Social Enterprise in South East Asia

I’ve written before about how travel can have positive and negative impacts on local communities.  Too often it is easy to think that by simply visiting a place, and spending money, you are helping the local people.  In fact you need to dig a little deeper than that to understand who is benefiting from your tourism.

Often it is large overseas corporations or wealthy business owners that are not passing on benefits to their local employees and their families.  Unfair wages, poor working conditions, children working or on the streets instead of in education, or worse human trafficking and modern slavery are all still very real issues in the areas we visited.  In contrast to this there are social enterprises in south east Asia working to ensure communities benefit directly from tourism spending.

Over tourism

Local infrastructure can be stretched in peak tourist seasons and destinations.  On our travels we’ve seen towns and cities that struggle with pollution, waste disposal and crazy traffic.  As well as increased cost of living impacting local people.  This isn’t just in Asia, we’ve seen it in Barcelona and in places in New Zealand too.

Our guide in Cambodia explained to us that the frequent use of the US dollar, combined with the fact that almost everything costs a minimum $1, in places like Siem Reap, makes many products unaffordable for local people.


Experience Cambodian Living Arts


Social Enterprises in South East Asia

During our time in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Cambodia, we came across a number of fantastic social enterprises and charities. These provide genuine and often unique opportunities, for tourists to spend money in a way that has direct, positive impacts on the local people and / or environment.

When you purchase ‘handicrafts’ from markets and street stalls, more often than not you are purchasing goods made in China.  They may be produced in overseas factories or sweatshops.  For genuine local products look for fair trade stores.  These support local ethnic groups to find new markets for their crafts and products, and pay fair prices to artisans.  You will take home something truly unique and provide valuable income for a local family.  I found that fair trade stores were also much more environmentally responsible, using recycled packaging and bags and selling products made from recycled materials.


Fabrics in Fairtrade store.jpg
Woven throws made by local artisans


Here are some of our favourite social enterprises, fair trade stores and charities that we discovered on our trip.

Elephant Parade – Thailand

Elephant parade is a fun social enterprise raising funds for elephant conservation, through art exhibitions and sales of decorated elephant sculptures. Their work stands out and also helps to raise awareness of their important cause.

Read about our visit to Elephant parade here.

Social enterprise Vietnam

In Vietnam was where we began to come across a number of social enterprises and charities.  As we began to have good experiences we sought out more.

Museum of Ethnology Hanoi

Our first destination was Hanoi and I’ve written about how much we enjoyed our day at the Museum of Ethnology.  Within the museum are a restaurant and shop but not your usual Museum café and shop.

The Restaurant is a non profit training enterprise for disadvantaged youth.  Students attend the Hoa Sua school, established in 1994.  The school has other outlets and a cooking school in Hanoi.  By dining at the restaurant, you can support Hoa Sua school which has trained over 7000 students, from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain the skills they need to pursue a career in the hospitality industry.  A common concept in many places we travelled, these restaurants always provide an interesting experience, and often very delicious food.

Indigo dye workThe Ethnology Museum shop is a real treat for shoppers that love genuine handicraft items.  Partnering with Craftlink, a Vietnam non-profit enterprise seeking new markets for traditional artisans, the shop sells beautiful quality, craft items.  Items are produced by women in different ethnic groups, traditional villages or disadvantaged groups.  Producers are paid a fair wage, given training to develop new products and designs, and support to manage their handicraft enterprise with book keeping skills.

Healing the Wounded Heart Shop Hue 

Our next stop in Vietnam was Hue where I came across a tiny shop on a busy corner.  The healing the wounded heart shop sells unique items made from recycled materials.  All items are made by people with disabilities, in many cases they are deaf or mute.  They receive a fair wage and health insurance.  Profits also go towards funding heart surgeries for children in need, in the Hue area.  The items are lovely. Completely different souvenirs that don’t contribute more plastic to the environment, while raising money for a fantastic cause and supporting artisans in meaningful work.

Artisans working at Healing the Wounded Heart Shop Hue.jpgThe artisans are there working in the front of the shop so you can have a look at how the items are made.

They also had a tea rooms which we didn’t visit but I’ve read they are excellent too, so make time for those if you can.  The shop is at 23 Võ Thị Sáu, Hue.


