Photo: Chun Yip So
1. The Khmer Rouge are in the past, but they have left lasting damage on Cambodia.
Everyone in Cambodia was affected by the Khmer Rouge. The population of approximately eight million had their property and homes confiscated. Many were relocated to forced labour camps, watched family members die of exhaustion and murder. Many were starved, often tortured, and children were often orphaned or abandoned. Education, healthcare, religion and all economic activity stopped, as teachers, doctors, monks, merchants and the elite were first targeted in the genocide. Between 1.5 and 2.5 million people were murdered.
While the Khmer Rouge’s regime ended in 1979, they maintained control of many parts of Cambodia until at least 1996. Crimes against humanity are still being tried in Cambodian courts. After the Khmer Rouge fell, Cambodians focussed on growing and finding food and on looking for members of their families. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was rampant, but luxuries like diagnosis and treatment did not exist.
Children born after the Khmer Rouge have not escaped — they were raised by traumatized family members. The cycle of poverty and abuse continues today.
The majority of Cambodians live in poverty and 40% of children are malnourished. The average income is less than $3 US per day, and many people live on much less. You can make a big difference by buying local products and services, and by tipping responsibility.
2. Yes, Angkor is a tourist attraction, but the ruins are also religious temples.
Sure, take photos, but otherwise behave much as you would in a church: keep your voice down and dress respectfully. Angkor officials restrict entry into the most popular temples unless your knees, shoulders and tops of your arms are covered. Cambodians will appreciate it if you keep covered from shoulder to knee whenever you’re away from the pool or beach.
3. Research first before going to a blind massage centre or an orphanage.
Cambodia has 140,000 blind or visually impaired citizens, often due to the six million remaining unexploded landmines, poor nutrition, or lack of healthcare. One of their few sources of employment is massage centres aimed at tourists. Though there are some legitimate ones, many also exploit their blind staff and don’t pay a living wage. Some copycats use the exact names as the legit ones.
Orphanages are another example. The number of orphanages in Cambodia has grown by 65% since 2005. Though Angelina Jolie brought the world’s attention to Cambodian orphanages, they should not be turned into tourist attractions. Some of these institutions parade kids through tourist restaurants soliciting donations and volunteers. Any orphanage that turns kids into walking advertisements does not put the wellbeing of children first. These kids should be in school, studying, playing or sleeping.
Organizations like ConCERT — the Connecting Communities, Environment and Responsible Tourism NGO — can help you identify legitimate organizations most benefitting of your donations, volunteer time and business. Some other reputable NGOs include The Life and Hope Association, the Park Hyatt Siem Reap Sewing School, and HUSK.
4. And understand that by volunteering in Cambodia, you may doing more harm than good.
When volunteering at any organization, consider whether the resources required to train you are better spent directly on the people in need. The infrastructure to make westerners comfortable — a western toilet, a website, advance scheduling and communication, an English-speaking resource person, signage in English, air conditioning or fans, availability of drinks and lunch — are costly. While a few jobs are created for people who speak English, when you volunteer you could be taking away work that local people could do for a living wage.
Also, volunteer only if you have considerable time to give and/or a specialized skill. If you’re stay is short, you should especially avoid volunteering with kids. Kids don’t need tourists who drop in for a day or two and only know how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Khmer. They need long-term relationships with trained caregivers and teachers.
5. Don’t buy from or give to kids.
Kids also approach tourists guessing where you’re from and spouting off an impressive list of facts about your country. Then they ask you to buy their postcards or gum, usually claiming it’s to help pay school fees.
But but when you buy from kids or give them money, candy, gifts, books and even food, you continue the cycle of poverty. This only encourages them and their parents that working and begging is more lucrative than going to school. A child selling or begging on the street has been coerced, by reward or by punishment, by an adult, often a cartel.
6. And watch out for scams involving kids, too.
Seeing Cambodia’s poverty and knowing its recent history, travellers are inspired to help. Children are especially hard to ignore, and scammers know this.
The cartel-run milk scam is popular in Siem Reap. A cute kid or perhaps a young mother approaches a tourist and asks for milk for the baby in their arms. The tourist knows not to give money, but sees no harm in buying the milk directly. But as soon as the tourist is out of site, the child returns the purchase to the store. The shopkeeper takes a cut, the cartel takes a cut, and the child is given only enough to encourage his parents to keep him out of school. The baby sleeping in his arms has often been drugged to keep quiet. This scam also takes the form of a kid asking you to buy her a book so she can continue her schooling.
Tourists aren’t the only victims of scams and avoiding a scam doesn’t just protect you. Often the scammer is a victim too. Every time a scam is thwarted, it helps direct Cambodians to more honest ways to earn a living.
7. Careful with your hands.
If you’re asking for directions on how to avoid that crazy intersection, don’t point with your finger. It’s considered very rude. In the same way, don’t point at the particular scarf or menu item you want. Instead, indicate a direction or object using your whole open right hand.
Don’t use your left hand for anything, whether it be pointing, eating or touching objects. Your left hand is considered dirty (everyone assumes it’s what you use to clean yourself in the bathroom). The only exception is when you give and accept business cards, gifts and objects of value. You show politeness and respect by using both hands.
And when you’re out in public seeing the sights of Cambodia, keep your hands to yourself. Public displays of affection — even hand-holding or putting your arm around someone — can offend and embarrass Cambodians. Certainly no smooching or canoodling! You can probably get away with holding hands, though, when you first arrive and are nervous about crossing the chaotic streets.
8. There’s so much more to Cambodia than Angkor and the Khmer Rouge.
You can’t visit Cambodia without seeing the incredible Angkor temples outside Siem Reap, the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, and one of the Killing Fields. But you’ll barely scratch the surface of understanding Cambodia if you don’t go further.
A sample: In the northeast, you might see an endangered river dolphin. The Cardamom Mountains have spectacular waterfalls. Battambang is a UNESCO City of Performing Arts. Cambodia has seven national parks. Kompong Thom and Koh Ker are amazing temples without the crowds. The beaches of Sihanoukville are as gorgeous as Thailand and far less touristy. Small towns like Kampot and Kampong Cham offer relaxation and charm.
9. Choose your tourist experiences wisely, and you can make a real difference in reviving Cambodia’s cultural heritage.
Cambodia’s cultural heritage was all but lost under the Khmer Rouge. Today there are many initiatives underway to recover and revitalize Cambodia’s music, sculpting, craft-making, dance, theatre, literature, martial arts, and cuisine.
There are specific ways you can help support Cambodia’s arts and culture. The performance not to be missed is Phare, The Cambodian Circus. You’ll be enthralled by the talent, energy and heart of the performers at any of their Siem Reap or Battambang shows. At the same time, you’re supporting schools that provide general and arts education, skills and healing to over 1200 students, and eventual gainful employment.
Dining at a hospitality training restaurant does similar good. You’ll enjoy delicious Khmer food, give students the opportunity to learn in real conditions, and fund their studies. In Siem Reap, try Sala Baï and HAVEN, and in Phnom Penh, Friends the Restaurant and Connective Hands Training Café.