Giving Back while Traveling

— 21 minute read

When I was finalizing my itinerary for my Cambodia trip, I started to notice a pattern: I'm always drawn to activities & tours that have mechanisms where they give back to the local community in some way.

Looking back, each of these activities or tours has, in many ways, inspired me & taught me a lot about making impact in other people's lives. Whilst writing a review for one of the tours I had taken part in, I thought it would be nice to compile all of my experiences in my recent trips in one post & highlight how, exactly, they contribute to the local communities.

Pottery Class

I was in Siem Reap for almost a week, & although I really loved the temples, I did get "templed out" after spending two full days there. I started looking for other things to do other than visiting Angkor Wat & some articles gave pottery class as one of the suggestions. I know next to nothing about pottery & have never taken a pottery class here in Jakarta, so why not try my hand at it here in Cambodia?

The front of Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre. A picture of the place where the workshop happens.
Where the magic happens.

There are a few pottery classes in Siem Reap, but I decided to go for the one at Khmer Ceramics Centre. It turns out that pottery is not as easy as it looks, & since the pottery class uses manual wheel, it gets even more challenging for me who often has troubles coordinating both her hands & feet movement as the same time (there's a reason why it takes me a long time to learn even a simple piano piece, y'all). I made five different pieces---the first three were assisted by instructor, whereas the last two were made alone (or not really, my fourth piece ended up being lopsided so my instructor had to come & rescue me). I got to decorate these pieces too & take one of the pieces I made (glazed & fired!) for free.

The instructors are all mute & deaf, & despite me not knowing sign language, this wasn't an issue at all because my instructor is such an awesome communicator! My terrible motor skills have probably frustrated her many times, but she was patient enough to guide me despite my making the same mistakes every time. In a way, I also learned to be more attentive---I realize that in my daily life, I have the privilege to use all of my five senses to receive information. Throughout the class, I had to fully depend on visual instructions & cues instead of spoken instructions while learning something completely new to me at the same time. Again, I wouldn't have managed to complete five pieces of ceramics without my awesome instructor.

A picture of the five ceramic pieces I created.
The pieces that I created (with much help from my instructor!)

A particular memorable moment was when we chatted with each other by finger-painting the potter's wheel using the leftovers of the clay & water mixture to spell out the letters. That's probably a terrible description, I don't know how else to explain it---I wish I had taken a picture but my hands were all covered in clay so it was a bit difficult to get a hold of my phone.

After the class, I had some time to wait for my tuk-tuk so I chatted with one of the English-speaking employees there for a bit. The center aims to provide employment opportunities for disabled or orphaned Cambodians. He said that it's still difficult for disadvantaged people to find job opportunities here in Cambodia, & unfortunately I can imagine that this is also the case in many places in the world. The instructors come from different villages in Cambodia & were trained before they became instructors here at the center. My experience there shows that their disadvantages were definitely not issues at all---I can proudly say that now I know a thing or two about pottery. :)

Phare, The Cambodian Circus

Phare, The Cambodian Circus is not just a circus. I've never seen a show that combines theater, dance, acrobatic, music, sprinkles of comedy, & even live painting (!) in the same show. The show that I saw is titled "White Gold" which tells a story of an individual's attempt in balancing the demands of modern world with the Buddhist teachings of moderation.

Honestly, from the bottom of my heart, it always amazes me how people create & perform art. Sure, I sketch from time to time, but most of the time I only sketch what I see. Ask me to create art out of thin air & I'd probably only come up with meaningless lines. I do love writing fiction but I still struggle to synthesize my imagination into coherent stories. I suck at performing art too---I can't dance or sing or act to save my life. So whenever I see art performances of any kind, all I can think about is: how can they write such profound story & turn them into a script? How can they come up with that choreography & perform such complex dance moves? Phare Circus involves a lot of different types of art, so you can imagine the immense talents involved in just one production! Of course, it's not surprising to know that the performers of Phare Circus have performed in many other countries in the world, & after the show they proudly announced that they're going to perform in Boston next.

A picture of a person painting, & two people playing music. A picture of people performing on the show. A picture of people performing on the show.
Snaps from the show.

All of the performers are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) or "The Brightness of the Arts", an NGO school and professional arts training center located in the city of Battambang. It's said that almost 75% of profit of the shows goes directly to PPSA. This allows PPSA to offer their programs for free, which automatically eliminates the financial barrier faced by people of various backgrounds who wish to attend the school.

Another interesting fact is that PPSA was founded by nine young Cambodians who returned from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. They were taught drawing at the refugee camp, & found that art was essential in their healing process. When they returned, they offered free drawing classes to street children, & the rest is history.

In the midst of skeptical chatters regarding the prospect of career paths in art (I'm sure I'm not the only one who has heard the "what would you do with a major in art!?" sentiment, which is unfortunate), I love how Phare Circus shows that art can be a successful social enterprise model that breaks a lot of Cambodians from the cycle of poverty by providing employment opportunities in a field that they love.

