In its hayday, over 600 years ago, the city of Angkor located in the north of modern day Cambodia boasted a civilized population of more than 1 million. At the same time, London was inhabited by less than 35,000. Today, tourists flock to see the remains of the temples, which represent Cambodia’s main tourist attraction.
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Cambodia is situated in the southwest corner of the Indochina Peninsula. Cambodia has an area of 181,040 sq km (69,900 sq mi) and is bounded by Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, is located in the south central part of the country. As of 2015 the population in Cambodia is 15.67 million.
Cambodia is divided into 25 provinces and is lead by a constitutional monarchy, where by the Prime Minister is the head of government and a Monarch is head of state. The kingdom formally operates according to the nation’s constitution which was enacted in 1993. The currency in Cambodia is Cambodian Riel (KHR), however US dollars are also commonly utilized.
In regards to infrastructure in Cambodia, approximately 50% of major roads are paved. Cambodia’s rail network is continually being redeveloped, included several corridors connecting to neighbouring countries. There are two major seaports; Phnom Penh Port and Sihanoukville Port, historically the nation’s extensive inland waterways were important for domestic trade. Phnom Penh International Airport in Phnom Penh is the largest airport in Cambodia.
Khmer people are incredibly proud of their ancient heritage; yet the recent history of this ex-French protectorate (19th century) shows tragedy, not glory. Over 500,000 civilians are estimated to have died during a secret and illegal anti-communist bombing campaign by the US during the second Indochina war. Out of the devastation, in 1975 the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot managed to take power and impose a brutal four-year regime of extreme socialism that killed around 1.7 million. During the rule of Pol Pot, the United Nations did not intervene. It was left to Vietnam in 1979 to overthrow the Khmer Rouge. Despite removing such an evil regime, Vietnamese intervention was unacceptable for some countries.
In 1992, the UN eventually entered Cambodia and the country has been in the process of recovery since. Be sure to travel to remote provinces such as Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, with their ethnic minority inhabitants, or Kratie, where Irriwadi dolphins can be sighted.
Learning some Cambodian will almost certainly guarantee smiles from a people who, despite all that they have been through, have a strong national pride and a good sense of keeping daily life light and fun. Today, tourism in Cambodia is one of the major sectors in the economy, with 4.5 million tourist arrivals in 2014.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
Increasing numbers of tourists want to experience the latest must-do activity on the tourist trail: a volunteering stint at an orphanage. However these good intentions are unwittingly feeding an industry that dupes poor parents into sending their children to bogus orphanages in order to extract money from well-meaning foreigners. In 2009, only 23% of children in Cambodian orphanages had no living parents and in Siem Reap, which has a population of just 100,000 there are currently around 35 orphanages, a number which is increasing in line with the number of tourists. It is a business model built on a double deception: the exploitation of poor families and the manipulation of wealthy, well-meaning foreigners. In the worst cases, tourists may be unwittingly complicit in child trafficking.
Orphanage tourism allows people with no form of background check and often with no relevant experience or skills, to enter the homes of these children, invading their privacy. Poor child protection policies leave children open to mistreatment and abuse. What’s more, as well as putting their safety in jeopardy, short-term visits to orphanages disrupt the stability and emotional development of these already vulnerable children, as they are abandoned over and over again. We wouldn’t be allowed to walk into an orphanage in our own country without following certain procedures, so why in Cambodia? Instead, try to support initiatives that help young people and their families, providing training or income generating activities. For more information see here.
Many parents feel forced to put their children to work on the streets, as they are unable to earn an income. By buying products or giving money to these children you are unwittingly maintaining this dangerous lifestyle where they are exposed to predators such as traffickers, drug dealers and child sex tourists, while preventing them from accessing an education and trapping them in a cycle of poverty. Whilst some children organise themselves into groups, many are controlled by syndicates.
Giving to adults who beg is also an issue that requires a great deal of consideration. A common scam, for example, is women asking tourists for milk for their baby. Very often the baby is rented and the milk powder you buy is returned to the shopkeeper, with whom the proceeds will be split. However, this is not always the case and many of the people you will see begging are genuinely sick, mentally ill, elderly or unable to earn a living, meaning they often rely on the aid and good will of others.
Therefore, if you decide you want to help, it is best to give through reputable organisations and charities that work with street children, supporting families and helping them get into schools. You could also make direct donations to schools in the form of equipment such as pens or books. For more information, look at ConCERT Cambodia, an NGO which offers advice on how to help in a sustainable way.
