Culture Vultures in Cambodia - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Culture Vultures in Cambodia

Culture Vultures in Cambodia

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because Cambodia has more to offer than its storied temples. 

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

In a sleepy backwater village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, suntanned Australians and Europeans bump along red dirt roads, snapping photos of dragon ducks and water buffalo. It took them two hours via tuk-tuk to reach this unremarkable stretch of thatch-covered shacks; now, a lean ox pulls them along in a rickety wooden cart. But locals like 25-year-old Hean Heab don’t gawk back at the village’s visitors. Even here, far from traditional tourist stops like the Royal Palace and Angkor Wat, white people are a normal sight.

As travelers worldwide increasingly seek new vistas, from slum tours in Brazil and South Africa to eco-trips through rural areas, some are taking a turn way off the beaten track: to remote, rural regions where amenities are sparse but “authenticity” ratings are said to be off the hook. The new-gen travelers try homestays with local tribes, watch traditional village dance performances, take morning strolls through rice paddies and enjoy blessings from barefoot monks — all part of a $100-plus, all-expenses-paid tour package. The rural turn is an exemplar of a new trend in the $2.5 billion tourism sector, and it could be good for agricultural societies. Some 80 percent of Cambodia’s population, for instance, live in rural areas, usually on about $3 a day.

What else is new here is the nature of the rural regions themselves. On the outskirts of Cambodia, where, sure, water is still fetched from a well and multiple generations live under one roof, the country’s rehabilitation after decades of instability and war is on display. The nation is on a mission to diversify its largely agrarian economy beyond the usual footwear factories and rice plantations. Tourism is a big part of that mission: It comprises 17 percent of the new economy, more than doubled from 8 percent in 2002, according to the Asian Development Bank. “Local villages are a new product of Cambodia,” says Delice Voeung Chan, who runs Asia Exotic Tours; she believes the industry will likely double in the next five years. 

Key to the trend is a demand for “more responsible tourism,” says Bophay Ouk Chan, founder of ethnic tourism company Siem Reap Ride. His company’s “Lifestyle” and “Off-the-Beaten Track” tours begin with a fresh-faced local guide appearing at your doorstep, handing you a handmade palm leaf hat and hopping through villages with you via your preferred travel method — bike, tuk-tuk or ox cart. Along the way, you learn about a “different way of life,” including regional festivals, handicrafts and traditional beliefs.


If you believe Mark Twain that history rhymes, all this might ring less of something new and more of something a few centuries ago, when Cambodia lay under the annexation of foreign nations. First it was France, then Japan, and then France once more. Today’s backpackers don’t swarm in colonial numbers; they’re still well outpaced by the thousands of tour groups that descend on grandiose sites such as Angkor Wat every day. Treks into Cambodia’s countryside make up less than 1 percent of the larger traveling economy, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

Obviously, not everybody’s happy about it; perceptions surrounding this new brand of tourism have not been glowing. Activists such as Coline Ganz are concerned about the impact of development and tourism on Cambodia’s isolated tribes, citing neighboring countries as examples of what could go wrong. In beach-laden Thailand, 70 percent of all tourist dollars end up flowing out of the country and into the hands of foreign companies. In the Philippines, plots of farmland are diverted to build fancy hotels and golf courses. 

Can Cambodia avoid the pitfalls that its neighbors have fallen headlong into and instead grow its ethnic tourism industry responsibly? “Not in the short term,” says Ganz, who worked for the nonprofit Cambodian Rural Development Team. “It’s Cambodia. As long as you pay whatever bribe, there is no limit to what you can do.” As the culture of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities slowly yields to outside pressures from tourism, Ganz fears these changes could ruin their languid lifestyles and turn them into human safaris.

However, founders like Voeung Chan and Ouk Chan cry foul at these kinds of accusations. Sixty to 90 percent of their profits return back to the communities they enter, they claim, and tourists get to meet directly with the company’s beneficiaries. At the Cambodian Rural Development Team, another village tourism initiative in Kratie, tourists are given a list of do’s and don’ts. This way, travelers can fit into village culture without disrespecting the locals. After all, “the main attractions are the people,” says Tola Khoun, the operations manager: think home-cooked fish curry, English lessons with chatty children and the occasional volleyball match with locals.

Phon Thorn is one of those villagers who is riding the wave of the tourism boom in his small village. His family finally has the money for the 26-year-old to leave home for the first time and attend college in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. No doubt, Thorn is passionate about his village’s future as an emerging tourist destination. As far as his country’s main attraction, the 900-year-old Angkor Wat? “That’s ancient history,” he says with a smile.

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