Sustainable Travel in Cambodia

Sustainable Travel in Cambodia

Curiosity leads wanderlust travellers to search for all kinds of new experiences, in all parts of the world. To see other people, other cultures, and other political systems, and to understand the world we live in, are large motivational factors for international travels. On a global scale, tourism is worth trillions of dollars, and recent studies have shown that it is (in part) responsible for the loss of culture in the social community and environmental damages in regions. Many people speak of ‘green travel’, or ‘sustainable travel’, but what is the practical application for international travellers? What should we do to reduce our footprint and keep damages to a minimum?

To me, ‘green travel’, or ‘sustainable travel’, is about making smart and informed decisions through thorough research to minimise the negative impacts of travel on the environment, economy, and culture. That means, as a traveller, you must make a conscious effort to be respectful to the country’s local, culture, custom, their way of life and their environment so that future generations can continue to enjoy the same exciting travel experience you’ve enjoyed.

So, what does that entails? What are these problems you’re speaking of? 

While I love to travel as a way to connect with new people, new culture, and just letting those knowledge enrich my life,  I also recognise that it can have negative effects on the world, and the places we travel. I will tell you why I feel this way using Cambodia as an example.

For the international travellers, Cambodia has two unique selling points; our ancient history, and our recent history. Understandably, these attractions are two completely different types of experiences. For those interested in the ancient history, they traverse the temples of the old Angkor Empire found north of Siem Reap, and smaller temples spread throughout different parts of the country. For others, Cambodia’s recent history has become a subject of their attraction. The genocide caused by the Khmer Rouge has left a number of devastating evidence in Cambodia’s landscape, and its social and economic environment.

Cambodia has undoubtedly come a very long way from our shadowed past. The smiling faces that welcome tourists demonstrate our resilience and optimism –we are grateful for a future. But the scars remain. Undiscovered landmines continue to injure or kill over 200 people each year. The knowledge gap, caused by the genocide of our most educated elites makes the rebuilding process an overwhelming task. As the school system was almost completely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 70’s, a generation has grown up without basic knowledge, and the lack of highly educated people among the population is a significant problem.

These are issues that Cambodians live with every day. And, as a tourist to Cambodia, you are intricately a part of this complex ‘equation‘, and your actions, big or small, can have large, everlasting effect on Cambodia’s fragile growth. Therefore, putting yourself into this complex equation, your actions, your behaviours can never be neutral. Introducing foreign ideologies and way of life into a society that have been relatively isolated can, and will lead to changes in attitudes, values and behavioursmerely through observing tourists.

During recent years a new selling point has emerged for Cambodian tourism; Sihanoukville. The quiet coastal town has turned itself into a tourist destination. It offers something different compared to the unique heritage selling points I’ve mentioned above; a party lifestyle. The first time I went to Sihanoukville, or what we usually call Kompong Som, there were roughly 10 guesthouses on the beach, and electricity ran only after 7 pm. My family and I spent most of our days eating seafood, and lazily passing drinks and conversations, once in awhile interacting and playing with the locals. It was the party I was looking for. The pleasure I was pursuing and dreaming about while studying; my parents smiling happily while conversing with the family she haven’t seen for 10 years, travellers and backpackers spending their evenings spinning poi, swapping travel stories by candlelight. We drank –a lot, and I remembered dancing to the wee hours of the morning, un-bothered.

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When I went again, recently, I noticed many changes. Before I would roughly see 10 to 20 tourists strolling around, now I see tourists everywhere I look. While the majority of people passing through were still conscientious, there were a lot more bikini clad women (considered highly scandalous to the still very conservative Cambodian locals), and stumbling half-naked men than before. Now, there were Full Moon Parties, and with them, came bucket drinkers, and obnoxious “throw your hands up in the air” anthems.  A couple of gentlemen came into a bar asking for MDMA (like it’s the most normal thing in the world), and a fight broke out nearby nearly causing a fire to one of the local business. Although some came to pursue pleasure, it didn’t take me long to realise that the majority came to Sihanoukville to get F*ked Up.

This was not the Sihanoukville of my memory; not the Sihanoukville I want to enjoy with my family. We didn’t stay long this time and left the next day. You must have heard it a lot, and you may have rolled your eyes at those people who complains and say “things have changed, it’s not like it used to be”, well, I just recently turned into one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, Sihanoukville is still a paradise. You can still have long meaningful walks on long stretches of beach. You can still play and form real connections with the locals (you might even be invited to eat authentic home cook Cambodian food), eat some of the best seafood, and meet some of the most interesting and honest travellers —if you venture from the western side of the pier away from the fist pumping, drug infused party. I will not say, ‘please boycott Sihanoukville, so that it can go back to what it once was’, but I will say this. Sihanoukville is magical, but it is changing. And hopefully, the magic doesn’t burn out before the next generation can enjoy it. 