Community First - Kompong Khleang

At first, I wanted to visit Tonlé Sap because it is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. When I was browsing for tours to visit the lake, I started to realize that all tours involved visiting one of the many floating villages in the lake. Things got more complicated when I learned that families living in these villages are living in extremely poor conditions. While browsing the tours available, I started to wonder what good would my visit be for them---it just doesn't feel right.

I was about to cross Tonlé Sap off my list until I discovered Community First's Kompong Khleang tour. Community First promotes responsible tourism. In short, Community First promotes tourism while actively trying to eliminate (or at least minimize) the negative social, cultural, & economic impacts that are created by other similar programs. I think this awareness---that these programs can do more harm than good if not done well---makes all the difference. Most importantly, Community First has also seeked & received approval of the residents of the village themselves regarding the tour. I was really delighted to know that they were heavily involved in tour decisions & educational projects, because I don't want to contribute to programs that do more harm than good to the community. By the end of the day, the profit of these tours will also fund the various community projects, from education to providing clean water.

All things above considered, I decided to book a tour with Community First while bearing in mind that eventually the purpose of my visit was not to sight-see. Rather, it was to understand & learn more about the social & economic issues that the people of Kompong Khleang are facing. For now, booking the tour is probably the best thing I can do to help, but I'm hoping that in the future, I can use what I've learned in other ways.

A picture of a wedding that has just finished.
Apparently, a wedding has just taken place. :) Like most Indonesians, according to my guide people here can invite thousands of people for one wedding!
A picture of stray dogs in the road of Kompong Khleang.
Stray dogs in Kompong Khleang.

The guides from Community First either grew up in the community itself or was involved in the community, so they knew firsthand about the local life. My guide, Sunny, taught at the Bridge of Life school that Community First supported.

On our way to Kompong Khleang, we made a stop at a stall that sells bamboo sticky rice. As an Indonesian, sticky rice isn't exactly a new thing for me. However, sticky rice that is made in bamboo is something else, & to my surprise, it did taste reaaaally good. :) We also made a stop at a local bakery shop, but since it was Sunday the kitchen closes early so we couldn't see the process. Now, I've been on tours where 40% of the time you are pretty much pressured into purchasing something (sometimes for exorbitant prices!), & I get it, the tour guides do get commissions & everything. However, most of the time it's done in a way that does leave a bad taste. I'm really glad that it didn't happen here---I'm guessing that the tour price already accounts for it, in which case I think it's great & it benefits everyone.

There are two seasons in Cambodia: dry & wet. During the dry season, the water recedes, & the size of the Tonlé Sap lake shrinks. However, during the wet season, the lake will flood the village which explains why the houses in the village are stilted. At the peak of the wet season, the height of the water can even reach 10 meters!

The particular village we visited is called Outaput. Since we came during the dry season, the village wasn't covered in water. Instead of taking the boat to explore Ouatput, we walked by foot instead. Before we hopped off our van, Sunny told us not to touch or hold the kids & not to take pictures of them (pictures taken from afar, where the kids can't be identified, are OK. Otherwise, it's a no-no). I really appreciate their commitment to child safety.

A picture of stilted houses in Kompong Khleang. A picture of people opening up their shop.
The stilted houses of Kompong Khleang.
A picture of people playing volleyball.
People playing volleyball.

We stopped by the Bridge of Life school---the school that is supported by the tour. From what I know, there are other Bridge of Life schools in other locations too. In Kompong Khleang, the school was not built in a specific building; in fact, the school is actually the house of a teacher (& when I asked, Sunny said that the teacher still lives there, too!).

Making Cambodian kids go to school is not an easy feat. It's not just a matter of infrastructure or having enough teachers, but it's also a matter of convincing their parents that going to school is worth it. Many people don't see the value in school because by going to school, their kids won't be able to help them at work. Thus, what the Bridge of Life school has to do is not just teaching these kids, but also showing them & their parents the value of education. Bridge of Life also provides a school boat (instead of a school bus :D) to pick up & drop kids off right to their house. This is valuable because without the school boat, parents have to either own an extra boat that their kid can use (which costs money) or they have to take the kids themselves (which costs time, & thus money).

Bridge of Life offers pre-primary education for the students. Typically, Cambodian students start their formal education when they're eight years old. This means that they miss plenty of growth opportunities that are mostly optimal when you're at an early age, & missing these opportunities could have a big impact on their future chance of success. With the free pre-primary education offered by Bridge of Life, the local students become much more equipped when they enter primary school, & thus their chance of success increases.

Aside of pre-primary education, Bridge of Life also offers English & Computer classes which I'm very excited about! Sunny told me that at the Computer class, the students are taught Microsoft Word & Microsoft Excel, as well as introduction to the Internet. At first, it was hard for me to imagine a world without the most basic softwares, but it quickly dawned on me that I've been taking many things for granted. A world without computers, the world wide web, search engines, & other softwares is unfortunately still the reality to many people.

A picture of the sewing class in the Bridge of Life school.
Sewing class.

Last but not least, there's also a sewing class! Those who have gained skills through the sewing class may open their business at their home, & some even go on to work at tailors in the city.

