‘Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps’ – a deal I saw for checking into a backpacker hostel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. An example of the creeping Westernisation and persisting advance of Western culture, which would otherwise be in good humour, but when you have researched the recent Cambodian tourism boom, seems borderline aggressive, sleazy and blinkered.
Cambodia is a country with a dictatorial, lethal past in the form of the Khmer Rouge, a protested communist regime by the government which took a deadly turn when the twisted protagonist Pol Pot begun a murder mission against the educated, ethnic minority and urban communities, in his campaign to carve an agrarian Communist dominion. In 1979 The Vietnamese successfully halted the killing spree, but Cambodian resistance to neighbourly aid combined with a lack of doctors, teachers and engineers due to the genocide, meant that peace and rebuilding did not gain momentum steadily. PTSD was, and is, extremely widespread throughout Cambodia, and the older generation that survived make up a very small percentage of the population.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the current ruling Cambodian People’s Party whose leader himself enlisted in the Khmer Rouge, have operated a less fatal but not much less unfair form of politics.
Social, environmental and economic security has been denied, abused, halted and rerouted despite legislation. Legislation which, I might add, has been implemented by the current government, and conveniently turns a blind eye to such abuses.
The governing cabinet, when quizzed by the media in daily news stories (as we noticed consistently – as we always read the local daily papers when they are in English), do nothing much other than defend their own reputations, casually divert negagive attention and denounce accountability or responsibility for the country’s problems.
This seems to be occurring right through from farmers subsidies to garment workers rights.
The sector of business and of Cambodian life that I have had access to is the tourism sector.
Tourism is a sure-fire way to bring income to emerging economies, especially one with cool ancient temples and nice weather. Tourism is an extra cash cow for some and a real lucrative full-time investment for most.
Speaking with a man named Paren from a Cambodian NGO based in Siem Reap, called Bridge of Life School (more on this later) he told us that he reckons 99% of jobs in Siem Reap are in tourism. He may well be right, if we include all those whose businesses are indirectly supported by tourism too.
So I shall start my tale of South East Asia in chronological order, beginning with Siem Reap – the scene of our existential crises (predictable Westerner guilt crisis). Siem Reap is where everyone goes to visit Angkor Wat, from that ancient civilisation (which I had planned to learn heaps about there but learned very little’) and to see where Lara Croft hung out in Tomb Raider. We never did find out much about the history of the Angkor temples because there are no signs at all! It was ok though – its pretty awe inspiring just to look at and wander around. All I learned was that its population was largely wiped out by malaria. I learned this in a comic I bought at the market in India. There were plenty of tour guides we could’ve picked up at any point around the complex, and plenty of $1 chunky guide books being sold behind piles of temple ruins, but we were too tired by that point to take anything in. We just wanted to vibe. Plus, someone told us that many of those guides don’t know much at all about the temples, which doesn’t bother me but goes to show that their work is a matter of disinterested necessity rather than one of pride and excitement for their cultural history. Why? Because tourism boomed so fast and hard here, in the midst of a huge defecit in the educate population, that sustainable employment for all was never planned, and largely never considered. Whether this was by design or not, I’m not sure. Perhaps the big dogs in government just don’t care about their peeps. Or… they don’t want contracted, official workers lest they have to fork out pensions. Who knows? But either way… foresight and care were not involved.
So… the existential crisis.
Siem Reap backpacker district looks like a mash-up of Western culture, dreamed up by someone who was instructed to watch Gossip Girl, shop at Topshop with endless credit cards and personal shoppers, and visit Disneyland…. believed that all of this was reality and was actually in good taste, then truck in cheap alcohol and build a tourist resort town… centred around a really authentically named place called Pub Street. It’s pretty gross, and delivered by locals who i’m sure find it way more gross. Plus there were too many kids selling street food (roast spiders and scorpions) way past their bed times! They should be getting a good kip before school… although whether school is their daily destination I cannot say for sure. While i’m on the subject… do try not to give money to kids who are begging, nor buy their little bits of tat they sell. It encourages them to continue doing it when they could be at school. Instead, make a small donation to a charity supporting them. I caved and bought a postcard from a 10 year old biy for $1, because I just couldn’t say no to him. It was too sad, and it was getting dark and I wanted him to go home. Of course though, having made a sale, he went off encourgaed and looking for more customers. I wish i’d made a donation to one of the amazing charities in Siem Reap (which ironically are run by, or in collaboration with non-natives simply due to funds and organisation/initiative). There are some leaflets around town for these charities, and I can’t remember any off the top of my head, but there was a great one which educated mothers of street kids in seamstressing and handicrafts, so that they could earn a meaningful living.
So… Siem Reap and it’s sick cycle carousel of tourism, where the incoming coach loads of westerners resemble cattle trucks. Dramatic it may sound, but when you’re in the midst of it you feel like an animal being fed treats and taken to the park on a lead.
The ironic thing is (and this is the root of our existential crises) that I feel this is how the Cambodian People’s Party conduct their policy-making; purposefully engineering a lack of true autonomy within the Cambodian people, in order to keep the majority of Cambodians on specific rungs of society, likely for financial reasons and to make their own jobs easier. Cynical I am but I think it’s well-placed.
