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Some Helpful Tips on Volunteering in Southeast Asia

US Navy 110624-N-VE260-654 Sailors assigned to Naval Air Facility Atsugi teach elementary students English at Terao Elementary School












For travelers seeking a holiday that goes beyond the usual sun, sea, sand and getting sauced escape, volunteering can be an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to delve deeper into other cultures, meet new people and see a whole different side of your chosen destination. Southeast Asia is home to hundreds if not thousands of organizations that accept volunteers on a regular basis, so the only hard part is narrowing down the options.


However, before you sign-up for a week or more of selfless giving, there is the not-so-small matter of responsible volunteering to consider. ‘Voluntourism’ has exploded in Southeast Asia over the past few decades, which means that there are many companies that have jumped on the gravy train in the hopes of striking it rich by charging do-good travelers to lend a hand. Some of these organizations offer little to no benefits for the communities they claim to help, and in some cases they even cause more damage than good. On the flip side, there are also many volunteers who sign up for all the wrong reasons, which can cause a multitude of problems for everyone involved.


If you do want to volunteer in Southeast Asia, it pays to do your research first. Start by thinking about what skills you have to offer to people overseas. Sure, you may speak English, but that doesn’t make you qualified to teach it. Invest in some courses before you set out to save the world so that you have something legitimate to bring to the table. When looking into volunteer organizations, check to make sure that they are the real deal. Research where their money goes, how they select volunteers and what former volunteers have to say about their experience there.


Also, be honest with yourself, and be aware that volunteering is not for everyone. Many projects require volunteers to live in remote areas where you won’t have access to all the comforts of home. In addition, you may be face to face with rampant poverty, illness, abuse and corruption on a day to day basis. Can you handle being out of your element? And can you fully commit to the time period requested by the organization? For some other tips on responsible volunteering, check out this great article in Southeast Asia Backpacker on Responsible Volunteering in Southeast Asia.


If you’re thinking about volunteering in Southeast Asia but not sure where to start, we’ve put together a list of some of the more ethical volunteer organizations in the region to get you started. If there are any that we’ve missed that you think deserve a place on the list, feel free to comment below.



Conversations With Foreigners

Rather than charging huge sums to volunteers, Conversations with Foreigners has set up a sustainable model of cultural exchange for volunteers and Cambodian students at their conversational English language center in Phnom Penh. The students pay a small fee to learn English and gain a greater understanding of other people and cultures, and the volunteers only pay for Volunteer Housing costs, should they decide to stay in the organization’s accommodation. All of the money from the classes goes to the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT), a local NGO that sends skilled Cambodians into some of the poorest rural areas to teach rural people agricultural skills and proper sanitation so that they can empower the community members to improve their own livelihoods.

Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development

Grassroots works with Burmese teachers, social workers, health workers and migrant workers to promote education, human rights, and a safe working environment for Burmese migrants and their families in Phang Nga, South Thailand and Mae Sot. Their programs aim to provide education to the children of migrant workers, empower women through education and health care, and bridge the gap between the Burmese and Thai communities. Skilled volunteers can help by providing education, healthcare, IT assistance and administrative support.

Isara Foundation

Isara is unique in that it is one of the only free volunteer programs in Thailand. This non-profit organization provides free education to hundreds of Thai school children and implements projects that raise awareness about personal safety and environmental awareness. You can help by teaching English, computers or art to the children in the free learning center or by helping out at the Recycling Center, rebuilding classrooms and distributing free helmets to the community and the surrounding towns.


US Navy 120109-N-NB694-319 Sailors assigned to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) teach English to students at Nikhom



The East Bali Project

When the team from the East Bali Project first started, they asked the local villagers in East Bali what their main priority was and they said education for their children. Since then, the organization has gone on to increase literacy rates among young people, provide scholarships for disadvantaged school children, raise awareness about nutrition and sanitation, provide free healthcare to those in need and vastly improve water resources and infrastructure in the area. If you have experience and training in the specialist fields of agriculture, education, environment, health, infrastructure, technology, or nutrition and can commit to at least 2 months, you can make a difference with this award-winning non-profit organization.




Established in 1994, ProFauna is a non-profit organization that works in a non-political and non-violent way to protect wildlife and forests in Indonesia. They currently have two opportunities for volunteers in Indonesia: teaching wildlife and forest conservation at their education center in Malang, and a hands-on sea turtle conservation program in Bali. Volunteers pay a small fee that includes lodging and three meals a day.

Baby Sea Turtle


Free the Bears

What began as one woman’s plight to stop the harvesting of bear bile has now grown into an vast international organization that aims to rescue bears and other wild animals that have been illegally poached and imprisoned. Free the Bears now has projects in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia and India, and they have rescued and rehabilitated thousands of animals. Volunteers can now work with the bear keepers at the world’s largest Sun Bear sanctuary at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in Cambodia to feed the bears, clean and maintain the enclosures and build new enrichments. The minimum stay is one week, but you can stay for up to 8 weeks, and all of the fees go directly back to support the bears.



Bumi Sehat

Voted the 2011 CNN Hero of the Year, Bumi Sehat founder Robin Lim started this life-changing non-profit organization when she began providing free healthcare to pregnant women and children under 5 years in 1995 in Ubud, Bali. Today the organization continues to offer free health services for mothers, including pregnancy, birthing, post-partum and breast feeding in their centers in Bali and Aceh, Indonesia. Medical professionals are welcome to apply for volunteer positions, as are English Teachers for the Youth Center.

Wat Kuk: Cambodia’s Grisly Version of Buddhist Hell

At first glance, Wat Mondul Seyma (also known as Wat Kuk) seems like your typical peaceful Buddhist temple in Cambodia. The temple itself rests in the shade of tall trees, colourful prayer flags ripple in the wind, and pious monks and laymen place burning sticks of incense onto altars and pray amid murals that depict the story of Buddha’s life and teachings. However, follow the non-descript path behind the temple down to the riverbank, and a much more grisly scene unfolds.


