Pretending there’s snow for Winter Mountain Leader training

I’d planned on doing my Winter ML last summer when I realised I had the ability and skills required. I knew my log book was a bit thin on days but I knew navigation wasn’t a problem and I was confident on snow and ice. So why wait?

There was an intimidating moment as we went round the table this morning at Glenmore Lodge, introducing ourselves. One Outward Bound instructor, 2 members of Braemar Mountain Rescue Team, someone who has returned from working with British Antarctic Survey and someone who’d done the assessment before and left it too long to redo the bit they’d deferred on so having to do it all again (so basically adept at most of the syllabus).

And then there’s me. Someone who’s done a fair bit of personal winter walking, some winter scrambling and only uses her summer award about 6 times a year to either take Duke of Edinburgh groups out or lead challenge walks. Out of my depth doesn’t begin to describe how I felt!

Planning a route

We spent the morning discussing winter weather, looking at useful sources of information such as SAIS, MWIS and the Met office – websites I regularly use for planning winter activities. I was then introduced to a load more I’ve never used such as XCWeather and WindyTV. So here’s the avalanche forecast for today:

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Key learning point here is that the three things to consider for avalanche risk are:

  1. Aspect – which way does the slope face and is this considered a risk by the forecast?
  2. Angle – is it between 30 and 45 degrees (most likely to avalanche)?
  3. Altitude – is it high enough to be in the risk area deemed by the forecast?

So after looking at the area around Coire Laogh Mor area to the north of Cairngorm summit, considering the potential avalanche hazards and wind direction, we plotted a route around the coire to look at snow conditions.

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As we headed out of the door we collected avalanche kit – a probe, shovel and transceiver before heading out for a play in the grounds. I then had to embarrassingly admit I’d never used an avalanche transceiver before – why would I? I’ve never been into seriously avalanche prone areas, or to seriously high summits – oh hang on. Yes I have. And I’ve been to the Alps and walked alone in Scotland…. well that’s embarrassing. And scary I’d not considered it before…..

Whilst not in the Winter ML syllabus Glenmore Lodge consider it standard practice to make sure that everyone carries and can use an avalanche transceiver. So when we came to practicing with avalanche probes it made the theory much more understandable. (Note to self – get a transceiver!)

Navigating to find snow

We parked at the lower car park and took it in turns to contour around the hillside into Coire Laogh Mor, each being challenged to find an obscure contour line feature. As we ascended up the mountain to 800m it quickly became clear that the avalanche forecast might have been overly cautious. There was very little snow at 800m, we spent most of the morning bashing through heather. Which is at least physically challenging like wading through snow, although a lot less fun.

Key Learning points for navigation aren’t really that different from Summer ML navigation – the 5 D’s:

  1. Distance – how far do you need to travel?
  2. Direction – what’s the bearing?
  3. Description – do you go up, on the flat, or down?
  4. Dead end – at what point do you need to consider checking if you’re going wrong?
  5. Danger – avalanche awareness – are you walking into somewhere with more risk?

Learning to teach snow skills

When we eventually found snow, near the col into Coire na Ciste we practiced kicking and cutting steps and how you teach these skills to novices and give confidence. Imagination was needed here, as we stood on a piece of snow surrounded by heather.

Moving slightly higher we found a big enough patch to practice self belay techniques should you fall – grabbing the top and bottom of the axe to keep it in the ground. Again imagination was needed as the snow was too warm and sticky to slide far. It is interesting that this is a skill that is a quick way to stop yourself falling far, but something that is often left out of winter skills courses as people expect to learn how to ice axe arrest. Is it not more important to learn how to walk properly on the snow and ice and quickly self belay without having to arrest and potentially fail to stop yourself??

There’s some great videos on the MLTA website for how to properly ice axe arrest – check them out here. Top tips – make sure you’re properly over your axe when you come to a stop and make sure when you spin round you dig the axe in properly to spin so it doesn’t fly out of your hand (that one I speak from experience!)

After all that I certainly feel like I have a lot to learn if I expect to teach winter skills!!

Coming down off the hill we a herd of reindeer had come to greet us. It’s like a belated Christmas now!

5th Feb

Live your dreams

“So what are you doing with your week off work?” my boss asked.
“I’m off to Scotland to play in the snow, I’ll try not to throw myself off a mountain this time!” I replied.

