Responsible tourism in Cambodia

Cambodia has undoubtedly come a very, very long way since the dark days of the Khmer Rouge and the battles and torture that raged through the country for decades. The smiling faces that welcome tourists display the optimism and contentment of a people grateful for what they have. But the scars remain – both physical (unexploded landmines continue to injure or kill over 200 people each year), intellectual (the genocide centerd on the most highly educated Cambodians, leaving a gaping “knowledge gap”) and financial, as the poverty cycle spins on. As well as leaving many Cambodians without access to education or healthcare, poverty can also lead desperate families to seek insalubrious “solutions” – including the sex trade, human trafficking and child abuse.

As a tourist to Cambodia you are inextricably a part of this complex equation, and your actions here can never be neutral. In Cambodia even the most well-meaning intentions can have disastrous consequences, so be sure to inform yourself before you go to ensure your vacation has a positive impact, and makes life even just a tiny bit better for those who have made your vacation so memorable.

People & culture

Orphanage volunteering

Cambodia is a poor country and there are an enormous number of underprivileged children, as well as a large number of orphanages. In spite of this, volunteering at an orphanage is often not only an ineffective solution – it actually makes matters worse. Not only does it cause further emotional damage to the children in care, it can also, ironically, create more “orphans”. Responsible Travel, in collaboration with organisations such as Save the Children and ECPAT, launched a campaign against unqualified and/or unnecessary orphanage volunteering. The issue is a complex one - please click on the link for our guidelines for volunteering abroad with children. We’ve also highlighted some of the key points below:

While there are over half a million orphans in Cambodia, less than 1 percent of these are actually in orphanages. Additionally, a 2010 report found that only around a quarter of the 12,000 children living in orphanages are actually orphans; most have at least one parent.

Siem Reap, a town of just 100,000, has 35 orphanages. The number or orphanages has increased in line with the number of tourists, as overseas donations and volunteer fees are seen as a way for unscrupulous orphanage staff to make money.

Children may be paraded through streets, taught to beg or perform in order to make money from tourists.

Research suggests children are better off in a family or community setting rather than residential care; however, poor families are often led to believe that their children may have a better life or education in institutions, and choose to leave their children in an orphanage.

Appropriate qualifications and experience are required to work with vulnerable children in most of the developed world, along with background checks and ongoing monitoring. Yet around the world, including Cambodia, unqualified volunteers whose backgrounds are unknown are allowed to work with abandoned children, many of whom may have physical disabilities or learning difficulties.

A conveyor belt of volunteers coming in and out of the institutions to 'hug an orphan' means the children get abandoned again, and again.

What you can do
Responsible Travel does not promote orphanage volunteering placements, other than for experienced, qualified volunteers who can commit to a minimum of a one month placement. We also do not promote day trips to orphanages or school when the children are present. As well as disrupting lessons, this presents children - often vulnerable children - as a tourism attraction, which is not something we would ever encourage.

All volunteers are advised to ask a number of questions to the volunteer organisation in order to ensure they are acting ethically and responsibly, and taking the correct measures to ensure child safety. See our 10 questions to ask your volunteer company.

Stamping out child sex tourism

Unscrupulous orphanages are sadly not the only threat to Cambodia's children. Over a third of the people connected with sex tourism in Cambodia are under 18. We have rightly been advised by campaigning organisations not to refer to these minors as sex workers or prostitutes. They are victims of rape and abuse. End of. And even worse, the law does not specifically prohibit children being used for prostitution purposes. Or, in other words, if you pay for sex with a child, it somehow legitimises the crime. The silver lining is that tourism - and tourists themselves - can have a huge impact on reducing this number and encouraging vigilance within Cambodia to stamp out this practice.

What you can do
ChildSafe is one organisation working with tourism businesses to educate them about the sexual exploitation of children for tourism and deter them from allowing prostitution per se on their premises. Many of the operators listed on Responsible Travel use hotels certified by ChildSafe, meaning they will not allow tourists to bring local children into the hotel, and will report anyone seen with a local child.

