Friday, July 15, 2011

Destin-Nation Cambodia: Treating Wounds Outside the Temples

Source: AOL Travel
Christoph Rooms/Flickr

Angkor Wat

Tourists come to Cambodia to see the temples at Angkor Wat. Yes, some people make it down to the beautiful coast or even out to the pristine islands in the Bay of Thailand, but thanks to a lack of infrastructure (and imagination) this country has remained a one trick pony.

And what a trick it is. Angkor Wat, which is perhaps most familiar to Westerners as that beautiful place Angelina Jolie destroyed in Tomb Raider, doesn't disappoint. The ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples here are intricately carved, incense cloaked and filled with orange-clad monks. It is no wonder that Siem Reap, the city that services the temples, is becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction.

Unfortunately, the chronically poor Cambodians who have been eagerly anticipating the flow of tourist capital into their pockets for the last decade are still waiting and will likely have to continue waiting for some time. Even as Asian tourists flock to their beautiful religious sites by the busload, Cambodians have woefully few ways to profit from a tourist trade controlled by foreigners. Further exacerbating the problem are the numerous questionable charities that solicit funds from travelers: Donations evaporate into thin air and the needy do not receive any help.

Visitors to the temples at Siem Reap, the capital of Phnom Penh, and the beautiful Bay of Thailand coast who want to help Cambodia, a country still dealing with the scars of a horrific Communist experiment, will have to be careful. In the last few years, investigators discovered that at least two charities using tourist volunteer labor to help poor children were being run by pedophiles and that a handful of other charities really weren't charities at all. Determining which organizations are real and which are not is difficult because many of the would-be experts, the workers at large international charities, are in the country on short term contracts and lack expertise. All things considered, it would be best for volun-tourists to stay on, or pretty near, the beaten track.

Charity here can also be about the decisions travelers make. Cambodians are trying to build a tourist infrastructure that will bring much-needed money into the country, but many industries are struggling to get off the ground because, thanks to the purges of Pol Pot, there are few experts left in the service industry. Tourists who frequent training restaurants and hotels will be doing a good thing and will likely have more intimate and positive interactions with the people looking after them.

One more piece of advice for the philanthropic: Splash out. Cambodia has its own currency, but over 90% of the money in circulation in the country is in U.S. dollars and everything, specifically hand-crafted goods, is cheap. Getting money to artisans or even merchants is a good deed.

Getting to Cambodia is shockingly easy. Flights from California through Taipei or Seoul on Eva Airways and Air Malaysia typically cost $1,600 and very cheap flights on discount carrier AirAsia connect Phnom Penh to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
Royal Palace

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