I could see he was both confused that a week mountaineering in Scotland could ever be considered a holiday, and sweating with concern as I’d reminded him of the time I returned from a trip with a twisted knee, looking like I’d been in an RTA and spend 6 weeks hopping round the office.

So I legged it out of the door before he could ask why I was off to do a winter mountain leader course for a career that has nothing to do with my day job and would I have Wifi access to deal with any issues he might have while I’m gone.

How many of us have dreams of another life?

Almost everyone I know wishes they had a different job, lived somewhere else, had different personal circumstances. Hadn’t made certain decisions, or perhaps missed opportunities.

How many of us act on those dreams to make them happen?

Probably a lot less.

I’m not perfect by any means. It took me a long time to decide to follow my dreams. I love my day job, I enjoy the work (mostly!) and I have the luxury of money and time off to do the big trips I live for.

But I crave space, air, nothingness.

I’m not good behind a desk, I quickly go mad.

So I’m heading to Scotland to do my Winter Mountain Leader training. I don’t know where it will lead me, I have no strict goals when it comes to a career. The summer course years ago was the first step on that path, and I never expected to do freelance work when I passed that so who knows ….

… but I do know that the process of completing the Winter ML will lead me places I’ve never been, to adventures I do dream of and confidence to be the winter leader I want to be. Which will definitely lead me to those big goals I now live for.

What life do you want and why aren’t you living it?

What excuses are you giving yourself for not making them happen?

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#GetOutside 2017 – challenging myself and others

You’ve probably already worked out that I’m a Ordnance Survey #GetOutside Champion for 2017 – if not then you’re clearly not on Twitter or Instagram!

Having found my own project last year I’ve set my own goals for 2017 some of which will lead me some way towards this, and others just give me a chance to get outside. This is the only area of my life I set personal goals (the rest of my life would be loads easier if I put this much effort in!)

My #GetOutside 2017 goals:

  • February – Do my winter Mountain Leader training – although I have to say the current lack of winter conditions does not bode well for the type 2 fun winter I had in mind!
  • Ice climbing and Scottish mixed – again looking like this might be weather dependant
  • Lead VD trad climbing – bound to generate type 2 fun based in last years experience, probably with tears!
  • June – Finish a half marathon – since I had to bin this ambition last year due to injury it has made it off the life bucket list and onto my 2017 goals. In missing it last year I’ve upped that target to 25km and will be at Keswick Mountain Festival – if you want to have a laugh at me crawling across the finish line!
  • Reach 60 parkruns – who’s not a parkrun addict?
  • July – Lead Alpine routes – with a trip to the Alps planned for the summer I hope this will be achievable though I’m already planning bigger excitement for 2018
  • Try skiing – I tried snowboarding about 5 years ago with total failure but I really want to cross country ski to make isolated peaks more fun to bag, so going to give this a go

I applied to be a #GetOutside Champion for Ordnance Survey as I wanted to share my passion for the outdoors with others, help them find their own goals and projects. 

So alongside my own personal challenges for the year I’m also excited to help to inspire others to achieve their goals too.  Everything from expeditions with young people to running navigational courses for adults. Here’s a few other adventures I already have planned.

Completing a long distance trail with Sharon and Ted

Sharon is a good friend, and not just because I love looking after Ted when she goes on holiday and stealing him for dates when I need motivation to get out in the hills or an excuse to go to the beach.

Sharon wants to complete a long distance multiday hike and its been 3 years since I finished the Pennine Way so I’m up for the challenge of another route. Ted has never walked a long distance trail and his biggest challenge will be endless stiles and containing his excitement at sheep.


We haven’t finalised a route, but since we’re both knitters we’re thinking if we can combine a route with local artisan wool shops that would be an extra bonus.

Support Experience Community develop ideas

Working with Craig at Experience Community I’m keen to support them to develop a off road route suitable for their handcycles which is challenging and includes wild camping. This will be a first for me as while planning routes is second nature I know nothing about handcycling, but definitely keen to have a go.

 

What have you got planned for 2017?? 

Finding my project

Mountains are like an addiction. The more you climb them the more you want. The need to feel the cold biting wind on your skin or the sun on your face. The desire to walk until you’ve reached the top and to just keep going.