Whilst locals will generally quote a higher rate to tourists and expect a little haggling, be aware of just how much you are arguing over. In a country where 23% of the population live on less than $1.25 a day, that extra 50p could make a big difference.
Displacement of local peoples:
Tourism development has caused many communities to be forcibly displaced. Indigenous groups, people living in informal settlements, or people who lack official title deeds to their lands are particularly vulnerable to displacement or loss of access to lands and waters essential for their livelihoods. This often happens with little or no warning, compensation or alternative provision.
Governments and private companies have forced many tribal peoples from their ancestral lands to make way for national parks and so called ‘eco-tourism’. Fishing communities are removed from their coastal villages and blocked from accessing the sea as hotels are built and beaches are privatised, destroying livelihoods and traditional ways of life. Informal settlements are bulldozed under beautification projects in the lead up to major international sporting events.
Globalization is the term used to describe the way in which multinational corporations do business across the boundaries of nation states. And in a climate of free trade, major corporations can run roughshod over the countries and peoples of the poor South. In tourism, thanks to the World Trade Organization, restrictions on foreign ownership, repatriation of profits and the right to hire nationals have made it more difficult for developing countries to control their own tourism industry. But for impoverished governments, investors are like manna from heaven, and few questions are asked. What happened recently in Cambodia, for example, is an example of the easy pickings available in poor countries. According to the Guardian Weekend magazine, the scale of this disaster is unveiled:
“Arguing that Cambodia could become a tourist magnet to challenge Thailand, the prime minister began a fire sale of mainland beaches. By March this year, virtually all Cambodia’s accessible and sandy coast was in private hands, either Cambodian or foreign. Those who lived or worked there were turfed out – some jailed, others beaten, virtually all denied meaningful compensation. The deals went unannounced; no tenders or plans were ever officially published.”
Dubious Western hedge funds, money launderers, the Cambodian government, British bankers and Russian millionaires all played their part in this carve-up, waiting to maximize their profits for when resorts and casinos replace the placid palms of this once little-known coastline.
To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on Land displacement:
Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role.
Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography. Taking photos of the friendly people of Cambodia is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Here are some Responsible Photographers tips.
Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Cambodia is attracting more and more tourists each year. Whilst this is important for economic growth, providing thousands of people with jobs, the sociocultural effects of tourism can also be negative, as locals see tourists as an opportunity for a better life, which can in turn lead to begging, exploitation and corruption. Sadly, much of Cambodia’s ancient history has been lost, due to its violent past and the continued trafficking of Khmer artefacts. For this reason, make sure you don’t buy ancient relics or historical artefacts as souvenirs. When travelling in Cambodia, look for the ‘Heritage Friendly’ logo. This was created by the Heritage Foundation – an organization which works to preserve Khmer history and culture.
Keep in mind:
- It’s important to remember that the temples in Cambodia aren’t just beautiful tourist sites but active places of worship: remember to dress appropriately when visiting religious sites (cover shoulders and knees)
- Very little tourist-generated income makes its way back to local communities, so try to shop, eat and sleep locally
To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on Cultural Loss and tourism:
Elephant Treks & Rides
So-called elephant “joyrides” are anything but joyful for the elephants who are forced to give them. A PETA India–commissioned investigation of elephant training revealed that elephants who are being used to give rides are physically and emotionally abused every step of the way. This is a practice which is carried out throughout South East Asia, including Cambodia, even in camps which may claim or appear to treat their elephant well.
When they are just 2 years old, baby elephants are torn away from their loving mothers and tied up out of reach. The frantic babies cry and struggle for days to reach their mothers, who are also tethered. Elephant calves are restrained during training for as long as 14 hours at a time with ropes that cause painful burns and with heavy chains. Over and over again, calves are put through terrifying “desensitisation” sessions, in which trainers tie the elephants tightly to a pole, surround them, startle them with loud noises, hit them, prod them with sticks and wave flaming torches at them – often singeing the elephants’ skin.
Trainers routinely pierce the animals’ sensitive ears and yank on them with hooks in order to force elephants to walk a certain way. To control the elephants, restraints studded with iron nails, which dig into elephants’ skin and cause infections, are used on their feet. Barbed shackles are also frequently placed around the elephants’ legs during rides, with the other end of the shackles attached to the saddle so that riders can punish the elephants for any misstep. Trainers routinely beat elephants on the head with sticks to punish them for “mistakes,” leaving many elephants with open wounds.
