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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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