But there comes a point when the thrill of a bimble up a mountain (however hot and sweaty you get) isn’t enough anymore and routes have to be harder and higher.
I’ve had a lifetime of climbing mountains and long distance walks and now I find ticking mountains off lists isn’t enough. (Though that is an addiction that’s ingrained in me now!)

Climbing Kilimanjaro in 2013 was something I’d wanted to do since I was 15 (also the year I decided I wanted to walk the Pennine Way).  Having achieved it, the combination of realising I could deal with altitude and a desire to be out in the snow pushed me to the Himalayas last year. And while my first 6000er didn’t go according to plan, with strong winds at high camp and feeling wiped out, it hasn’t deterred me from wanting more. And let’s face it Mera Peak is awesome but it’s a long walk in to do 3 days of mountaineering, winding through crevasses, sleeping high on the glacier. I’ve done technically more challenging stuff in Scotland though the altitude takes some beating!

How can I keep stretching myself?

And then I finally understood the meaning of the term that I hear climbers use a lot – project.

I have a project.

Not one I’m willing to commit in writing for fear of failure, or my idea being stolen.

There’s a good chance I’ll never be good enough, or time, cash, skills and fear will hold me back. But it’s nice to have a long term goal to reach for. Something to work towards. Something to frame everything I do.

A bit like a jigsaw, I need to learn all the pieces and fit them together in the complexity of life for it to come off, and even if I fail I’ll have had a blast trying. It was after all, the goal of my ML which turned me into a summit addict, constantly seeking out new places to go.

So in reaching my goal:

I need to be fitter – so running harder and longer should sort that. I have three races booked for May and June. Considering that this time last year I didn’t run at all I think I’m doing well to commit to two fell races and a half marathon already. And there’s the rest of the year yet too. And how much further could I go?

I need to climb harder – I climb weekly indoors and my goal this year is to get outside regularly not just a couple of times a year and to lead, even if it’s only easy routes. Overcoming my fear is important. Eventually I might set myself a grade to push for, right now just leading outdoors will be good.

I need to winter climb – I missed two winters through life getting in the way so it was good to get out a lot this winter, but I need to get vertical! I’m not going to attempt to aim for anything ludicrously difficult, I just want to be able to reach Scottish grade 3 happily eventually, and Alpine D. (That one will take longer to achieve.)

Be good to my boss and save up – the project will require a fair amount of time off work over the years it might take to achieve. (No it’s not Everest, I work for a charity I’ll never afford that!)

So that’s a bit of a late New Year’s resolution, that’s more like a life resolution. Along with me already committing to doing my winter ML at some point. Blimey, I’m going to be busy!! If nothing else it’s bound to generate a lot of funny stories.

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Sun and Nothing

I’ve recently been chatting to Alex from boxmonkey.tv about climbing experiences and he’s kindly written this piece about his most memorable climb.

“We are what we do”. I’m not sure who I can credit with saying that but I don’t think it’s entirely true. I consider myself a trad climber, first and foremost, but I boulder far more than I trad climb. In fact I boulder indoors. So if ‘we are what we do’ then I’m an indoor boulderer who believes they’re a trad climber. However, time spent does not equate to the extent to which something that defines us. For example, I rarely remember any of the boulder problems or sport climbs I’ve done, yet I remember every trad climb. In fact, some of my keenest memories narrow down to a single gear placement. So forget the philosophy of ‘we are what we do’. I say we are our most powerful memories.This is a story about one of those memories.

Far away across the sea is a mountain range deep in the desert. A climber is on the second pitch of a route. The air is still and the sky is cloudless blue. The rock is yellow and the air is warm. The route seems to be easing. Curling into a slab and then leading into a small roof turning left to an arête. All of life’s happy moments seems to be collecting into this one. Life couldn’t be better. I’m happy; at ease; I’m careless.

Scrambling up the slab I decide to run out the rope. The vast empty plains spread out below. The air is warm and the rock is yellow. The sky is blue. My belayer can no longer see me. I’m alone. I work my way up into the roof and prepare to place some protection, but there’s nothing. Under the roof all I find is scoop of yellow rock in dark shadow. I work through my rack, shifting my weight from my left to my right foot. I can feel the heat of the sun on the black soles of my shoes. I start to become aware of scraps of flesh that missed the suntan cream. The sting of burning skin drying and shrinking on bare legs. I now feel very present in the moment, no longer drifting in the warm sun.

