There are a few things you should know about Cambodia’s cafe scene. Firstly, it’s one of the best and most diverse in Southeast Asia. It’s relatively easy for foreigners to acquire a long-stay visa and open a business here, which has resulted in a huge number of multicultural eateries opening up as chefs (or wannabes) visit, fall in love with and ultimately relocate their kitchen to the Kingdom.
Secondly, if you’re so inclined, it’s very easy to spend your food budget on a good cause. Every other cafe or restaurant is run as a social enterprise or has some connection to an NGO – which isn’t surprising given that Cambodia has the second highest number of NGOs per capita in the world. Thirdly, there are a huge number of restaurant/cafes in Cambodia that are associated with a religious group and actively raise funds for the church. It’s not always obvious which camp a social enterprise venue falls into (religious or non-denominational), so if you’re morally opposed to supporting religious outreach or, like me, you just want to know where your money is actually going, it’s essential to do your research.
The Lonely Tree Café in Battambang brings together all three of these elements. Run by a local NGO called S.A.U.C.E., Lonely Tree raises money for the Apostolic Prefecture of Battambang, which according to its website dabbles in a range of development projects, from cultural preservation to disability services. Being a strong advocate of social enterprise but also an atheist, a place like Lonely Tree represents something of a moral conundrum for me. There’s something else to consider, too – in my experience, it’s the religious eateries that always make the best food!
We visited Lonely Tree multiple times on our recent trip to Battambang. The cafe has a beautifully decorated upstairs balcony, which is by far the nicest place to sit if you want to sip on a beer or homemade lemonade and sample a slice of key lime pie as the afternoon rains roll over the city. At mealtimes, the cafe offers Western fare and tapas-style share plates. We both ate burgers for lunch on our last day in Battambang and were very impressed.
The second component of Lonely Tree is the shop downstairs, which sells cotton shirts, a handful of upcycled vintage garments, a great selection of krama scarves, jewellery, and other assorted souvenirs. Most things are made locally in Battambang, crafted by people with physical disabilities (hence the decorative wheelchair hanging from the shop ceiling). I was really impressed with the quality of fabrics and contemporary, well considered designs: comfy Thai-style pants (every traveller’s dream) and lightweight throwovers (perfect for protecting shoulders from the sun). We both picked up a few button-down shirts.