Fair trade crafts Hoi An

When in Hoi An you’ll want to find a unique piece of Vietnam to take home and there are many beautiful shops and boutiques to browse.

Reaching Out is a social enterprise “established in 2000 with the vision of providing opportunities for people of disability (PWD’s) to learn skills and gain meaningful employment so that they are able to integrate fully with their communities and lead independent and fulfilling lives.”

They have a shop and a teahouse in Hoi An at 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street.  We came out with silk sleeping bag liners to use on our Europe camping trip.  S has tried hers already and says she feels like a princess sleeping in silk.

The Lifestart Foundation in Hoi An has a fair trade store, painting and lantern making workshops and free daily Vietnamese Language classes.  We were too late to book into one of their lantern making workshops , I recommend you book in advance as they are very popular.

“The Lifestart Foundation is a grassroots, not-for-profit charity that helps disadvantaged Vietnamese people and their families to become self-sufficient. Founded in 2000 by Australian Karen Leonard and supported by a team of dedicated volunteers, the Foundation applies a holistic approach to helping those in need through proven working programs and initiatives which are designed to effect a generational change.”

Laquerware Ho Chi Minh

In Ho Chi Minh, on the way to Cu Chi tunnels most organised tours stop at a laquerware factory.  Here people with disabilities, many from the war or the impact of agent orange, produce beautiful lacquerware.

On the surface it looks like a good cause, these people are engaged in meaningful work and are able to support themselves.  However, the way busloads of tourists were paraded past the artisans every day, taking pictures, but given little time or opportunity for genuine interaction made us feel uncomfortable.  We felt like these people had become a tourist attraction and it didn’t feel nice to be part of it. I’m unsure if this place was a genuine charity or social enterprise, so if anyone can tell me more about it feel free to comment!

Social Enterprise Cambodia

In Cambodia there are many ChildSafe campaigns urging tourists not to give money to street children or to purchase from children selling items at Angkor Wat and other popular sites. These children should be in school, giving them money only perpetuates the problem. Instead there are many genuine ways to help them.  There is lots more I could write on this topic and some fantastic information and resources to share.  Visit the Childsafe website to find out more.  Here are some ways you have a positive impact when visiting Cambodia.

Friends restaurants Cambodia

“A leading social enterprise saving lives and building futures of the most marginalized children & youth, their families and their communities in South East Asia and across the world.”  Friends International has a number of social business that offer vocational training in a number of industries from hairdressing to mechanics.  Part of Friends International is Tree Alliance a global alliance of training restaurants.

We visited Friends and Romdeng, both in Phnom Penh, and Marum in Siem Reap.  Friends Restaurant serves delicious modern tapas and interesting cocktails. Their location near the National Museum makes it easy to see the evening show there before or after dinner, more about that below.  We ate here three times the food was so good, once for lunch and twice for dinner!

At Romdeng, they serve Cambodian cuisine.  Fried Tarantulas anyone?  Or perhaps you’d like some red tree ants with your beef fillet?  Friends was our favourite but we very much enjoyed Romdeng too.  Each restaurant in the Tree Alliance has favourite dishes from the other restaurants on their menu and there are changing specials too.

These are training restaurants, but the level of service is exceptional, the best we’d had on our trip and the food is all outstanding.  On top of this we were impressed that the restaurants are committed to environmentally friendly practices, there are no plastic straws here, instead you might have a bamboo or lemongrass straw in your cocktail.

Marum in Siem Reap serves creative local cuisine.  They have been working with street children and other marginalised youth in Siem Reap since 2005.  We loved the Khmer pork salad.  Overall we enjoyed Cambodian food, I found it to be fresh and tasty with lots of fresh vegetables and herbs.  There were spices but it wasn’t usually hot.


Marum restaurant Siem Reap.jpg
Marum Restaurant Siem Reap


All their restaurants are attractive with some lovely outdoor spaces.  The walls are decorated with student’s artwork.  Understandably these restaurants are popular, we didn’t book but always arrived early as we tend to do with the kids anyway.  Booking is recommended especially if you want an outside table.