So, when travelling, make sure your holiday has a positive impact on the local community, environment, and culture. Please travel responsibility, so that the next generation could have the same ‘magical‘ experience you’ve had. Below are some practical tips on sustainable travel in Cambodia. 

Cambodia Sustainable Travel Tips:
Know Before You Go

Over a third of the people connected with sex tourism in Cambodia are under 18. However, tourism and tourists themselves can reduce this number and create a huge impact by encouraging vigilance within Cambodia, to stamp out sexual exploitation of children. Create an impact by using hotels certified by ChildSafe. They will not allow tourists to bring local children into the hotel and will report anyone seen with a local child. Read these very useful lists of tips for travellers on how to spot unethical/illegal behaviour. 

The massive Angkor Wat floats on sandy earth, held in place by groundwater, but these water is now being pumped rapidly out of the ground to support the millions of visitors who arrive each year. The ancient Angkor Wat temples may soon crack, crumble or sink into the sand in the near futures if illegal pumps and wells that drain the water far beyond its capacity don’t decline. For further information, read here

What you can do: Siem Reap’s water insecurity is a direct result of tourism. As a tourist, you can make an impact by choosing only to stay in hotels with an active water policy, and sustainable practices. If you’re not sure, give the guesthouse a call, to inquire. Let them know that you want to support the local economy, environment, and culture, and ask whether those are things they incorporate into their philosophy. It’s usually evident whether a company is trying to look good with marketing tactics, or whether they really share a commitment to sustainability —look around for signs about their water and energy policy. Don’t book your stay if they have swimming pools, make use of Cambodia’s beautiful natural resources by visiting their beaches instead. Reuse your towels and sheets, and take short showers. 

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Never give money to begging children, or buy trinkets or booklets sold by children. These children may be working for organised gangs, and forced to beg. Families may also be encouraged to take their children out of school in order for them to make money on the streets. If you want to make an impact and help these children, look instead into local organisations who are working with street children, and donate to those.

Ensure your spending is going towards the community, opt for local products and produce that support local people. In Cambodia, this is especially important. There has been an influx of large, foreign investors drawing up plans to construct huge resorts, casinos and golf courses in major tourist locations such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville. Due to government corruption, lands are not sold to the most ethical investors. Not only does these new facilities creates unsustainable pressure upon natural resources such as water, many local communities have been illegally evicted from their land without adequate notices, and compensation. So, don’t travel across the globe just to swim in a pool, or play a round of golf, because, at the end of the day, none of the money spent there will contribute to the local community, or environment. So please support the local guesthouses and restaurants.

Be careful of fake orphanages in Cambodia targeting tourists for cash. With the increase in mass tourism, the number of orphanages in Cambodia has grown by 65% since 2005. Some of these institutions parade kids through tourist restaurants soliciting donations and volunteers. Kids should be in school, either studying, playing or sleeping, so any orphanage that turns kids into walking advertisements does not prioritise the well-being of children. Organisations like ConCERT can help you identify legitimate organisations in need of your donations, volunteer time and business. Some other reputable NGOs include The Life and Hope Association, Sustainable Cambodia and Childsafe.

Cambodia is still a deeply religious and conservative society, especially in the remote countryside area; tank tops, short shorts or short skirts should not be worn. Dress modestly in temples –knees and upper arms should remain covered, and you should remove your shoes before entering a temple. If you decide to wear shorts, it’s a good idea to carry a sarong or light scarf around to cover up at short notice. Even If you’re bathing in waterfalls and lakes in isolated areas, wear a t-shirt over your bikini. Khmer women still wear traditional, full-length sarongs when swimming. In bars and nightclubs it may be different, but in the countryside, Cambodians are still very conservative. The best thing to do is look around – if you’re under-dressed, you’ll know it.

In Cambodia, the head is the “highest” and most revered part of the body, so never touch anyone’s head. Conversely, the feet are the lowest, so do not point your feet at someone’s head, or religious monuments and statues, it is very offensive.

Never touch a monk. When making an offering, or giving alms, do not let your spoon touch the sides of the baat (monk bowl).

Conserve Cambodia’s rich archaeological history; never touch carvings or bas-reliefs, and do not purchase historical artefacts.

