Made famous by Angkor Wat—an enormous complex of ancient temples—Cambodia is a country emblazoned by its rich tapestry of cultural heritage, compelling history, and stunning landscapes. It is also home to some of the most welcoming people on earth.
These remarkable and distinctive characteristics are what now draw millions of tourists to Cambodia each year and have created one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. But despite recent surges in development, scars from the Khmer Rouge’s brutal past remain, and more than 4.8 million Cambodians still live in extreme poverty.
As tourists, we play an integral role here. By making better decisions, we can positively impact the lives of the people who call this place home. Here we give you a run-down of three simple steps you can take to travel more consciously in Cambodia.
Don’t give money to children or milk mothers.
Impoverished families have been encouraged to take their children out of school, to beg for money in Cambodia’s tourist areas. Poor mothers are also now using their babies to persuade tourists to buy powdered milk. These women have been known to lead concerned travelers to a local shop where they can purchase the milk. Once purchased, the mothers return it to the store and then split the money with the store owner. Unfortunately, this type of shortsighted income only perpetuates the poverty cycle, and it does nothing to help empower these communities to improve their wellbeing in the future. Instead of giving money to these children or their mothers, choose to buy souvenirs from an adult, or donate money to a local organization that is committed to community development.
Take shorter showers.
Unprecedented development, especially in places such as Siem Reap, has put a massive strain on Cambodia’s water supply and irrigation systems. Groundwater from Angkor Wat is now being pumped out, often illegally, to support the millions of tourists who arrive each year. If water consumption doesn’t dramatically decrease soon, forecasts state that the temples at Angkor Wat could destabilize. One of the simplest ways everyone can contribute to the water crisis is by taking shorter showers. You can also reuse your towels and remember to turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth.
Insider tip: rapid development has also placed a strain on Cambodia’s power supply, often leading to rolling blackouts. Be sure to travel with an external battery to charge your devices. And of course, try to minimize your use of electricity as much as possible by turning everything off when you leave your room and only running the air-conditioner when necessary.
Hire a local.
One of the best ways to explore the temples of Angkor Wat is by hiring a local tuk-tuk driver. Many travelers will post specific contact information for reliable drivers on forums, or you can opt to spend a day chatting with fellow travelers once you land in the country to garner a recommendation. Local drivers can help you plan out your Angkor itinerary to a T. They will also provide you with tons of valuable information, including the best places to grab a coffee or a bite to eat once you’ve visited the temples. Places like Siem Reap have seen a tremendous influx of foreign investment and ownership in recent years. Unfortunately, this means that of the billions of dollars brought in by tourism each year, very few will trickle their way down to the local level. Independently hiring a tuk-tuk driver is an excellent way to ensure that your money is well spent and will go straight to the source.
Cambodia is an utterly enchanting country, offering travelers unparalleled access to remote islands, ancient temples, wildlife, and Khmer culture. And by choosing to travel just a bit more mindfully, perhaps we can give something back to the people who have welcomed us here with open arms.
Abby Faires is an East Coast native turned Denver transplant. In 2013, she received distinction as the University of Colorado School of Journalism’s Outstanding Graduate, where she also obtained a B.A. in Journalism, News-Editorial, and a certificate in International Media. At the core of her writing lies a true passion for education, wellness, and responsible travel. Abby has been living abroad and is currently making her way across Asia. Up next: South America!