As you make your way to the rocky outcroppings next to the banks of the Stung Metuk River, you come across a bizarre set of statues. Crawling frantically up a spiny tree are three naked and bleeding figures who appear to be trying to escape a devilish figure sneering up at them from the base of the tree while his dog barks menacingly beside him. Next to the tree, there is massive boulder with an unfortunate soul being sawed in half by two smirking demons.


You would be forgiven for thinking this is some sort of twisted theme park, where only the truly sadistic would spend an afternoon. However, a sign next to the figures explains that this is in fact Buddhist hell, and this is what happens in the afterlife to those who commit sins in this life. More a lesson in morality than a macabre playground, the scenes here are a warning against specific wrongdoings.


For example, the tree climbers represent what happens to those who commit adultery, while the man being sawed in half is warning against corruption. Two emaciated figures holding up a massive boulder on their bloody shoulders pay the price for robbing the less fortunate of land and power, while a menagerie of half-human, half-animal figures take turns being gutted by evil demons— a terrifying sign of what is to come for those who take the lives of other living beings.


Although not for the faint-hearted, the collection of statues at Wat Kuk offers a fascinating glimpse into Cambodian culture and religion. Many of the themes here center around taking advantage of and harming others, which is no surprise when you look at the country’s bloody history and past and current government. In addition, unlike so many other Buddhist practitioners, the majority of Cambodians believe that bad karma will get you a whole lot more than a dodgy reincarnation.


To get to Wat Kuk, drive a few minutes outside of Koh Kong City and head towards the Thai border. Most tuk-tuk and motorbike drivers will know exactly how to get there, and tourists are welcome to visit the temple, stroll the grounds, and of course, explore the gruesome images of Buddhist Hell.

Best Wine Bars in Southeast Asia

Wine Bottle Rack


Ah vino—nectar of the gods, social lubricant and a welcome addition to any meal. Although wine is not a traditional drink in many Southeast Asian countries, that doesn’t mean you can’t find a good glass or three on your travels. For serious oenophiles or those who simply want a change from the usual Bintang, Tiger or Beer Lao, check out these top wine bars in Southeast Asia.


White Marble Wine Bar & Restaurant

Photos of White Marble Restaurant & Wine Bar, Hoi An
This photo of White Marble Restaurant & Wine Bar is courtesy of TripAdvisor


Located in the heart of historical Hoi An, this chic wine bar is housed in a 2-story wooden colonial building that has been revamped to offer a contemporary twist. The wine list here is impressive to say the least, with bottles from places as varied as Italy, New Zealand, California and France, and 12 wines by the glass, starting at just $4. The menu is an eclectic mix of Vietnamese and Hoi An cuisine like Fresh Rice Paper Rolls and Grilled Beef in Betel Nut, as well as international fare like the Trio of Dips, Sushi and a heavenly Cheese Platter.

98 Le Loi St

Hoi An Old Town, Vietnam

Tel: +84 (0) 510 3911862


The Wine Pub

Photos of WP wine pub, Bangkok
This photo of WP wine pub is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Beer may be best for many in Bangkok, but wine lovers in the know head to The Wine Pub for its European-style ambiance and huge selection of bottles. Grab a seat at the huge bar or in one of the cushy booths and choose from over 100 labels from around the world or their 6 wines by the glass that change on a regular basis. If you need something to soak up all that plonk, The Wine Pub offers up a great tapas menu, as well as delicious French cheeses, charcuterie platters, salads and pastas.

Pullman Bangkok King Power

8/2 Rangnam Road, Thanon-Phayathai,

Ratchathewi, Bangkok

Tel. +66 (0)2 680 9999

Hours: Daily: 6pm – 2am


Rubies Wine Bar


It may be small, but what Rubies lacks for in size it makes up for in vibe and vino. Snag a spot at the wooden bar inside or one of the cozy tables outside and order from a diverse mix of international wines by the glass or bottle. Get here early on the weekends, as the place packs out with expats who come for the great drink specials and live bands and DJs. They also throw lively parties throughout the year on holidays and special occasions.

Corner of Street 19 and 240

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tel: +855 97 884 9664

Hours: Tue – Thu: 10am – 1am, Fri – Sat: 10am – 2am, Sun: 10am – 1am



VIN+ Senayan Arkadia - Escargot in Zuccini

New to Bali’s burgeoning wine scene, Vin+ is hard to miss with its soaring bamboo structure that evokes the shape of a wine barrel and sleek glass windows that offer indoor diners glimpses of the treetops and the lively Seminyak action below. Guests can sit outdoors in the shady garden wine lounge or lush al fresco dining area or enjoy air-conditioned comfort inside. On your way out, hit up the retail shop to peruse over 18,000 bottles, including rare and exclusive vintages. Or even better, call them up to have bottles delivered directly to your door.

Jl. Kayu Jati #1 Seminyak

Bali, Indonesia

Tel: +62 361 473 2377

Hours: Restaurant: 5pm – late, Shop: 10am – late


Douang Deuane Restaurant and Wine Bar

Wine glass


Cheap and cheerful, this charming little spot that serves up great French and Asian dishes accompanied by divine wines by the glass, carafe or bottle. The French owner is super friendly and makes you feel right at home, and the soft lighting and sultry jazz playing in the background add to the ambiance. For a romantic dinner out, reserve the secluded and solo table for two on the upstairs balcony.

Th Francois Nginn

Vientiane, Laos

Tel: (021) 241 154

Bun Da Lean – Rice Harvest Festival

Bun Da Lean – Rice Harvest Festival

Bun Da Lien monks
Cambodia has more holidays than any other country in the world. Almost every month there is anywhere from one to five festivals, national holidays, or religious holy days. And each province and village has their own unique celebrations, which is how I ended up last weekend in a small village in the countryside just outside of Phnom Penh, dancing in a dirt clearing until the early hours of the morning and celebrating the end of the rice harvest, known here as Bun Da Lean.

