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Heritage Suites, Siem Reap: Hospitality With Heart

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s…

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s economic progress. Travel ten kilometres out of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s vibrant tourist town centre and you will see the real Cambodia – wooden stilt homes, lack of proper toilets and roads ridden with pot holes.

Now travel back to the heart of Siem Reap and the reality can easily be forgotten. Five-star and luxury boutique hotels, restaurants that cater for any palate with international standards in mind, wine bars and even designer boutiques – but none of these places are patronised by locals. They are established to serve the growing stream of tourists that have been increasing since the tourism boom in 2002.

Cambodia countryside

Those who stand behind the counter and serve the food and drinks are local Cambodians. They are young people who travel out from the countryside to seek employment in hope for a better life. Alongside this boom, organisations have sought to do more for Cambodia through social responsibility initiatives. You don’t have to look hard and long before you spot another initiative that sounds something like this: “Helping local Cambodians craft a future” or “Alleviating poverty one bag at a time”. While all this is great, I can’t ignore the fact that many organisations have also jumped on the bandwagon for marketing gain. Jarring leaflets and posters stuck on walls, tacky and thick compendiums in hotel rooms and websites claiming that they can save the world. When staff are asked if they know of the hotel’s social commitment, they simply shrug their shoulders and hand me another leaflet.

That’s why when I came across a hotel like Heritage Suites and an organisation like Sala Bai, I’m duly refreshed to learn of their genuine commitment and sustainable efforts in helping people through practical ways. In the sea of copycats, there are genuine organisations that want to help and find a way to make their contribution more meaningful and lasting.

Heritage, Creating A Legacy

The luxury 26 room and suites boutique hotel is tucked away in Slokram Village not too far away from the buzz of Pub Street and the Night Markets, but far enough for a peaceful retreat. During the day, I hear children from the local school laughing and chatting and school bells ringing just behind the hotel’s compound walls and at night, along the street leading to the hotel, I watch families sitting out on their verandah enjoying a meal of rice, soup and vegetables. The hotel in all its luxury and top-notch service is set amongst a local Cambodian commune – the very thing that preserves its sense of place and community charm.

Heritage Suites

The facade is that of a French colonial building curtained by palm trees. The hotel’s lobby, restaurant and bar sharing the same space, a lofty open hall with a tall ceilings supported by timbers and grand massive candle lights hanging over top. The arched window panes and large panelled mirrors at the bar facilitate the flow of natural light and magnify the spaciousness of the restaurant.

Heritage Suites 3

The same simplistic grandeur follows through into the suites. My bungalow suite had wall-to-ceiling windows with thick curtains that turn the suite from a bright and airy space into a slumber wonderland. The decor is minimalistic with an emphasis on Cambodian art and modern furnishings. The hallmark of the suite is the private steam room and stand alone oversized stone tub facing the private garden and open air shower.

Heritage Suites 1 Heritage Suites 2

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my suite, I wanted to understand Heritage’s stand on their community efforts. So I sat down for a chat with Magnus Olovson, the hotel’s general manager, a seasoned hospitality professional who’s been in the industry for years and leading in his game. “I’ve been doing corporate hospitality for so long and when I was given the opportunity to return to old fashion hospitality, I jumped at it”.

“What is old-fashioned hospitality?”, I asked. “It’s where I get to greet every guest by name and learn about their day. It’s like welcoming people into your home”. Just then, he spots a couple behind the thick glass doors alighting from the hotel’s vintage Mercedez. He politely excused himself to greet some guests that have just arrived from the airport. After a few handshakes, some jovial laughs and a warm welcome, he returned and candidly said, “My guests are important to me but my staff are so much more important. Without them, all this would not be possible”.

Magnus continued to explain Heritage’s partnership with Sala Bai, a hospitality vocational school that have trained over 1000 students in the last 13 years and given them job opportunities at world-class hotels in Siem Reap and beyond. “Look around, would you have guessed that they (the staff) come from really poor families? Look at them now, they are thriving and building a future of their own”.

Heritage Suites

Dressed in crisp black and white uniforms and a perpetual smile, the staff at Heritage Suites are all hands on deck. During my stay, I was met with prompt attentive service with the genuine warmth of Cambodian hospitality. I have stayed in Cambodia long enough to know that good job opportunities are hard to come by and even harder to keep. Cambodians, especially women have to battle with ongoing issues like human trafficking due to severe poverty and the social stigma that women are better off staying at home instead of working and earning a living. And those who fight through those battles have the chance to emerge as Cambodia’s new middle class.

