Cambodia is a beautiful and alluring country that’s come a long way since its tragic genocidal events four decades ago. Most tourists who flock there today are more interested in Cambodia’s ancient past, especially in the magnificent ruins of the city of Angkor.
While the continued influx of tourist money seems promising for the country’s future, at least on the surface, there is a dark side to Cambodia’s heightened popularity. Even well-meaning tourists can unknowingly contribute to activities and practices in Cambodia that are neither ethical nor sustainable. The following are some highlights of how you can be a responsible tourist while travelling in Cambodia. Take these to heart, spread the awareness, and your time in the “kingdom of wonder” will be unforgettable in the best, most guilt-free way.
1. Don’t Visit Orphanages
Taking a day trip to visit an orphanage may seem like an innocent or even charitable way to spend your time. The reality is, only about 25% of the “orphans” living in these homes actually have no parents.
Many Cambodian parents opt to keep their children in these orphanages when they realise it affords them an income, thanks to the generosity of tourists wanting to help. These children are separated from their parents and do not have the opportunity to live a stable family life as they should. On top of this, the experience of constantly meeting new people for just a few hours who they will never see again causes abandonment issues and emotional damage on a deep level.
If you still want to help children in need one of the most effective ways to do so is to donate to reputable organisations that have dedicated themselves to this cause.
2. Minimise Use of Water
Everywhere you go it’s always important to conserve resources, including water. In Cambodia, especially if you visit Angkor, the importance of conserving water reaches a whole new level.
The ruins of Angkor sit on a sandy foundation held in place by groundwater. As tourism in Siem Reap has skyrocketed over the years luxury hotels and resorts have cropped up, offering pools, lush landscaping and unlimited water supply. A lot of the wells and pumps that funnel this water are illegal and use the groundwater under the foundation of the Angkor ruins. If unchecked the ruins themselves fall serious risk to cracking and even crumbling.
No matter where you are in Cambodia, be sure to use water as sparingly as possible.
3. Don’t Give to Children Begging on the Street
It may feel instinctive to give money to children you see begging on the street in Cambodia, or to purchase the goods they are selling. These children are often taken out of school in order to earn money this way; by giving them money you effectively perpetuate the cycle and keep them from receiving an education. In the worst-case scenarios these children work for larger syndicates that may be organised gangs. Working and begging on the streets also makes these children vulnerable to human trafficking.
4. Refrain from Buying Any Artifacts
Ancient artefacts from Cambodia’s history, including remnants from the Khmer Empire are sadly endangered from pillaging and illegal marketing. Preserving the history and legacy of Cambodia depends on people treating these artefacts with respect and making sure they stay where they belong: on-site, or in a museum. If you see anything labelled as an “artefact,” be sure not to purchase it; not only is it unethical, it’s probably illegal as well.
5. Protect the Wildlife
The wildlife in Cambodia is among the most vulnerable in the world. In 1970 70% of the country was covered by rainforest. By 2007 it was only 3.1%. Check any products you buy to make sure they are not sourced illegally or un-sustainably.
The wild animal population suffers from serious poaching and trafficking issues. A more common problem you may encounter as a tourist in Cambodia is elephant riding. Elephants are naturally wild animals and in order to be tamed for riding they undergo traumatic and abusive “training” in order to break their spirits and make them submissive to humans. Moreover, in spite of their size elephants are not as strong as they look and suffer extensive injuries from being forced to carry loads of tourists on a continual basis.
If you want to have a chance to be closer to these creatures, opt for visiting an elephant shelter instead where these animals live free and are treated with respect. Working Abroad offers an excellent program to volunteer with elephants in the remote eastern forests of Mondulkiri, Cambodia.
6. Go Local Wherever Possible
A rule of thumb that will apply to any tourist visiting Cambodia is to “go local” as much as possible. This means staying in accommodations that are both environmentally sustainable and owned by people who live there locally, rather than by large, international organisations or the government.
There’s another, less obvious reason for going local, especially when it comes to accommodations. In the wake of the tourist explosion in Cambodia, the government has allowed foreign investors to build luxurious resorts and hotels, often on the sites where people have their homes. These native people are forcibly evacuated from their homes, often violently and without compensation.
Visiting Southeast Asia, and perhaps Cambodia especially can be an ethical challenge as you find yourself everywhere presented with options that may not be as harmless as they first appear. However, with a little research and effort you can travel Cambodia in a 100% positive and impacting way.
If you’d like to spend a little bit longer in Cambodia in order to volunteer and make a difference on an even deeper level there are many excellent programs available. Working Abroad has an excellent project located in Cambodia for nature lovers, an opportunity to help with reforestation and elephant welfare.
Whether you volunteer or simply travel, stay for a short while or longer-term, you can make an incredible contribution and have an amazing time while in Cambodia. In the meantime, be sure to spread the awareness.
– By WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Brenna Saunders