It all started when my Cambodian friend Kim, asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend in his home village of Takeo for Bun Da Lean. Bun Da Lean is a festival at the end of the rice harvest, when entire villages come together to thank the spirits for the good weather, good growing conditions, and the bounty of rice that will feed and support the people for the following year. Typically, people make offerings to the Buddha and the spirits of the rice fields and villagess, receive blessings from the monks, and donate part of their crop yield to the monks and the temples. Afterwards, a party takes place with good food, lively music and plenty of dancing. I was up for all of it.
So on Saturday morning, off we went on Kim’s Suzuki Best, me on the back, Kim driving, and Kim’s 8-year old nephew balanced between his legs.

Driving out of Phnom Penh, we passed entire families poised on motorbikes, lorries jam packed with snorting, nervous looking pigs, and baseball capped men, carrying dozens of chickens on the back of their bikes, each one tied to another by the feet, and slung over the back of the bike so their beady little eyes bobbed precariously, inches from the ground which was racing beneath them. At one point I looked up to see a mini van speeding past us, stuffed to capacity with plastic bags full of chilies and green beans.
As we left the city limits, the landscape began to open up to vast open fields, and the ubiquitous Cambodian palm trees (daum t’nout) that are scattered across the country.

palm-tree, Cambodia
The roads changed from paved, crowded highways into dusty dirt roads, with significantly less motorbike traffic and only the occasional truck or van leaving an eye-burning cloud of dust in it’s wake.

Upon arrival at Kim’s mother’s house we could see that the main stage for the celebration had been set up almost directly in front of her house. A small stage decorated with bright, colorful Buddha posters had been erected as well as a long platform like bench along the side, and huge, tarp awnings to protect the area from the sun and/or rain. And of course the microphone and speakers – Cambodians love to set up loudspeakers at celebrations and blast traditional music or belt our announcements on the microphone. For birthdays, weddings, funerals, and festivals, it’s not a party unless the entire neighborhood can hear you.

A small group of nuns, attired in white lace shirts and sarongs sat cross-legged on the intricately woven rattan mats, and listened to the oraters read out the amounts of money that had thus far been donated to the temple. Small, dusty, half naked children played on the outskirts, occasionally stumbling onto the mats and crawling into the nuns laps. Soon, the area began to fill up with villagers, and shortly afterwards, the monks arrived in tuk tuks and on the back of motorbikes. They sat in order of their status, with young monks at the end farthest from the stage, and the older monks at the front. The head monk was given the seat of honor—a throne like wooden chair with plush yellow cushions.

Bun Da Lien, Takeo

Soon the area was packed with people in prayer, giving their respects to the monks, and listening to the Head Monk preaching the dharma and giving advice to them on how to live a good Buddhist life.
After about an hour or two of praying, the ceremony was over, the monks went back to the temple, and the partying began. The mats were cleared out, loudspeakers brought in, and the music started with a mighty thump of bassline. For hours people danced in the traditional Khmer style—slowly stepping forwards in a large circle, and seductively twisting their hands along side of them in time with the music. Nobody touches, nobody moves quickly, and nobody breaks ranks or direction with the circle of dancers. And the style never changes, regardless of whether it’s a Khmer love song playing or a Westernized Khmer hip hop or pop song.

Kids Having Fun at Bun Da Lien

Kim managed to ply us both with beer, and I was constantly being dragged up every few songs to dance in the circle with Kim’s sister and friends or various other villagers, all of whom were thoroughly amused at the sight of a blonde haired barang girl attempting to dance Khmer style. Our evening was also peppered with the frequent appearances of Kim’s cousin who would pop out of nowhere and drunkenly shout “Hello!!!” which seemed to be the only English phrase he knew besides “sorry – sorry”.

At about midnight I was very hospitably led to bed by Kim’s sister, who seemed to sense my drunken exhausted state, and I retired to the only mattress in the house, which was shrouded in a much appreciated mosquito net. The rest of the family – Kim’s mother, 3 sisters, two brothers-in-law, a younger brother, two nephews, a niece, and the new baby (2 months old) all slept under mosquito nets on blankets on the top floor of the house.

In the morning, I awoke to more chanting, and crawled out to sit on the front steps, where I watched villagers carry large baskets of rice to a tarp on the ground in front of the house. Each person ceremoniously poured the rice onto an ever-growing pile. Apparently, each family in the village makes an offering of rice to the temple, which will then be stored as food for the monks or sold to help pay for the upkeep of the temple.

After a quick breakfast of crusty baguette dipped into a bowl of curry, I was led to the back of the house where I was pointed in the direction of a giant water vat to brush my teeth and wash my face. Kim’s neighbor had a toilet in her back yard (the only one in the village), so I didn’t have to squat in the backyard with the cows in broad daylight, as I had done the night before under the protection of darkness. And then we were off, back to the city—a completely different world than the village of Takeo.

My Bun Da Lean experience gave me a new found respect for the tenacity and generosity of the villagers who work hard all year round, with few luxuries and even fewer so-called “necessities” of life. Yet these people make a point to share what small excesses they do have with the community, and have no qualms inviting a foreigner into their midst. I am grateful that I got a chance witness and take part in the celebration of the rice harvest, and a chance to experience the overwhelming sense of community that is often times taken for granted in big cities all over the world.

Do-it-yourself BBQ in Phnom Penh, Cambodia


 Eat out and cook your own food at the same time. Impossible? Not in Phnom Penh.

Let’s be honest. How many of us actually cook at home on a regular basis? In a city like Phnom Penh where cheap eats and lively restaurants are abundant, the urge to eat out is sometimes all consuming. But for those of us who crave the act of cooking for ourselves, Phnom Penh offers plenty of do-it-yourself restaurants where you can eat out and cook your own food at the same time.

The most popular do-it-yourself restaurants are Khmer barbecue joints, which can be found in almost every neighborhood in town. The premise is simple—you’re given a gas fueled grill, a platter of fresh vegetables, side bowls of prahoc (Cambodia’s ever popular fermented fish sauce) for dipping, and a plate of raw beef, with or without organ meat. Then, you’re on your own to grill up the offerings as to your preference. But like anything, standards of service and quality of food vary considerably from place to place.

One of the better Khmer barbecue restaurants in Phnom Penh is The Four Aces (or At Booun in Khmer) located on the corner of St. 86 and St. 64. The set up is simple – iron tables, plastic chairs and the ubiquitous bar girls roaming the indoor and outdoor tables. But don’t let the tissue littered floor fool you, the service and food here go above and beyond.

