Tag : responsible-tourism

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SMILING GECKO FARMHOUSE

Travel Asia a la carte recently visited the Smiling Gecko Farmhouse in Kompong Chnnang province. It was the opportunity to discover a Swiss founded project that is helping to alleviate poverty in one of Cambodia’s poorest areas by means of donations and support from various well renowned Swiss institutions.

The project has its own origins in the slums of Phnom Penh. Photographer, artist and founder of Smiling Gecko, Hannes Schmid was shocked by the living standards and challenges that slum dwellers encountered. Rather than just documenting their difficult lives, Hannes decided it was also his responsibility to give something back and set up Smiling Gecko Cambodia (SGC), an organisation providing direct aid to disadvantaged people in the country, supporting local job initiatives and promoting self-help among the rural population. SGC is not about donations and can be better explained as coordinating a series of social start up programmes meaning the poorest can become financially independent.

A series of projects in Kompong Chnnang include the Smiling Gecko Farmhouse (more on that later), a huge village school project, a carpentry workshop and agricultural projects.

We left Phnom Penh at 5am in order to visit a fish market outside of town that was bustling as fish were unloaded from boats to be distributed around the capital and beyond. And then on to see factory workers arriving for work. The garment industry is one of Cambodia’s largest incomes besides tourism. However, working conditions and salaries are far below Western standards. The reason for us standing outside the factory gates and seeing truckloads of workers arriving was to better understand the challenges Cambodia faces. With a salary of $148 and needing to pay for accommodation, transport and food the workers do overtime at a paltry pay of $0.25 per hour in order to make ends meet. Hence SGC’s projects are aimed at improving working conditions, pay and adding human dignity.

Factory workers arrive at work.

A short while later we arrived to a friendly welcome at Smiling Gecko Farmhouse which really is in the middle of nowhere. From the entrance gate the landscape changed to tendered gardens, clean living areas and trees and greenery in all directions. Quite a contrast with the Cambodian countryside in the area which was quite parched in the middle of the dry season.

After a welcome drink we were escorted to our home for the night, a beautifully designed wooden house. Naturally it was all made by local craftspeople with assistance from Swiss trainers. The spacious stilted homes are typical of rural Cambodia. However these are well designed, air-conditioned with walk in rainforest showers, bathtub and even a coffee machine. More than comfortable enough to spend a couple of nights.

The accommodation area has a beautiful swimming pool and yoga sala for treatment by trained massages therapists. The restaurant provides a small breakfast buffet whilst other meals are delicious set menus. The food is mostly Khmer cuisine with a few European influences.

Beautiful swimming pool to relax at Smiling Gecko Farmhouse.

After breakfast there was the opportunity to relax, have a swim and cycle around the farm.

Following a tasty lunch we were taken on a tour of the farm to see the animal projects and a pilot school that will eventually take over 1,000 students from preschool to senior high school. In fact the first intake of students has already started study since November 2017.

Farm tour at Smiling Gecko.

Then we were off into the countryside to take an authentic ‘bamboo train ride’. This was an exhilarating ride with no other tourists in sight, just friendly locals to wave as we shot slowly along the rain track on a customized ‘nori’. The future of the bamboo train ride is in doubt as upgrade work is done on the line in order to connect Phnom Penh with the Thai border.  Elsewhere the nori drivers have been told not to use the track. We hope this one will last a bit longer, not least because locals use it to transport goods to villages along the way.

Bamboo train ride.

Our adventure continued to a hilltop temple providing stunning views over the surrounding countryside. During our afternoon adventures we did not see any other tourists.

Back at the farmhouse we were treated to another delicious menu before we went to bed on ‘farmer time’ i.e. early to bed, early to rise. After a long day sleep came easy and even a passing thunderstorm did not wake us.

 

Unfortunately we needed to depart after breakfast. However for our guests we will be recommending they have a morning at leisure and enjoy lunch before heading on to the heritage town of Battambang and then to Siem Reap to explore the temples. Our recommended programme is:

Day 1

0500 – Leave hotel in Phnom Penh and travel to Kompong Chhnang

0530 – Stop to see the fish market

0630 – See workers arriving at the garment factories

0800 – Arrive at Smiling Gecko to check in and breakfast

Free time until a farm tour

1200 – Lunch

1500 – Afternoon tour on the bamboo train and hill temple

1900 – Dinner

 

Day 2

Free time in the morning to relax, swim, yoga and have a massage

1200 – Lunch

1330 – Depart for Battambang

1730 – Arrive Battambang and check in to hotel

 

For guests who want a more relaxing stay then we suggest a second night at Smiling Gecko Farmhouse. The garment factory visit can be done on the second day and that also avoids such an early start on the first day in Phnom Penh.

In all a stay at Smiling Gecko Farmhouse will leave smiles on the faces of guests. A combination of interaction with local people, comfortable accommodation and the good feeling of giving something back to Cambodia and helping the development of its people in a sustainable way is the perfect holiday combination. If the above does not make you want to visit please take a look at this video https://vimeo.com/225816947

#sgc #vereinsmilinggecko #hannesschmid #responsibletourism

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