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  Hotel with A Mission

The Shinta Mani trains some of Cambodia's poorest youths to become chefs, clerks, housekeepers and massage therapists while helping their families

Nuon Nai is looking forward to graduating from the Shinta Mani Institute of Hospitality in September so he can find a job as a chef to support his four brothers and sisters.
Nai’s uncle has been caring for them since their parents died because they were too poor to seek medical treatment. Nai’s uncle isn’t much better off, earning about 100,000 riel (Bt1,000) a month to support his family and Nai’s siblings on a farm 15 kilometres from Siem Reap.
“Now I sleep in a pagoda in Siem Reap and study cooking and English. But soon, when I get a good job, I will be able to help my family and other poor people,” says Nai, 21, who’s tall and lean with handsome chiselled features.
Nai is among the 21 students enrolled at the Institute of Hospitality, which is housed in the Shinta Mani, a four-star, 18-room boutique hotel near the centre of Siem Reap.
The students are among the poorest of Cambodia’s poor, often orphans, abandoned, or the offspring of farmers who have been disabled by landmines.
“Our students are in the area of high risk,” says Arif Billah, the Shinta Mani’s general manager. “The girls are young and pretty, supporting their families by collecting bottles or clearing garbage around bars. The boys have little education – some can’t read or write Khmer – and could easily fall into drugs.”
They were referred to the institute by non-governmental organisations or they queued up at the Shinta Mani for one-on-one interviews to enter the school. Eighty students applied for 16 posts in 2004, 190 in 2005, and more than 300 this year. The institute selects a group of finalists and then visits each family. Acceptance is based on need.
The nine-month programme in culinary arts, housekeeping, front office, restaurant service and spa treatment is free, supported by the Shinta Mani’s profits and private donors. Students also get uniforms, books, study materials, breakfast and lunch, a monthly stipend and four kilograms of rice each week to give to their families.
The rice and the stipend compensate for the loss of income while the students attend school. Otherwise, parents might pressure their children to quit classes and return to work.
A Cambodian farmer makes the equivalent of Bt750 to Bt1,000 a month, but a trained, entry-level chef can easily earn Bt2,000 to Bt2,700 a month. With a bit of experience, the best might even fetch Bt3,800.
“I want to get US$100 [Bt3,800] a month to help my mother and my five brothers and sisters,” says Ho Sokhon, 23, whose father died when she was five and whose mother only earns Bt650 a month as a farmer.
“My mother is old and doesn’t get a lot of money. She needs my help,” adds Sokhon, a cheery, outgoing woman with a broad smile.
Like the other students, Sokhon has attends lectures in the morning and cooking class in the afternoon. She stays at the Shinta Mani most evenings to train in its kitchen. Several other students also work nights. If they do, the Shinta Mani gives them dinner.
Sokhon sleeps at her aunt’s house in Siem Reap. Her mother’s farm is in Kampong Cham province, about 150 kilometres to the southeast.
During her days off, Sokhon studies English and tutors other culinary students. “If I don’t, nobody will help me,” she says, adding that she someday wants to be skilled enough to live and cook in the US.
Most of the students, aged between 16 and 23, major in culinary arts because that’s the fastest growing sector of Cambodia’s hospitality industry. They study Khmer, Western and fusion cuisine, hygiene and kitchen management. The first class of culinary students was taught by Paul Hutt, the executive chef at the Hotel de la Paix, Shinta Mani’s five-star sister located a few blocks away. Hutt took some of the graduates with him to cook at the hotel.
Both the Hotel de la Paix and the Shinta Mani are owned by the company that owns Bed Supperclub in Bangkok, and both exude that refined sense of cool. The Shinta Mani, in addition, has a definite sense of social consciousness.
“If a student can’t find work, our policy is for him to remain a student until he finds job,” says Arif. To date, the Institute of Hospitality hasn’t had to make good on its promise. It has placed all its graduates.
The Shinta Mani is young and hip, but it’s a different animal than the uber-chic Hotel de la Paix. Guestroom floors are covered with hardwood and ceramic tile rather than hardwood and wool pile. Walls feature Cambodian weavings and carvings rather than a cast pewter ficus tree. The swimming pool and spa are simpler than those at the Hotel de la Paix.
But guests pay a fraction of Hotel de la Paix’s rates, get top-tier service and all the nice touches that mark a boutique property – flower petals floating in baths, duvet covers, aromatherapy lamps, turndown service at night and free wireless Internet.
Guests are encouraged to do their part to help needy pupils. A $50 gift buys rice for one month for a student’s family and pays his monthly stipend. Guests, in turn, get a dinner for two at Shinta Mani’s restaurant. A $250 gift supports a student for one term; guests get one night’s accommodation and dinner for two at the Shinta Mani (transferable). There are programmes to help build houses, dig wells, buy bicycles, piglets, school uniforms and supplies.
The Institute of Hospitality was founded by Sokoun Lo, who was born in Cambodia and schooled in Thailand and the United States. Sokoun came home in 1993 and established DHL Cambodia before becoming a distributor for Siam Cement.
He founded Hope Cambodia, a non-profit healthcare organisation, and helped finance the Sihanouk Hospital Centre of Hope, which trains medical professionals. He founded the Institute of Hospitality in 2004 to provide vocational training for needy youths.
“This programme has changed my life,” says Nai, who wants to work in Siem Reap after graduation.
“It has given me a skill, and has helped my family with rice and some money.
“Those gifts have allowed me to read books and train in the kitchen.”

Hal Lipper
The Nation

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