Angkor Wat’s tourism industry is booming, the last few years witnessing a staggering 30% annual increase in visitor numbers. But the temple’s original habitants just keep getting poorer. A group of tourist operators are now hoping to buck this trend by giving back.

Despite his vocation, 26-year-old Buddhist monk Somnieng Hoeurne is a big hit with the ladies. Cooing and blushing, the group of young women surrounding him treat him like a deity.

Hoeurne, a mere mortal, is the overseeing manager of the Sewing Training Centre, a microeconomic project in Siem Reap, home to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, that teaches women how to sew. Funded by guest donations from the Hotel de la Paix, one of many luxury hotels in Siem Reap, it is one of a growing number of initiatives using tourism to help locals, giving them a chance to improve their lives.

Before the centre was set up, most of Hoerne’s students were working 16-hour days at a brick kiln, being paid less than $1 a day. Others were so desperately poor they had turned to prostitution.

As well as learning how to sew many different styles of clothes, the 28 students are also taught accounting skills. The idea is that, after they graduate, Hoeurne and the Hotel de la Paix can help them to establish their own small tailoring businesses in their villages to increase their earnings.

‘These women have never had the opportunity to go to school and most of them are illiterate,’ says Hoeurne. ‘Eventually they will become the mothers of the next generation and so the cycle will be continued. We can’t wait for the government to solve Cambodia’s poverty problems. So instead, we are turning to sustainable tourism to find a solution.’

Vast Angkor Wat is no stranger to ambitious projects.

Modelled on Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hindu mythology (the temple was originally Hindu), the complex was built to be the centre of the universe.

Constructed in the early 12th century, the temples lay at the heart of the most powerful empire South-East Asia has ever seen. The largest pre-industrial centre in the world, with a population that vastly outstripped that of European capitals, the Angkor complex is the empire’s greatest legacy. But the temples have had a chequered existence. Reclaimed by the jungle for centuries after the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, they later became a hideout for Khmer Rouge soldiers, who used the extraordinary bas-reliefs for target practice. Bullet holes are still visible, etched into the stonework alongside carved figures of Buddhas and voluptuous, sinuous court dancers whose heads were hacked off firstly as an expression of the Khmer Rouge’s secularism and then for the illegal antiques trade.

Even the Khmer Rouge did not have the impact of a more numerous but ostensibly benign force: international tourists. Angkor became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992; a year later 7,650 intrepid tourists came to see the temples. By 2007 visitor figures topped 1.7 million; three million are expected by 2010. Visitor numbers at Angkor are said to be growing at the fastest rate of any World Heritage monument.

Conservationists believe these numbers far exceed those the site can manage sustainably. Alongside the impact made to delicate sandstone by thousands of clambering feet, the grasping of sweaty hands and the gougings of graffitists are a serious concern.

A recent report from the World Bank claims the hospitality industry has been draining Angkor’s underground water supplies. As a result, one of the temples has begun sinking into its sandy foundations. The report also suggests that some hotels have been dumping their untreated waste into local rivers, leading to the bacteria E.coli being found in drinking wells.

But for all the impressive numbers visiting the site, most travellers come as part of organised tours that they have purchased in their home country and stay in foreign-owned five-star hotels. For various reasons, including, critics say, governmental corruption and cronyism, little of the wealth generated by Angkor Wat trickles down to local communities. Despite the tourism boom, the lavish hotels and the fine restaurants, Siem Reap remains one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia, with many people living on less than $1 a day.

‘There is no control on tourism in Siem Reap,’ says Len Cordiner, CEO of worldhotel-link.com, a web portal that gives local tourism providers access to web bookings. ‘It’s just a free for all. Groups come on prepaid whistle-stop tours. They arrive, dump their bags, head off to the main temples, eat, sleep, and then go again. It creates bottleneck pressure on the temples and the local community barely sees a penny. Theoretically, Siem Reap Province should be rolling in cash, but it is still mired in poverty.’

Determined to turn the tables, a string of tourism operators, such as Worldhotel-link and Hotel de la Paix, have now started taking the tackling of poverty into their own hands. They encourage travellers to stay longer and venture further afield, to interact with local villagers and spend their money at a community level, they are helping Siem Reap to become a model for sustainable and responsible tourism in Asia.