ChildSafe also has a very useful list of tips for travelers on how to spot illegal and unethical behaviour in this regard. Take time to read these at the ChildSafe link above.
Dave Tucker, from our supplier The Beyond Tourism Co., shares advice on reducing the sexual exploitation of children by tourists in Cambodia:

“You might think that it would be easy to spot and so it can’t possibly still be going on – but it is. Even at a 4-star international resort I stayed at, I saw someone at the breakfast table with a young girl. I think there’s also a tendency to squirm and ignore it, but visitors need to keep an eye out and actively report things that make them uncomfortable to hotel owners – that’s going to be a powerful incentive to change. You can also speak to your tour operator and mention it on TripAdvisor, but beware of making unsubstantiated accusations. Reporting it to the hotel owner raises their awareness of the situation and gives traction to the efforts of other organisations to stop it.”
Additionally, the nationwide ChildSafe Hotline is available 24/7. Call 023 997 919 to report suspected sexual abuse or trafficking, or any incidence of a child at risk. Where possible, you should stay close to the child until one of the team arrives.

Investing in the next generation

There are a number of excellent social initiatives in Cambodia, which, as well as supporting local people, are actually fantastic experiences for visitors as well. These include several social enterprise restaurants, such as Lotus Blanc and Romdeng in Phnom Penh, and Sala Baï in Siem Reap. We highly recommend a visit.
Dave Tucker, from our supplier The Beyond Tourism Co., explains more:

“The restaurants do amazing work like rescuing kids from scavenging in rubbish dumps, training them in hospitality and helping them start a career. It’s not just short-term poverty alleviation - it’s very sustainable. One story that stuck in my head is a girl who, when she started, had no idea what a tap was because she’d never had running water in her village. By the end of the course she’d gone on to work at a top 5-star hotels. It’s such a fantastic way to help realise the potential of local kids while you enjoy great food and great service. You don’t need to be a volunteer to help, you just spend your money on a sustainable, responsible tourism service that does good in a very direct way. I’m a big fan!”

Learn about landmines & support their victims

As one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, Cambodia’s landmine legacy is well documented. Around 200 people a year continue to be killed or injured by unexploded ordnance, and an estimated 40,000 amputees live in a country which simply does not have the medical facilities to give them adequate care. Around 4 to 6 million mines are still believed to lie in the ground, on farmland and in forests; clearing them will take decades.

What you can do
A thoroughly heart warming addition to your Cambodia itinerary is a visit to the excellent Cambodia Landmine Museum near Siem Reap. As well as being a museum, founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier in the Khmer Rouge, it is also a safe house for injured children and adults, providing them with a home and an education. In recent years, the facility has opened up to care for children who suffer from abuse or disabilities, not just landmine victims. Although tourists are not allowed into the children’s home, volunteers can come and help run the museum – you must apply in advance. And if you’re not planning a vacation to Cambodia just yet, you can still donate to this fabulous cause.

Wildlife & environment

Water & the wats

Siem Reap was, until recently, a small town. Uncontrolled tourism development has put an incredible strain on its water supply, as luxury hotels provide limitless water for their guests, irrigate lush lawns and gardens and refill swimming pools. The mighty temples of Angkor Wat stand on sandy earth, held in place by groundwater, but this is now being pumped rapidly out of the ground to support the millions of visitors who arrive each year. Illegal pumps and wells are draining the water far beyond its capacity, and these ancient temples may crack, crumble or sink into the sand in the near future if water pumping does not decrease dramatically.

What you can do
Signs in hotels around the world ask you to reuse your towels and sheets, and to take short showers. Now is the time to pay attention to them. Siem Reap’s water insecurity is a direct result of tourism, so as a tourist you are well placed to ease the strain. Choose a hotel with an active water policy: recycling of grey water, reuse of towels, economical flushing systems and low-powered shower heads, and – sorry – no swimming pool. Save your splashing about for the sea.

