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How You Can Fight Poverty In Asia: Go On A Holiday!

Orchestrating connections between local craftsmen and travellers is what the founder of Singapore-based start-up Backstreet Academy is passionate about.

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How would you like to be a blacksmith for an afternoon and forge a knife just for yourself?

If you are making plans to travel to Luang Prabang in Laos, Jamon Mok hopes you will visit Backstreet Academy’s website to book this experience before you go on your trip.

The 27-year-old is the founder of the Singapore-based start-up that has, to date, curated approximately 1,200 localised experiences, tours and activities across 43 cities in Asia, and made them available through the site to travellers from all over the world.

But these are no tourist traps. Instead, as its company name suggests, it takes you on a journey to the back alleys of each city to meet and mingle with local artisans (also known as “hosts”), who live below the poverty line of US$2 per day, so you can learn their craft.

“Our mission in setting up Backstreet Academy is to alleviate poverty through social entrepreneurship. But we don’t explicitly market our social impact as we don’t want to emotionally blackmail our customers,” says Mok.

Knife-making in Luang Prabang aside – itself ranked as the most popular experience – other activities Mok has recently added to Backstreet Academy include soap carving in Chiang Mai, fishing in the South Sea in Yogyakarta, and coffee appreciation in Hanoi.

For the truly adventurous, there is the Fear Factor Challenge available in Cambodia, where you learn how to cook insects such as tarantulas and grasshoppers, and then eat them; a practice that came about during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

But it is not just the travellers who stand to gain from this. The hosts too receive tangible benefits in the form of a significant increase in income – easily up to three times more – through working with Backstreet Academy.

Other advantages include a boost to their confidence, a sense of prestige that their skills are valued and recognised, learning how to run their own tourism micro-enterprise, and even picking up English.

“They always tell us how happy they are to be able to show the world their culture, skills and tradition. They are very delighted that so many people are actually interested in what they do, and want to learn from them,” he says.

The idea of starting the business came while Mok was working in Nepal in early 2014. He struck up a conversation with a wooden mask carver plying his craft just outside his office, who in turn gave him an impromptu lesson.

Armed with an authentic souvenir and a brand new friend, Mok remembers the artisan asking him to feel free to refer anyone who might be interested in a lesson.

The experience moved him so much that he decided to start Backstreet Academy later in the year for travellers who are “looking for an alternative and authentic experience”. “This is how travel should be, every single time,” he adds.

Three years on, his social enterprise has grown by leaps and bounds. Mok has big plans for 2017, including launching a Chinese language site and expanding into 15 countries in Africa by the end of the first quarter of the year.

Ask him what he personally gets out of the business and he is unequivocal in his answer, “It is the fulfilment of helping local communities move out of poverty, preserving traditions and culture, as well as creating magical experiences for travelers. This intersection of travel, technology and social enterprise is what thrills me.”