Saffron-clad monks, crumbling ruins and intricate stone carvings slowly being reclaimed by the jungle; think of Cambodia and the vast majority of us picture Angkor Wat, the vast complex of temples tucked away in the far north-east. It is Cambodia's UNESCO World Heritage calling card, its number one tourist destination, but could it also be its downfall?
Angkor Wat at sunrise. Credit: Mike Behnken
Easily accessible from Thailand, Angkor Wat and its gateway town Siem Reap, play host to thousands of visitors each year who subsequently ignore the rest of Cambodia. And it attracts well-meaning volunteers, beguiled by its beauty and keen to give something back by helping Cambodia's poorest children who may inadvertently cause more problems than they solve.
Cambodia's calling card certainly deserves its fame, but the draw of the Angkor Wat has led to the country being seen as a one-trick pony, a well-trodden stop off between Vietnam and Thailand. However, Cambodia has much more to offer and tourists who take the time to step away from its most famous face, and discover more of its everyday ones find that it is the warmth of the Khmer people, rather than its ruins which really delight. And yet it is these people, for whom tourism could bring the most benefits, which are unsupported by the thousands who pour into Siem Reap and leave without venturing further into Cambodia. It's a problem exacerbated by the country's very recent troubled past. Although Cambodia has come a long way since the dark days of the Khmer Rouge, the scars of the decades of genocide and oppression remain visible through the smiles and optimism. A knowledge gap exists where highly educated Cambodians were hardest hit by the genocide, and many Cambodians are now left with little access to healthcare or education. Escaping the poverty cycle is difficult, and many families turn to more insalubrious 'solutions' for extra income - including a growing sex trade. Tourists to Cambodia are inextricably part of this complicated equation, as tourism could be a key sustainable source of income for poor communities, and should be aware of the impacts their visit can have - as well as the potential for positive change they can bring.
The potential for positive change, however, is complicated in Cambodia. The warm smiles of the Khmer people move many well-meaning tourists to do what they can to help, to give back the people who have given them such a heartfelt welcome into the country. However, in Siem Reap a wave of good intentions has had more sinister consequences; as tourists look for opportunities to volunteer so they inadvertently drive a demand for volunteer placements. And with increasing numbers of tourists headed to Angkor Wat's gateway town this has led to an explosion of orphanages, 35 in a town with a population of just 100,000 as unscrupulous staff see overseas donations and volunteer fees as a way to make money. Disturbingly only about a quarter of Cambodian children living in orphanages are actually orphans, most have a least one parent who have been persuaded that their children will gain a better education and standard of living in an institution rather than at home. Last year we removed over 42 trips from responsibletravel.com in response to these concerns, and helped put together best-practice guidelines in consultation with NGOs and experts such as ECPAT and Save The Children. You can read them here - http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/volunteer-travel/travel-guide.
But it's not just Cambodia's children under threat from the steady increase in tourism to Siem Reap. The ruins themselves are at risk. Situated on sandy soil, it is the water-filled lagoons and groundwater surrounding the complex which keeps Angkor Wat and its plethora of temples stable and standing. However, with an increase in tourism has come increased pressure on these precious water resources, as illegal pumps and wells drain water away beyond capacity to fill swimming pools and luxury hotel bathrooms. It is inevitable that any visit will use water, however if we want the privilege of visiting Angkor Wat, we have to take responsibility to ensure that we minimise our impacts on the site. This includes choosing a hotel with a policy for recycling grey water, reusing towels, low-powered shower head and importantly, no swimming pool.
Cambodia is somewhere where tourism can wield significant power; it can be a force for real positive change, or it can drive and exacerbate the everyday problems faced by local people. And nowhere in the country is this as apparent as in Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. Here mass tourism collides with fragile environments and vulnerable people, bringing with it exploitative volunteering and heritage conservation problems. Responsible, respectful tourism is essential to minimise the negative impacts tourists can have on such a popular destination. But we also need to reach responsible tourism out to more of Cambodia, and encourage visitors to support communities and environments away from Angkor Wat. It could end up being the highlight of a south-east Asian trip.
For more information on responsible tourism in Cambodia read responsibletravel.com's new 2 minute travel guide: http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/cambodia.