I’m anxious. Panicked. Disbelieving I could have been so absent minded. So confident on alien rock. I’ve climbed past the point of down climbing. I can’t protect the crux move of this pitch. If I fell I’d fall a huge distance. Probably ripping out my last gear placement and from there I’d be lucky not to hit the ground. I manage to place a micro. I’d placed it several times that day, more for amusement that protection as I knew it annoyed my girlfriend. It didn’t seem very funny now. It was better than nothing, but barely even that.

The sequence is in classic bouldering style. Fully committing and delicate. A series of underclings with toes slowly edging up the wall as your body finds a 45 degree angle. Then to a powerful reach up and around onto the face of the roof. Find a positive hold and the let your toes fall from the wall, like a pendulum weight below you, your body in thin air, then in that same motion using that pendulum swing to bring one foot onto a foot hold at the same level as your hands. Rock your weight to the foot, power up, up, up, on a sequence of right hand holds. With each upward movement contact is lost and regained on the rock. A hand opening and closing like boy waving goodbye.

That sequence, at the time, felt like a free solo. A climb without ropes where the consequences of a simple mistake could be severe injury or death. I continued, from the roof and stepped across onto a slopping arête. I stand very still. My face pressed against the rock, the warmth of my breath on my cheeks. My hands lay gently on each side of the arête as my feet hold my body weight on the wall. I settle into the position and gradually lean back to look for gear placements. I place a cam and climb on.
The shortest of moments can be the life experiences that define us. That make us.

Inexperience, confidence, a warm sunny day. Very nearly, very different.

This is a memory from a trad climb I led in Morocco. I won’t forget it.

The author is owner and founder of BoxMonkey.tv – home to the world’s most inspiring climbing videos.

Why we run

Running was not something I planned to take up this year, but thanks to a couple of inspiring friends who are parkrun addicts, I’ve become one too. I started in May, shocked that whilst I have no problem walking a marathon I struggled to run for 5km without my lungs burning and feeling like I was going to be sick!

Now I’m not only beating my personal best and running fast than I ever imagined, I’ve also done my first 10k this year and thinking about a half marathon next year. Yes, it’s really that addictive.

Running and remembrance

I was just happy to finish the 10k but to have managed it in under 1 hour and to feel like I could carry on was amazing.

I’ve also met some truly inspirational people this year, running because its part of them. Running for charity, running stronger, faster and harder than I could ever imagine and yet inspiring me to push myself further.

I met Emma Timmis through helping Womenclimb, a bunch of fantastic women aiming to inspire more women to get climbing at whatever level, and to breakdown the boundaries which prevent women from taking up the sport. Emma is an amazing climber, but is also an awesome running. Just check out her blog – www.emmatimmis.com– having the length of Africa last year, this year she cycled to the Dolomites to climb and then cycled home.

I’ve also met Brendan Rendall – another powerful runner who’s not content with running multiple marathons, ultra marathons and then the coast to coast route in 8 days, he’s now planning to run the length of Malawi next year in order to raise funds to build a school. If you’re on twitter check him out @helpfomo35 or his justgiving page.

And while my running endeavours pale in comparison, having such amazing people, who are still real and not turned in to caricatures of themselves by avoiding celebrity, inspires me to try harder. I’ll probably never run a marathon but to feel the wind on my face, the rain on my skin and to feel powerful (even if only for an hour) is all I need.

Gender shouldn’t matter in climbing

I still suck at climbing. I’ve yet to build the strength and guts to get good at it. Despite that, after about 5 years of stop-start efforts this year I have been climbing more or less weekly, and I finally feel I can say – ‘I climb’.

On the road to becoming someone who can call herself a climber I’ve met some truly inspirational women. Women who don’t need to prove themselves and are bold enough to share their love of the sport with others. Of course there’s a lot of women who are just as ego driven as the men who climb – you know the ones – skimpy clothing, ripped torso and super toned arms with an aloof demeanour, just google ‘women climbers’ and you’ll see what I mean (that stereotype applies to the men as much as the women!) But there are equally just as many willing to help, teach and encourage women who wouldn’t otherwise consider climbing to be their thing.

