The ugly side of tourism
as featured in Cambodia
Pristine, white sand beaches dotted with comfy papasans. Dust clouds billowing from bumpy roads. Corrugated iron roofed shacks, with or without walls, on or off ten-foot-tall stilts. Murky brown rivers lined with shanty boat villages. Piles of garbage strewn about in any open space. Dogs, seemingly ownerless, wandering about soaking in attention and begging for food. Children, running around babbling at and grabbing anyone in sight, manning boat trips, acting as wait staff, selling sunglasses, or translating for adults. The constant flowing of horn-obsessed traffic, with scooters weaving in and out. Older locals carrying their wares on carts, pinned to their shirts, or dangling precariously from their heads, trying to sell trinkets, postcards, manicures, massages, and pineapples. The streets teeming with tuk-tuk drivers shouting "My friend!" and "Where you go!?"
When turned down, they often sidle up close and whisper "Ice, opium, cocaine... smoke weed, man?" The sides of the streets lined with street carts selling strange delights like roasted pigeons, mashed banana-sesame biscuits, grilled snakes, fruit shakes, small clams, balot, and various other fried delights. Intermingled with the street carts are semi-permanent tents with barber shops, restaurants with tiny tables and even tinier chairs, with giant tables covered with different, unidentifiable food dishes served with rice.
In the most beautiful areas, such as remote tropical islands, near bodies of water, or trendy, bumpin' areas, white people can be found in obnoxious numbers. Generally, they fit into a few categories. The long-term backpackers doing a tour of Asia (guilty), the short-term vacationers, the older men looking for a young wife or cheap prostitutes, and young people looking for a place to live the eternal Saturday and to numb their lives away with various layers of drugs. This is Cambodia.
This level of poverty—everything here is laughably cheap—has lead to Cambodia quickly becoming a shocking example of both the positive and negative effects of a rapidly growing tourism industry. The positives are obvious I hope, increased revenue for transportation, hospitality, outside economic interest, international recognition, and improvement of English (allowing them to communicate with more of the world) -- just look at Vietnam's booming economy. The negatives, however, are absolutely disgusting, and Cambodia is fast growing example of all of them. Tourism brings with it things like increased prostitution, hustling, scamming, child labour, drugs, and a general movement in the work force towards capitalizing on tourists, rather than developing a self sustaining, brain or production based economy.
Although not in Cambodia, Pattaya, Thailand is known as being one the sex tourism capitols of SE Asia, if not the capitol. Teeming with predominantly Russian tourists looking to fulfill their deepest, dirtiest sexual fantasies, for significantly less money than they'd ever spend back home, with women who often have no other choice. Cambodia has similar but less notorious spots, as well as the fairly common sight of 50+ year old western men with 20-30 year old, gorgeous local women -- often incapable of speaking a common language. There's also the bars that line Phnom Penh's streets, with hordes of young, beautiful women sitting outside, enticing you to come in and sample their wares. I worry mostly, however, about what I'm not seeing. Those horrors are unimaginable for someone as fortunate as my Canadian-born self, and I fear for the children who are forced into very, hard lives.
Speaking of which, I see child labour everywhere. Children serving, cleaning and prepping at restaurants; selling wares in stores; handling bags, taking tickets, and hanging out the door yelling at pedestrians to convince them to take the bus to another town; and even manning ferry boats without adult supervision. You have to grow up damn fast here. There's no time to sit down and blast through the night playing Call of Duty, watch cartoons, or dream about attending Hogwarts. No, you have to start learning the family business, raising your younger siblings, earning your keep, and acting as a translator for all these strange, tall white apes stumbling around after drinking 50 cent beers, and smoking joints.
Drugs here are ridiculously common, and their usage extremely relaxed. Walking around the streets will lead to offers of everything from weed and opium, and all the way to crack and crystal meth. You can buy drugs at many bars, and order "happy" or "magic" shakes or pizzas (weed and mushroom) at a ton of restaurants, who occasionally throw in a free joint with each purchase. In any smaller, tourist overrun town, the smell of weed permeates the air. I never see locals doing it. I really just see it as another thing the locals do to pander to our desires and to make the land a white man's lawless and cheap paradise. An example of which is the opportunity to shoot a rocket launcher at a cow for the mere fee of $150.
Another huge example of locals pandering to our needs, was our guesthouse on Koh Rong. The owners run a tasty restaurant with one side completely open to the elements. Upstairs are two private rooms, which they rent out at $10 and $13 USD per night (above average in Cambodia, believe it or not) for nice sized rooms with fans, decent beds, and undamaged mosquito nets. The entire family of about 5 people, however, all sleep downstairs on mats strewn out on the linoleum floor, open to attacks from mosquitos, and the constant interruptions from the hordes of partying and wandering tourists, and roosters "singing" at all times. I felt like an asshole, but the $5 each that my friend and I are giving them is worth more to them than a room and some beds for themselves. Every time they saw us walk through, or sit down for some food, the smiles we received were radiant. They appreciated our presence and what it meant for them and their children. I just can't help but feel terrible for the reality of the situation.
I really appreciate their honest appreciation, however, as the hustling in Cambodia has become absurd. Tuk tuk drivers will hassle you every possible second. One will shout out "Tuk tuk!?" or "Where you go?" even if they just saw you flat out turn one, two, or six down within the last 10 steps. Saying "no, thank you" just leads to, repeated "tuk tuk?" "Tomorrow?" Or offers of drugs. They'll even rush in from shore and jump onto your ferry boat as it docks, trying to get to you first. Some hostels/hotels even will hand you menus as soon as you walk out of your room, trying to sell you over-priced, shitty Western breakfasts, and then abruptly ask you where you're going, trying to set up over-priced transportation or tours for the day—and look extremely unimpressed when you say no thank you.
Again, the worst is the use of children as sales and begging tools. They will flock around you trying to sell you a variety of trinkets, using all sorts of psychology based sales techniques. They first come up, politely, asking you to buy one. When you turn them down, they say, "Okay, if you buy, you buy (from) me," getting you to agree to coming to them if you change your mind. If another comes up and asks again, they'll use that to guilt you away from them. If you continue to say no, they try to build rapport by asking your name, and various other questions. If they find out where you're from, they hit you with expressions they've heard, like "Fuckin' eh!" for Canada, or sell you an item with the colours of your flag. If you continue saying no under this pressure, their voice and face turn to desperation and they tell you how poor they are, how they want to go to school, and how little it really costs for you. It's depressing, but I can't help them all, and caving into this behaviour, or donating to beggars for that matter is a short-term band-aid that causes more harm than good. It reinforces the behaviour -- hustling or begging -- and it continues, potentially in greater capacity. Stories in China of people borrowing or renting children for days of begging were all too common.
Cambodian people are generally very nice, helpful people -- going out of their way to help us out in our many moments of confusion, such as how to eat a whole bird. Occasionally you meet a lady who refuses to serve you because you're white, but that's just been the one time. Scamming and taking advantage of tourists goes on too, of course, as is to be expected from people in desperate circumstances, but mostly they're legitimate and friendly. Considering their crippling, genocidal recent history, I'm profoundly impressed by the general calm, friendly, and helpful demeanour of the people.
I love this quirky nation, its interesting sites, activities and history, and it's glorious food. I hope that one day, this helps them to become a significantly more prosperous and developed nation. I fear, however, that assholes like myself are not helping the situation, and just making it worse in a different direction.