Hope For Cambodia

Such is the story of Kim Hiv, a sweet, pretty, small statured lady with a big bright smile. At 27 years old, Thy Kim Hiv is the F&B supervisor at Heritage Suites and have hopes to climb the ranks in the future. Just five years ago, Kim Hiv’s story was extremely different. A graduating high schooler with no plans or means to further her studies, she heard from her neighbour about an application into Sala Bai school. She knew nothing about hospitality and her parents were disapproved of her decision to waitress as the job was frown upon and carried negative implications.

Kim Hiv Heritage Suites

After some persuasion, her parents agreed to her application into Sala Bai and she underwent seven months of intensive hospitality training with an additional four months of practical training. For Kim Hiv, this was the ideal opportunity as her food, lodging and tuition fees were completely paid for by Sala Bai and a job was guaranteed after her training.

“Heritage is my first job and I have been working here for five years. I am very lucky to learn about Sala Bai and when I started working, I help pay for my sister’s school fees”. Her family is one of many families living below the poverty line. They are simple farmers slogging to make ends meet. “Now, I am able to give my parents money too!”, Kim Hiv added with a wide grin. Schools like Sala Bai give hope to people who have little to look forward to. Sala Bai’s efforts are realistic with a clear goal in mind, to raise people from poverty and to create opportunities for a better life.

But the model won’t work without the commitment of hotels like Heritage Suites, the Raffles, Amansara and other trusted hospitality names. Heritage Suites give amateur hoteliers a chance to be further trained on the job and allow them equal opportunity to climb the ranks if they so desire.

As with all NGO organisations, Sala Bai is dependant on donations and have been thriving since with strong donor partnerships across the globe. Heritage saw an opportunity to give back and so every year since 2013, the hotel organises an annual charity gala dinner and auction at their beautiful property. This year in May, the gala titled ‘Changing Lives’ featured a culinary feasts prepared by Thailand’s rising culinary star Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn. The dinner was aimed at raising funds to help Sala Bai expand its new campus to accommodate more students. The gala was a glamorous success and Heritage raised a total of $15,000 in funds, which, for a property of its size, is truly remarkable.

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Social responsibility can be a fad that fades off over time for those who jump on the bandwagon, but genuine organisations are those that go the extra mile because they believe in the cause that would outlast the organisations lifetime.

Claude Colombie, director of Sala Bai explained, “Our model very simple, in a country as poor as Cambodia, we need to find real solutions that help close the gap. We find the poorest of the poor, educate them and give them a job. That’s it! And this model has proven successful over 13 years, families who earn less than $500 a year now have a daughter or a son who earns half or more a month and are able to support their families”.

It’s incredibly remarkable what a door of opportunity can do for one life, one family, one community. At Heritage Suites, there are no garish posters that spell “DONATE” or leaflets in the room’s compendium. Instead, an unassuming bicycle with a simple poster at the entrance explains the hotel’s partnership with Sala Bai. Hotel guests can donate if they wish and donations help pay for school materials and bicycles for the students to get to their place of work. The truest and most sincere testament of Heritage’s commitment to social responsibility is in the people, people like Kim Hiv who live to tell her story.

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Mission Trip 2010: The Real Cambodia

A history of genocide, wars and devastation, it’s a wonder Cambodia and her people are still very much alive today. Still the stains of such history are seeing its ripple…

A history of genocide, wars and devastation, it’s a wonder Cambodia and her people are still very much alive today. Still the stains of such history are seeing its ripple effects in today’s generation. Statistics have shown that 51% of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 18. And of this 51% not even half get a proper education. Many of them are forced to help their parents on the field, some of them are make it through only to primary school and there are those that are urged to beg and even sell their bodies for a meager dollar or two.

On our second night in Battambang, we had our dinner at a road side stall. Our tables were filled with food, drinks and more food to go around. We ate with much comfort relishing the delicious Cambodian meal and fruit shakes. After we satisfied our hunger, we stood up to leave. Within seconds of leaving our seats, a man in tattered clothing comes rushing to the table with an empty plastic bag pouring our leftovers into it. He scrapped the plates clean. Oblivious of our presence, his only focus was to get whatever food that was left before the stall owner comes shooing him away. I stopped at my tracks unable to comprehend the severity of hunger this man was facing. He retreated to a corner stuffing his face with a jumble leftover.