Now, I’m not discounting men as a source of inspiration, in fact I have a couple of male friends who are really good climbers who have been kind enough to teach me a lot along the way, and equally kind enough to not judge me when I’ve been at my worst and clinging to the rock like a limpet unwilling to let go. (Yes, I’m still at that stage in my climbing!)

In a world where women are the greatest critics of other women, and we are constantly judged for what we look like and told to conform to an image of who we should be, I think it’s important that women support one another to be bold, to follow their dreams and to find within themselves the strength and skills to be good at sports. Climbing is quite a solitary sport, one where you are battling only against yourself. And yet it’s also one where our idols are still beautiful blondes in their twenties who could just as easily be on the cover of Cosmo as they are on the next issue of Climber. And when climbing gyms are still dominated by men who are generally ripped (yes you are!) as they haul themselves up the gym wall, it’s hard to not be self conscious about your ability or lack of.

Mountain Training Association and Sheffield Hallam University recently revealed that women’s participation in outdoor recreation in the UK is currently 35%, with many favouring hill walking than climbing. Women are also in the minority (as I can attest to) on mountaineering holidays (only 27%) and only 19% of Mountain Training award holders are women.

So while men might think events like the Women’s Climbing Symposium last weekend in Sheffield are sexist, I think that’s a good thing. Women need a space sometimes where they’re not going to be judged, where they can learn from other women and be inspired by some of the great achievers in the business. Where they can see amazing climbers but also feel confident to suck at climbing too. This years event was the first climbing event I’ve ever been to and was an amazing confidence boost to learn some practical skills on footwork and movement – some of which I’ve even carried on doing! It was also a fantastic opportunity to hear from inspirational women who have not seen their gender as a barrier or successfully fought against it, to achieving their goals in the sport.

Leah Crane coaching - from WCS 2015 facebook
Leah Crane coaching – from WCS 2015 facebook

As well as practical workshops I also listened to inspiring talks from women working in the field. Rebecca Dent, sports nutritionist and dietician, advocated that women eat not just healthily but crucially not to worry about gaining weight. Women are generally more healthy than men as we store our fat under our skin and not around our organs, and while this means we gain weight more than men we also burn it quicker too. I also learnt that as a vegetarian it’s even more important to make sure I eat enough protein for muscle repair before and after exercise. And also before bed when our bodies are most prone to using up protein leading to aching muscles the day after. I love anyone who tells me cheese before bed is good for me!

To also hear the amazing Alpinist Catherine Destivelle talk about her achievements in the Alps, most notably being the first women to solo the Eiger, is just what women need in a world full of male mountaineers. A women who hasn’t used the excuse of being a girl to hold her back. A woman who has pushed the boundaries for women, climbing high and hard. She’s such an inspiration I’ve already got my ticket for her talk at the Kendal mountain film festival next month.

from catherinedestivelle.com

In the last 12 months I’ve also become involved in a fantastic organisation called Womenclimb, which aims to encourage more women to take up climbing and to help remove the barriers women face in participating in the sport. They seek to provide women with a forum to learn, meet others and gain the confidence to pursue climbing as a lifelong sport. Womenclimb run regular workshops so if you’re in England, check out their website – Womenclimb.

Through being involved in Womenclimb I met Emma Timmis and Emily Pitts, two women who aim to inspire women to have great adventures whatever form they take (like being the first people to rollerskate across Holland!) Emma is beyond amazing as she has run 2472 miles across Africa, from Namibia to Mozambique, and this summer she went to the Dolomites – but not flying like me, she cycled there from the Uk (and after a couple of weeks climbing she cycled back). Emily on the other hand has taught me that whatever your ability in climbing it’s important to just do it, and do it often. With boundless enthusiasm she encourages women to give it a go and is keen to share her skills.

Being able to get involved with these two has taught me loads even if we’ve not been out climbing together (too many adventures, too little time!)

Bouldering Wall

So I still don’t trad climb, and terrified about the idea of leading even indoors, but with newly found women to inspire me I know that I’ve achieved a lot this year and who knows what I’ll achieve next.

Progressing from knees to elbows

I’ve just started regularly climbing again with a good friend and its taken the last 7 weeks for me to regain my confidence to really start to push my grade. It doesn’t help that Cath is fitter, more agile and braver than me but she’s a great confidence booster so good to climb with. I’m not the type who like climbing with cocky alpha males, I don’t like the competitiveness. I climb for fun and as a personal challenge. I’m not interested in egos.

