I’ve always despised the term ‘tourist’. So pedestrian and gauche are its implications to me, that I’m known among friends — and a few random strangers around the world — for my ‘I’m a traveller!’ rant.
Yet, every now and then, I find myself battling the inner hypocrite when I can’t resist the beaten touristy track. And on a recent trip to Cambodia, I met my Waterloo: The stunning Angkor Wat temples.
After an exhausting two days of Indiana Jones-ing around the eighth wonder of the world, the traveller in me began to threaten the tourist with dire consequences. So, itching to do something different, I headed into Siem Reap, the Angkor Wat base town, a man on a mission. Not only was I going to gourmandise my way through the rich and fragrant culinary landscape of this town, I decided, but every single cent I spent in this pursuit would go towards the underprivileged and marginalised.
I had first heard of this unique ‘dining with a purpose’ concept from a fellow traveller and armed with her list of four Siem Reap establishments that endorsed this philosophy, I began my (semi) altruistic adventure.
My first stop, accordingly, was dinner at Butterflies Garden Restaurant, a foodie’s fantasy — and a veritable nightmare for those afraid of moths. Serving up some stellar Khmer Beef Prahok with Peanuts and silken Chicken and Coconut Curry in a setting filled with fluttering butterflies of varied hues and sizes, this restaurant also helps rebuild post-Khmer Rouge Cambodian society by providing advanced restaurant training to disadvantaged youngsters and supporting traditional Khmer performance art.
The next morning, still on the trail, I got my caffeine fix at the rather whimsical Joe to Go Restaurant and Boutique run by The Global Child, a non-profit school whose proceeds support the education of underprivileged children in and around Siem Reap. Amaretto-laced Iced Latte and Pain au Chocolat never tasted so good. A true-blue Khmer cookery class-cum-lunch was next on the agenda, so I trooped off to Le Tigre de Papier Restaurant next to Siem Reap’s bustling all-purpose Psar Chaa Market. For a mere $12 (about Rs 600), which goes towards supporting the Sala Bai Hotel and Restaurant School that gives hospitality training to poor Khmers, you are taught three dishes of your choice, which are later served up as lunch for the whole class.
I can now make a killer Pumpkin and Coconut Soup, Fresh Cambodian Spring Rolls with Prawn and Stir Fry of Lotus Root with Pork.
The swan song meal of my trip was a light lunch at the wonderfully bohemian Singing Tree Café, savoured just before my flight out of the city. Although mainly vegetarian, the café does have dishes made from seafood and fish, which I chose to eschew in favour of the Fresh Garden Salad, Mushroom Quiche and a tall, refreshing Banana-Strawberry Smoothie to wash it all down.
This café — also a yoga studio and gallery — is dedicated to raising funds for a number of NGOs, including the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project, Angkor Center of Conservation and Biodiversity and Osmosis, Kilt (a dance troupe for the physically challenged) and the Orphans and Disabled Arts Association, among others.
So, with a full conscience and an even fuller belly, I set off for the airport in a taxi that featured, rather ironically, a sparkly bumper sticker that read ‘TOURIST FRIENDLY’!