We signed up for a tour. The tour bus picked us up early in the morning, the tour group contained an interesting mix of people including an inane NZ woman who would not shut up, she seemed very concerned about the poor people, while boasting how cheaply she brought stuff in the markets and finding fault with all aspects of the tour. In my experience ones enjoyment of any organised tour is at least partially dependant on the people in the tour group.
We stopped at a village market on the way. I got some lovely photos here. Like the market we’d visited on the bike tour, this was a real village market. Not aimed at the tourists. Lots of every day items and no refrigeration in the meat section.
Fruit and Veg
Motorbikes are vehicles for the whole family
Bananas, come in fresh, fried and smoothie.
Not quite Preston Market
Eggs and Ducks for sale.
Then we headed out to Tonle Sap. We’d been advised that there were three villages we could visit, but the resort only recommended tours to two of them as being any good and non scammy. Apparently one of the scams is children paddle up in little boats, offer to sell cold drinks, collect money and disappear with no cold drink being handed over, and well you aren’t in any position to chase them.
The one we went to was clearly well organised for tourists. There were set prices and despite being hundreds of long tailed boats, all ticketing was through a central system which obviously makes everyone take turns. The guide explained that the people that live in the floating villages now all have two jobs, fishing and tourism and do each as needed. The boats took us out to the floating village which was probably about an hours boat ride from the shore. This was literally a floating village on stilts in the middle of a lake surrounded by water as far as the eye could see. Most of the houses are in rows like streets, given the variable water levels, the amount of stilts visible is also variable. The village we went to supports about 3000 residents. There is a medical centre, shops, a school and the fishing authority. We toured around the village on the long tailed boat then pulled up at one of a line of floating cafes.
They maybe huts in the middle of a lake but they have mobile and radio reception.
Some kind of fishy thing drying
Every family owns at least one boat
Protein, not pets. There really isn't the land for larger animals and I guess you get bored of fish after awhile.
From here we moved into a canoe for a paddle through a mangrove forest. The canoes held about three people and were generally paddled by a woman, often with a young child attached, either a baby or toddler. Each of the canoes is numbered and they take turns paddling tourists around, again centrally organised and something the woman can do to earn money while her husband is fishing.
Mangrove forest was beautiful and is protected, both for its environmental values and the villagers realise the value of the tourist dollar.
From here it was back in the long tailed boat and back to shore.
We spent a bit of time that afternoon wandering around the markets in town.
Siem Reap is an odd city. It is a fairly new city and its entire purpose appears to be a support structure for Angkor Wat and the associated tourist industry. People fly into Siem Reap airport, visit the temples, spend money and fly out again. Cambodia is a confronting country, the poverty is real and very visible. The sight of luxury hotels next to bamboo huts housing children who look starving is very hard to stomach. We are told not to give money to child beggars who should be in school, we are told not to donate money to orphanages that make the children perform for their food. There are signs up saying not to support the sex industry. The centre of Siem Reap is set up entirely to cater to the tourists. There are rows and rows of shops, cafes, pubs and markets. Every third business is selling $1 massage. Every market stall you stop to look at has people imploring you to buy things. The pleas to buy sound desperate. You get the come in look, buy in Thailand as well, but its not desparate like in Cambodia. While you can buy things very cheaply, they are the same mass produced tourist scarves, jewellery and trinkets you can buy at any market in Thailand or Vietnam. You have to wonder if the economy can really support hundreds stalls of people selling the same set of cheap scarves. Cambodian beer is $1 a can, soft drink (Coco-cola) was often more expensive.
The average yearly wage for a Cambodian villager is approximately $200. Our resort was out of Siem Reap was in a village that is supported by the charity the resort runs. We could sit on our chair by the salt water pool and be brought cold towels and fresh lime juice while the villagers next door are picking rice and the children are running around naked playing in the dirt. The resort provides both training and English lessons for the villagers to enable them to get good jobs in the tourist industry. Speaking English is the path to riches, or at least making money from the tourists. Tourism is the main industry and it’s clear to see that.
The war in Cambodia killed pretty much all the educated classes. Cambodia has not recovered from the war. If you pay attention in Cambodia and move outside of your tour of Angkor Wat and your luxury hotel for less than $100 a night, it is really obvious how much the country is struggling.
As tourists at our ethical resort we were sheltered and looked after by the people at the resort, we were given warnings, our driver ran interference and the resort only recommended tours that it considered good and ethical. It was both very easy and hard to be tourists.
This contrast became more obvious once we went to Thailand which is comparatively a much more affluent country than Cambodia, and less dependent on tourism.
Don’t get me wrong. Cambodia was a beautiful country, the people we interacted with were lovely, our tours were great and I’d happily visit again. Overall I think I liked Cambodia more than Thailand. Cambodia was very challenging, but it you want to be a responsible tourist, you have to travel with your eyes open. If not, just go to Phuket for the sun, sand, cheap shopping and cheaper beers.