When I first arrived in Phnom Penh my host Greg started talking about all of these great NGO’s in town and how they support different programs. I didn’t think much of it and was still not impressed when we visited a few of the shops, to be fair though I was working on maybe 4 hours of sleep. Now, after having been to Kampot and seeing various businesses set up there I understand what Greg was talking about. It’s heartbreaking to walk around and see the children begging for money or trying to sell trinkets on street corners, but it’s also hard to know which ones will benefit from your money and which are being used. That’s what make these businesses so cool, you can know where your money is going and who’s going to benefit from it, and even better it’s money spent on things you’d be doing anyways, I mean you do eat, don’t you?
The first business I stopped at was Sisters II which is a quaint café and bakery just off the main drag in Kampot. The owner was extremely friendly, the food was cheap and tasty and even better they didn’t mind me sitting there to use their WiFi for a few hours. All of the proceeds from Sisters II goes towards helping a local orphanage in Kampot, oh and they have carrot cake and banana bread, yum.
While wandering the streets, looking for good places to eat and taking in the sites a poster for the Banteay Srey Women’s spa caught my eye. They were advertising yoga classes, something that often grabs my attention. I called to make sure the classes were still being held and after confirming they were made my way there the next morning. The spa is across the river from the main area of town but I decided a morning walk would get me good and ready for my yoga class. I arrived with plenty of time to spare only to find that yoga was canceled for the morning, due to the teacher being sick. I wasn’t really in the mood for any spa treatments so I turned to leave, stopping midway down the driveway as I realized; they have a gorgeous studio that’s not being used, and I can do yoga. I turned around and asked if they would mind if I just use the studio space, and being the awesome ladies they are they said yes without hesitation.
I was impressed with myself that I was able to spend a good hour and a half doing yoga without someone telling me which foot to put where and which warrior comes next, maybe there is hope for me becoming a teacher after all! I already had plans for the afternoon so unfortunately, I didn’t have time to stick around and check out the spa; I simply thanked the ladies and went on my way with thoughts of a soon return. It wasn’t until a few days later that I decided to do a little research on the place and realized the story behind it. The spa is only a portion of the Banteay Srey Project, which is set up to help women from Kampot in disadvantaged situations, you can also check out their facebook page here. They accept volunteers to help train women in different programs ranging from computer training, massage therapy, beauty treatments and yoga. In case you're wondering, yes, the light bulb did go off in my head that maybe I could return to this place after I become a certified yoga teacher (spoiler alert: that happened).
My second visit was completely unplanned but could not have been more perfect. I was biking, on what might have been the hottest day since my landing in Cambodia, and was ready to pass out from both heat and hunger, dreaming of an open patch of the nearby river I could jump into, then I remembered Banteay Srey. Not only do they have a gorgeous open-air yoga studio but there is also a riverside sitting area with swimming access. I was only a few km away by bike so I turned around and set me sights on the spa. The sitting area was even better than I had imagined and the staff was beyond friendly. I ordered a pineapple/mango smoothie along with hummus and veggies and jumped into the river while they prepared it for me. After getting out of the water, feeling more refreshed than when I’d arrived I sat down to enjoy the delicious food and felt the need to text one of my friends, “I just found Heaven”. I once again didn’t have time for any spa treatments (which I really regret because the girl sitting near me couldn’t stop raving about her facial).After spending a few days in Kep, the sleepy beach town 30km east of Kampot I decided to return, and this spa was definitely one of the factors in that decision. This post is being written from the comfort of a Papasan chair at the awesome cafe mentioned below, but I'll be making a visit to Banteay Srey for that facial before too long.
On my (first) final day in Kampot, I decided I needed to make a visit to the Epik Arts Café which I kept reading about. The cafe was "established in 2006 and is a space for local deaf people to develop a sense of community." They offer a wide selection of food and drink with bakery items available for takeaway. Unfortunately, their menu wasn’t striking any of my taste buds on that first visit so I didn’t sit down to eat, but I felt that I couldn’t leave empty handed. The second floor of the cafe is filled with artwork and goods made from local deaf artists. I made my way upstairs to check out what they had for sale and one of their tank tops caught my eye. For $7 it was a bit steeper than others I had seen in town but knowing where the money was going I had no qualms buying it, not to mention it was cute. After making the decision to return to Kampot this place was actually the first stop I made in town (after checking in and getting some much-needed cash from the ATM). I chose a welcoming papasan chair on the second floor, put in my order and got to work on this blog post. The interior is awesome, great seating options, good music, awesome décor, and the food was also superb, I could definitely see myself becoming a regular at this place.
After visiting these few establishments I have a better idea of the great programs that are in place across Cambodia and hope I can visit more, if not all of them. There are two restaurants I already have my sights set on for my return visit to Phnom Penh and I know there are a few more options in Siem Reap. Hopefully, if you ever find yourself in any of these cities you’ll think about visiting one, two or maybe all of them – believe me, it’d be money well spent.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.