Sin of Tourism in Cambodia
The past ten years I have travelled a fair bit (by my own pitifully low standards), even to the extent of being teasingly referred to as a globetrotter. Folks who called me that probably have a 60’s kind of understanding of the term.I have always been happy to visit a new place even if it happened to be a remote mining town in West Bengal or a Chinese industrial town on the Siberian border, where ever work or wanderlust took me.I have been asked by immigration officials weather if so and so country as evidenced by the visa on my passport actually exits, which is when you allow yourself a little smile of contentment.Growing up I read whatever came my way, giving wings to my mind but my body wanted a ride too.When I first set foot on foreign soil it was a moment-of-truth. I remember clearly it was the tarmac of the Addis Ababa airport in Ethiopia, en-route to Lagos, Nigeria.I did not kneel down like the Pope and kiss the oil stained concrete but I might as well have.It’s just that I am painfully shy.
I am a fan of the German film director Werner Herzog, an amazing and difficult man in real life. I have read with great fascination the stories and myths surrounding the filming of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God.Fed up with his impossible demands, deep in the Amazon jungles, his crew wanted to actually shoot him! I also read of his extraordinary journeys on foot and his theory about filming on location which he so wonderfully calls the “voodoo of the location”.He once travelled on foot from Germany to France to meet a terminally ill friend, steadfast in his belief that the back breaking journey will somehow keep the friend alive.He also feels that the only way to travel is on foot and when locals know that you are making the effort they will open up to you much more and you will see the place in an authentic way.He asserts that biologically humans are designed to travel on foot.
And then he calls tourism a sin.
When a towering personality like Herzog says something it tends to stick in the mind and comes back to torment you.
I went about preparing for my Cambodia trip as I would any family holiday.Booking the budget airline ticket, finding a child friendly hotel, researching the attractions, making the transport arrangements etc.I had seen the Rollad Joffe film, The Killing Fields a long time back and the horrors of the Pol Pot genocide were in my memory, albeit a bit submerged under the images of the genocides happening all around us.As the day of departure to Cambodia came closer I decided for the first time to give myself a bit of a history lesson on Wikipedia and YouTube.Of course I was going to Angkor Wat, the premier tourist attraction of Cambodia but I decided to include Phnom Penh in my itinerary because I wanted to do a little more than just ticking off Cambodia on my bucket list(I don’t have one-too soon?).
We spent three days in Siem Reap taking in the majestic grandeur of Ankor Wat, Bayon temple and Tah Prom made famous by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider.The sights were singularly spectacular but there was something else happening too. I was constantly thinking about Herzog and his tourism comment.My carbon footprint was colossal. Moreover we were again a middle class Indian family traveling in a country ravaged by the genocide and governed since then by despotic leaders.In Africa where I have lived, so strong is the colonial hangover and so staggering is the disparity of income that even dark brown Indians are referred to as “White Man”.Colonialism casts a long and dark shadow indeed.
The highlight of the trip was a visit to Kampung Phluk, a floating village on a river.The reason why people live on rickety houses built on stilts is that they don’t have land anymore.Pol Pot’s utopia included assigning all land to the state and rendering all farmers into slaves of the state in the name of a classless communist society.Siem Reap, by virtue of being a bustling tourist town is much better off than most parts of the country. But the signs of abject poverty were everywhere.The meaning of living on a dollar a day does not dawn on most of us Indians in our own country since it means 55 rupees but when you start living in a dollar denominated country you realise how pitifully low that is.
Looking at the still magnificent ruins of the Hindu temples now used partly as Buddhist shrines and mostly as dollar generating edifices one can’t help but wonder about the nature of Hinduism and the sheer laziness of our millions of Gods to deign to convert the rest of the world.The Hindu heaven had a “housefull” sign hanging a long time back.We noted that the Archeological Survey of India is still carrying out restoration work at Tah Prom after completely botching the job at Angkor Wat. While Indians should be most naturally suited to restore ancient Hindu temples, the project must surely be a money spinner for corrupt bureaucrats in both countries.
Phnom Penh rose to prominence as a “Hot” destination after NYTimes called it the next Prague and this opened the floodgates for western tourists. Undoubtedly the tourist boom has helped those associated with the sector as well as the entrepreneurs who could game the Cambodian system and brought with it a plethora of western NGO and entrepreneurs who use NGOs as a front to make money. The model is quite simple, open a NGO that trains local youth in catering or dress making etc and provides employment in your own restaurant or boutique. The locals remain low paid workers getting “on the job training” while tourists derive moral succor from patronizing these places,free from the guilt of poverty tourism and buying clothing and souvenirs not manufactured in sweat shops but under the benevolent supervision of a westerner with a heart of gold.A well heeled Swiss restaurant owner who runs his establishment as a proxy catering school cried on our shoulder,”I have to pay so much in bribes, the authorities treat me like an ATM machine”.Yet he soldiers on, dishing out impeccable fare to tourists and training an army of Khmer youth to become first world waiters.The moral paradox of the situation can cause a mild case of Delhi Belly.
A little awareness of the modern day history of Cambodia gave me a better perspective of the place than just the magnificent sights, the impeccable hotels, the first rate NGO eateries would have done.In the same day that we spent feverishly bargain hunting for branded clothes in the markets of Phnom Pehn, I read of young women falling severally ill after eating dirt cheap food sold outside the garment factory gates because its the only food they could afford.
A visit to the Killing Fields with its gut wrenching memorial, piled high with skulls, bones and tattered clothes of Pol Pots genocide victims leaves one numb and the fact that probably worse things are happening in many places around the world makes one realize once again that we live in a Godless world.The Cambodians have traded the madness of Pol Pot with the thuggery of Hun Sen who has ruled Cambodia with a iron hand for thirty years now making him a member of the “10,000 day” club.The signs of crony capitalism and land grab are everywhere.The genocide museum which was a prison used for torture and execution is another haunting place.Along with the artifacts of torture the place is a vast gallery of the blown up photographs of innocent men and women who were tortured and killed in the name of creating an agrarian utopia.Looking at the pictures, my 5 year old asked “was Pol Pot like the British?”referring to what she had seen in the film Gandhi which includes a a devastating scene of the Jalianwala massacre. I had no words to reply.
In these places I stowed my camera away, photography, even though it was allowed and indeed many of my fellow travelers were clicking away furiously, just did not feel like the right thing to do. Historians tell us we are living in the most humane and compassionate of times.I believe we live in the most hypocritical of times.
Traveling today is an exercise in pinning flags on a Tripadvisor map which appears on Facebook, Tweets and Instagram moments.There is no time to pause and ponder over the privilege of being in a place so far away from our birthplace and witness the most painful and the most joyous moments of a people that we know little about and who will in future be a newspaper headline to us that we may gloss over in favor of the sports or entertainment page.
When I saw the face of an impossibly innocent looking child I asked my guide and upon his approval clicked pictures.I am the father of a five year old girl child and consider myself sensitive enough.And yet in my home country I become less sensitive and somewhat feudal.I accept poverty and squalor as a fact of life and consume the products of child labour.
Why do I say all this? Why this futile self introspection? I enjoyed my trip thoroughly in the most conventional of ways; sightseeing, shopping, massage, gastronomy all the elements of a typical “fab holiday” were present.But I allowed a bit of history and current politics to interfere with my pleasure.I kept thinking of Herzog and his disapproval of tourism as a sin. This was no way to escape being a sinner.But I took the baby step of being sensitive.