Thursday, 10 November 2011

Rain, tourism and a bit of a rant about tourists; belated observations on Cambodia from India

Just over 2 weeks ago, I got the bus from Battambang in Cambodia, across the Thai border to Bangkok. The night before I left Cambodia, I tried to write something about the country for the blog - a short, potted history of the appalling ordeals that the people there have suffered and are still suffering, something about the effects of tourism on the country and the attitudes of other tourists towards Cambodians - but I just couldn't quite get it. 3 weeks after leaving Cambodia, I'm still not quite sure what I made of the country. There were some definite highlights - the landscape, the temples at Angkor, the brilliantly mad bamboo train in Battambang, some great interactions with locals - but, inevitably, there were loads of sobering moments - learning about the traumatic recent history, observing the poverty and hearing about the ongoing struggles against political corruption. Overall, perhaps inevitably, it seemed like a far more quiet and understated country than its brasher neighbours Vietnam and Thailand (or 'Fucking Thailand' as I now call it in my head).

Anyway, just to round off the south east Asian leg of my trip on this blog, I'm going to attempt to put down some of the thoughts I was trying to express 3 weeks ago. I'm not going to attempt to summarise or explain the historical context, as I claim no expertise and would probably come out sounding crass or simplistic.

In my last post, I wrote that maybe I should've left Cambodia off my itinerary as it was cramming a bit too much in to be able to process. Looking back now, this is definitely partly true. I don't feel like I formed any clear impressions of the country or overall feeling about the place. But this is also partly down to the weather I experienced there, namely the rains. Oh those rains. When I was researching my trip to south east Asia, I learned that the time I would be visiting would be at the tail end of the rainy season. No big deal, I thought. A few hours of intense rain in the afternoon or evening, quickly dried up by the heat - I can cope with that. Foolish, foolish Eli. Not only did I massively underestimate what people mean by 'intense rain' in this part of the world, but I also visited the region during the worst rainy season it had experienced in decades. In Thailand and Cambodia hundreds of people died as a result of the floods.

After spending a few days in Phnom Penh, I got the bus to Siem Reap for a few days to visit the Angkor temples. I'd heard a lot on the travellers' grapevine about the floods in the town - tales of wading through flooded streets and having to take tuk tuks when normally you could walk - but the general impression seemed to be that the worst was over. When I arrived, the street that I was staying on was under about a foot of water which a tuk tuk could drive through, and you could walk around most of the other streets. During the days that followed, however, the rain got worse, the waters rose and tuk tuks weren't driving down that street anymore. Most of the roads were flooded and the water looked more and more dubious as the days went by - a friend spotted a dead rat floating in the water one day and I'm sure that was just the tip of the iceberg. Some people were happy to wade through the water and walk into town but, over-cautious tourist that I am, I just wasn't. I did make it out 2 days to see the temples (which were, of course, fabulous) but because of the floods I probably spent a bit too much time in the hostel, hanging out in the bar. After 4 days, I started to feel a bit like Major in Fawlty Towers, so decided to move on to Battambang.

I was probably being over-cautious, but the talk of floods, not just in Siem Reap but elsewhere in Cambodia, made me wary of doing too much travelling in the country. I knew that I had to be in Bangkok on October 20th for my flight to Mumbai and just didn't want to get stranded. As a result I missed out the coast, which sounds lovely in parts, and didn't get much into the countryside. (I am of course aware that these minor gripes of a tourist pale in comparison to the awfulness that much of the region experienced during the rainly season.)

Having said all this, the locals, on the surface at least, didn't seem too fussed about the floods. Most businesses stayed open, the tuk tuk drivers valiantly continued to ferry tourists back and forth where they could and kids were even swimming in the rain waters. I dislike the sweeping (and, in my view, patronising) statements which tourists often make about Cambodian people - stuff about how they keep smiling despite all their hardships, that kind of thing - but no doubt this was said about their response to the floods. I think, however, that the more obvious and prosaic explanation is that they kept their shops open and continued to drive their tuk tuks because they needed the money. You can see this attitude occasionally reflected in the tourism industry at large there and in the other countries I visited - if tourists use it, no matter the weather, the state of the roads, keep it going because we need the income.

Many tourists in Cambodia go there with the idea that they want to help out and do their bit - donate to charity, volunteer in orphanages etc. I have no problem with this in itself, but so many of these people go there with their own pre-conceived ideas of what the country needs, and only the vaguest knowledge of the history and complexities of the society that they're entering. I met a woman who was volunteering at an orphanage in Siem Reap and talked a lot about the work she was doing there, but when she started to talk about Cambodian society and history more widely it became clear that she barely knew the rudiments.

There is also a common 'don't give to beggars' thing running through a lot of what tourists say about the country, which after a while really started to wind me up. In the hostel I was staying in there was a book for visitors to write advice and tips for future visitors. One woman devoted a full page to stuff along these lines, including stuff like 'Don't buy baby formula for the women begging outside the mini-mart, as they only sell it back to the shop'. My first response: that's a bit mean. Second response: How do you know they do that? Third response: Actually, who cares if they do that?

I realise that last response might be a bit controversial. There is a kind of accepted wisdom amongst travellers in developing in countries; it goes that, rather than giving to beggars on the street, you should donate to a charity/ NGO/ social enterprise because somehow this is a safer thing to do with your money. But really, is this any better? If I give my money to a charity rather than using it to buy baby formula for the woman outside the mini mart - who is undoubtedly poor and in need - is that woman really any more guaranteed to get direct benefits from this? What portion of the money donated to charity gets wasted on admin costs, salaries for managers etc? I don't doubt that there are tricks and scams here and there but the fact remains that people generally don't beg because they want to they do it because they need money. And in Cambodia they are living in a country screwed over by decades of war and by a deeply corrupt political establishment. To just say that you shouldn't give money to these people is, it seems to me, arrogant and contemptous.

Obviously this is a hugely complicated question, it's not either-or and there is no one right answer to it (though of course, ideally, the Cambodian government would be taking responsibility for it). I'm not saying you shouldn't give to charities, but the kind of attitude described above assumes that 'our' way of doing things is all good - that no one gets exploited or ripped off, and that money never goes to the wrong places or gets wasted. This is clearly not true. What is so wrong with putting money directly into the hands of a person who needs it and letting them decide what to do with it?

No comments:

Post a Comment