Responsible Tourism in Cambodia: A Khmer meal that gives back to the community

May 07, 2019
Lola Méndez

Urban Adventures’ Phnom Penh Secrets tour begins with an enlightening morning learning about the Khmer Rouge at S21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Killing Field. After such a humbling experience, it was soothing to enter the lush gardens of Romdeng. We’d faced the worst of humanity–and now we had a chance to learn about the best of Khmer people.

Romdeng is a social enterprise training restaurant run by Mith Samlanh, which means ‘close friends’ in Khmer. The local, non-religious charitable group has been supporting marginalized children in Phnom Penh since 1994. 1,800 vulnerable Cambodian youth have received food, shelter, medical care, training, and education.

Romdeng partners with Friends International and Tree Alliance. Together, these organizations are dedicated to building a sustainable future for marginalized children in Cambodia who lack any other opportunities. It’s estimated that there are at least 4,000 homeless children in Cambodia.

“We work with children who have no other chance,” says Pros Song, the restaurant manager of Romdeng. “We want to change their lives. They have no knowledge or skills and can’t get employed. Many children living on the streets don’t have money to support their families so they force themselves to earn money from the streets like selling flowers or begging.”

Manager of Romdeng in Phnom Penh

Romdeng’s manager, Pros Sem | Photo by Lola Mendez

These organizations collaborate in order to provide a means to an end to the cycle of poverty by helping underprivileged children develop employable skills. Professional training is provided free-of-charge in a variety of vocational programs as well as housing, meals, uniforms, and transportation. The restaurant hospitality and culinary course takes a year and a half of schooling with further employment opportunities at Romdeng, the nearby Friends the Restaurant, and other hotels and restaurants in Cambodia. Other training programs include certifications in cosmetics, and motorbike and car mechanics. Students must be at least 15, and can join the program up until the age of 24.

“We help a lot of children who don’t have the chance to go to school or get any sort of training. I try to work hard every day for them,” says Song. He didn’t set out to work with a social enterprise. He left his village to go to Phnom Penh to look for work. On his first day in the city, he saw a sign from Friends International. He visited the training centre and immediately knew that his calling was to help break the cycle of poverty and help the most vulnerable members of his society build obtainable futures.

That fateful day was 10 years ago. He started as a server, a position he excelled at, and was promoted to the position of hospitality teacher after three years. After he spent five years teaching at-risk Cambodian youth he was promoted to restaurant management roles. Song says that Romdeng has changed his life and he’s eager to continue with the organization as it’s deeply meaningful work for him to be able to be a part of changing his society. “I love this project because I have the chance to build our society and help our street children that don’t have the chance to go to school,” says Song.

Traditional Cambodian food at Romdeng

A delicious meal with a purpose | Photo by Lola Mendez

Romdeng is also conscious of environmental sustainability. They’ve banned plastic straws, bags, and takeaway containers and teach trainees about how harmful plastic is to the environment. The menu has a wide variety of options for vegetarian eaters as well. The black bean, okra, and spinach curry with sweet potato dumplings is absolutely phenomenal.

The menu is marked with icons to identify which dishes are favourites of the trainees, which are traditional Khmer meals, and which are extra spicy. The NGO training restaurant is one of the best places in Cambodia’s capital city to have an authentic Khmer meal with excellent service. All of the proceeds from the restaurant are channeled back into the training programs.

So if you decide to take our Phnom Penh Secrets tour, not only will you learn a lot about local life and the war, you’ll also get to try some of the best and most authentic local food in town AND you’ll be giving something back to the local community too.