Regardless of how much I’ve travelled, seen different cultures, traditions, people and places and regardless of how many mission trips I’ve been too, my prayer is that I will never be immune to scenes of poverty, desperation and scarcity. Because compassion starts in the heart and compassion can move mountains.

Our Sunday in Cambodia was spent traveling to four different churches ministering to adults and children. Two teams travelled on motorbikes for over 50 kilometers on a dusty gravelly road. The other two teams travelled by van to the other two churches. These churches were simple, some just under a tree, one church under a wooden shack and one in a make-shift church. Simplicity and sincerity was very apparent. There was no sound system, LCD screens, big pulpits, ushers, leaflets or anything of that sort. It was merely the gathering of His people in a place sharing fellowship and feeding from God’s word. Isn’t that what church is about?!

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (1)

I sincerely believe that there is hope for Cambodia. This generation of 51% under the age of 18 is a God given generation with God given destinies and futures. They have talent and skills just like you and I – the only thing lacking are opportunities. But opportunities are not far-fetched, it’s coming to Cambodia and I hope to see the fruits of it one day.

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Mission Trip 2010: Reaching Out & Giving Aid

The harsh realities of Cambodia stares me in the face. My second trip to this desolate country in a month has left an indelible mark in my throve of memories….

The harsh realities of Cambodia stares me in the face. My second trip to this desolate country in a month has left an indelible mark in my throve of memories. Touching down in Siem Reap, we travelled four hours on a local bus to Battambang. Packed with over 40kgs of old clothes, medical supplies and a vague sense of what to expect, our team of a doctor and four medical students, 10 professionals and a little girl (Vanora) and set out to make medical aid possible for the rural village folk.

We met up with Pastor Sam of Legacy of Hope, an English language institute that offers quality education to children and youth. He brings us around the school, a few simple blocks of tiny classrooms with ceilings low enough to make you feel claustrophobic. Students stare at us intently offering welcoming smiles and respectful bows as we peeked in.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (5)

Prior to our arrival, Pastor Sam had organized the purchase of medicines and prepared a group of local translators to help us with the medical camp. We spent the rest of the day sorting, counting, packing and labelling medicines into the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, many questions still hung in the air as we travelled another hour into interiors of the country side– ‘How many people will come?’, ‘How will the response be?’, ‘What will we encounter?’, ‘Will we be able to cope with the numbers?’… To add to the sea of questions, it was the first time a medical team has visited this particular village.

A multitude of people were found waiting at the entrance of the school, the temporary ‘hospital’ for the next 2 days. Along the way as our van approached, groups of people were seen walking towards the school, some pulling wooden carts to ferry their children, others dragging their little ones by the finger in hope to get some medicines for their ailing bodies.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (2)Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (16)

Children walked around with torn clothes, some half-naked and most of them without any shoes or slippers. Their hair streaked with a light tinge of blonde not from hair dye but as a result of severe malnutrition. Old women and men offer a smile to welcome us and I’m overcome by the sight of decaying and charcoal black teeth. I returned a smile with my best effort trying to hide the feelings that overcome me – feelings of empathy and despair.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (6)

In a place like Cambodia, cleanliness and hygiene is a concept hard to grasp or even understand. These people have so little to survive much less spare a few dollars to buy toothpaste or soap for bathing. They live on bare minimum, a shade above their head and enough to fill their stomachs. Finger nails packed with dirt are trimmed manually by biting on it. Water is a precious natural resource since it rains for 6 months and not even a drop for the next half of the year. And in those dry seasons, water is used for cooking rather than washing or cleaning.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (21)

Yet despite the poverty stricken conditions, nothing comes free. Parents still need to pay for their children’s education and medical aid is not covered by insurance or even subsidized by the government. In order to put food on the table, one has to work hard plowing and tilling their land in harsh weather conditions. Meat is a complete luxury for these rural folk since it costs USD12 for 1kg of chicken!

On the first day of the medical camp, we saw over 350 patients. Setting up stations to test their blood pressure, glucose level and finally meeting a doctor – we dispensed thousands of tablets, cleaned wounds, gave out vitamins and extended our hearts to these people. Children walked into the ‘hospital’ without parents, farmers miss a day of work just to get a basic medical health check, families streamed in and the hall was filled. The doctors didn’t have a minute to rest and the pharmacy buzzed with activity.

Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (18)Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (7)Battambang_Medical Camp 2010 (10)

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