Journeys with Purpose

A guest learns how to make a Hmong crossbow from Chai Song, a Laotian host, in Luang Prabang.

Jamon Mok and his team at Backstreet Academy are combining travel with philanthropy to make a positive impact on impoverished communities across Asia.

BY ALYWIN CHEW
PHOTOS BACKSTREET ACADEMY
 

I

n many forms of charity, disadvantaged individuals are often left in a passive role, haplessly awaiting the arrival of help from humanitarian groups or non-profit organisations.

Singaporean Jamon Mok and his band of do-gooders at Backstreet Academy, however, are empowering poverty-stricken individuals in Asia by providing them with a chance to change their lives.

Founded in March 2014 by Mok and two other friends, Backstreet Academy is a unique for-profit social enterprise that is helping to combat poverty, one cultural experience at a time. As a peer-to-peer travel platform, Backstreet Academy connects people looking for unique travel experiences with disadvantaged communities. Residents earn money by providing insightful tours or activities that most mainstream travel operators do not offer.

Giving back to the community and helping those in need has always been something close to Mok’s heart. Even before Backstreet Academy was founded, Mok was already working on a micro social venture fund called Gazaab Social Ventures, which aims to alleviate poverty by helping the poor start their own businesses.

Gazaab, which is still in operation, was conceptualised in 2009 when Mok was still a student at the Singapore Management University. It was eventually selected as one of four finalists in the 2013 Singapore International Foundation’s Young Social Entrepreneurs Programme and was awarded with S$10,000 in funding.

The idea to kick-start Backstreet Academy was born when Mok was in Nepal working on the Gazaab venture. He says: “It all began when I started chatting with a traditional wooden mask carver working in an alley beside our office in Nepal. I ended up getting an impromptu carving lesson right there in the alley. That’s when we decided that this is how travel should be.

“There’s no right or wrong way to travel, but if people can be culturally and socially sensitive and aspire to make an impact, however little, wherever they go, it’ll make a huge difference to the world.”


HELPING OTHERS HELP THEMSELVES

Through interactions with several charity organisations and beneficiaries during his time running Gazaab, Mok realised that the fastest way to help impoverished individuals fight poverty is to give them a chance to make a living for themselves. He also believes strongly in making an impact in the communities he travels to. The concept for Backstreet Academy was fuelled by these two passions.

Although it has been only two years since the platform’s inception, Mok and his team have already managed to pull together a comprehensive range of activities in 40 Asian cities to offer travellers. The social enterprise takes only a small cut of the fees listed on its website, with local hosts taking the bulk of the share, followed by translators and transport operators. To ensure the safety of their customers, Mok and his team test out each travel experience themselves before offering the activity to travellers.

“By hosting travellers a few times a week, these people can easily increase their income by two to three times. Furthermore, they gain the respect of their community and become more confident of themselves,” says Mok.

From learning how to craft a crossbow from an elderly hunter in Laos to fishing in the Mekong River, the activities have been an important source of income for numerous people in the region. British adventure blogger Arianwen Morris is one of those who has witnessed the impact of Backstreet Academy’s work. While travelling in Luang Prabang in Laos last year, she chanced upon the services offered by Backstreet Academy’s hosts and signed up for five different activities. This gave her an intimate look into how the social enterprise has made a difference to the lives of the locals.

CLOCKWISE FROM BELOW: A traveller learns stone carving to understand how Cambodiaʼs Angkor Wat was built; Guests during a Laotion winemaking course; Fisherman Ramorn Mean (extreme right) imparts traditional fishing skills to a traveller in Phnom Penh.


 

“In almost four years of backpacking around the world, I donʼt think Iʼve ever come across such a well thought-out and brilliantly executed organisation. Apart from the obvious financial support to local families and communities, itʼs a great way for travellers to interact on a deeper level and to get to know more about the local cultures and traditions.”


British adventure blogger Arianwen Morris

She says: “The man who taught me how to make crossbows told me that, with modernisation and the movement of many hill tribes into the city, his craft was a dying one and the tourism industry was helping to keep it alive. He later introduced me to his son, his grandson and his great-grandson and explained that the money he made from the programme would help provide them with an education and better life prospects.”

A seasoned traveller, the Briton has nothing but praise for Backstreet Academy, saying that it stands out from similar services because of the sheer volume of activities it offers.

“In almost four years of backpacking around the world, I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a well thought-out and brilliantly executed organisation. Apart from the obvious financial support to local families and communities, it’s a great way for travellers to interact on a deeper level and to get to know more about the local cultures and traditions,” adds Morris.

For now, Backstreet Academy hopes to strike up partnerships with global peers to expand its reach and offer more cultural experiences across the world in regions such as Africa, Eastern Europe as well as South and Central America. As Mok quite succinctly surmises: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”


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