Upon being seated, a waitress will immediately ask you what you would like. There’s no menu here, so you have two options – Sait Koh Ang (grilled beef) or Soup Chnang (soup with meat and vegetables). Most of the servers speak English, but it wouldn’t hurt to know the Khmer names of the dishes or to bring along a Khmer speaking friend.

Now comes the fun part – if you’ve ordered grilled beef, you simply melt the supplied butter or lard over the grill, and lay on the meat and vegetables, cooking them to your preference. Pretty soon, the air will be fragrant with grilled onions, carrots, and sizzling beef. A quick dip in the complimentary bowl of prahoc, and you’ve got a truly Khmer meal.

Soup Chnang

For those in the mood for soup, a pot of beef broth with meatballs is placed on your grill, and you can pick and choose which vegetables and noodles to add from the platter supplied. Choices range from mushrooms, Khmer herbs, onions, fried garlic, spinach, and green water vegetables. You will also be given a plate of beef and one egg, which you crack onto the beef, mix around, and then slide into the soup. In ten minutes or less, you’ve got a hearty and healthy dinner.

Another great venue for soup lovers is the junction of Norodom, Monivong, and National Rd. No. 2 in the south of the city. Here one can find a plethora of soup restaurants lined up side by side, each imaginatively named after their street numbers (333, 555, 642, etc.).

Each restaurant serves exactly the same dishes, namely, huge portions of fresh veggies, meat, noodles, and dried tripe for the discerning eater to mix and match as they please. And servers are always readily on hand to top up your broth or refill your ice-cold soft drinks, Anchor draft, or Cambodian whiskey.

And what is a barbecue without freshly cooked meat? For the truly carnivorous at heart, look no further than Beong Trabek on St. 428. Finding it should be no problem – just look for a sea of motorbikes out front, and you’ll know you’re at the right place. Set in a warehouse sized beer garden setting, this place caters to large families, and groups of 10-100, as well as tables for two and even solitary diners.

Do it yourself BBQ in Cambodia

Beong Trabek really does grill it all, from juicy strips of beef or pork, to fresh squid, monstrous prawns, succulent oysters, and even delicious crabs straight from the beach. Each dish is grilled on clay pot barbecues set up strategically around the room. While the standard procedure is to let the servers cook your food for you, they have no problems relinquishing the task to you if you so desire.

While you watch your feast being grilled to perfection, you will be set up with a plate of freshly roasted peanuts, vegetables, chili sauce, and a small dish of pepper with accompanying lime wedges. Squeeze the lime into the pepper, and you’ve got another tasty Cambodian dipping sauce for your meat and seafood.

If you really want to enjoy your barbecue in true Khmer style, order a pitcher of draft beer and a can of ABC stout, poured directly into the pitcher with the beer. Served over ice, it’s the perfect accompaniment to grilled meat – just don’t blame me if you wake up feeling a tad (or incredibly) groggy in the morning.


Four Aces (At Booun)

Corner of St. 86 and 64


Soup Chnang

#333, # 555, #642 Monivong Boulevard


Beong Trabek

# 10 St. 428

The Most Bizarre, Unusual and Intriguing Hotels in Southeast Asia

Sometimes it seems as if all hotels are made the same. You know the feeling—you walk into your room, throw your stuff down, look around and realize that you could be anywhere. Bangkok, Hong Kong, even Ohio for that matter. Which is a shame, because if you know where to look, Southeast Asia is full of interesting, unique and artistic hotels that are so much more than just a place to rest your head. Why stay in a cookie cutter hotel chain when you can stay in one of these fabulously unconventional hotels and villas?


Hang Nga Guesthouse AKA Crazy House

Crazy House Dalat, Vietnam

Walking into the Hang Nga Guesthouse is like entering into some sort of bizarre dream, where Gaudi meets Alice in Wonderland, with a splash of Swiss Family Robinson and Salvador Dali thrown in. This spectacular array of wood, wire, glass and concrete buildings features imaginative ladders shaped as tree roots, mysterious cubby holes, towering treehouses with jagged peaks, and even an bizarre Indonesian/Swiss style chalet. Add to this spiderweb patterned windows, wooden kangaroos, bears and giraffes, and an explosion of tropical foliage and flowers just for good measure, and you’ve got a feast for the eyes. The architect and owner, Ms. Hang Viet Nga was trained in architecture in Moscow, and considers her Dalat guesthouse to be a masterpiece of curved lines that fuse nature and people. While the locals might think the guesthouse is a tad on the crazy side, tourists from around the world flock here to see this fantastic fusion of architectural styles and imaginative whimsy.

Dalat, Vietnam




The Imperial Boathouse Hotel

Imperial Boathouse Koh Samui

Originally real rice Thai barges that used to ply the Chao Praya River and the open seas, these 34 wooden boats have been renovated into unique luxury suites. Each suite offers a breezy outdoor wooden deck, a spacious living room inside, sky-lit bathrooms, and a master suite below deck. Following the nautical theme, even the pools here are shaped like boats. As an added bonus, the Imperial Boathouse Hotel is surrounded by lush tropical gardens and just steps away from the gorgeous Choeng Mon Beach on Koh Samui.

Koh Samui, Thailand



Elephant Safari Park Lodge

elephant safari park lodge imageMany people who travel to Southeast Asia make a point to see some elephants on their holiday, but how many people do you know who actually stay in the midst of these beautiful creatures? The Elephant Safari Park Lodge is set in the middle of the Elephant Safari Park in Taro, Bali, and it offers guests an up close and personal experience with the 30 rare Sumatran elephants that roam the grounds. Eat breakfast while overlooking the forest and the elephant trails in the Mammoth’s Head Bar, have your own private elephant chauffeur pick you up at your room for a day of trekking with your elephant guide and bathing, feeding and petting the elephants. End your day with a spa treatment and a four-course dinner before retiring to your luxurious safari lodge room.

