Wherever you travel, you will always find hundreds of tour agencies offering you a range of experiences for ‘bargain prices’. Although these agencies can facilitate growth in developing areas, it is questionable how much the local community benefits from these tours and experiences. Tour operators regularly monopolise the tourist market, leaving little room for local entrepreneurs and businesses to profit from visitors. As a result, local communities do not always benefit from the money that tourists bring to their countries.

However, while travelling in Cambodia, we found a unique company that are trying to democratise tourism in developing countries – Backstreet Academy. By working alongside local NGOs and members of the community, Backstreet Academy aims to create authentic experiences for tourists by giving them the opportunity to learn traditional local skills and handicrafts from local experts. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved – the local hosts receive between 40 – 60% of the course fees (the rest of the fees are split between the local translator and tuk tuk driver, with 10% going back into the company) and tourists get to make genuine connections with local people, while learning a unique skill and gaining a deeper understanding of traditional life in the places they visit.

Overall, Backstreet Academy aims to alleviate poverty by creating authentic local experiences for tourists and helping locals access the tourist market, which can be monopolised by tour agents.

Backstreet Academy sign
The Backstreet Academy sign at one of their bases in Phnom Penh

If you are travelling in Asia, the chances are you may pass through a city where a Backstreet Academy course is available – they have branches in Nepal (Kathmandu and Pokhara), Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap), Vietnam (Hanoi), Laos (Luang Prabang and Vientiane) and India (Udaipur) – and the list of locations continues to grow. However, the main problem will be choosing which course you want to do – there are so many to choose from. You could try your hand at crossbow making, weaving, Cambodian boxing, traditional dance, kite making or leather carving, to name a few. So, instead of buying souvenirs, why not try to make them – you might find a hidden skill that you never knew you had and make a few friends along the way.

When we travel, we love meeting local people and learning about local traditions and crafts. So, we were very excited to find Backstreet Academy and ended up taking three courses with them. Our days with our wonderful Backstreet Academy hosts turned out to be three of the most memorable days of our whole trip.

Here are the stories of the amazing people we met and our experiences with them – we hope they inspire you to sign up to a course with Backstreet Academy if you get the chance.

Coconut Carving with Sok Chea in Phnom Penh

When Sok Chea was young, he had two severe falls, which stunted his growth. For the first 20 years of his life, Sok Chea was unable to work and instead, he stayed at home doing household chores. However, Sok Chea wanted a career of his own – so, in 2008, he took coconut carving course with Khmer Life, an organisation that trains disadvantaged Cambodians in local handicrafts. Sok Chea now works for Khmer Life, earning $50 per month – however, he has plans to open his own wooden sculpture shop. To fund this, Sok Chea gives coconut carving classes to tourists with Backstreet Academy.

Coconut Carving, Backstreet Academy, Phnom Penh
Sok Chea helping Fabio out with his carving

We had an amazing morning with Sok Chea. As soon as we walked into the Khmer Life shop, we were astounded by the number of beautiful carvings that adorned the walls. As Sok Chea taught us the art of coconut carving, we gained a real appreciation of how talented he is. Coconut carving is hard – after nearly one and a half hours and a lot of sawing, sanding and varnishing, we managed to make 2 small key chains. While working, we talked to Sok Chea via our translator about his time with Khmer Life and his hopes for the future. It was clear what a difference Backstreet Academy was having on his life – not only in terms of money, but in terms of confidence. Hopefully, one day in the near future, Sok Chea’s dreams of opening his own shop will become a reality. We would happily be customers!

Pencil Sketching with Souen Chenvay in Phnom Penh

Souen moved to Phnom Penh in 2008 and is currently training to be a teacher. His love of art comes through so obviously in the way he speaks so passionately about it. Through our translator, Souen explained to us how art is a way that he can express his thoughts, feelings and emotions – and this is the reason he wants to teach art to others. His passion for drawing and painting was clear – and contagious. We couldn’t wait to start.

Pencil sketching Backstreet Academy, Phnom Penh
Posing with our Buddha sketches!

We flicked through Souen’s workbook and were amazed by his work – he is a truly talented individual and were excited to learn from him. As we had recently visited Siem Reap, we decided to try drawing a face from the Bayun temple – it looked daunting and we were quite sure we’d never be able to produce anything remotely similar to Souen’s drawing in our 3 hour class. However, Souen was very patient with us and guided us through the many different stages of sketching the image. Within an hour, our drawings had already begun to take shape and within 3 hours, we had (to our surprise!) managed to complete two relatively good replicas of Souen’s original, albeit with a lot of help from Souen.

We know that Souen will definitely have a great career as a teacher – he did an amazing job with us! We left with 2 sketches that we were very proud of.

