Cambodia and the Challenges of ‘Responsible Travel’

by Narelle Webber on Saturday, 17 March 2012

The grandeur of the cities of Angkor cannot be disputed. Bayon Faces (c) used with permission Narelle Webber

Now in it’s third season, the ISV Ancient Cambodia Optional Excursion is drawing a ton of interest, as it rightly should.

If anyone asks me, I’ll tell them that the grandeur of Angkor Wat and the exciting air of Siem Reap rivaled my ISV experience in Machu Picchu (Peru), and that’s saying something. However tourism in the town of Siem Reap has been growing rapidly in recent years as travelers around the world are catching on as to just how amazing this place is, and in response, tourism infrastructure, good and bad, has followed.

People from rural areas are pouring into the city in the hopes that tourist dollars will mean a better life for them and their families. However, if you’ve seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire you’ll appreciate that in desperate places, things are sometimes not as they seem. Certainly, Cambodia has opened up both positive and negative forms of tourism, each of which can drive opportunistic behavior sometimes preying on people’s ignorance and good intentions.

Despite a bustling local economy with markets, restaurants and other tourist services around Siem Reap, poverty is hard to miss, particularly street begging. It’s not uncommon for people, most often children, to come to your dinner table or approach you in the streets asking for handouts. After the 5th, 10th, 20th time, when you want to just say “leave me alone,” I try and remind myself to be compassionate and understanding, rather than annoyed, but I never give out money at the table and choose my handouts carefully.  I don’t give money as I’m worried about where the money goes and from what I’ve learned I have real doubts that money is kept by the recipients rather than taken from them by others with more power and who use the people begging for their own purposes.

Musicians at Banteay Srei Temple, (c) used with permission Narelle Webber

Blind or maimed musicians (presumably landmine victims) play music on the streets and around tourist attractions such as temples, asking for money in return. You ask yourself, should I give money? Can I be sure that the money I give will stay with the performers or are there other forces at play, taking advantage of me, and worse, those musicians? In this case I did.  I felt compassion and appreciated their music and their ability to play, despite their physical challenges. You may also wonder, if there wasn’t tourism in Siem Reap, what would all these maimed people do to survive? I don’t know the answer to that question. Cambodia is certainly not well known for caring for its citizens with physical handicaps.

Sign: Traditional Cambodian Music Played by Landmine Victims. (c) used with permission Narelle Webber

We have decided to include a visit to the landmine museum as part of our 5-day Cambodia Excursion. Click here to see the museum’s official website. It’s a minimal entry fee (a few dollars) which we include for everyone and when I saw the place in person, I was convinced that it was important to have our participants experience it.  I believe that learning about both the positives and negatives of a country’s history is part of responsible tourism.

The atrocities of war and its continued impact on Cambodia today should be a reminder to our generation and put us in a better position to make wiser decisions that uphold peace and human rights in the future. Moreover, the museum is very eye-opening. Founded by a man by the name of Aki Ra who previously laid mines for the Khmer Rouge, he has since turned into someone who has defused thousands of bombs. His story is one of the most interesting I’ve come across. Click here to read an interesting article about him. The museum is a place where you can spend your money knowing that the profits help kids and others who are trying to rebuild their lives after being impacted by landmines. Most of our volunteers are disturbed by the experience, but are glad they went, and most come back heavy-handed but lighter hearted from their gift shopping knowing that their money is going to a good cause.

ISV Thailand High School Group at Baan Unrak Children’s Home, Jan 2012: Having fun after repairing and maintaining the children’s home and their agricultural project (c) used with permission Stefanie Langley

Two more things I want to mention when I think of some of the negative aspects of tourism in Cambodia. The first is something known as orphanage tourism. It’s growing in Cambodia but so is the awareness that some orphanages aren’t really orphanages at all; kids put on display to get some of the tourist dollars from  travelers who think they’re doing something positive but really only feed a trade that separates children from their families and undermines the value of real orphanages.

There is a healthy debate about the value of volunteer programs in orphanages. Depending on nature of the volunteer tasks at a children’s home (i.e.  infrastructure development, practicing English, recreation, etc.), the presence of volunteers and interaction between them and the children must have an overall positive impact. Every ISV volunteer project is stringently researched, personally inspected by our staff (often on multiple occasions), and great care is taken to ensure that the need for volunteers is completely genuine.  ISV works side-by-side with the staff running these homes to plan our volunteers’ activities.

