Is Tourism Good for Cambodia?

All through my three months in South East Asia I’ve been wrestling with something I can’t quite define. As I’ve explored Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and now Cambodia, I’ve often felt uncomfortable with the high status that comes from being a white westerner in a land of extreme poverty. I’ve seen people react, in both good ways and bad, to this massive amount of privilege and at times I’ve wondered if we haven’t done more harm than good.

The main problem with tourism in mainland SE Asia, and specifically Cambodia, is in the meeting of desperately poor people and (comparatively) rich tourists. It can be really frustrating to be constantly harassed by people who want something from you. It’s exhausting to walk down the street in Siem Reap and constantly fend off tuk tuk drivers and child beggars. Outside the temples of Angkor the fruit and scarf sellers attack you like magnets. You begin saying “no” so many times that it’s an automatic response. You start to forget the humanity of these people.

I think this is in part what leads to some of the mindlessly rude tourists out there. I’ve encountered more of them than you’d think around SE Asia. They are sometimes young, but not always. They are always oblivious to their wealth, their privilige and their elitism. “You can’t trust them,” a guy on the bus tells me, perhaps not even realizing the face he makes when the word them leaves his lips, “They’ll rip you off any chance they get.”

This huge disparity brings out some ugly behaviors from the locals as well. Con artists and pickpockets, abused elephants, spoiled beaches and child laborers . In Cambodia the scams are numerous and evolved- certain people are working very hard to con you out of as little as $1.

There are darker ways that tourism hurts. Child sex crimes are a problem in Cambodia. This is a country where you have a huge amount of money-hungry children working unsupervised around tourists. It’s so easy for them to be taken advantage of. It’s not just children either, human-trafficking is a huge issue here. Many girls are smuggled in from Vietnam and forced to work as prostitutess in Phnom Penh, while girls from Cambodia are smuggled into Thailand. The ethics of the sex industry in South East Asia are a huge issue and really warrant an entire blog post in themselves, but these are the basic consequences of treating human beings like commodities.

street kids playing in Phnom Penh

Does this mean I think people shouldn’t visit Cambodia? Absolutely not. Tourism does a lot of great things too- particularly in a place like Cambodia which is exceptionally poor. A lot of people depend on the money westerners bring in, from the government all the way down to the street vendors. I talked to so many people in Cambodia who are just working so hard to lift themselves and their families up out of poverty.

I was inspired to write about my conversations with everyday Cambodians because I wanted to try something a little different narratively. I write a lot about the places I visit and the ways that they effect ME, but I think it’s also important to remember that our travels effect the locals as well. In addition to being an interesting place to visit, there are real people who live here. There are thousands of lives are so entangled with the tourism business. I was fortunate to meet a lot of these people in Cambodia, where people are so open with their life stories and aspirations.

People like my tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap, Lacy. I hired Lavy to drive me to Angkor Wat on one day, and ended up using him for four entire days as I toured the area. He was just 27 years old, almost the same age as me, and each day at lunch he’d sit and tell me about his life. Born in the nearby floating village that is so popular with tourists, Lavy was only driving a Tuk Tuk to put himself through night school. It’s tough, with the rising cost of fuel, and the fact that most of the money he makes needs to be sent home to his family. With it being the low season right now business is not great, so he’s had to put this semester on hold.

On an ordinary day Lavy is probably out on the street with all the other drivers, getting in your face and vying for your business, but what he really wants is to work in a bank: “I don’t always want to be a tuk tuk driver,” he told me, “it’s not reliable.”

For me visiting Cambodia has been really humbling. This is a land of people that have gone through unimaginable horror, yet still manage to find a smile. It’s a place where people are terribly poor, but highly driven. I met more friendly people and had more interesting conversations here, than just about anywhere on this trip. Sure, some of them wanted money out of me, but so what?

I think it’s really important to remember yourself in context. 25% of Cambodians live on less than $1.25 per day. Nobody likes to be seen as a walking cash machine, but when you spend more on dinner than some people make in a week, is it really that surprising?