Friends ‘N’ Stuff

While you are waiting for your meal you can indulge in a spot of shopping – all for a good cause of course.  Friends ‘N’ Stuff, sell products made by the families of the young people that the social enterprise is supporting.  This provides the families with an income which they can use to keep their children in school, and teaches them skills to lead to stable employment.  Again there is a strong environmental focus with many products made from recycled materials.  We purchased some elephant poo paper notebooks!  I love that Friends has a holistic, whole family approach, to creating a better future for these children.  There are shops in Marum and Romdeng restaurants and a large shop on the same street as Friends Restaurant, street 13, in the same premises as the nail bar.

Friends Nail Bar

When all this eating and shopping has become a bit too much it is time to get pampered. Friends can help you out there too, with their Nail Bar.  For very reasonable prices you can get an excellent manicure or pedicure including gel polish or nail art.  Students are able to express their creativity and master the skills of nail design.  The young women that did our nails were so sweet, S was very ticklish having her toes done and they thought her giggles were very funny, we were all having a good laugh.  They are learning, so it takes a bit longer but they do a fantastic and thoroughly professional job.  It is best to make a booking.

Friends Nail Bar
Backpacksandsunhats at Friends Nail Bar, Phnom Penh

When we weren’t eating at Friends and their sister restaurants we fitted in a visit to Daughters of Cambodia.

Daughters of Cambodia

Daughters of Cambodia empowers those trapped in the sex industry to walk free and start a new life.  Their services include counselling, therapy and medical care. As well as the opportunity to find employment in a Daughters social business.  Similar to the Friends businesses their visitor’s centre has a beautiful boutique, a café and a nail spa.  We had a very nice lunch and in their modern café, you can learn more about the Daughters and some of their stories while you are there.

Watthan Artisans Cambodia

If you still aren’t shopped out, head to Watthan Artisans Cambodia, they have a shop conveniently across the road from Friends on street 13 in Phnom Penh.

“A worker -run cooperative of artisans with disabilities, run by and for Cambodian Artists”

90% of the staff are women, and their income directly benefits 400 families.  Research shows that when we empower women to build an enterprise and provide an income for their family, the benefits will spread to the whole community.  I like that this organisation is run by and for Cambodians.  And I loved their products too.

Cambodian Living Arts

This organisation made me think about how significant and important a country’s cultural history is and how easy it is to lose traditional dance, music and art in just a generation or two if the arts aren’t supported or are actively destroyed.

Cambodian Living Arts was founded by a genocide survivor and musician in 1998.  Returning to Cambodia from the US to find 90% of Cambodia’s artists had not survived the Khmer Rouge regime, he set up what became the living arts programme.  Experience Cambodian Living Arts creates sustainable and fairly paid jobs for artists and technicians while giving audiences a chance to experience a quality, authentic Cambodian performing arts show.  Income from the show also supports their other programmes, including work in schools.

Even without this added feel good benefit, the Experience Cambodian Living Arts show is outstanding.  It runs every night in a theatre within the grounds of the National Museum.  We were enthralled, the costumes, music and dances were wonderful, some funny, some moving, some so clever, all unique and perfectly performed.  There are tickets for a combined dinner and show experience with dinner at Friends Restaurant! So if you are interested in doing both have a look at these packages.  This isn’t the cheapest thing to do in town but is honestly worth every penny.  The theatre is small so even the cheaper seats are good, we went for mid range to ensure the kids had a good view.


Sustainable Travel in Cambodia

When you travel you need to eat.  You usually want to purchase a gift or something for yourself to remember your holiday.  You might want to treat yourself to some time in the spa.  Cambodia makes it easy to choose a social enterprise to spend your money in and know that you are truly benefiting local people and their families and perhaps funding important development work.  Providing healthcare, education or training.

In Cambodia I felt like we had some fantastic, positive interactions with local people.  There was a language barrier, but we laughed together. We learnt a lot and oh my goodness we had our eyes opened.  I think this was partly because we began to actively seek opportunities to support local, social or charitable enterprises.  By this time in our trip we’d become more mindful of the impact of our travel.  I don’t pretend that we know everything about a place in the short time we visited.  These are just our experiences and impressions.

In future blogs look out for more about our experiences with social enterprises in Bali and the rest of our journey.  Please let us know your thoughts in the comments.



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