Lessons in Being an Ethical Tourist: Kampong Pluk

Cambodia has really been a fantastic place to visit. If you’ve read my other lengthy blog posts you’ll know that I could easily write a thousand words about it’s natural beauty, cuisine, temples and much more (although not the pop music!) However, it remains to be one of the poorest countries in the world and there’s no shortage of social, cultural and environmental issues. The country has had to rebuild itself from the Pol Pot regime and its lack of human rights is still alarming, especially for children. It’s one of the prime locations for child sex trafficking and corrupt child ‘orphanages’, hence our decision not to buy anything from child sellers, despite the intense guilt you feel for saying no. Only the other night did we see footage of a minimum wage protest that took place in Phnom Penh and lead to gun fire ordered by the government (in the documentary ‘The True Cost’ which I hope to talk about in a futures Laos post.)
It was always my intention to travel as ethically as possible. It’s part of the reason that I chose to be an English teacher; I felt I could see the world, contribute to the country, but not take a job that a native person could do. I think I achieved this to an extent (hopefully I’ll get round to finishing my entry about TEFLing where I can give a bit more detail), but I won’t pretend for a minute that I’ve done everything right. I wonder sometimes whether I’ve haggled too hard with someone living hand-to-mouth, or if my ignorance of local customs has ever offended anyone, and my carbon footprint certainly can’t be good! (I just hope that my herbivorous lifestyle has counteracted this at least a little :/) So, I hope that this entry isn’t read as a lecture, or me taking the moral high ground. There were a lot of iffy moment during this particular trip so my intentions are to share and reflect on what we saw. 

We decided to spend our last day in Siem Reap going to see one of the local floating villages and get a glimpse of rural life. Siem Reap is nice but once you’ve done Angkor and had a walk around the centre you find that most stalls and bars aimed at tourists. Since I left Hanoi I’ve jumped from city to city so it was a chance to do something a bit different.

The half hour bus journey to the village was lead by a tour guide, who like a lot of tour guides I’ve had in Asia, talked for the entire length of the journey. To be fair, he mostly talked about his background and the current state of Cambodia, so it was interesting listening to him. Tourism provides a significant stream of income and approximately 65% of Cambodians work in crop production, although this was evident as we passed many many people working in the fields, or sometimes sitting in the water of the paddies throwing water over their heads to cool off. This guide had been a monk for a number of years so he could continue his education before retraining in the tourism sector, so his anecdotes on being a monk were enlightening too.

On reaching Kampong Pluk we found that ‘floating village’ is only an appropriate term for half the year. The village is close to the banks of Tonle Sap Lake, the life force of the country. The lake, situated right in the centre of the country, is enormous. During the wet season the Mekong River swells and water flows to Tonle Sap expanding the lake from 2500 km2 square to 16000 km2! In response to this, the houses in the village are built on tall stilts but sometimes still flood during the height of the wet season. It would be amazing to see the transformation in the summer – you’d have to boat your way there.

  
All fascinating so far, but this is when things became questionable: We were expecting the local families to be selling various handicrafts or snacks, given that tourists provide a significant part of their income, but soon after we arrived women emerged and approached members of the group with notebooks and pencils saying: ‘you buy for the children.’ Not quite the way we wanted to support local business. Sure, if the school needs resources it would be great to contribute, but there was something very fishy about the village having the resources in the first place but wanting tourists to buy them to dish out to the kids ten seconds later. 

From experience, we’ve seen that repackaging and reselling tourist purchases is pretty common practice. One example that stands out in my mind is our boat rower in Tam Coc, whom we bought a drink for which was left untouched. I’ve also since discovered that the Cambodia women asking for money for ‘baby milk’ hire the babies and return the milk formula to the shop! Of course, not every beggar or seller is out to fob you off and many are in great need, but this was clearly another case of reselling. The sellers make 100% profits and tourists get a false ego buzz thinking that they are being helpful. 

Of course, they soon approached me which put me in a bit of dilemma. I was really uncomfortable with the idea but I didn’t want to look heartless and uncaring. Sarah pointed out that we could buy them some snacks instead, which seemed like a compromise, so we bought a bag of these crisp-like things. I can’t say I felt much pleasure from dishing them out to the kids who jumped around with rehearsed excitement. It didn’t escape our notice that we didn’t see a single packet opened. 

I don’t think we were the only ones in the group questioning the validity of all this, but there were others who were happily going along with it. There was one rather obnoxious member of the group, however, who was a loud mouthed know-it-all, and had been asking annoying questions on the bus which he would pretty much answer with his own wonderful answers. He clearly thought handing out these books was great. Ok, I might sound like I’m being incredibly harsh, but there were an array of annoying things he did, but it really said it all when he asked the tour guide ‘do you think the government would pay for the plastic to be picked up? I think the tourists would like it better.’

Sorry, but !!!!!!!

There is a considerable amount of rubbish on the road sides throughout Cambodia and this village was no exception, but I want to think that most people are more concerned about wildlife and the environment than sanitising their photographs and travel experience. Really, did this guy actually think tourists are the priority in this instance? In fairness, there are times when you could easily make harmful mistakes without realising if you’ve not already encountered any dodgy dealings, but you’d think that this was a clear no no. Perhaps there’s just not enough common sense in the world to go around. (Yeah! common sense is subjective, but you know what I mean.)

Anyway, we continued to explore the village and saw the local temple, school, and even the little police station, which I really liked. We were taken on a boat after to sail out to Tonle Sap Lake. The boat was operated by two men and a young boy who couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. Watching him start up the motor and operate the boat was very impressive. Once he’d finished he walked up to Rebecca and started massaging his shoulders, which proved to be an attempt to make a bit more cash.

  The police station

 Very cute place. You can see the litter.

  

We reached the lake which was far more beautiful than I’d expected. It was a cloudy day so the horizon separating the white sky and silvery lake was barely visible. By the time we’d reached the floating bar that we stopped at it looked as though we were surrounded by … infinite? Really unusual but so pretty. 

  
  
On boarding the local floating bar our guide talked us through the various species found in the lake, many of which were sadly, but unsurprisingly, endangered. Over fishing and pollution were of course the main culprits, but the illegal use of electrofishing also results in a lot of ‘by kill’. Not great news and a bit of why do humans suck so much moment. I guess it’s a luxury to tell people not to do x, y and z when you’ve never had to consider where you’re next meal is coming from.

So that pretty much sums up our day in Kampong Pluk. Don’t get me wrong, despite the negatives it was an enjoyable trip and gave us insight into another part of Cambodia. We had some laughs, saw some beautiful scenery and got out of the city for a bit. We don’t spend all day mithering about everything we do; this is our holiday so what’s the point of not enjoying ourselves? But when you’re in a position if privilege it’s easy to overlook these things.

Thought I’d leave this here: http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk. It’s my main point of reference and has some interesting and shocking info.

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