Afterward, we all hopped on the boat to venture further to the Tonlé Sap lake. We passed by more stilted houses, floating houses, floating primary schools, fish farms, people loading & unloading various fishery products, & transporting other produces such as vegetables. It reminds me of my mother's hometown, Maninjau Lake, which I've visited numerous times as well. My uncle also used to own one of these fish farms & floating houses (although he didn't live there), so what I saw was pretty familiar to me---in fact, it kind of brought back some old memories. What's different is unlike Maninjau, Tonlé Sap is so vast that it felt like you're venturing out on to the open ocean because as far as you can see there's just water & more water with the occasional floating houses. Did you know that almost 1 million people live in or around Tonlé Sap alone?

A picture of the river taken from the boat.
Heading out to the lake.
A picture of a floating house.
One of the floating houses in Tonlé Sap.
A picture of people fishing in the lake.
Fishing in Tonlé Sap.
A picture of a fish farm in the lake.
Fish farm.
  • Website:
  • Cost: $35 per person, $25 per person for children under 12
  • Duration: ~6 hours, starts at 2 PM
  • How to book: You can book a group tour by sending a message using the contact form on their website, however be aware that the minimum number of people for a tour is three. If you're traveling solo, let them know so they can inform you regarding the availability of the tour.

Bambike Ecotours

I signed up for one of Bambike Ecotours' tours in Intramuros, Manila. I only had a short time in Manila, & I didn't want to leave without visiting one of its historical places. As much as I like venturing to foreign places on my own, I personally enjoy learning about the history behind the places & monuments I visit. Same thing applies when I'm visiting museums---ideally, it would take me a day to explore a museum because I'd read every panel. You can bet I'd opt for an audio-guided tour whenever possible, too. :)

A picture of a mural of Rajah Sulayman in Fort Santiago Park.
A mural of Rajah Sulayman in Fort Santiago Park.

Biking is the perfect way to explore Intramuros. As I've explained in my previous post, Intramuros is not that huge but exploring it by foot will definitely exhaust you. I was glad when I discovered Bambike Ecotours---exploring Intramuros on a bike while learning about the history of the Philippines? Hell yeah.

The thing is, Bambike's bikes are not your regular bikes. Each of the bike was handcrafted from bamboos & other sustainable materials! Fear not, despite being made from bamboos, these bikes are very sturdy. There were a lot of models to choose from, & I found a model that I was comfortable with. I'm not a regular cyclist so I was worried about not finding a bike that suits me, but I did!

My guide, Krizyl, graduated with a history major. Her passion & knowledge really shone throughout the tour, & despite the overcast weather I really enjoyed the tour! I learned so much, from why José Rizal is so important to the Philippines, The Beatles incident in Manila, how come Binondo in Manila is the oldest Chinatown in the world, to the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

A picture of a building seen from Fort Santiago Park.
Fort Santiago Park in the afternoon.
A picture of the bust of José Rizal.
The bust of José Rizal.

Now, how exactly Bambike contributes to the local community? At the end of the tour, we were shown a video that answers this question. Bambike trains & employs local people to make these bikes. Not only that, what impressed me was they also send their employees' children to school & have a feeding program to make sure that they are well-nourished! In short, they believe that a business can be profitable while also taking care of the people (& the planet, too).

  • Website:
  • Cost: PHP 1200 (~$23)
  • Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes, starts at 10 AM & 3 PM
  • How to book: You can book the tour directly through their website. There are also other tours (I booked the Intramuros Experience one) so be sure to check them out too

Some notes

These activities & tours have enriched my trips more than I could ever imagine, taught me a lot of things, & most importantly they also allowed me to help a good cause while traveling. Before ending my post, here are some points I'd like to note:

  • Spread the word! Leave reviews & share your experiences to your friends, families, colleagues. The MC of the Phare Circus show said that most people discover Phare Circus from TripAdvisor, which is why reviews are very important for them. Reviews also help people decide between tours or activities if there are more than one similar tours.
  • However, it doesn't mean that you have to sugarcoat everything. I believe that you don't have to ignore the hiccups---if there are any---on the basis that they're doing it for a good cause. Sunny said that feedback is important & they use feedback to constantly improve the tour. Not every future participant has the same level of tolerance, so by the end of the day, it's in their best interest to err on the side of caution by constantly improving their program based on past participants' feedback.
  • Research well before you make a decision. If you find out about the tour in TripAdvisor, make sure you also visit their website to find additional information. Also, be aware of scams! There are lots of scams in the name of "responsible tourism", "eco-tourism", "sustainable tourism"... you name it. Another floating village that is closer to Siem Reap, Chong Kneas, is notorious for being a scam. There's an orphanage there, but if you read the reviews you'll see that people are questioning whether it's legit or not. People are worried that the kids were not exactly orphans & they are there to solicit donations from unsuspecting tourists.
  • There are many other ways to give back while traveling, too. The ones I just wrote about are based on my recent trips. Now that I've learned more about giving back while traveling & responsible tourism in general, I'm also actively looking for other ways to give back on my future travels.