Taro, Bali, Indonesia



 4 Rivers Floating Lodge

4 Rivers Lodge
Far from the well-traveled backpacker trail of Cambodia, Koh Kong is an intoxicating mix of pristine rainforest, deep blue rivers, and untouched mountain ranges. Intrepid travelers can make the trip up the Tatai River to the 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, an environmentally friendly collection of luxury tents, floating on a platform along the river. Each tent features a private sun deck with views of the river in front and the Cardamom Mountains behind, as well as plush double and twin beds, flat screen televisions, Wi-Fi and mini-bars. But with so much nature and serenity outside, the chances that you’ll use these modern amenities is slim, as you’ll be much too preoccupied swimming, canoeing, trekking, and enjoying the spectacular sunsets from your deck.

Tatai, Koh Kong, Cambodia




Wanderlust Singapore
Once a 1920s schoolhouse, this experimental boutique hotel is the result of a collaboration between four of Singapore’s award-winning design agencies. Each agency was given free reign over one level of the Wanderlust hotel, creating rooms that are funky, modern and unique. Take for example, the Eccentricity Floor by :phunk Studio, with its colorful neon lights, rainbow hallway and vibrant mosaic-tiled jacuzzi; or the Creature Comforts floor by fFurious, which makes use of friendly monsters, spaceship sculptures and twinkling star lights. Even the communal area and bar is cutting-edge, with walls painted in abstract patterns, shag rugs and futuristic furniture.

Little India, Singapore



Do you know of any other unique or eccentric hotels, guesthouses or villas in Southeast Asia? If so, feel free to comment below.

An Interview with Oak Chan of Blue Chilli Bar, Phnom Penh’s Premiere Drag Show Venue

Originally from Thailand, Oak Chan has been part owner of Blue Chilli since it opened its doors in 2006. He has been a huge supporter of the drag queen show, here in Phnom Penh, as well as in Thailand, and performs in his own shows twice weekly at Blue Chilli Pub. Read on as he tells Stephanie Mee about his path to success in Phnom Penh’s vibrant drag queen scene.


Stephanie: What made you want to come to Phnom Penh to open a bar?

Oak: I came to Cambodia as a tourist two years ago, and I fell in love with the people and the country. At that time there was only one other gay bar in Phnom Penh, (Salt Lounge) and so I thought it would be a good idea to open another place for the gay community.

S: When and why did you start doing drag shows?

O: In February this year, I decided to throw a few parties at the bar. I saw that not many people knew about drag shows in the city, and I thought it would be fun to do something different and exciting. After a few months, the parties became very popular, and so we decided to make them a weekly event.

S: Where did you find the performers?

O: All the performers are staff and some customers of Blue Chilli. We get together every week and practise new songs, try out new outfits, and make up new acts that are sometimes serious and sometimes funny.

S: Do you find that the shows are well accepted in Phnom Penh by the community at large?

O: I think so. In Cambodia there is a word for ladyboy, which is the same as in Thailand – katoey – have you heard it before?

S: Yes, but does isn’t it a derogatory word?

O: No – not necessarily. It just means a man who dresses or acts like a lady, and it can be a normal word, depending on who says it, and their meaning behind saying it. In Cambodia people are very kind, and I think the shows are great entertainment for everybody, not just gay people. We have a very mixed crowd for the shows.

S: I’ve noticed that every Friday and Saturday you have a large, mixed crowd as well as a group of moto and tuk-tuk drivers, and passing people who gather outside to watch the shows.

O: Yes, everybody can enjoy them (the shows).

S: How does Cambodia’s ladyboy scene differ from Thailand’s?

O: In Thailand, the scene has been around for a long time, and so it has progressed into a large and very open community. Here, the scene is just starting and so it will take time before it is as popular as in Thailand.

S: Where do you see the future of drag shows in Cambodia going?

O: There are many bars that do drag shows opening in Phnom Penh now, and I think that in the future it will get much busier, and much more popular.

S: What is your favorite part about doing the shows?

O: I just love entertaining people, and making the customers happy. The customers are so important to us, and when we do the shows, we can see that they are having fun and enjoying themselves. Everybody has fun, and that is the best thing about the shows.

Blue Chilli’s drag shows run every Friday and Saturday night at 11:00 PM sharp. They usually pull in a pretty substantial crowd, so unless you don’t mind standing, get there early.

Country Guide for Teaching English in Southeast Asia

Country Guide for Teaching English in Southeast Asia

Kids in Ou Dong, Cambodia


Brunei is an ideal place to teach English, as it is safe, peaceful and the students are polite and respectful of foreign teachers. It also doesn’t hurt that teachers are not charged income tax, so you take home your entire salary every month. Moreover, many schools will grant housing assistance, cutting down your costs even more. However, standards are quite high in Brunei, as most of the teaching jobs are at primary and secondary schools. Therefore, you may find it difficult to find a job without a B.Ed or teaching qualification from your home country.


•You must be a native speaker from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand or the UK

•Bachelor’s degree, preferably a B.Ed, qualified teacher status such as a PGCE, Dip.T or accredited teaching certificate from your home state or province

•CELTA, TEFL and TESL certificates are not necessary, but definitely help

Work Visa:

You must have an employment visa to work in Brunei. Your school will arrange this for you, including all the paperwork and fees.

Expected Salary:

An average teaching salary in Brunei is anywhere from $42,000 BND to $77,000 BND per year (around $34,300 USD to $62,900 USD). Depending on the school, teacher packages might also include a housing allowance, settling in allowance and a bonus upon contract completion.



Back in the day, it was easy for backpackers to pick up work teaching English in Cambodia with no qualifications. However, times have changed, and schools in the kingdom have stepped up their game. Don’t expect to find a job if you haven’t invested in the proper education or certification prior to applying. The easiest places to find work are in Phnom Penh and Siam Reap. Overall, teaching in Cambodia is a pleasant experience, as the students are keen to learn, very respectful of teachers and quick to crack a smile or join in a laugh.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL or TESL certificate

Work Visa:

You must have a business visa to work in Cambodia. You can get a 30-day business visa on arrival in Cambodia and extend it every month, however, most schools will arrange a 6-month or 1-year business visa for you, including all of the paperwork and fees.