Read more about the issue in The Guardian

Responsible tourism tips

Cambodia is still a deeply religious and conservative society; strappy tops and short shorts should not be worn. In temples you should dress even more modestly; knees and upper arms should remain covered, and you should remove your shoes before entering a temple. It's a good idea for women to carry a sarong or light scarf to cover up at short notice.
Lesley Schofield, from our supplier All Points East:
“Any time you’re visiting places that don’t get much mass tourism, to be sensitive to cultural norms and to dress accordingly. Even if you’re bathing in waterfalls and lakes, wear clothes, not skimpy swimwear. Khmer women still wear traditional, full-length sarongs; in bars and nightclubs it may be different, but not out in the countryside. The best thing to do is look around – if you’re underdressed, you’ll know it.”

The head is the 'highest' and most revered part of the body; never touch anyone's head. Conversely, the feet are the lowest; pointing your feet at someone or at a religious object, such as a Buddha statue, causes serious offence. Remember, most temples, including Angkor Wat, are functioning religious centers.

Never touch a monk, and men should always avoid touching Cambodian women.

Never give money to begging children, or those selling trinkets or booklets. Families may be encouraged to take their children out of school in order for them to make money on the streets. Worse, the children may be working for organised gangs, who force them to beg. Instead, look into local organisations who are working with street children and donate to those instead.

Sex tourism in Cambodia has not yet reached the levels of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, but it is on the increase. Most local people are keen to avoid this, as it tarnishes the tourism industry as a whole, encourages the hassling of westerners and leads to the trafficking of sex workers. Some bars and hotels, therefore, refuse to let western men in with Cambodian women in order to deter this practice – it’s a good idea to support these places. Female travelers of Asian origin may therefore be questioned and should carry ID – but remember, it’s ultimately for a good cause.

Do your bit to conserve Cambodia’s rich archaeological history; never touch carvings or bas reliefs, and do not purchase historical artefacts. As well as being irresponsible, it’s likely illegal.

You could use up dozens of memory cards on the photogenic Khmer people – but never take a photograph without permission, especially of monks or official figures. Strike up a conversation with your subject, find out more about them, and tell them who you are. Even better, if they are a stallholder or shopkeeper, buy something from them. This way, you both gain from the exchange – and your purchase will have a nice story behind it.

Our supplier, Nathan Horton, lives in Phnom Penh and leads cultural photography tours in Cambodia. He teaches visitors how to take better – and more respectful – photos:
“Travel photography has always been about breaking down the barriers between “us” and “them”. You might still be the visitor with the camera wrapped around your neck, but you can still engage with the people – not only take pictures of them, but to get to know them better. You can take better pictures by getting to know them, and you can get to know them better by taking pictures of them. I teach people not to pretend that they’re not taking pictures. What you really should do is engage with people – and that’s quite a rewarding experience in Cambodia.”
Keep it local. We always advise this in any destination, but in Cambodia this is even more important. There has been an influx of large, foreign investors drawing up plans to construct huge resorts, casinos and golf courses, particularly in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and the as-yet pristine islands off the coast, and government corruption means that the land is not always sold to the most ethical investors. As well as the destruction of massive tracts of land and the unsustainable pressure these facilities place upon natural resources such as water, many local communities have been illegally evicted from their land without adequate compensation. And at the end of the day, virtually none of the money spent here will remain in the local area. All in all, it's an environmental and social disaster. So support local guesthouses and restaurants and don't travel halfway round the world just to play a round of golf.

Cambodia is having to rapidly adapt to the amounts of waste generated by tourism and development. Litter bins may be limited, so keep hold of rubbish until you find somewhere suitable to dispose of it. Bring reusable shopping bags so that you don't need to keep acquiring plastic ones; they fold up very small. Batteries are toxic waste and there is no way to safely dispose of them in Cambodia, so take them back home with you.

Remember to tip! Keep dollar bills in small denominations to support drivers, waiting staff and guides – many of whom may be earning salaries of just $20-$30 dollars per month.

Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Balint Földesi] [Orphanage volunteering: ND Strupler] [Landmine Museum: Dnrallis] [Lesley Schofield Quote: Staffan Scherz] [Nathan Horton Quote: ND Strupler]