Angkor Thom

Tourism, Temples and Tragedies in Siem Reap

The sun faded into the horizon as we gathered around a map of Siem Reap, Cambodia with the manager of our brand-new, ultra-modern, 9-room boutique hotel situated on quiet, muddy side street away from the tourist crush of the Old Market area.  Mr. Mom, as we were told to call him, pointed out the touted must-see areas for tourists.. “The Old Market is open during the day,” he said as his finger lay upon its location on the map.  “The night market is here,” he continued.

After our rundown of the town, we turned our attention to what we’d really come to see – the temples within the Angkor Wat Complex.  Yes, the piece de’ resistance is the Angkor Wat Temple itself, but there are dozens of equally intriguing Hindu-turned-Buddhist temples dating back to the 9th through 12th centuries within the Angkor Complex.  Our plan was devised around a three-day pass issued for admittance into the archeological park, and we thought little of spending time around Siem Reap itself.

The next day, we were up with sun to meet Mr. Mom, who had offered to drive us to the temples.  His new-by-Cambodian standards, white Camry was clean and comfortable.  As we climbed into the back seat, we thought nothing of it the car itself or what it meant for Mr. Mom, but it wasn’t long before we learned a car can be the creator of a great divide in Cambodia.  Mr. Mom’s friends believed he was rich simply because he owned a car, which by all U.S. standards was old.  Unfortunately, Mr. Mom was struggling to pull himself out of debt and pay for the car, which seemingly had become a burden not a luxury.  Still, the car was Mr. Mom’s ticket to more money in the long run as he earned extra income from chauffeuring tourists from temple to temple.

Mr. Mom spent more than 12 hours each day at work ensuring the basic operations of the hotel ran smoothly.  His wife worked as well leaving his 3-year-old son home each day, often alone, and under the intermittent supervision of a neighbor.  Still, by all Cambodian standards his family is extremely lucky.  They hold good jobs, can put food on the table and have a solid roof over their heads.  His father-in-law was a member of the Khmer Rouge, the regime led by the communist dictator Pol Pot, who was responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people.  After the murderous atrocities (while I’ll talk more about next week), Mr. Mom’s father-in-law shied away from the city and now lived a simple life in the country.  He was unable to grasp the success and lifestyle Mr. Mom was determined to achieve.

We picked up these small facts here and there as Mr. Mom drove us from temple to temple and waited patiently, often for hours, as we disappeared inside the ancient stone structures.  The temples themselves are astounding, ancient works of art.  The worn, dark grey stones are covered in deep, green moss or shrouded in trees that have sprouted alongside walls or grown over entryways.

Outside each temple, however, is a clash of the haves and have nots.  Children beg for money or endlessly harass visitors to buy post cards, magnets, t-shirts and knickknacks.  Your heart breaks and the guilt wells inside the pit of your stomach as you walk into each temple and are forced to fend off young girls, their hair matted and messy, their soft brown eyes pleading for help or young boys, their bare feet as dirty as their old, stained clothing.  The money in our wallet could easily feed their family for weeks, and while every ounce of your emotion screams for you to give them everything you can, but you don’t.  Instead, you walk by with your head buried in shame.

Many tourists succumb to the persistent begging and even feel it’s their mission to help the children who through no fault of their own are left with so little in life.  And, why not?  We’re taught to care about others, and I honestly believe we have a moral responsibility to help those in need.  Buying something from the children or families outside the temple is one thing – it’s their job to sell small items, and they are undeniably providing a service.  Unfortunately, there are so many children in Cambodia who are left without that option and, instead, they simply beg from tourists.  Shouldn’t we help?  Yes.  But, the nonchalant passing of money and well-intentioned, good-hearted tourists in Siem Reap have actually created what some call a persistent problem.

Siem Reap itself is built on tourism and is designed to serve the more than one million tourists who visit Angkor Wat each year.  The Old Market area, once a place for locals to shop, has more or less turned into a sea of tourist stalls selling mass-manufactured souvenirs.  Only two small sections of true market remain, and they’re not hard to miss.  The stench of fresh meat rises from the wooden slabs laden with fresh cuts of chicken, beef and fish, and the dry, dusty smell of rice wafts from the stalls filled with sacks of various rices and dried fish or nuts. Aside from a few booths that offer everything from china and tupperware to brooms and shoes, the remainder of the market is filled with Elephant Cement recycled bags, mass manufactured “antiques” and t-shirts.

Outside on nearby Pub Street, you’ll find enough neon to light a back-alley of the Vegas strip.  Western-style bars and restaurants line the streets as do sidewalk foot massage parlors and a sea of tuk-tuks.  A young girl with a small baby boy, somehow always asleep and always slung across her side with a piece of cloth, begs passing tourists for money but cleverly uses the line, “I don’t want money,” as she clings to your hips or tries to grab your hand as you walk.  Nearby a group of five or six amputees, who lost their limbs after land mine explosions, plays traditional Cambodian music for donations.  It’s a sad, yet strange bustling tourist paradise in the middle of a country caught in the crossfire of Western NGOs and non-profits and an allegedly corrupt government.  And, in Siem Reap.. it’s all fed by the tourism machine.

Tourists in Siem Reap have unknowingly and inadvertently created a monster, and many people feed the never-ending cycle of begging.  But, tourism is also the reason for some really great organizations, outreach groups and a host of businesses designed to educate and train Cambodia’s youth to live independently.

Unfortunately, there are other organizations, many of them orphanages, that don’t operate in the best interest of Cambodia’s children.  Article after article on CNN, Forbes, Huffington Post, etc. details the detrimental effects of visiting an orphanage in Cambodia.  According to Paul Wallimann, a startling high percentage of children in Cambodia still have one or more parents, but for one reason or another they’ve been handed over to an orphanage.  In some orphanages, Wallimann says the children grow accustomed to taking money from tourists, and when they leave they have a basic understanding of the English language and use their skills to continue to beg for money from Westerners.  Even worse, Wallimann says some turn to prostitution.  It’s why he says there is a concerted effort now to close many of Cambodia’s orphanages and keep children with their families.

It’s a heartbreaking concept to think parents would send their children to an orphanage because it has the potential to offer them the hope of an English education and a better life.  Still, it’s all a part of what perpetuates the problem.  For more on the Think Child Safe campaign against the deep-seeded issues with “orphanages tourism” in Cambodia click here.

Still, many Cambodians do not see the dangers of the voluntourism industry or the unfortunate cycle that sending young kids into the streets to beg perpetuates.  Even Mr. Mom, our intelligent and helpful hotel manager, brushed over our question of why so many children swarm tourists outside of Ankgor Wat’s beautiful temples.  “Their parents don’t speak English or are working the fields,” he said with a shrug.  “So, they send their children to try and earn more money.”  While Mr. Mom is painfully aware of the damaging politics being played in Cambodia and the constant corruption that is holding back his country, it seemed in that moment as if any realization of tourists negative impact on Siem Reap was a fleeting one.

Unfortunately, it’s a reality tourists can not escape in Cambodia, and must take responsibility for by supporting organizations that are working to make a difference in the right ways.  As much as it breaks your heart and overwhelms you with guilt, simply sharing your good fortune with those who have been dealt a bad hand in life perpetuates Cambodia’s poverty and doesn’t offer people a viable way out of the cycle of begging.  It is our responsibility to understand the consequences of blind giving and make wise choices when deciding on tourist attractions and destinations  outside of the temples in Siem Reap.

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