Cambodia. The ugly tourists and the prostitute in the internet cafe.

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Night Market, Siem Reap. Cambodia has become better equipped for dealing with a wider variety of tourists

I’ve noticed over 9 years how Cambodia has evolved as a tour destination for an increasing variety of tourists and visitors. On my first flight into Siem Reap the flight was dominated by a group of middle-aged Americans (my age group) and we were all slightly adventurous by nature, but also seekers of comfort. Wewere here primarily to see Angkor, and besides these temples and the big hotels, the local visitor infrastructure was not well developed.

This month my Bangkok Airways flight was populated by backpackers from Spain and Mexico, a pair of Russian honeymooners, a conference of solar energy experts (from as far afield as Germany and Myanmar) and many others. I was quite the eavesdropper! The flight prepared me to expect some changes in Siem Reap.

The biggest single change, as far as tourists are concerned, is the development of the lovely Night Markets which offer god food, good artisan crafts and silks – and, being open at night, shopping at a lovely romantic temperature. Balmy but not sweltering. The walk from Pub Street is colorful and safe.

But what the night markets represent is the way that Cambodia has become more organised for tourists. Instead of being a single-sight destination (Angkor temples) Siem Reap is offering more to do and experience. This is vital because tourist spending is one of the economic lifebloods of Cambodia (cheap garment production is the main export earner) and the battle is not only to encourage tourists to spend more, but to stay more than the average – eight years ago – of just three or four days. Previously tourists would fly in, stay at an expensive hotel (whose profits went back to foreign owners) and apart from some tuktuk rides and some spending at local westernised restuarants, and tour guides – very few other dollars flowed into the economy.  These days there are more places to see and more things to experience.

Popular options aside from Angkor, include Quad Bike tours (these go out through Bakong where our school is) though I wish the owners would tell their young tourists not to drive so dangerously. Slow down around blind corners – don’t put kids lives at risk! They also include specialist visits to potteries and to the silk farm out past West Baray.

Today’s visitors fall into three basic types.

  • The wealthy Zen Experience. Temples. Spa treatments. An Apsara dance show over dinner. Some shopping.
  • The Backpacker. Guest house, wifi hot spots, photos and haggling over prices.
  • The middle-aged adventurers. Liberal, careful, observant – a world view but enjoy comforts too.

In the latter group I’d include an Oregon couple (he’s an attorney) with whom I shared a very entertaining conversation that ranged from the sad Trayvon Martin case to the development challenges facing Cambodia in the future. On my last visit one told me how he’d been approached at an internet cafe by a male student, soliciting sex so he could  continue at university. The man, an American was just so saddened by this.

“The boy had been reduced to the point where he felt prostitution was the only way out.”

I sense, when I meet these people  that there is a burgeoning desire by the 45+ to do something constructive in Cambodia. But what?  I feel there is a big gap for the development of organised ethical tourism. Over time I’ll add some links for this group.

The “Wealthy Zen” people don’t bother me. Cambodia is just another backdrop to their well-heeled life adventure. Next stop: the Maldives. In some way they are invisible as tourists.

The sector that worries me the most is the backpackers. Perhaps, to be fair, I should split this group into:

  1. The true eco-adventurers.
  2. The party animals.
  3. The emotionally ill-prepared.

The party animals and the ill-prepared threaten to ruin Cambodia’s tourist scene in part because it’s all about THEM. The young and in love backpackers on my plane were kissing and cuddling like there was nobody else on board.  She was already dressed inappropriately for Cambodia in her skimpy camouflage-chic tank-top and the two clearly had never spared a thought for the culture they’d be “immersing themselves” in.

These people whine about wifi (at the Blue Pumpkin the upstairs wifi lounge was populated by young facebookers who spent hours glued to their iPhones and tablets) and moan about prices. They play a role (on the surface they look like adventurers) but beneath the backpack beats the heart of what we used to call the Ugly American – only they’re from Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore as well.

Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy: but every time I see a Cambodian pandering to the needs or wants of these self-centered people I think of the boy in the Internet Cafe, resolving to sell himself so he can continue as a student.

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In Cambodia – different paths in life.

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Savong and Sopin, November 2013 – breakfast at the Blue Pumpkin, Siem Reap.

The Blue Pumpkin is a French owned western style cafe in Siem Reap and on my last morning before flying out I met here with Savong and an old friend of his Sopin: everyone calls him Pin. The two guys don’t see each other all that often these days but for me the stories of the two are indelibly linked. It was Pin who urged me in 2004 to visit a small house not far from Siem Reap’s Killing Fields Monastery (Wat Thmey) where Savong’s first classroom was set up: under his dad’s house.

Pin and Savong and I became good friends over three short days back then, and last week we reminisced about that time – I’d taken them nightclubbing (I think their first time: the club “Martini” was 50% traditional Khmer music and 50% western. Big signs inside back then said: Hip Hop! Tango!) and we talked about how things had changed. Pin had vivid, detailed memories of those times.

Those few days 9 years ago culminated with a trip out to West Baray lake (photo below) and that was the day that Savong raised with me his dream of building a school in the countryside.

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Savong and Pin in October 2004 – two young guys who became friends at the Wat They monastery. Since then their lives have diverged, but it was great to see the two sharing a laugh together, nine years later.

Since then the lives of the two young guys have gone separate ways. Where once they schooled together and lived together at the Monastery, they had a falling out in 2005 and while Savong went on to build his own school, Pin drifted somewhat. I’ve met him a few times over the years and he really is a lost soul – an orphan in the true sense – without the bedrock of family to define him or sustain him. Pin is impossibly handsome, and certainly intelligent, yet he is wracked by self doubt and a lack of confidence.

For some years he struggled as a tuk tuk driver, his meagre income mopped up by the huge levies of several hundred dollars for the right to serve airport traffic: in reality a levy for the right to wait, and wait, for scant business.

In 2011 Pin trained as a medical assistant within the Cambodian army, an assignment that took him to the Thai border and the heart of the Cambodian/Thai military dispute over the sovereignty of Preah Vihear temple: a dispute that galvanised Cambodia. (The UN ruling on which nation is rightfully the sovereign of the disputed border territory is being announced as I write: November 11th 2013.)

Pin still serves as a part time medical assistant, and this requires training and military service for a couple of months each year. In some ways I think the structure of this is a good thing for him. But these days he has a new vocation as an artisan and vendor of artworks to tourists at Angkor. He’s hand-carving figures out of sandstone, and helping other artists sell their paintings both to tourists at the ancient temple, and to visitors of the night markets in Siem Reap. He’s discovered a skill and found his direction.

When we met, Savong and Pin were both conscious of the gap that has opened up between them: one young man in charge of an expanding organisation, the other working hard to make ends meet: one driving a Nissan Tundra and the other saving to buy a motor scooter.  Two hours later I was on the 45 minute flight to Bangkok and I thought about how these two lives exemplify the random and not quite fair allocation of luck and resources as Cambodians claw back, within a generation or two, the lifestyles that were lost between 1975 and 1995. There are those who are succeeding and others who are struggling.

Savong had told me earlier that people must be responsible for their own success in life. “They must work hard and act responsibly,” he declared. I gently reminded him that luck is part of all our lives. “Brother,” I said. “It was Pin who led me to you and your classroom back in 2004. Without Pin where would we be?”

Reading up on Cambodia? Here are 10 Recommended reads.

BOOK WITHDRAWAL MARCH 4th - $800 - 2013  109

Below is a list of 10 books about Cambodia that I can recommend. I do urge you to look at the vibrant history going back way before Pol Pot, and to read the social commentary post-Pol Pot also.

CLICK HERE