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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Guide for Voluntourists – An Ethical Compass

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Enrolment day 2011. This mother came to the school to ask questions and ensure the school could help her son. Two days later she came back with the website address for a books in schools program. One that I had been unable to find on the net. I love this sense of community involvement.

While debate swirls around Twitter about the pros and cons of voluntourism I thought I’d search for a constructive document to refer to. A good platform for thinking about the issues has been prepared by a group called TIES – The International Eco-Tourism Society. And their objective is to provide an ethical compass both for operators (come on our amazing orphanage tour!) and for tourists who are thinking about the ethical pros and cons.

Click here for their 24 page PDF: Guideline for voluntourists.

Today I’ve been quite busy responding to Twitter criticisms levelled at orphanages in general – and it is no medium in which to have a debate. But it is clear that there are naysayers out there who find it much easier to find fault (but surely the children should be with their parent.  Er, not if there’s domestic violence.) but not so easy to come up with positive, practical ways of helping the poorest Cambodian families and their children.

I don’t mind any such debate. I’m glad that NGOs are being held to higher account though I find some of the critics’ arguments quite risible or over-simplistic. (Money isn’t the issue…we should do what’s best…) Hmmmn. If only money wasn’t an issue.

But at the root of the discussion, on both sides, there beats a common heart – and that is one that cares for the children of Cambodia. If you’re planning to visit, do read up on these issues.

Some guidelines:

  • Deal with licensed, reputable NGOs.  Ignore those that tout for your visit.
  • Expect to be asked for photo ID. Don’t just walk in.
  • Plan to make a long-term difference – ask yourself how you might do this.
  • Work with children only in the presence of other adults.
  • Do your homework. There’s an good argument to say that many of us could reduce our negative footprint simply by sending money to a good cause. So ask yourself – am I making a difference by being here?

For more about volunteering see also:

Click here:  A new policy at Savong’s organisation: designed to raise the bar.