Zoos & Sanctuaries
Another popular activity on many travellers’ lists when in Asia is to volunteer at or visit an animal sanctuary for big cats, elephant or other endangered animals. Unfortunately, many of these so-called sanctuaries are far from peaceful for the animals. Many are run for profit, deliberately breeding the animals in order to create cubs and babies to attract more tourists and often offering shows and rides, with no intention of rehabilitating animals back into their natural habitat. Some have also been accused of chaining and drugging animals in order to allow tourists to cuddle and pet them for photo opportunities, which in the past has ended in disaster.
Of course, there are many charities, organisations and genuine sanctuaries working hard to conserve and protect Cambodia’s wildlife, many of which welcome donations and help, so it’s best to do some careful research first to check where your money and/or time is going.
Slow Loris and long-tailed macaque are frequently taken from the wild, where they are tied up and forced into outfits for tourists to take photographs with for a price. This is extremely damaging to the animals, which are often subject to drugging, removal of teeth and claws and the stress of being constantly handled. If you see any wildlife crime being committed while you are in Cambodia, you can call the 24-hour wildlife rescue line at +855-012-500-094 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unregulated Tourism activity:
Tourism is taking its toll on Cambodia’s environment, as government policy has tended to prioritise the potential income of tourism over protecting its beautiful ecosystems. Hotels and highways have been built in order to accommodate visitors, putting strain on water supplies and sewage systems. Uncontrolled tourism development in Siem Reap for example, which was once a small town, is draining the local water supply as hotels provide unlimited water to guests. The temples of Angkor Wat stand on dusty ground and are held in place by groundwater. However, the water table is being so badly drained that these ancient temples are beginning to crack and sink into the ground.
Litter is a big problem, partly caused by a lack of education, as people who once wrapped food in banana leaves which would then be discarded into the river have not been taught that plastic doesn’t work in the same way. Set a good example – dispose of your waste responsibly.
Water: For tourism to be truly sustainable, its development and management must be premised upon a respect for human rights, including the right to water and sanitation for essential personal, domestic and livelihood needs. In many cases, tourism development is negatively impacting the quality, availability and accessibility of freshwater for local people, amounting to an infringement of their water and sanitation rights. This is posing risks to community health and well-being, hampering socioeconomic mobility – particularly of women – harming livelihoods, threatening food security, and undermining the sustainability of the tourism sector itself. Here are some tips for being a water wise traveller.
- Try to conserve water at your accommodation – reuse towels, take short showers and choose a hotel with an active water policy (recycling grey water and no swimming pool – save your swimming for the sea!)
- Don’t use detergents, shampoos or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they are biodegradable.
- For personal washing, use biodegradable soap and a water container (or a lightweight, portable basin) at least 50m (160ft) away from the watercourse.
- Wash cooking utensils 50m (160ft) away from watercourses using a scourer, sand or snow instead of detergent.
Tourism Concern has extensively campaigned on water equity and have published reports & articles on the topic. To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles:
Located just 10-13 degrees north of the equator Cambodia is generally hot all year round. Cambodia has a tropical climate with a rainy season, or monsoon season, and a dry season. The average temperature is around 25°C.
May – October
This is Cambodia’s rainy season as the southwest monsoon blows, raining almost every day and bringing around three quarters of the country’s entire annual rainfall. Rains tend to be fairly predictable (generally in the afternoon or at night) and it is unusual for it to rain all day. The average temperature is around 27-35°C. Most roads in Cambodia are made of dirt, especially in more remote areas, which turn muddy and pot-holed during the wet season, making journeys take longer than normal. However, monsoon season is also off-peak season for tourists meaning popular destinations are much less crowded, while the rains clear the air of dust and bring greenery and wildlife.
November – February
Towards the end of October, a dry, dusty northeast monsoon arrives, drying out the country. Road conditions improve and transport is more reliable as flooding is no longer a risk. However, river and lake levels are much lower which can affect boat travel. Temperatures drop to around 20°C (although cooler at night) with January being the coolest month. More comfortable temperatures and a lack of rain make this an ideal time to visit Cambodia.
