Know before you go: Responsible travel in Cambodia

Angkor, Cambodia
Sign at Angkor Park | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Before Todd and I left on our round-the-world trip, we debated whether or not we wanted to visit certain countries, concerned that money we spent would help support a repressive government or military. With the U.S. government’s well-known evils, we certainly couldn’t take a holier-than-thou approach, but we still wanted to minimize our traveling cash adding to the grief of anyone. We’re hippies like that.

Places like Burma, China, Malaysia, and Turkey were all on the chopping block. Some countries made it onto our route. Others didn’t. When it came to Cambodia however, we didn’t even know enough to know to consider it. Now we do, so we want to share.

Slow down....Irrawaddy dolphins - Krati, Cambodia
Dolphin-protecting sign at Kratie | Photo by Lauren Girardin

We have a lot of good excuses why we didn’t know our stuff – excuses like how hard it is to research back-to-back countries during a long-term trip – but, very simply, when it came to Cambodia we were not well informed. In hindsight, because we traveled as budget-conscious, independent backpackers, I believe that most of the money we spent in Cambodia that could make it into the right hands, did. Still, I wish we’d had more time to research and better evaluate how and where we wanted to plunk our bucks.

Here’s what we did right. Instead of joining a tour group, we hired a local guide, Peter Tuk Tuk Driver, to take us through Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields and S-21. We made sure our boat was all-paddle-powered when we checked out the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins near Kratie. Instead of getting on a smog-spewing bus, we biked our way through the temples of Angkor. We bought a lot of street food from hard-working locals, or dined at “smell your own farts” restaurants (don’t get the South Park reference?) that employ street youth or benefit local NGOs.

But, when we ate at the “smell your own farts” restaurants, did our dining dime really make it to any of the street kids the restaurants were claiming to support? Just by visiting Angkor didn’t we contribute to the site’s conservation crisis? Did our paddle boat perturb the dolphins?

Todd and I both grew up in New York – though our backpacks are light, we carry around a lot of guilt.

Here’s just some of what we we wish we had known about Cambodia. None of this should keep you from visiting the country. We hope that with this insight, you’ll be able to make even better informed decisions than we did.

Cambodia’s wonderful, you should go. Just go with your brain turned on and your eyes open.

Almost half of Cambodia’s land is owned by foreigners

Unlike any other country in the world, the current Cambodian government allows companies that are majority-owned by foreigners to buy or pick up long-term leases on Cambodian land. Southern islands were opened to foreign ownership in 2007, leading to a purchasing boom. As of Spring 2008, more than 45% of Cambodia’s land is now foreign-owned. By now, the amount of foreign-owned land could be even higher. Much of the land has been bought for speculation, so nothing has been built, but Cambodians who lived on the land have often been evicted anyway. There are a lot of rumors, but it’s pretty clear that much of tranquil Otres Beach has been snapped up, so resort hotels, jet skis, and karaoke bars are not far off.

Angkor’s temples are endangered

Angkor, Cambodia
Sign at Angkor Park | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Though it was removed from UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger List in 2004, Angkor is far from safe. Nearby hotels, golf courses, pools, and spas – there to satisfy the 3 million tourists expected in 2010 – are draining underground water reservoirs; as the water gets sucked away, that may cause the ground to subside, leading to temples literally sinking into the ground. Hotels dump sewage directly into rivers. The hundreds of tourists that daily clamber atop Phnom Bakheng to snap a picture of the sun setting behind Angkor Wat are wearing away the temple’s stone. All over the park, tourists think nothing of climbing dilapidated but breathtaking ruins, monkeying up trees, and rubbing their hands on carved walls, forgetting that this behavior is quickly wearing away and destabilizing what’s left. Air pollution from the buses, tuk tuks, and private cars that daily swarm the park have turned the air into a smoggy nightmare; vibrations from buses are even effecting the monuments’ stability. The problems due to tourism at Angkor go on and on.