I guess what I’m getting at is that tourism is most hurtful when we forget that the people in the countries we visit are not zoo exhibits, servants or even charity cases. They are just people, trying to make it like everyone else. I think when we forget that everybodies humanity is in jeopardy.


36 Responses to Is Tourism Good for Cambodia?

  1. MaryAnne April 7, 2011 at 9:33 AM #

    Very very aptly said. We were there just over a month ago and I was thinking the same thoughts (and even have a title-only unwritten blog post draft about it). Cambodia was one of the most difficult places I’ve ever visited, emotionally, for so many reasons.

  2. Andy Jarosz April 7, 2011 at 9:40 AM #

    Very good post on an impossible dilemma. When extreme poverty meets extreme (relative) wealth it can, as you say, bring out an ugly side in both parties. But that’s not a reason to stop the valuable positive benefits that tourism can bring to countries such as Cambodia. It’s about behaving in a decent way…

  3. Dan April 7, 2011 at 10:32 AM #

    Great post Steph. I’ve returned to Cambodia 4 or 5 times now. I find it infuriating how some people go on about the poverty on one hand and smack them with the other for “ripping you off”. Some people really lose perspective and I’ve seen it in numerous blogs lately and it is often posts about Cambodia.

  4. Anne April 7, 2011 at 8:57 PM #

    Thought-provoking post, Steph. Tourists in general who go to poor countries should not only be there for cultural and historical snapshots. Tourism can be a way of helping out the locals and being a little generous (if you can afford it) wouldn’t hurt.

  5. Dalene - Hecktic Travels April 7, 2011 at 9:43 PM #

    Well said Steph, and as I read this, I realized that a lot of the points you are making can apply to so many places in the world. Not having been to Cambodia myself, I can see it with Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador…just some of the many impoverished nations in the world where the value of tourism can be put into question.

    One thing that always bothers me with tourists is haggling. Yes, of course, I will always try to be sure to get a fair price too, but to take it to the nth degree really gets me. What does an extra quarter or dollar mean to me, in comparison to what the vendor will get out of it? I really hate to see people who try to take it too far…

    • Steph April 10, 2011 at 11:44 AM #

      I agree, I know some haggling is expected in markets and taxis, but at some point you have to jsut let it go- the people need the money more.

  6. Christine April 7, 2011 at 11:08 PM #

    I haven’t traveled in SE Asia yet, but I worry about visiting–I don’t want to go to a country and just be surrounded by drunk, Western backpackers. That’s not authentic and that’s not the country–that’s tourism ruining the country. I’ll be interested in what I think after I actually visit, but so from what i’ve read on other blogs, etc. I think all of your observations are on point.

    • Steph April 10, 2011 at 11:32 AM #

      There are a lot of drunk western backpackers but hte one good thing about htem is they tend to stay in one place and not stray too far, making them easier to avoid. I found myself frustrated a lot but the local people make it totally worthwhile by being so welcoming and open.

  7. GutsyWriter April 8, 2011 at 12:40 AM #

    I like the way you explain the perspective from the locals side. I’d like to know if locals see how tourists might react when being asked for money constantly. I lived in Belize for a year with my husband and three teenage sons and felt like when we were generous, locals started requesting more and more from us with time, and we weren’t making any money.

    • Steph April 10, 2011 at 11:28 AM #

      A lot of their strategies aren’t very effective and I do wonder how much they think about the approach. Of course you want to help people but it’s just impossible to help everyone and it can be frustrating.

  8. Erica April 8, 2011 at 3:17 AM #

    Our upcoming trip will definitely be a change in pace for sure. We’ve spent time in Tokyo and London – some of the most expensive cities in the world, only to make our next trip to Central and South America. I’ve yet to handle the extreme poverty thing yet.

    I’m sure it will wreck me. I’ve definitely thought about the pros and cons of tourism. Ultimately I think someone should ask the people who live there.