Wood Carving with Lon M in Luang Prabang

Lon has been wood carving for over 30 years and is known as a local master of the art. However, with the development of machinery, manual wood carving is becoming somewhat of a dying art. Lon used to create wood carvings for hotels, temples and other local businesses, and although some still respect the hand carving tradition, some will opt for cheaper machine carved products. Backstreet Academy, therefore, provides Lon with an additional source of income and gives tourists the opportunity to learn this intricate skill from a real expert.

Wood Carving, Backstreet Academy, Luang Prabang
Lon M, in the orange t-shirt, putting the finishing touches on Karianne’s elephant

We visited Lon’s workshop (and home) in Luang Prabang and saw some of his beautiful creations. Sculptures, both big and small, of elephants, lizards, Buddhas and boats – some of the biggest sculptures took Lon months to carve. Lon encouraged us to look through his work and choose something we would like to carve – I chose an elephant (which I later found was the easier choice), while Fabio chose a Buddha (the not so easy choice!). Lon brought us over a couple of blocks of wood, drew the outline for us and we set to work. We totally underestimated how much hard work wood carving really is. From the initial shaping of the sculptures, to the intricate details of the Buddha and the miniature elephant tusks, Lon helped us out every step of the way. After nearly 5 hours, and with a lot of help from Lon and his friend, we had created wooden carvings that we never dreamed that we would have been able to make. They now sit on our shelf with pride and we smile knowing that we made them ourselves!

Why You Should Sign Up With Backstreet Academy

You’ll learn a new skill, meet some incredibly friendly and interesting people and ensure that the money you spend goes towards the community that you are visiting. We can’t recommend Backstreet Academy highly enough – an amazing experience from beginning to end (and we have the keyrings, sculptures and sketches to prove it!).

Further Information

Locations: Vietnam (Hanoi), Laos (Luang Prabang, Vientiane), Nepal (Kathmandu, Pokhara), Cambodia (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap), India (Udaipur)

Cost: Prices vary depending on the course – we paid: $15 pp for Coconut Carving, $16 pp for Pencil Sketching, $20 pp for Wood Carving.

Website link: Click here


11 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Franca 18 February, 2015 Subscriber

    We love getting to know the local customs and mix with the people to get the best and more authentic experience ever, that’s why we love Couchsurfing so much.

    But it’s not always possible or easy to find local activities or simply know local people, in this case trusting an association that can offer you an authentic experience by also being fair with the locals is not an easy task. As you said tourist companies often monopolise the tourist market not giving a lot chances to the local communities. It looks like you found one though 🙂

    On another note, I love the pencil sketching activity you did, simply awesome! 🙂

    • Karianne Di Salvo 19 February, 2015 Contributor

      Hey Franca, thanks for replying!

      We’ve not trued couch surfing yet but have heard lots of good things about it! We will hopefully give it a go soon. We are still trying to find more house sitting assignments!

      Backstreet Academy were so good with us. We got to meeting some amazing people with such great talent and we got to learn about their lives in Cambodia and Laos. It was a great experience – we wish we had had enough time to do more classes!

  2. Charlie 1 March, 2015 Subscriber

    Wow, what incredible classes – all those crafts look amazing! If I’m ever travelling in any of those countries I will definitely look them up, thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Karianne Di Salvo 1 March, 2015 Contributor

      Hey Charlie, we definitely recommend it!

      There are so many amazing classes to choose from that you are bound to find something you’ll love doing. We wish we had been able to do more – I really wanted to do knife making and weaving in Laos. Guess I’ll just have to wait until we go back!

  3. Francesca @onegrloneworld 20 March, 2015 Subscriber

    This is soooo cool! I love how caring you are about people. It shows in your writing. I’m so glad that there is a company that actually gives back to the local community and lets them gain income from their efforts. Taking a traditional dance class sounds like a lot of fun. I’ll keep them in mind when I travel to Asia!

    • Karianne Di Salvo 21 March, 2015 Contributor

      Hey Francesca, we totally recommend courses with Backstreet Academy!

      They were absolutely great and all of our hosts and translators were some of the friendliest people we met while travelling. Their dance courses are really popular and always get great feedback – you should definitely give it a go if you get the chance!

  4. Nikita 26 March, 2015 Subscriber

    This is a fantastic idea! I’ve never heard about anything like this before, but would definitely be willing to try. It looks like a great opportunity to meet locals, and learning a new skill is always welcome!

    • Karianne Di Salvo 26 March, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Nikita, we definitely recommend it if you can – we haven’t found anything similar since! It is such an amazing initiative and the locals really love meeting people from all around the world!

  5. Kendra Granniss 3 May, 2015 Subscriber

    I wish I had known about this earlier. It looks amazing. I will have to give it a try next time!

    • Karianne 19 July, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Kendra,

      It really is such an amazing experience and we are so happy that they are spreading to other countries. We hope that it gives more people the opportunity to learn with local people. We highly recommend it!

  6. Pingback: Why and How to Help Locals When Travelling

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