Angkor’s entrance fees don’t all go to preservation

The entrance fee for Angkor Park is collected by the privately held, notoriously un-transparent Sokimex Group, Cambodia’s largest company. No one seems to know exactly how much Sokimex earns from Angkor tickets each year, but it may have been $60 million US or more in 2007. Yet, because the Cambodian government – itself no model for fiscal righteousness – may have agreed (again, try to find a verifiable source on this online) to a yearly fixed fee of only $10 million, most of the admission fees go no further than Sokimex owners’ pockets. Plenty of reports will tell you that there’s not enough funding to repair or protect the ruins. Signs throughout the temple complex make it clear that the bulk of the restoration work is sponsored by foreign organizations. Insufficient guard staff means that looting is still problematic. So, it seems that Sokimex puts little of its profit into improving Angkor Park or creating economic opportunities for the people of Siem Reap province, one of the poorest in Cambodia. Oh, yeah, and Sokimex is building a huge hotel with a water park in Siem Reap, a town that soon enough will be as dry as a raisin.

Angkor’s lit like a Red Light District harlot

To attract more tourists, Angkor’s temples are now awash in colored lights at night installed by Sou Ching Co. Like too many body piercings, the light hardware distracts from the aesthetics of the temples and is a bit of an eyesore. There’s also a scandal that holes may have been drilled into ancient temple walls to hang the lights. A foundation president and three newspapers are being sued for embarrassing the government by revealing that the walls had been treated like a Texas oilfield. Even if the lights attract more tourists, which some doubt, more tourists aren’t necessarily a good thing either – conservationists are beginning to worry that Angkor is already overwhelmed.

And there’s more

Border clashes with Thailand over Preah Vihear temple, the long-delayed tribunals of Khmer Rouge leaders, poverty, human rights issues, corruption, child prostitution, censorship, and rampant mismanagement of public assets – Cambodia is fraught with problems. Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Awareness will.

Going to Cambodia? Here’s what you can do:

  • Stay longer in Siem Reap to contribute more to the local economy beyond your Angkor ticket and mitigate the environmental impact of your visit.
  • Use a bike to explore Angkor’s temples instead of joining a tour or tuk-tuking. Convince others in your guesthouse to go with you on the ride.
  • Choose a Siem Reap hotel that doesn’t have a spa or pool.
  • Wait until you get back to your home country to golf or hire a prostitute (Even at home golf courses are an eco disaster. And prostitution? Well, if you’re into it, I probably can’t convince you to give it up at home).
  • Avoid the crowds and preserve the ruins by watching sunset somewhere besides Phnom Bakheng in Angkor Park.
  • Spread your money far and wide by visiting other sites in addition to Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh.
  • Eat meat-free dishes whenever possible (don’t try to avoid fish sauce and shrimp paste though, or you’ll go crazy).
  • Give your business to local-owned or at least local-staffed guides, hotels, and restaurants whenever possible. It’s not always easy to find this out, but by asking, you’ll at least be letting people know that this matters.
  • Leave your Speedo or thong bikini at home (both are just wrong anywhere).
  • Fumble through the local language. At a minimum, you’ll give someone a good laugh.
  • Do some pre-planning using these guides:

While you’re at it, here’s a few don’ts:

  • Don’t buy into any packaged tours unless you’re sure your money is getting into the right hands.
  • Don’t give into the temptation to climb, touch, or loot Angkor’s ruins or other cultural sites.
  • Don’t ride on elephants, especially if there’s any kind of saddle. Don’t go to the elephant shows and don’t give money to any street elephant handlers.
  • Don’t buy property in Cambodia. And if you’ve already bought some, gift it to a Cambodian.
  • Don’t buy anything from children – ever – and don’t give money to beggars, young and old alike. If you want to help, donate to a local charity.

Not going to Cambodia? You can still make a difference!

  • Share this Ephemerratic story with a friend who’s heading off to Cambodia so they can get a head start on their planning.
  • Give a microloan to a Cambodian entrepreneur through