Expected Salary:

Anywhere from USD $500 to $3,000 a month. ESL schools in Cambodia typically do not offer plane tickets, housing, settling in allowances or bonuses upon contract completion.


East Timor

East Timor is one of the world’s newest independent nations, and is one of those off the beaten path type places where you won’t find hoards of tourists. As such, it can be a very rewarding place to work. The students are eager to learn, the salaries are decent and it is easy to head out on your days off to some of the world’s best diving spots, beautiful retreats in the mountains and miles and miles of pristine sandy beaches.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher


•Teaching Experience

Work Visa:

You must have a proper work visa to teach in East Timor, however, this is easy enough to obtain. The school or organization that hires you will usually arrange the visa for you, including all paperwork and fees. You can apply for the visa from a consulate in your home country or from within East Timor.

Expected Salary:

Salaries generally start at around $20.00 an hour, but could be higher depending on the school or organization and your experience. Employers may also include round-trip airfare, health and medical insurance and temporary accommodation upon arrival in East Timor.



Your best chances of finding work teaching English in Indonesia will be in the capital city of Jakarta. Here you will find many schools with competitive salaries and benefits. Elsewhere, English First dominates the English teaching scene. Salaries in Indonesia for ESL teachers tend to be lower than other parts of Southeast Asia, and working visas are expensive and slightly difficult to procure. Therefore, many schools may ask you to cover the costs of your own visa or sign a contract agreeing to repay the cost of the visa if you leave before the agreed upon completion date.


•Must be a native English speaker from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand

•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL or TESL certificate

Work Visa:

To legally work in Indonesia, you must have a work visa called a KITAS. If you meet all of the requirements, your school should arrange this for you. However, the KITAS is very expensive (about $1,500 USD), so some schools may take the cost out of your paycheck in increments each month, ask you to pay up front for the visa and then pay you back in increments each month, or ask you to sign a contract so that if you leave before the contract finishes, you are obligated to pay back the remainder of the visa.

Expected Salary:

From USD $300 to $1,500 a month, depending on the school. This may or may not include a housing allowance or free board at a house shared with other teachers.



Teaching English in Laos is great for those who prefer a more laid-back vibe over the hustle and bustle of city life. Laos is one of the most chilled out countries in Southeast Asia, even in the capital city of Vientiane, where you will find the majority of jobs. In addition, the friendly people and spectacular scenery are added bonuses. You won’t get rich teaching in Laos, but the cost of living is low and the going is easy here.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL, or TESL certificate. **Some schools may hire you on without these qualifications, however, you may be looking at low rates per hour and part-time work.

•Experience is preferred but not necessary

Work Visa:

You must have a business visa to legally work in Laos. Most teachers come in on a tourist visa, secure a job, and then arrange the business visa from within the country. Your employer must sponsor you for the business visa, and they will usually arrange everything for you, including paperwork and fees. That being said, some teachers have reported that certain schools expect teachers to pay for the visa themselves at a cost of about $300 USD per year.

Expected Salary:

Salaries vary in Laos. Inexperienced teachers or those with no teaching qualifications may be offered rates are as low as $9 to $10 USD per hour and only a few working classes a week. For experienced teachers with legitimate credentials, the average salary is about $800 to $1,000 USD per month. It is very rare to find a school in Laos that will pay for plane tickets, housing, insurance or offer contract completion bonuses.



Teachers in Malaysia are rewarded with amazing scenery, a fabulously vibrant mix of cultures and religions, modern cities and incredible food. ESL students in Malaysia range from young learners just learning the alphabet to university students studying advanced grammar in an effort to study or travel abroad.


•Native speakers from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland are preferred

• Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL or TESL certificate

•Experience teaching

Work Visa:

You must have an Employment Pass to legally work in Malaysia. Most teachers enter the country on a tourist visa, secure a job, and then apply for the Employment Pass from within the country. Your employer must sponsor you for the EP, and they will typically arrange the paperwork and pay the fees. You must leave Malaysia to activate the Employment Pass.

Expected Salary:

Teaching salaries vary in Malaysia depending on the school or organization and your qualifications and experience. Average salaries range anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 USD. Some schools will also include a housing allowance, plane tickets and medical insurance.


Once a destination far removed from the typical ESL teacher’s bucket list, Myanmar is now enjoying a period of change, and English language teaching positions are becoming more plentiful. Yangon is where you will find the bulk of English language teaching jobs in Myanmar, and although the salaries may not be as high as those in other countries in Southeast Asia, the people you meet and the unique experiences you will have here make up for it.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL, or TESL certificate

**It should be noted that it is possible to find a teaching job in Myanmar without a degree or teaching qualifications. However, if you don’t have these basic requirements, don’t expect to make killer money or receive any benefits.

Work Visa:

You must have a business visa to teach English in Myanmar. If you secure a job before you enter the country, your employer will arrange the paperwork for a business visa for you. Once you have the sponsorship letters, you can apply for a business visa at any Myanmar embassy. The multiple entry business visa is valid for 6 months, but you must leave the country every 70 days to extend the visa.

Expected Salary:

The average salary for an English teacher in Myanmar hovers around $1,000 to $1,500 USD a month, although this varies depending on your qualifications and experience. Some schools will pay for your visa costs, housing, plane tickets and even bonuses upon contract completion. As more and more English language schools open in Yangon and beyond, salaries and benefits will most likely become more competitive.


It’s easy to see why so many people want to teach English in the Philippines. With over 7,000 islands, seemingly endless white sandy beaches, soaring mountains, verdant rice terraces, colorful culture and friendly locals, who wouldn’t want to work here? Unfortunately, finding ESL jobs in the Philippines is not easy. So many Filipino people speak excellent English that many schools prefer to hire locals rather than deal with the paperwork for employment visas for foreigners. However, if you really put your heart into it, you can find places that are willing to take on a foreign teacher.


•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL, or TEFL certificate

Work Visa:

Once you find work in the Philippines, your employer will have to apply for an Alien Employment Permit, which takes about 14 days to process. After you have this permit, you can apply for an employment visa.