March – April
Temperatures rise again for the hot part of the dry season, ranging from around 29°C to a scorching 40°C. April tends to be the hottest month in Cambodia. This is Cambodia’s peak tourist season, thanks to the high temperatures and dry weather improving road conditions and beaches.
Air and water pollution, waste disposal and loss of ecosystem through urbanization and deforestation are growing concerns. As the population continues to grow rapidly these issues are exacerbated, whilst also putting a strain on the country’s natural resources. Similarly, severe periods of drought limit access to drinking water, as well as reducing fish numbers, which are already suffering due to illegal fishing and overfishing.
In 1970 the country was 70% primary rainforest, but by 2007 this figure had dramatically dropped to 3.1% due to illegal logging, industrial plantations and conversion of land for agriculture. Cambodia’s deforestation rate is currently at around 1% a year, which is one of the highest rates in the world. This leads to soil erosion and loss of habitat, while sediment (often carrying harmful pesticides and fertilizers) from recently deforested areas destroy coastal ecosystems. Urban growth is a growing concern, as populations of towns and cities are increasing too rapidly for existing infrastructure, such as sanitation, to keep up.
Cambodians are friendly and welcoming and enjoy chatting to tourists. The country has a collective society, meaning groups (such as family and community) are valued more than the individual. The concept of ‘face’ is important and can be roughly translated as honour, dignity or reputation. It is something which should be protected and which can be easily lost. For this reason, tourists should ensure that they do not unintentionally cause someone to ‘lose face’ by embarrassing, criticising or shouting at somebody in public. By the same token, face can be given by a genuine compliment or display of gratitude.
- A traditional greeting (known as Som Pas) involves putting the hands together as if in prayer in front of the chest, accompanied by a small bow
- If you are invited to dinner, wait to be told where to sit as often the oldest person is seated first. Similarly, they would normally begin to eat first
- Respect local dress standards by covering the upper arms and legs, particularly when visiting religious sites
- Nude sunbathing is considered very inappropriate.
- When calling somebody over, remember to wave with your palm down, as waving with your palm up or pointing can be seen as offensive
- The head is considered the most sacred part of the body, so never touch somebody on the head
- The right hand is typically used for business and eating, whilst the other is reserved for use in the toilet…
- Cambodians are conservative with regards to interacting with the opposite sex, so be mindful of public displays of affection; even putting your arm around a local to pose for a photo could be misinterpreted.
Cambodian food is in many ways similar to neighbouring Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, with soups, noodles, curries, meat, fish and lots of rice. It incorporates spices such as cloves, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and turmeric, as well as galangal, garlic, lemongrass, coriander and kaffir lime leaves. It is normally not as spicy as Thai food and chilli is often left to be added according to personal taste. Prah-hok (a fermented fish paste) and kapi (a fermented prawn paste) are widely used in Cambodian cuisine. Many exotic fruits can also be found in Cambodia, including rambutan, mangosteen and durian – the latter famous for its unusual smell.
The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, spoken by around 7 million people. The Khmer language has been influenced by languages such as Pali, Sanskrit and Thai. Khmer, however, is not a tonal language. English and French are commonly used in hotels and businesses, being Cambodia’s second most popular languages, followed by Chinese. Here are some basic Khmer phrases, written phonetically:
Hello – joohm ree-up soo-a
How are you? – sok-sa bai jee-a tay?
My name is… – k’nyom ch’moo-ah…
Yes – baat
No – a-dtay
Please – soam-un-jern
Thank you – or-koon
Goodbye – joohm ree-up lea (formal)/ lee-hai (informal)
Cambodians address people with the respectful title ‘Lok’ for a man and ‘Lok Srey’ for a woman.
Theravada Buddhism is Cambodia’s official religion, observed and practised by 95% of the population. The religion teaches life and death as being intertwined through reincarnation and based on ‘Karma’. Earning merit is important in Buddhist culture; Cambodian Buddhists will often do this by giving money or their time to the temples or by feeding monks. Islam and Christianity are also embraced and practised, whilst Daoism and Confuism are practised by much of Cambodia’s Chinese population.
- When visiting a Buddhist temple, remember to take off your shoes and check if you are allowed to take photographs
- Statues and images represent the revered Buddha and so visitors should treat them with respect
- Never point your feet towards other people, or something sacred such as the Buddha
- Most temples are maintained with contributions, so remember to make a donation when visiting
- Monks are not supposed to be touched