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Changing a country: how tourism is twisting Cambodia

As my travel partner Zack and I stand in the hot afternoon sun, I feel overwhelmed. Even though the guide from our bus is doing her best to keep us separated from the various hustlers, every time I stop to look around I am forced to fend off the cadres of locals trying to sell me a sim card or fresh mangos or a bag of mantis prawns.

It takes several polite smiles accompanied by several “No, thank yous” to make it inside the customs building. Our impatient guide doesn’t let either of us put our bags through the X-ray machine. Instead, we’re briskly pushed through the nonworking metal detector with our backpacks still firmly attached to our backs, but the border guards don’t even look up from their newspapers to notice. Once I make it to the front of the line, the sleepy immigration officer barely looks at my passport as he waves me through.

Welcome to Cambodia.

As the bus pulls through the border town, the view outside the window displays a shocking disparity. Lining the main street are massive, well decorated casinos with names like the Las Vegas Sun Casino and Titan King Casino. Next to these casinos are small houses made up of various bits of discarded, cardboard advertisements and scrap metal. I’ve never seen the ultra-rich in such close proximity to the ultra-poor.

Cambodia has had a tumultuous recent history. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were forced to flee to Cambodia’s city centers during the United States’ illegal bombing of the countryside during the Vietnam War, and these same refugees were expelled from the cities and forced to starve in the previously abandoned countryside by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the deaths of more than 20% of the Cambodian population.

Despite this, Cambodia is quickly becoming part of the typical tourist route in Southeast Asia, which at the moment includes Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Unlike Thailand and Vietnam, however, Cambodia doesn’t have a well structured tourist infrastructure, which is the main reason why I’m here.

As many travelers will tell you, it is difficult to get an authentic view of local culture when you’re traveling in well worn tourist tracks. I hope that Cambodia will have the feel of the wild west of Asia. Sure people visit, but I’m hoping that it proves to be largely untamed and devoid of the typical mass produced McTourism that can be found in prepackaged guided tours throughout the rest of Southeast Asia.

Despite my hopes, the tourism industry has had a noticeable effect on Cambodians. Outside of the capital city of Phnom Penh, we board a ferry to cross the Mekong river. I join the group of people piling off the bus to stretch my legs and survey the tenth longest river in the world. As I lean on the hot, metal side of the ferry, a boy no older than six years old runs up to me with cupped hands and tells me he’s hungry. Might I have some money for him?

Many travel guides have sections that go into detail about how travelers should handle beggars. It’s often pointed out that travelers can’t help everyone they meet and that giving money to children just encourages their parents to turn them into beggars, but none of these warnings will fully prepare you for a cute kid smiling sadly at you and telling you that he’s hungry. I make my way back to the bus when the ferry lands on the other side of the Mekong; I have to wait though, as the bus door is being blocked an eight year old with a missing right hand who tells me that he is also hungry.

We have an hour break in Phnom Penh before we switch buses to head north to Siem Reap, home of the Angkor temple complex. As we eat traditional Cambodian food at a nearby restaurant, an elderly woman wearing a nice, beige silk shirt and matching pants walks past. She catches sight of two westerners eating and pauses and seems to contemplate an idea for a few seconds. Having made up her mind, her walk immediately turns into a shuffle as she turns around and asks us for money. Her clothes and previous walking pace give the impression that she isn’t begging from any desperate need, but rather it seems like she has been successful getting money out of tourists in the past.

As I’m starting to realize that Cambodia might not be the respite from the tourist track that I had expected, a tuk-tuk (a type of taxi) driver approaches our new bus and smiles at me through my window. After staring at me for a few seconds, his toothy grin widens and he gives me enthusiastic thumbs up. When I return the gesture, he holds up a sign that says “I’m best tuk-tuk driver! Ask me about hotels and restaurants. I also give tours of killing fields.”

He wags the sign hopefully at me seeming not to realize that I’m on a bus that is headed out of town. Or perhaps he is hoping that his enthusiasm and sign will change my mind about my destination.

When we arrive in Siem Reap, a tuk-tuk driver named Toot drives us to the guesthouse where we’re staying. As he drops us off, he offers to take us around the Angkor complex tomorrow. We agree to meet at 10:30 tomorrow morning.

Cambodian tuk tukTired from the day of travel, we punctually meet Toot at 10:45 the next morning and ride out to the Angkor temple complex. As the seat of the ancient Khmer Empire, the Angkor temple complex was the largest preindustrial city in the world, covering a vast 390 square miles and containing more than 1,000 individual temples. It is Cambodia’s largest tourist attraction, and many travelers I met in Thailand said that other temples simply wouldn’t be worth going to after seeing Angkor Wat.