    • Steph April 10, 2011 at 11:26 AM #

      Prior to this trip I’d mainly travelled in Europe. Asia was a big change. Eye opening but fantastic in a lot of ways as well.

  9. Sarah April 8, 2011 at 4:07 PM #

    Steph, this was so well put. Thank you for writing this.

    I struggled with much of the same throughout SEA and tried to find a happy medium between tourism and empathy. It’s hard, but your last paragraph sums up exactly what I felt throughout my time. Backpackers young and old alike, oft forget that we are not at the zoo; these are real lives and the real world we’re walking through.

    • Steph April 10, 2011 at 11:22 AM #

      That’s exactly it. These people aren’t here for our entertainment, they are just trying to get by too.

  10. Lauren April 9, 2011 at 1:18 PM #

    Down-to-earth, simply put, and thought-provoking. Excellent post! This is the kind of stuff I love to read. Thank you!

  11. Kelly P. April 10, 2011 at 12:57 AM #

    Very well put. I enjoyed this post. I hope to one day visit Cambodia, and when I do, I’ll remember your words.

  12. Adam April 10, 2011 at 2:08 AM #

    Brilliantly written. I had similar thoughts and misgivings while I was in India. But, not to sound judgmental, the tourists in India I think are a bit more aware of their effect on the economy and the people. At least outside of the Delhi/Agra/Jaipur tourist triangle.

    • Steph April 10, 2011 at 11:19 AM #

      Thanks Adam! SE Asia does attract some moronic people it’s true.

  13. Amanda April 10, 2011 at 5:48 PM #

    I loved this blog post, I went to Cambodia in January for a few days and loved it so much, I also read all about the horrors that they faced not all that long ago and can’t believe how many of them are still smiling, even when you say you already have a tuktuk and don’t need to use them as well.

    There is something amazing about that country and the people, I often find myself wishing I was back there and could help a few more people out.

    Who knows maybe I’ll go back next year!

    • Steph April 17, 2011 at 9:41 AM #

      They have an amazing spirit there, just so friendly even though they put up with so much crap.

  14. Claire April 13, 2011 at 4:20 PM #

    Great read. Thanks for a poignant reminder. Just because we as westerners spend more on dinner than they make in a week, does not make them any less of a person. It irks me to no end when I see/hear/observe tourists behaving in a manner that makes either a spectacle out of themselves or the people whose country they are visiting.

  15. Tim Wilkinson April 14, 2011 at 10:19 AM #

    As other commenters have said, this is a problem that travelers should consider before travelling to many places in Asia. I want to visit Burma and North Korea in the future but I need to think carefully about where my money will go.

    I don’t mind too much getting overcharged by a local, but paying taxes that go towards an extremely oppressive regime is quite another matter.

    • Steph April 14, 2011 at 10:45 AM #

      This is thankfully not much of an issue in Cambodia where the government is (largely) on the people’s side, but definitely something to take into account when visiting more oppressive countries.

  16. Greg Cox April 24, 2011 at 4:57 PM #

    This is an excellent post. I totally agree, I was in Cambodia earlier this month. I also saw the poverty first hand at places like Angkor….you are absolutely correct, when faced with the problem an overwhelming number of times I would say the majority of tourists just shut down and adopt an automatic no position. In extreme cases I have seen westerners enjoy saying no to children, even teasing them. That is not good. Who are we to complain that it happens to often, that such behaviour is justified. Remembering to treat people like human beings and knowing that there is a story behind every request for a dollar is really important and seems to be all too easy to ignore.

    • Steph April 30, 2011 at 7:55 AM #

      I too learned to go into automatic “no” mode and then would get really startled when people were actually just being polite (returning my sunglasses for example). Taunting someone less fortunate than you is never ever ever okay.

  17. Lauren Quinn April 28, 2011 at 11:05 AM #

    An important and honest post.