Tonight with confidence a-plenty I’ve really pushed myself which has certainly identified what I’m lacking to get my grade higher- technique.

I reach, grip and haul my way up walls- occasionally I get it right pushing up with my feet. Sometimes I even manage to push up without quite having a hold in reach.

I have however found new ways to get around lack of technique. I’m not just whacking my knees as I smear my feet up the walls, I’ve now taking to using my elbows as a lever to shifting my weight to get up routes. I think the principle it right, learning how to move my weight to reach the holds more efficiently, but I’m sure the execution is wrong!

I’m lucky where I live having two great walls within half hours drive, Rokt in Brighouse and the new climbing wall in Huddersfield new sports centre which may be compact but has plenty of good routes and grippy.

Social enterprises in Cambodia

Its hard to travel in a country like Cambodia and not be affected by the poverty that exists. A relic from the conflicts and genocide under the Khmer Rouge that has left a country, with a powerful and glorious history, struggling to rebuild itself.

For the traveller, this provides an opportunity to see a country untouched by too much commercialisation (except perhaps in Phnom Penh where development is quickly racing along), and a place were the people are open to the opportunities tourism can bring, without being ruined by it.

The Khmer Rouge robbed the country of a generation, especially those best able to transform its future economy and infrastructure. Its hard not to notice that loss as you walk around the cities and towns – there’s few people over 50.

And its not hard to notice the impact of overseas aid, which has sought to assist Cambodia since the late 1980’s and led to noticeable economic development projects; everything from Chinese road building projects to Japanese and Korean supported schools.

There are also a significant number of overseas non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) operating in the country – supporting orphanages, schools and local community projects.

As I work for an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in the UK, I am however surprised by the number of social enterprises, set up and run by the Cambodians which are making a greater sustainable impact on the local people than overseas support provided by some NGO’s.

Smaller in scale, social enterprises ultimately have lower overheads and retain all income generated in Cambodia and operate for the benefit of the people working for them. The majority of income is made through business, enabling them to create business models that can train local people to create their own income and making the most of offering services to the growing number of tourists.

Take care to learn about the projects and organisations you visit – for example there are lots of ‘orphanages’ set up to entice tourists but do not operate specifically for orphans but provide education to all young people on a couple of days a week. I’m not suggesting they’re not valuable but I personally do question the way they perpetuate the image of children awaiting salvation by Western donors and don’t seem to provide a means to access future employment opportunities for the children. Check out this website supported by UNICEF – Thinkchildsafe.

Hence the organisations I came across which I recommend you take time to find, are all locally set up and managed, and provide positive images of the future of Cambodia and opportunities for training and employment for different sections of the community. There is a wealth of other organisations I didn’t have time to find which are equally worth seeking out, and feel free to share them here.

– Phare Cambodian Youth Circus

The Circus provides a nightly show in Siem Reap performed by young people and it is a fantastic night out and alternative to wandering the bars in Pub Street. The circus was set up in 2013 by Phare Ponleu Selpak a youth development organisation providing vulnerable children and young people with a creative environment where they can access training, education and wider social support. The school provides free tuition to over 1,200 young people from disadvantaged backgrounds with many of them developing skills in arts and creative activities. The school itself is in Battambang but having the Circus in Siem Reap enables them to access the growing number of visitors to the city. The circus is one of an number of spin off projects from the school offering young people an opportunity to gain employment and generate revenue for the social enterprise enabling more young people to gain training and skills.

I saw the show ‘Preu / Chills’ which was a fantastic story and I definitely recommend you stop by and see the young people performing amazing acrobatics through storytelling. they also have a shop where you can buy items made by young people at the school learning craft and arts skills.

Mekong Quilts

I found the Mekong Quilts shop in Siem Reap and then later in Phnom Penh. Since I love handmade products and it was coming up to Christmas I had to visit. Mekong Quilts was actually set up in Vietnam but also provides women in Cambodia with the opportunity to learn sewing skills and work as a community to create beautiful quilts to sell for which they receive a good income. Profits from the shops are reinvested in the enterprise and through the main charity Mekong Plus which also provides wider community development projects.