After we get personalized one day tickets complete with our pictures on them for $20, Toot proceeds to take us to some of the more impressive and less visited temples. Unsurprisingly at such a popular destination, the majority of the authentic Cambodian culture has been replaced by tourist infrastructure. At every temple as Toot gives us the basic history, a queue of sales people forms on either side of our tuk-tuk waiting patiently until Toot is done with his history lesson to offer us cold drinks, bracelets and t-shirts featuring the Angkor temples.

We spend the next few hours climbing and photographing the temples that Toot thinks are best. Each temple is covered in carvings either showing the battles of the Khmer empire or various Hindu gods. Almost all of the temples are adorned have been converted from Hinduism though and have a Buddha statue near the top surrounded by local Cambodians who sell incense for tourists to use when they pray at the statues. At the top of The Bayon temple a little girl asks us for candy. When we tell her that we don’t have any candy, she tells us that if we don’t give her something, she’ll cry.

Not a fan of blatant emotional blackmail, my travel companion advises her not to cry for too long as we make our way back down.

At the bottom of The Bayon a girl selling cold drinks runs up to me and asks where I’m from. When I tell her the United States, I’m given a rapid fire recitation of capital (Washington D.C.) as well as the ten largest cities (ending with San Jose) and the population which I am informed is 350 million. It’s odd how you can learn things about your home from people who have never been there; I thought that the U.S. population was 300 million. It seems that knowing a bit about other countries helps to sell drinks in Cambodia.

On Toot’s advice, we wait to visit Angkor Wat, the largest single religious building in the world according to my guidebook, until the afternoon. As we make our way to the temple, the cloudy sky makes good on its threat, and we’re soon splashing our way to the first temple gate.

Built in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat has served as a temple for Hindus as well as Buddhists. One of the earliest western visitors to the site, Antonio da Magdalena, described Angkor Wat as being “of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.” I can’t improve upon that.

As we cross the first gate and make our way to the main temple scores of children offer to sell us raincoats.

“It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?” my very wet travel companion asks them as he turns around to demonstrate that he’s soaked through. The children laugh, and run off to find some other hapless, rain-drenched tourist.

Even though we booth look like we’ve had a swim by the time we make it to the main building of Angkor Wat, the rain has a pleasant side effect. In 2010, more than 800,000 tourists visited Angkor Wat, and that number is growing every year. Because of this, the temple is usually crawling with foreigners. Today though it seems that the majority of the tourists are afraid of the rain, and the main building is largely deserted as everyone seems to be waiting for the rain to stop while standing in the safety of the first temple gate.

This gives us the opportunity to walk among the carvings of celestial dancers in an eerie quiet. It’s easy to imagine when this temple was put to use for the rituals of the Hindu religion and later the Buddhist tradition.

The rain stops as we make our way to the center of the massive temple. My travel companion decides to wash off in the water coming from the gutters of the center building, and he is quickly joined by several Cambodian children who tell him that this is where they go when the rain stops.

“You’re like us,” they chant as they run through the rainwater.

I appreciate the rain even more as we fight through waves of tourists chatting loudly with cameras swinging from their necks on our way back to Toot and Siem Reap. Seeing Angkor Wat deserted somehow made it seem more authentic than if it had been full of tourists.

That night we decide to see what Siem Reap offers in terms of the exotic. For dinner we eat at a restaurant that serves us ostrich and kangaroo. Afterwards we opt to try a fish massage. Travelers can pay a small price to put their feet into tanks where hundreds of fish proceed to nibble dead skin off of their feet and legs. The sensation is not what I would call pleasant, and as I try not to look at my feet, I think to myself that this will probably be my last fish massage.

Not all of the tourist businesses in Siem Reap are as good-natured as ostrich, kangaroo and fish massages, however. Despite heavy penalties for trafficking that can include execution, we are offered cocaine and marijuana at every corner, and the walk home is filled with attempts to fend off prostitutes who grab passing westerners and whisper seductively into their ears.

Travel is often an exercise to get out of your comfort zone to experience the strange contrasts that daily life in foreign cultures can offer. Siem Reap offers many of the typical tourist experiences that can be found around Asia, but it seems that the recent explosion of tourism has happened haphazardly and because of this travelers have a chance to experience both the authentic and the prepackaged.

The fact that I can see the largest religious building in the world, eat ostrich and kangaroo, get a rather unpleasant fish massage and experience the seediest elements of nightlife in a single day offers the sort of flavoring that can’t be found in many places, but the growth of the tourism industry in Cambodia seems to indicate that travelers in the future can expect more of the drugs and sex shows and less of the little quarks that give a country its own particular flavor. This trend reminds me of the quote from Alex Garland’s backpacker novel The Beach “There is no way you can keep it out of Lonely Planet, and once that happens it’s countdown to doomsday.”

I’m not quite sure what the answer is to keeping Cambodia Cambodian, but I sincerely hope that when I come back I don’t see Thailand’s Khao San Road writ small.

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