  18. Fidel May 17, 2011 at 8:32 AM #

    “I guess what I’m getting at is that tourism is most hurtful when we forget that the people in the countries we visit are not zoo exhibits, servants or even charity cases. They are just people, trying to make it like everyone else. I think when we forget that everybodies humanity is in jeopardy.”

    Very well said! I really appreciate this blog. I am visiting Cambodia in June and I’ve been researching before my trip. Your words gave me more valuable information than any travel tip I’ve read.

    • Steph May 17, 2011 at 10:04 AM #

      Thanks for the kind words- made my day! Despite the issues, Cambodia is one of the best places I have ever visited. I hope you enjoy it!

  19. Preeti Datar July 18, 2011 at 2:58 AM #

    I live in India. There is a lot of disparity here as well. I guess I am used to dealing with it.

    However I do believe tourism does more good than bad, it gives locals more opportunities for livelihood.

  20. Alex June 12, 2012 at 1:46 PM #

    Wow – thoroughly enjoyed this post. I am traveling to Cambodia in the fall and am planning on volunteering as an English teacher for 3 months, which of course I assumed would have nothing but a positive impact. But I didn’t really consider what kind of impact I would have once I had finished volunteering. Thank you for making me stop and think about it.

  21. Kat Parsons December 4, 2012 at 3:11 PM #

    Hi Steph,
    I ran across your blog post in a google search regarding girls selling postcards outside of Ankur Wat. I really enjoyed reading your words. I lived in VN for 6 months and traveled in Cambodia and Laos. I’ve also traveled in India, which I call a conflict of the heart. We are instructed not to give to one person or you will be swarmed and never left alone, not to mention that the person to whom you are giving money may not even be the person who is getting it. However, even with that in mind, the heartbreak of walking past a child who, despite the warnings, still looks hungry and malnourished feels callous and dehumanizing. The best way I could figure to resolve this is to give to organizations that were empowering people. And occasionally, I gave food….

    As an aside, I had a WONDERFUL experience with the girls selling postcards and bracelets outside of Ankur Wat. We befriended each other and they invited me on their father’s tuk-tuk (it was about 10 of us on one tuk-tuk), shared their crunchy beetle snacks with me and took me to their local lake for a swim. I was so honored to be included in their lives and they seemed to enjoy my genuine interest in them and their lives. This is one of my favorite travel experiences.

    Thank you for opening up the much-needed discussion.

  22. Utsav January 21, 2013 at 2:42 AM #

    The last line of your blog truly sums this whole issue.

    I am from India, relatively well off, and our parents tell us never to give money to beggars, ‘not to encourage that trend’.

    Yet, I have always felt a twist of helplessness when I see barefoot and barely clothed children walking at traffic signals in the cold winter. I wonder how they sleep and rest in this biting cold. Many sleep under bridges, and many even die, and are reported the next day as a statistic in the newspaper.

    Its not right and I am going to do something about it.

  23. Ourjourneytothesea July 4, 2013 at 1:39 AM #

    Such a good post, and so well said!!

    Unfortunately I saw photos of Sihanoukville from April this year that horrified me. Although in December 2011 there were locals trying to sell anything and everything every 2 minutes, the beach was still beautiful. Paradise. In April 2013 it didn’t look like the same place. Dirty an uninviting. I really hope tourism doesn’t kill Cambodia.

  24. anil_traveller August 2, 2015 at 2:25 PM #

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you for this post!


  1. Visit Cambodia as a Respectful Traveler | velissima - November 27, 2015

    […] […]

  2. Weekend Intelligence: April 9-10, 2011 – - December 20, 2015

    […] This week, I really enjoyed reading “Is Tourism Good for Cambodia?” by Stephanie Yoder over at Twenty-Something Travel. In the piece, Stephanie writes about the vast wealth disparity between the poorer locals and the relatively privileged tourists upon whom they are dependent. “…Tourism is most hurtful,” she writes, “when we forget that the people in the countries we visit are not zoo exhibits, servants or even charity cases. They are just people, trying to make it like everyone else.” Read more. […]

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