The quilts are a bargain in comparison to the cost of buying a handmade one in the UK and are beautiful, but if like me you are backpacking then there is plenty of smaller gift items you can buy.

– Daughters of Cambodia

Another craft based organisation, Daughters of Cambodia provides women with training, education and employment, as well as wider social support such as counselling, medical care and life skills. It works to help women escaping from the sex industry, many of them having been forced into it through poverty.

The saddest thing about the history of the Cambodia is that a generation of people have been robbed of the chance to have a good education and secure and good employment, meaning that the combination of poverty, low skills and a growth in tourism has lead to people being exploited by tourists, particularly for sex. Its not hard to find yourself in the ‘red light’ districts of both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and wishing better for the girls (and guys) being used by western and other Asian tourists.

The Daughters shop in Phnom Penh provides a great way to find out about the organisation and buy some fantastic gifts, everything from bags and t-shirts to jewellery and toys. They also sell products made by the ‘sister’ company Sons of Cambodia which through a similar model seeks to provide transexual males with a means to leave the sex industry too.

Having checked out their website since coming home I’ve found they also run a small hotel in Phnom Penh, wish I’d known about that!

Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre

I’ve mentioned this previously, but this butterfly conservation centre is definitely worth seeing when you are temple-d out. Close to the Angkor site they farm butterflies to sell to zoos and live exhibitions abroad. This income helps to sustain the centre, which in turn provides education to local farmers to prevent deforestation which is reducing many butterfly and moth species habitats.

Local farmers are also paid to collect eggs and caterpillars which the centre breeds, helping to prevent species extinction. At $4 to visit its worth an hours visit.

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Friends Restaurant

I love food. A lot. So there is nothing more exciting than discovering a restaurant which is offering young people an opportunity to gain skills in the restaurant industry as chefs or front of house staff. I visited the restaurant near the Royal Palace which serves a mix of Asian and western tapas and there is fantastic selection of vegetarian food. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that as this is a training restaurant that the food will be basic; I ate some of the best quality food at Friends that I had during my time in Phnom Penh. During the day they also have a shop next door selling items made by young people and you can also buy items from their stall in the Russian Market in the city.

Friends International also provides street children with support in other ways through ensuring they are able to go to school and avoid exploitation. They also have restaurants and shops in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, as well as Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos.

Artisan Angkor

One of the first organisations I visited while in Siem Reap for a week and certainly the largest, Artisan Angkor is a bit different. It was originally set up by the Cambodian government in the early 1990’s in order to encourage the revitalisation of the traditional crafts and culture. If you’re in Siem Reap check out their demonstration site which shows visitors the range of crafts and skills being maintained  – from wood and stone carving (which is also helping the regeneration of the Angkor temple site) to silk painting, lacquering and silk weaving.

Training new apprentices annually the organisation now provides work to over 1000 people at different workshops around Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Now run as a social enterprise, reinvesting income back into training more people, the crafts made are aimed at the high end luxury market, which also raises the profile of Cambodian cultural crafts. Frankly I couldn’t afford anything in their boutique shops (of which there is even one in the airport in Phnom Penh which is a fantastic showcase of Cambodian crafts), but the work is of an amazing quality.

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If you visit the site in Siem Reap, get there early to get chance to catch a free lift to their silk workshop which is a 20 minute drive out of town. The silk workshops provided a fascinating insight into the time and skill needed to create silk scarves and clothing, which made it clear why they cost so much. 1 metre of silk fabric generally takes 4 months from extracting the silk from the cocoons to weaving the end product.

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Chi-Phat Community Eco tourism

I visited Chi-phat for 3 days on the way to Phnom Penh. It provided both a unique opportunity to see the Cambodian countryside and stay in a small village at the same time as seeing a positive change in the economy in rural communities.

Formerly a hotspot for poaching and illegal logging, the small Chi-phat community now earns income from approximately 2000 tourists a year visiting and staying with families. Originally set up with assistance of the Wildlife Alliance the community now have a social enterprise through which they provide opportunities to trek in the jungle, mountain bike and learn about the local environment and reforestation projects aimed at regenerating the natural environment.

I’ll write about my 4 days in Chi-phat later, but its great to find an eco-tourism project where all the income stays in the local community and benefits local people, and isn’t a commercial business or providing a façade of ecological and community development.