Backed by the World Bank, which has expressed concern over how little money spent by tourists is actually staying in Cambodia, Worldhotel-link aims to give a voice to small- and medium-sized tourist operators, especially those with social or environmental priorities. The World Bank also sponsors the Stay Another Day project, an organisation which encourages visitors to venture beyond the temples: visit an orphanage, a handicraft centre for land mine victims or spend a night in a village, spreading their money a little further and seeing another side to the country. The idea is to get tourists to see Cambodia as more than a single site to be ticked off.

‘Tourism is better equipped and in a better position to deal with poverty than many governments,’ says Bill Black, managing director of Bed Management, the company that operates Hotel de la Paix and Shinta Mani, another luxury hotel that now runs community projects in Siem Reap.Black is committed to the idea of sustainable tourism in Cambodia and runs three microeconomic projects from his two hotels. These are the Sewing Training Centre; the Shinta Mani School of Hospitality, which prepares underprivileged youngsters for jobs in the hospitality industry; and the Connect Program, whereby guests are encouraged to travel to local villages in Siem Reap, interact with local people and provide assistance by donating money towards essential items: wells, seed, bicycles and houses.

All these projects are funded by guest donations and a percentage of nightly room rates, which, Black says, is the most effective way. ‘If you donate to many traditional aid agencies, your money goes into a big bucket and less than half ends up at the cause. We take a different approach. We encourage guests to make the donation themselves, to meet a family in person and then maintain the relationship afterwards so they can feel and see the effect their money is having.

‘It costs $90 to provide a well and enough seed to allow a family to plant a vegetable garden. For many tourists coming to Siem Reap, especially those happy to fork out $300 for a hotel room, $90 is what they’d expect to pay for dinner. When people see how comparatively little can go so far they can’t help but want to be involved.’

The Connect Program currently supports a number of villages in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Rather than giving handouts, it closely monitors recipients to make sure they are helping themselves. ‘The idea is to give people the opportunity to be self-sufficient, not to dole out band-aids,’ says Sour Vong, the manager of the Shinta Mani’s hospitality school.

‘First of all we give families their well and their seed,’ he says. ‘When we see they are working hard to establish a garden and maybe selling some of their vegetables for extra income, then we might build them a house, or buy them a bicycle so the husband can travel to work more easily.’

This time last year many of the villagers in the project were living in makeshift bamboo houses and surviving off only one meal of rice and soya sauce a day. They had given up on the government helping them, having seen government representatives only once. A few months ago, in the run-up to the election, party campaigners dropped by, distributing T-shirts and caps emblazoned with the party logo. e were so poor, we couldn’t even afford to buy rice,’ says Eng Sa looking back. Now Sa has a house and water pump thanks to the donations of Stuart Paver, a British tourist.

‘We would only eat once a day, and in the monsoon we had to cover the children with plastic bags to stop them from getting wet and cold.’

Although Sa’s vegetable plot is little more than a patch of earth, a slab of concrete, a piece of bright blue PVC strung up with twine and the donated handpump, her plants are thriving and she is able to sell the surplus at her local market, earning her an extra $25 a month.

For Paver, becoming a part of the Sa family has been life-enhancing. ‘Being able to make a difference to a whole family has been incredible, especially when for the price of a new PlayStation you can build a family a new home. Everybody likes luxuries, but if I had to choose between buying something for myself that I don’t need or building 10 new houses, I know which would give me greater pleasure.’

Clearly moved by the experience, Paver is planning to return to Cambodia soon, this time with his children. ‘I’d like to show my kids that happiness is not reliant on items or possessions, but on appreciating what you have, however little that may seem to other people.’

Paver is evidence that projects like Shinta Mani’s are working. ‘Many people staying there would normally opt for more expensive hotels. Instead, they choose to stay here because of the projects on offer,’ says Black. ‘These days many travellers are not just looking for a hotel room, but an altogether more fulfilling experience.’

Getting There

Bangkok Airways, Hong Kong Airways and Silk Air from Singapore all fly from their respective cities to Siem Reap daily.

Most nationalities require a visa, which is obtainable on arrival.

When to Go

The days of October through to February are cooler and the best time to see dramatic sunsets, but they are also peak tourist season. The monsoon, from June to October, is atmospheric and crowd free. It is wise to avoid March to May, when temperatures on the flat, dry plains of Cambodia hit 45°C.

Where to Stay

Hotel de la Paix: Double rooms from $190
+855 63966000; www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com

Shinta Mani: Double rooms from $80
+855 63761998; www.shintamani.com

This article was published in the November 2007 issue of CNN Traveller, global edition.