Expected Salary:

Salaries for ESL teachers in the Philippines are quite low compared to the cost of living, at about $800 to $1,000 USD per month. English language schools in the Philippines do not usually pay for flights, accommodation, or insurance. You may or may not get a bonus upon completion of your contract.


Once upon a time, it was easy for backpackers with few or no qualifications to pick up English teaching jobs in Thailand. In recent years though, the government and schools have become much more switched on, and now you need at least a bachelor’s degree to get your foot in the door in the competitive English teaching field. That being said, if you have the right qualifications, there are literally hundreds of teaching jobs available at any given time in Thailand.


•Must be a native English speaker from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the UK or USA

•Bachelor’s degree or higher

•CELTA, TEFL, or TESL certificate

Work Visa:

To work in Thailand, you must have a business visa and a work permit. It is quite common for teachers to enter Thailand on a 30-day tourist visa, find a job, and get a letter of sponsorship from their future employer for a business visa. Once you have the sponsorship letter, you must leave the country to apply for a business visa at a Thai embassy. For those who accept employment before arriving in the country, your employer will arrange the sponsorship paperwork for you, and you can apply for and enter Thailand on a Non-immigrant Business visa. The business visa is valid for 60 days, and can be extended for another 30 days.

Once you enter the country on your business visa, your employer must process the work permit for you. You do not have to leave the country to do this, and once you have the work permit, you can extend your business visa so that it is valid for one year. When your work permit expires, your business visa will also expire.

Expected Salary:

English teaching salaries in Thailand run the full gamut from pitifully meager to more than adequate to save money and have a great lifestyle. Your salary will depend on your qualifications, experience and the school or organization you work for. The best thing to do is try a number of different schools before making a decision. Some schools will also provide accommodation, round-trip airfare, medical insurance and bonuses upon contract completion.


Vietnam’s economy has been booming in recent years, and the influx of money means that more and more students are now able to afford foreign language classes. In addition, an increase in foreign investment and the popularity of Facebook (even though the website is banned in the country), have really motivated the younger generation to learn English as a second language. All this adds up to an increase in jobs and competitive salaries for ESL teachers in Vietnam.


•Must be a native English speaker from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, the US or UK.

•Bachelor’s degree

•CELTA, TEFL, or TESL certificate

•Teaching experience

Work Visa:

To get a work visa in Vietnam, your employer must sponsor you. Most enter the country on a tourist visa, and then either find a job or wait for their employer to submit all the necessary documents. Once your employer has submitted the letter of sponsorship to the government, you have 3 months to submit a police background check, obtain a medical checkup from an approved hospital or clinic, and submit original copies of your degree and teaching certificates. If everything is in order, you will receive a multiple entry work visa that is valid for the length of your teaching contract. You do not have to leave the country to change your visa.

Expected Salary:

Teaching salaries in Vietnam are quite high compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. You can expect to make anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 USD a month, depending on your qualifications, experience and the company that hires you on. Many schools will also offer a housing allowance, medical insurance, plane tickets and bonuses upon completion of your contract.

Dog Meat a Tasty Treat in Cambodia

Dog Meat a Tasty Treat in Cambodia

When it comes to food in Cambodia, there are no set rules, particularly when it comes to eating food that is typically taboo in the Western world. One tasty Khmer snack that is often frowned upon by foreigners is the meat of a creature commonly referred to in the West as “man’s best friend” – the dog.

Although not as popular as in China or Vietnam, dogs in Cambodia have long been a cheap and freely available alternative to beef, chicken and pork, and there are many Cambodians who believe that dog meat is even tastier than all of the above.

The meat itself is generally dark and tastes a bit gamey, not unlike pheasant, deer or venison. It has a slightly stringy consistency, with some fat attached to the meat, although this does not make it particularly greasy.

Popular Khmer superstition states that if you eat the meat of a black dog or drink its blood, any internal illnesses you may have will be cured. This is only true, though, if the dog has no white or brown spots anywhere on its body.

Commonly referred to as koh dtreuk in Khmer, or simply sait chkaeh, there are numerous ways to cook and serve dog in Cambodia.

Dog-meat soup is popular in Cambodia, particularly in the countryside. Called somlah majew kreung, it is a combination of dog meat, bones, head and organ meat mixed with young tamarind leaves, water and lime juice to create a tangy sour soup. The dish is very similar to the popular sour chicken soup served in Khmer restaurants across the country.

In Phnom Penh, the most common form of dog meat to be had is barbecued dog, which can be found at many roadside food stalls along the East side of Monivong Boulevard, just north of Norodom Boulevard, and at the corner of Norodom and Street 214, to name a few well-known locales.

Barbecued dog is served in the same way that barbecued beef is served in Cambodia – that is, piping hot with sides of fresh, raw produce such as carrots, cucumbers and young bananas, and dipping sauces of prahok (fermented fish paste), and pepper and lime sauce. Dishes are usually shared with friends or family and washed down with plenty of cold beer.

Although it is rare to find dog-meat cuisine in Phnom Penh’s conventional restaurants or supermarkets, one doesn’t have to look far to enjoy this tasty treat.

House speciality

Phnom Penh’s most popular dog meat eatery is Hang Taprunch, located across the Japanese Friendship Bridge. Take the first right after coming off the bridge, go behind a makeshift hammock bar and pool table hangout, and the restaurant can be found amid an abandoned-looking fairground.

This restaurant-beer garden is decked out in green plastic vines, plastic chairs and metal tables, and serves up plates of fried dog meat and Muscle Wine to hungry police officers, moto drivers, groups of teenage boys and local families.


dogs in cambodia have long been a cheap and …available alternative to beef, chicken and pork.


The fatty and lean parts of the dog are served up on small plates – bones and skin intact – in a sweet and spicy sauce of chili oil, peanuts and sugar. Accompanying the meat are plates of fresh vegetables, herbs and young banana plants, and a dipping sauce of fish, garlic, lemongrass, lime and chilies. Patrons can dip the combination of veggies and meat in the sauce while watching traditional Khmer boxing on TV and sipping cans of cold Anchor beer. Small plates of fried dog meat cost US$1 each.

