Travelling responsibly in Cambodia matters. No, it’s not okay to wear your bikinis and shorts to Angkor Wat or on tours to villages and visits to local homes. But travelling responsibly in Cambodia is about more than what you wear. Here’s why…
Travelling responsibly in Cambodia matters more than anything else you do as a visitor to one of Southeast Asia’s culturally rich but poorest countries.
I have had a guide to travelling responsibly in Cambodia sitting in my drafts folder for close to three years. I’ve only recently realised that it’s a work in progress and will always remain so. So while there’s no better time to post it than now, I’ll be continually updating it.
Travelling Responsibly in Cambodia
I’ve found that I’ve opened my draft Responsible Travel Guide to Cambodia during high season each year, when masses of tourists descend upon Siem Reap and the errors of their judgment are all the more obvious. There’s something about seeing travellers shopping in supermarkets in bikini tops and backpackers ambling the streets clutching beers that makes expats cringe.
It was travellers’ bad behaviour – from disrespecting monks (no, it’s not okay to put your arm around a monk for a selfie) to wearing inappropriate clothes (or no clothes at all) at sacred sites – that motivated the Cambodian authorities to introduce the Angkor Code of Conduct in late 2015, and add a further regulation on clothing worn at the temples last week.
Communicated to visitors through travel companies and hotels, on brochures and posters, the Code of Conduct was partly aimed at curbing faux pas as much as it was intended to educate visitors about Angkor and the people who live there.
Because what many travellers visiting the temples don’t realise is that the 400 sq km area of ‘Angkor’ – which refers not just to the temple-city Angkor Wat but to the entire Angkor Archaeological Park and surrounds – is not just an archaeological site.
Angkor is a living-breathing place with 112 villages and hamlets with pagodas and schools where some 130,000 people worship, learn, live, work, and farm – just as their ancestors did during the Khmer Empire. Some Cambodians I know remember growing up as children within the walls and corridors of the temples. It invariably provided shelter and protection during the civil war and Pol Pot era.
These days, while most Buddhists choose to engage in their daily worship in the modern pagodas and shrines, the Angkor temples are still sites of pilgrimage, ceremonies and festivals, and remain places for rituals, prayer and meditation.
This is why it’s not okay to scramble the ruins in swimwear or wander the grounds with beers in hand – things that people wouldn’t do in a church or mosque. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s simply about demonstrating some respect.
Travelling responsibly in Cambodia matters but it isn’t only about what you wear and how you behave when you’re here. It starts with the decisions you make from that point in time when you decide you’re going to have a holiday in Cambodia.
The decision to travel responsibly, to travel ethically, should impact every decision you make throughout your stay until you have that exit stamp punched in your passport. Travelling responsibly in Cambodia shouldn’t be a choice. It is an necessity.
Cambodia is a country that just experienced seven months of its worst drought in decades and a prolonged heat wave, which was also felt in neighbouring Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Some 18 out of 25 provinces faced severe water shortages, rivers and wells ran dry, crops went unplanted, and tens of thousands of animals died, domestic and wild – buffalo, cows, chickens, and monkeys – of starvation and thirst.
On the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), low water levels meant fewer fish and the bone dry ‘flooded forests’ of the Tonle Sap caught fire, devastating one third of the 21,000 hectare Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. High water temperatures caused fish to die. And the prolonged heat wave, along with global uncertainties, conspired to cut short the tourist high season.
Finally, the rains came. But tourists have continued to stay away. And yet Cambodian couldn’t look more attractive than she does right now. The lake, rivers and wells are filling, and everything is already lush and green. While the wet season is well and truly with us, we can still have perfect blue sky days.
Yesterday it rained heavily in the evening but this morning was clear. However, myths about monsoon persist and there are days during this gorgeous green season when some temples are devoid of tourists. It’s actually a perfect time to visit. And there are a lot of things to do when it does rain.
Cambodia needs tourists, but it needs people who are responsible, tourists who spend their money here and spend it wisely. The country needs visitors who ‘give back’ in ways that are needed rather than ways that make them feel good.
Cambodia also needs visitors who minimise their footprint by respecting the culture and environment and helping to preserve the country’s very precious resources. Cambodia needs responsible travellers, ethical travellers. Cambodia needs you.
Click through to part 2 Our Guide to Travelling Responsibly in Cambodia with lots of tips and helpful links.