The last thing is another ‘out there’ experience called a blind-massage. Literally, the masseuse is blind. I was appalled to have read/heard about some examples where people were purposefully blinded and forced to offer this service. I was motivated to ensure that if I chose to pursue this service, I had to know it was genuine. New to Siem Reap, I did what millions of travellers do, and resorted to a Lonely Planet guide for a referral. “Seeing Hands” massage is a reputable organization that provides employment for visually-impaired people and was truly a unique experience for me.

Kompong Phluk Floating Village, not far from Siem Reap (c) used with permission Narelle Webber

My intention wasn’t to give our readers the shock and awe treatment. As I said, I feel grateful to have experienced the energy of Siem Reap, the amazing Angkor Wat temples and the fascinating countryside (like the picture, at right) while also being confronted by the reality of a country still dealing with landmine issues.

I feel good about our ISV Ancient Cambodia Excursion and with our 5/5 ratings from all participants so far, I know that participants agree with me that we’re doing something right.  In agreement with the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and their Global Code of Ethics, Tourism should “…educate [and] foster an appreciation for and contribute to the protection of the world’s cultural, historical and natural treasures,” and in visiting Angkor Wat, we aim to do just that.

In the end, when trying to be a responsible traveler in a place that doesn’t make it easy to know what’s right or wrong, I find that you simply have to engage in some research – ask questions, learn from others, think carefully about your actions, behavior and how you will be perceived, and sometimes, just go with your gut. Often it’s impossible to know if what you see is what you get, ISV does our best to design our tours in line with our responsible travel ethics. We learn from mistakes and aren’t afraid to make changes where we need to.

Go to Cambodia. You might be a little shocked, even as I was (a fairly well travelled individual), but mostly you’ll be in awe.

To find out more about our Cambodia Excursion visit our website.

If you are interested, below are a couple of other tips we give our volunteers as they travel in Cambodia:


  • Read up. If you don’t know anything about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities of the recent civil war, find out.
  • Be aware that cultural differences do exist and some behaviours which are normal at home are not appropriate in Cambodia.
  • Think twice before buying anything from children on the street or at temples, or giving money to begging children or parents with infants. It keeps them on the street and increases their risk. If you really want to help please don’t give directly to children. Instead find and support services that help these children have a better future.
  • If you really want to give to children, consider giving food.
  • Be aware of the dangers of orphanage tourism. A lot of orphanages in Cambodia do not have child protection policies in place to ensure the safety and well-being of the children in their care. Good orphanages usually don’t allow visitors to just walk in and have direct contact with the children.
  • In general be aware of what/who your money supports. Your ISV Tour Leader  should be able to help with this.
  • Purchase Childsafe Certified Products to support vulnerable children and their parents. They’re made by parents so children can go back to school or they are made by former street youth in training so they can find employment.
  • Children need their sleep and rest too. Avoid patronizing entertainment/shows at night with performing children – child labor laws are non-existent in Cambodia and these children should be in school and well rested.
  • Bargaining etiquette: Bargain by all means but do so with a smile and only start bargaining if you are generally interested in buying the item. Only buy it if you’re happy with the price you reach. A vendor won’t sell if they’re not making money on the item.
  • There are generally two prices in Cambodia – foreign and local. Don’t feel you are being taken advantage of simply because you pay 10 cents more than a Khmer person. Cambodians have no health care or social security- the poverty cycle is hard to break!
  • At the temples, stick to marked pathways and be aware of climbing all over the temples. We want to conserve this for future generations.
  • Dress conservatively. Cambodia is a Buddhist culture with little Western influence still. It is required to cover your shoulders and knees when entering temples and certainly access can be denied if dress is inappropriate. However, dressing conservatively in the cities will show respect. Also, never try and touch monks.
  • Water bottles! In Siem Reap it is difficult to buy water bottles bigger than 500mL. In 5 days the amount of plastic used is ridiculous! En-route to temples, stop at shops that sell large bottles. If possible, pool money to buy large 6L+ bottles from the market.

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