All of the dogs used at Hang Taprunch come from Kampong Cham province, where they are cleaned and cooked before being sold to vendors from the capital. This particular restaurant uses only the meat from the body and legs, although common practice is to use all parts of the dog, especially the head and brains.

By the kilogram

Close to Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang market on Street 380 is a small family-run business that sells fresh dog meat by the kilogram. For 15,000 riels ($3.64), you can get one kilogram of meat, and customers can purchase up to 10 kilograms at a time.

Fresh dog meat is procured in the early hours of the morning from the Olympic Market area and resold to buyers out of the family home for the first half of the day. After midday, the family marinates the dog meat in spices and sets it to dry in a basket, to be barbecued later.The remaining dog meat is mixed with curry paste and greens, to be served to hungry customers with rice or on its own, or it is boiled into a soup.

Although dog meat may not be for everyone, eating it is legal in Cambodia and offers a cheap alternative to the more commonly consumed sources of protein in the country.

With the variety of different dog-meat dishes and eateries on offer in the country, it seems that this snack won’t be going by the wayside any time soon.



By Stephanie Mee

Gay Bars and Drag Shows in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Gay Bars and Drag Shows in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

As the lights dim in the crowded bar, an upbeat Khmer song begins to play on the sound system, and the crowd cheers for the first performer of the night. Tall, leggy, and beautiful she delivers a moving rendition of the song, including seductive dance moves and a smattering of friendly flirtation with the crowd. The crowd marvels at her beauty, and grace, as well as the fact that “she’s” not really a “she” in the traditional sense of the word.

Although one would never guess it from a cursory glance at Cambodia’s traditionally conservative society, Phnom Penh actually has a lively and flourishing gay community. One particular element of the gay scene that’s exploded in popularity lately is the drag show.

Unlike Thailand, Cambodia’s ladyboy or katoey scene has never been particularly obtrusive, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t always been there. Strict Khmer societal rules have meant that in the past, gay Cambodians, katoey (the Khmer word for transgender individuals), and anybody deviating from the norm had to hide their true feelings or identity.

Fortunately, things are now changing at a pretty even pace. Gay friendly bars are on the rise in Phnom Penh, and drag shows are becoming more frequent, available, and accepted.

One of the city’s first venues for drag shows was Blue Chilli, located on St. 178, close to the Royal University of Fine Arts. Opened two years ago by Thai owner Oak and his Khmer business partner, Sokha, the bar has been a vital element in the growing popularity and awareness of katoey culture.

“Two years ago drag shows were very new in Phnom Penh, and not many people knew much about them”, says Oak. “ I wanted to open something different, and give my customers something special.”

Oak started throwing drag parties in February of 2009, and they grew so popular that the bar now offers shows every Friday and Saturday night. The shows consist of about four to five ladies, mostly staff of Blue Chilli (including Oak himself), and each act is carefully prepared and rehearsed throughout the week to ensure a thoroughly entertaining mix of both serious and humorous performances.

Server/performer extraordinaire, Dee Dee says, as he giggles coquettishly, “ I started doing the shows to help out the owners, and at first I was so scared – there were so many people! But after the first act, I saw that the customers really loved it, and now it’s no problem, I get up there and dance and make jokes with the customers, and everyone has fun.”

It seems that fun is the operative word at Blue Chilli, and the customers truly do love the shows. Every Friday and Saturday night the bar draws in a crowd of nearly 50-60 people, no small feat for a bar the size of an average 2 bedroom apartment. And this doesn’t even include the motodops, tuk-tuk drivers and passing pedestrians who crowd the street outside, hoping to get a glimpse of the action.

Another venue for katoey shows is Salt Lounge, the first openly gay bar established in Phnom Penh. It was opened in 1994 by a Khmer/Canadian expat, and began as a place where gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the capital could relax and enjoy a beverage and good company without being harassed or ostracized.

Seated in one of the comfortable couches amidst the rich red walls, strategically placed linga statues, and handsome bar men, current owner Meng explains, “At first the clientele was mostly expats and a few tourists, and not many people supported the bar, but now we have many customers, gay, straight, male, female, old and young, and people are much more open about the whole scene. I think they realize that there is a growing market for gay establishments, and it can be a really great thing for Cambodia.”

Meng throws twice monthly parties at Salt Lounge, and hires professional performers to do drag shows, traditional Khmer dance performances, and comedy shows. Parties take place every second Saturday night, and the shows are often sponsored by PSI, a local NGO who promote HIV/AIDS awareness to Khmers and expats in Cambodia.

“The market is getting bigger and bigger,” says Meng, “and the scene has expanded to Siem Reap also. We even do promotion in and around the provinces surrounding Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and the scene can only get bigger.”

Like Blue Chilli, Salt Lounge’s marketing is done mostly through word of mouth. Although both bars have websites, and advertise in various publications in Phnom Penh, the bulk of their business comes from their loyal customers, and solid reputations.

Despite the increase in gay bars and drag shows, the scene is still relatively small, and familiar faces abound in the out and about drag queen community in Phnom Penh.

Long time performer, Suun performs at both Blue Chilli and Green Flame, and has a tight knit clique of fellow performers, who perform at various venues around the city. After shows, they often head to the Heart of Darkness or late night dance clubs to turn some heads. “We travel together because it’s not safe at night. Sometimes we get hassled,” she says with a toss of her curly auburn locks.

When asked what she thought about the future of drag shows in Cambodia, Suun said, “ I think Cambodian people are pretty accepting of katoey people, but it’s up to the government to allow us to be more open.”

Staunchly conservative politicians in Cambodia have often stressed the return to strict traditional values, but even so, the country has generally been moving towards a much more tolerant outlook.

2004 saw the first transvestite beauty pageant, the second gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pride celebration, and a public message from King Norodom Sihanouk himself urging Cambodians to respect gay and transvestite rights, and allow marriages between man and man or woman and woman.

The future seems bright for gay bars and drag shows in Phnom Penh. Strong support from the royal family combined with a young Cambodian population that is increasingly open to new ideas, and annual surges in international tourists might just ensure that the drag show isn’t just a trend that will go by the wayside.


By Stephanie Mee