Learning about the relatively recent history of Cambodia, and informing myself about current environmental and human exploitation in the country, really gets you down. Once you learn about he underbelly of tourism it’s hard to not spot the clues. Within about 12 hours we were in the throes of our crisis of spirit. (which is mad considering we could’ve got out of there whenever we fancied and it’s not our spirit that’s actually being sapped). – “What are we doing here besides exacerbating unsustainable tourism that races on past the careful planning, social safeguarding and legitimate environmental consultation that it really requires?” There’s very little room in the Siem Reap area for young people to choose a career based on their interests, abilities and talents. Driving a tuk tuk or working as a hit’n’miss self-appointed tour guide; stamping tickets at Angkor Wat or pulling a 12-hour nightshift as hotel receptionist for $50 a month when your rent and bills come to $45 a month… there’s gotta be more rewarding and exciting way to apply yourself. But apparently that’s not encouraged, as it is in the UK! We realised this was a similar situation in many other countries. Even in England, for some people – there isn’t enough room for everyone to have a fulfilling and stable job. Just some people are the lucky ones. But, we found salvation… in the form of some brilliant responsible tourism.
The Bridge of Life School
This is an amazing NGO that offers sponsored training for locals, in English and in sewing. This helps with future employment and education opportunities. They also run a non-profit guesthouse in Siem Reap which employs lots of their students. We spent an afternoon with one of their former students and beneficiaries of a higher education sponsorship. His name was Paren, and he took us on a tour to a stilted fishing village on the Tonlé Sap – Asia’s largest freshwater lake. He grew up in the village and there were absolutely no schooling opportunities. He moved, with his family, to a nearby, larger village to attend school, and as he got into high school. He moved to Siem Reap and worked 12 hour night shifts as a receptionist on a wage that is about 600% lower than the calculated Cambodian living wage, and saved a little for uni (remarkably!). He was soon employed by The Bridge of Life School as the tour programme manager and at their guesthouse, and is now studying his management degree part time. He also receives philanthropic sponsorship for his uni fees. His old family home has been turned into the kindergarten for his village, and this is where we visited.
The Bridge of Life School also runs sewing programmes, sponsoring trainees to start their own business at the end of training so that they don’t have to go into the abusive garment production factories (ask me more – I know SO much about this now, from my job at Offset Warehouse, where we source some textiles from Siem Reap) to manufacture fast fashion for the likes of myself! They become tailors for the local communities, carving out a sustainable economy and not relying on donated clothing from tourists which totally undercuts local business. Paren actually requested that if we wanted to help, we donate money, but specifically NOT clothing, for this very reason.
The organisation also educates locals on hygiene and provides medical screening.
In collaboration with volunteers they have also built various wells in the rural areas nearby, for clean potable water access.
Basically, everything they do is incredible, and from spending the day with Paren I can see how totally meaningful it is to the growth, health and sustainability of the communities.
And… one of the recent Bridge of Life School’s graduates has just received a full scholarship to study medicine in Phnom Penh! They are such a rad outfit and I wanted to help, so I made a little donation and I also just helped them set up their instagram account. Makin’ responsible tourism trendy one hashtag at a time!
Choose your accommodation carefully.
We were also impressed by our hostel in Siem Reap. It actually turned out to be a pretty responsible one, although we didn’t find this out until they sent us a follow up email after we’d left. The Siem Reap Hostel is clean, popular and modern. But one thing… it has a swimming pool! Why!? Why, in a country where less than 60% of the population have access to clean water, do tourists get a swimming pool in budget accommodation? Or in any accommodation for that matter!? All swimming pools in such places should be drained and made into Dogtown-style skate parks. This would be a rad scene to encourage in Cambodia. It’s accessible, low coast, healthy and could create some cool job and tourism ops with skate parks and community centres.
Anyhow… the good stuff…
The Siem Reap Hostel employs a solid unit of Khmer staff, all paid a fair wage for sensible shift lengths. They are also one of the first tourism businesses to provide paid maternity leave.
I wish they would detail all of this right on the header of their website so that it’s clear to see and so that all travellers can have some food for thought. They also have the best yoga teacher ever! A French girl (yep Westerner, but she simply uses their space to teach in rather than being employed there) who also teaches at a studio nearby called 1961. Her studio there is wooden and hung with traditional Cambodian pantings which she uses to add cerebral atmosphere. I think she’s going for some therapeutic arts vibes, it’s cool.
So… if you are going to Siem Reap, stay at The Siem Reap Hostel, don’t tip kids, ask questions and be aware of the tourism machinery. Consider visiting social enterprise cafes such as Footprints, or taking a workshop with Rehash Trash; an outfit that employs mothers of former streetkids to make upcycled accessories. It’s empowering for them too because they get to teach you their own skills. Oh yep – there you go, I remembered the name of it!
Maybe consider visiting a silk farm too, such as IKTT that supports fair wage workers by making use of their traditional artisanal skills in silk worm farming, weaving and dyeing. I tried desperately to visit this place, but for some reason they never replied to my emails. The Siem Reap Hostel offer help with booking a similar visit too to another silk farm.
Also – If you go to Phnom Penh, visit the Daughters of Cambodia visitor centre. They have a really delicious cafe with an upstairs balcony that has a nice view of the riverfront street. Daughters of Cambodia is an incredible charity that supports victims of sex trafficking with psychological support and counselling, job skills training and sustainable employment opportunities in their eight buisnesses. These include the aforementioned cafe, a spa, a boutique selling their line of clothing and accessories, The White Linen Hotel, (which looks so amazing!!!) and others. The hotel is super amazing value – would even fit within a backpacker’s budget if you are due a chilled night in a comfy room!
So enjoy yourself and don’t be a sheep. And research – this website is a great start.