28 February 2019

Responsible Travel in Cambodia with Panya Thin

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It’s silent. Peaceful. Serene. The only noise is the hardly existent wind rustling some withered leaves.

It’s hot, sweltering hot. The sun, high in the sky, glistens in the bright green rice fields, parts of which have already started to turn brown and arid at this time of year.  Most villagers have taken refuge from the midday heat. A group of a dozen children, clad in school uniforms, race along a dirt path on their rattling bicycles, leaving a cloud of red dust in their wake. In the shade of a stilted house sits a young woman on a tiny stool. Her legs stretched out in front of her and her feet placed on a large thread reel. From a pile to her left, she takes a thin bundle of dried bamboo grass and places it at the end of several long stalks. Whilst carefully controlling the reel with the balls of her feet, she secures the tiny bouquet with thread that she pulls towards her in vigorous movements.  One by one, the bundles are attached in a fan-shaped manner, until, after fastening the last piece, the broom is ready to be sold at the market.  

Woman making hand-made broom as part of Buffalo Tours' responsible tourism in Cambodia

Besides agriculture, producing hand-made crafts, such as these brooms, are one of the few ways to generate a modest income for people living in rural Cambodia. In an attempt to break the poverty cycle, Buffalo Tours has partnered with various host communities to create more opportunities for responsible travel in Cambodia. Developing community-based tourism initiatives, such as hands-on craft workshops, support the livelihoods of the communities in a sustainable way whilst allowing travellers to immerse in local life.

From Guide to General Manager – Panya’s Journey

A driving force of responsible tourism in Cambodia is Panya Thin, Buffalo Tours’ Regional General Manager for Cambodia, Japan, Laos and Myanmar. Throughout his three decades in the travel industry, the cycling enthusiast has come a long way; his journey serves as an inspirational story, highlighting how passion, commitment and hard work can lead to success. After finishing high school, Panya started out as a motorbike driver in Siem Reap, taking tourists to temples, before training to become a tour guide – a career he still fondly looks back upon and a stepping stone for his ensuing path.

Panya Thin, Buffalo Tours’ Regional General Manager for Cambodia, Japan, Laos and Myanmar, and a driving force behind responsible travel in Cambodia

“After four years of being a guide, I started questioning myself – not that being a guide is a bad job, it’s a brilliant job – but I wanted to do something different,” he recalls. Driven by his passion and commitment, Panya moved to the capital of Phnom Penh to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Business Management. To support his studies, he worked as Operations Manager at a European travel company. His first job in an office environment, the former tour guide drew from his on-the-ground skills and built upon his in-depth destination knowledge, experience with customers and extensive guide network to bring a special kind of quality to the company. “I wanted to make sure that customers received what we promised them, and do better, beyond what they expected,” he explains, “For example, aligning guide and customer personalities as well as assigning the right people to lead the right trip is very important.”

Subsequently, Panya received a two-year university scholarship to complete his master’s degree in Bangkok, Thailand. He returned to work as Office Manager in Siem Reap and joined Buffalo Tours in mid-2010 in the role of Country Manager for Cambodia. However, shortly after, Panya was looking for a new challenge: he applied for the role of Laos’ Country Manager – without speaking the language – to manage and develop the head office in Luang Prabang. “It was a great experience for me!”, he recalls, “I took the opportunity to heart and would say that 80-90% of what I had been assigned to in those two-and-a-half years we managed to do – not just in terms of profit but also in developing a great team.”

After his successful leadership assignment, Panya returned to his home country in 2013 as Country Manager in Cambodia. Shortly after, he was appointed to also take on Laos, followed by Myanmar. As Buffalo Tours kept on growing and extending its reach in Asia, Panya was consequently named the perfect candidate to oversee Japan in 2017 – making him Regional General Manager of four destinations.

Panya Thin, an advocate for responsible travel in Cambodia, attends a Buffalo Tours' team gathering

The Key to Successful Leadership 

Having been a successful leader for several years now, there’re two focuses that weave through Panya’s entire career; whilst he lives by the mantra that “success is not a given and you have to give it your all”, he recognises the importance of forming the right team. “If you don’t have the right team environment, it doesn’t matter what you do, it won’t work,” he explains. “It’s important to identify the needs and weaknesses and find ways to improve.”

In addition to creating a harmonious team environment, Panya’s recipe for successful leadership in the travel industry contains a few more ingredients. Thorough knowledge of the destination and a basic financial understanding lead the top of the list, whilst, on a more personal level, he highlights clear communication and remaining approachable as part of being a good leader. “The hierarchy pyramid has two sides and can be turned upside down,” he says. “People can come to me with complaints and suggestions and we have a conversation. Having two ideas is better than one and it doesn’t hurt to think of alternative ways of doing things.”

The down-to-earth leader talks modestly about his current position and achievements. “The most rewarding aspect [about my job] is not just about me, but to see the team grow,” he says. “When we started in Cambodia we had six to seven employees, now we have 29 [people].” Whilst Panya also appreciates being able to travel and being part of a diverse and international team at Buffalo Tours, he considers himself very lucky to be in a position that allows him to create positive change for local communities – a statement reflecting Cambodia’s atrocious past and poverty-stricken present.

Panya Thin, an advocate for responsible tourism in Cambodia, riding a bicycle in Bagan with Buffalo Tours

Responsible Travel in Cambodia 

Personally committed to the cause, Panya has played a significant role in developing Buffalo Tours’ community-based tourism initiatives, promoting responsible travel in Cambodia and other destinations in Asia. Built upon Buffalo Tours’ three pillars of sustainability – sustainable economic development, cultural preservation and social inclusiveness, as well as environmental protection – these initiatives seek to contribute to positive development in the travel and tourism industry. Complying with the company’s mission of ‘changing lives through travel’, Buffalo Tours works closely with local communities to craft experiences that counteract poverty and promote sustainable development whilst offering unique and authentic experiences for travellers.

As head of the Cambodia office, Panya has been one of the key supporters of responsible travel in Cambodia, guiding his team in the development of the projects with the Knapor and Chan Sar communities, located 30 kilometres south-east of Siem Reap. After a thorough analysis and planning process with the villagers, these carefully curated community development programs give visitors the rare chance to gain insight into local life in the countryside through different activities, including rice milling, oxcart-riding, broom making and basket weaving. “It’s fantastic to create a way to allow customers to experience the real Cambodia and give them a more in-depth experience,” he says passionately, “instead of just seeing the highlights, we create opportunities for them to understand what it means to be Khmer for one day – something that is very meaningful to me.”

Rice milling by hand as part of Buffalo Tours' responsible travel in Cambodia

In general, Panya believes that responsible travel in Cambodia is the way to go; not only does it contribute to economic growth, job creation, improvement of infrastructure and access to education and health care, but when carefully executed, it ensures the preservation of traditional culture. Responsible tourism creates a space for dialogue between host communities and visitors that builds the basis for inspiration, understanding and positive change.

Whilst Panya does notice a growth in the field of responsible travel in Cambodia, with an increasing number of tourism companies and social enterprises seeking to operate in a more sustainable way, the concept is still restricted to small groups as education is limited. In his opinion, however, responsible travel starts from within oneself. “Always be cautious of the impact of your day-to-day actions within your business, your community, and your home,” he explains, “and always do your research before travelling to a new destination about the respective culture.”


We hope you enjoyed getting to know one of Buffalo Tours’ most inspirational leaders. If you’re interested in responsible travel in Cambodia or any of our other destinations, reach out to Buffalo Tours and let our experts help craft your tailor-made trip with a positive impact. Find out more about Buffalo Educational Travel or get inspiration for other responsible tours in Asia on our website.