the extra income had improved the lives of those I met. For some, they were able to buy chickens or goats, while others improved their roof from palm leaves to tin.
I could tell that the villagers took pride in showing me their life, and I was honored to spend time with them. I spent the morning with one family who had three young children. The two toddlers were curious about me, but kept their distance. Their mom showed me how to make shingles for their house out of palm leaves. I was miserable at it, but that’s another story.
We left their home around lunchtime and walked through the village. I learned so much: how to climb tall palm trees to get the leaves (and how each palm tree belonged to villager), how to catch crickets in a plastic tarp contraption, and how to tell when lemongrass was ready to be pulled.
The villagers were so welcoming; many invited us into their homes and offered us food. Our final stop was at another villager’s home. In this partnership, Beyond Unique Escapes works with local chefs to train village women to make certain dishes for the visitors. The organization provides all the cooking materials for the family and the food, so it’s a partnership that benefits the family in many ways. The women in these families have a source of income, and that can be so powerful.
When we left the village, my stomach was full, and I felt like I was really starting to understand Cambodia. It was such a great example of how traveling can help local communities. I left having had a great experience and knowing that the locals were benefitting from it.