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Queensland, Australia
I'm an Australian author of Contemporary Romance, Romantic Action/Adventure, and Historical fiction. I live in Queensland, Australia. www.noelleclark.net

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cambodia: The socially conscious side of Siem Reap

The instant I arrived at Siem Reap airport, I knew it was going to be a special place for me. Visually exotic, the airport architecture immediately indicates that this town of about 170,000 people is intent upon providing for the growing tourist industry. Indeed, almost two million visitors a year stay in Siem Reap, visit nearby Angkor Temples, enjoy first class hospitality, and generously spend the valued tourist dollars.

Siem Reap, like the rest of Cambodia, has endured unspeakable hardships over the centuries. The relatively recent atrocities meted out by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s, though, is still in the memories of anyone over thirty years of age, and hit all the regional towns of Cambodia as well as its capital Phnom Penh. Yet I found the local people of Siem Reap to be among the most gentle, friendly, helpful, and charming, I have ever met in my extensive travels.

After more than twenty-four hours of travel, we were welcomed to Siem Reap by the smiling face of Raksha, our Tuk Tuk driver, and transported to our hotel, The Golden Banana, which was to be our exquisite base for four days. With a broad smile and very good English, Raksha made us feel very welcome and was keen to point out places of interest to us along the way, whilst still managing to drive his Tuk Tuk safely on the crazy Cambodian roads.
Raksha, our Tuk Tuk driver, meets us at Siem Reap airport

The Golden Banana is an oasis in a city of abject poverty. Comprised of two properties next to each other – the Boutique Hotel and the Resort - we stayed in the boutique hotel in a luxurious villa a mere step from a large swimming pool, the cocktail bar, and a wonderful restaurant. The first thing we noticed as soon as Raksha pulled up at the Golden Banana was the welcoming, warm and friendly staff who gave us refreshing cool towels to freshen up with and a cool, freshly made juice drink while we went through the formalities of checking in.

The Golden Banana is one of the growing number of hotels who have a seriously steadfast social conscious. The Golden Banana pride themselves on being eco-friendly, using locally made solid palm-wood furniture harvested from sustainable palm forests, and utilising local silk and textile art and crafts.

Our front door

Looking towards the cocktail bar from our front door

Lee, making me a 'Golden Banana' cocktail (pic from GB website)
Our friends in the bar (pic from GB website)
The staff-to-guest ratio at the Golden Banana is close to one to one. We got to know several of the staff quite well during our stay. They are friendly and relaxed, and delight in telling about their families, the villages that they come from, and the studies that the Golden Banana management sponsor as their employer. The staff come from poor backgrounds and their employment not only assists the family of the staff member, but the scholarships that they provide to staff allow for training in various fields from management, to hospitality and tourism, horticulture and business. The Golden Banana believes that education is the key to breaking the poverty cycle for the Cambodian people, and they put their money where their mouth is by providing education for many of their staff and their children. We spent many hours sitting around the glorious swimming pool talking to the staff. We also enjoyed their delicious cocktails, expertly made by Lee. A Cambodian cookbook on the bar caught my eye. The book is produced by a charity organisation called Green Gecko Project which educates, protects and provides love and shelter for homeless street children in Siem Reap. The Green Gecko Project also assists the wider community with initiatives in education and training. At only $20, the book is a welcome addition to my bookshelf, and I am working my way through all the authentic recipes. The food in Cambodia is delicious, and I enjoyed many wonderful Khmer meals at local restaurants, but also in the excellent restaurant within the Golden Banana itself. Delicious local meals such as Lok Lak and Fish Amok now rate amongst my favourites, but the chef’s special Banana Delight just blew me away!
Top: Lok Lak with rice in a banana leaf cone; chicken noodles; soup.

The Golden Banana is also affiliated with several other local community organisations, and during the devastating Siem Reap floods in September 2011, they provided practical assistance to the local people by helping sandbag and by providing food and other necessities.
Every morning we had freshly cut local fruit and homemade yoghurt
The banana supreme!
Imagine how delighted I was to learn about this strong commitment to the local community that the management of the Golden Banana holds. Imagine how much better my holiday in Siem Reap was because of this. Only a short drive from our exquisite accommodation, whole families were living in bamboo and banana leaf huts, some with no walls, many with barely a floor. No electricity, no clean fresh running water. Our Tuk Tuk drive along the levee of the Siem Reap River was an eye opener. The Khmer people are so poor yet so very industrious. Every one of them is working hard, there is no government welfare available to them. We passed little booths selling cans of soft drink alongside big green orbs of coconuts with drinking straws sticking out the top. They mostly grow their own food in little vegetable plots in the marshes under their houses, they fish, they have chickens. It is subsistence farming at its most basic. Yet the little children who wave to us as we pass are happy and seem well looked after.
Dwellings along the river levee on the outskirts of Siem Reap

Little children - sweet kids living life their way

Raksha,our driver, took us to his home where he introduced us to his little four year old boy, Piseta. Raksha earns about ten to fifteen US dollars a day, and very proudly told me that his son already goes to a school so that he can grow up and get a good job. Unlike most of the Tuk Tuk drivers in Siem Reap, Raksha is one of a group who are permanently attached to the Golden Banana.  Other hotels do the same. It means that Raksha was assigned to us for our whole stay for a flat rate of about twelve dollars a day. He would be waiting for us as we emerged from our sumptuous breakfast each morning, and take us wherever we wanted to go, wait for us, and take us home again.
Very friendly and safe, Raksha was another of the staff who were the highlight of our trip. Apart from the beauty, peace and wonderful surroundings of the Golden Banana, the staff are the reason I will return to stay there. From the General Manager to the reception and managerial staff, to Lee the barman and his assistants, to the ladies who cleaned the rooms, every one of them took the time to talk to us, to remember our names, to remember what our favourite tipple was. The staff obviously love their job, and they are a big asset to the Golden Banana. I am so happy to have had the experience of staying there, where a true compassionate and practical social conscience is alive and well, and thriving, helping many beautiful Cambodian families.
Beef Lok Lak: Khmer style beef steak cooked in a zappy Kampot pepper sauce, served with a green salad, garden tomatoes, and beautiful brown Ibis rice at the side. Golden Banana Cocktail: Bacardi White Rum, Vodka, Triple Sec, Crème de Banana joined all together in the shaker with a touch of Fresh Lime juice and Sugar Syrup, shaked well with some ice rocks to result in a fantastic fresh orgasm of flavours. (Best made by Lee at GB)