Never take photograph without permission. Although this could be said for many situations, it is especially important here. Spend time with the Khmer locals, make a conscious effort to understand their way of life; respect their culture and religious beliefs, even if they are different from your own. When people warm up, their smiles are brilliant, and your pictures naturally become that much more amazing.

Cambodia is having to rapidly adapt to the amounts of waste generated by population growth, modernization, and the continuously growing tourism industry so, garbage bins are limited. Keep hold of rubbish until you find somewhere suitable to dispose of it. Use re-useable grocery bags, and avoid collecting plastic bags. There is no safe way to dispose of batteries in Cambodia, so take them back home with you.

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Remember to tip! Keep U.S. dollar bills in small denomination to support staff, guides, and drivers.  Many people come to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh to make a living for their family in the countryside, and usually only makes $20-$30 dollars per month. 

Do you practice sustainable travel during your travel adventures? If so, what are some of those practices? 

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Summary
Sustainable Travel in Cambodia
Article Name
Sustainable Travel in Cambodia
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Sustainable Travel in Cambodia. What is the practical application of sustainable travel for international travellers? What should we do to reduce our footprint?
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A Travel Diary
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36 Comments

  1. Thank you for your insightful perspective! I’ve always thought Cambodia was such an intriguing place both for it’s history and landscape, and I agree it’s so important to have a deeper grasp on how the history affects modern day culture, and how to be mindful of this a traveler.

    I hope Cambodia retains it’s richness and is not completely overrun by tourists! What a beautiful country.

  2. Irresponsible unbrindled tourism is the bane of the modern world. Thank you for this well informed post on how to indulge in ethical tourism

  3. Great read about understanding our impact as travellers. Cultural respect is very important.

  4. Visiting Asia has been the top of my travel list for a while now and you’ve really sold Cambodia to me 🙂 Thanks for a great post! I’ve learned a lot!

  5. Lovely post, I made a trip through SE Asia last year and was so bummed to not be able to fit Cambodia into my plans. Its is one of the places I still need to travel to!

  6. Your pictures in this post are gorgeous!! And I just stalked through your entire photography and recipe categories, and I’m obsessed! I loved this article! Sustainable travel isn’t just a “fad” anymore! It’s becoming so important in the travel industry now that travel is becoming more and more popular/accessible to people. But, that unfortunately means that not all travelers are conscious of what travel can do to an area. Great tips for sustainable travel in Cambodia as well as providing a great discussion topic in the world of travel

  7. Amazing post! These tips are so important and ones people probably never think about. Thank you so much for sharing!

  8. This is really useful info! It seems a shame about the sex trade but good to know there are verified ChildSafe hotels – I would never have known to check that. Being sustainable when travelling is so important but I worry not enough of us talk about that. Thanks for reminding us just how important it is though!

  9. Great post, really takes me back to when I went to Cambodia, it was a few years ago so I am sure things will have changed. Really like your tips too, very useful and I guess some of them can apply to many countries so very thought provoking.

  10. A hugely informative post! Thank you for sharing. I haven’t been to Cambodia, but I’d like to in the future and these tips will surely be useful.

  11. Some super interesting points in your post! Didn’t know any of these but I will definitely come back to this if I ever book a flight to Cambodia!

  12. This is an amazing post! I didn’t know a lot of these before going to Cambodia, and learning all about the Khmer Rouge + other history was harrowing. It’s definitely an interesting country to see, but these tips are essential for sustainability!

  13. I never went to Asia so thank you for the informations and tricks

  14. I love this post!! Tourism waste and unsustainable travelling are some serious issues, and it is good you paid attention to it. I love the sign; Please leave nothing but your steps..

  15. This is a really good article. So much of it can be cross-applied elsewhere in the region. Unfortunately the capitalism-driven, competitive tourism industry does result in accelerated erosion of local culture and resources.

    Where communities are more cohesive and united like on atoll islands in the Maldives, they seem better able to insist on respect for local rules. I admire that about them: “If you want to stay on our local islands where it would be more affordable as the people basically are hosting you, then please respect our ways. If you don’t want to have to be mindful of that, here’s the price tag for a resort island. Either way you’ll have a great time.”

  16. This is such a wonderful post. As travellers I feel we all need to take action and begin travelling as responsibly as we can. I had no idea about Angkor Wat… it would be such a shame to lose such a spectacular monument!

  17. This is a really great post and you mention so much important issues that I can say are valid all over south east asia. I’ve seen many beautiful villages being destroyed by young backpackers in a partyt mood unaware of local custims and dress code, let alone they think about their impact on the environment. I like your suggestions as well. I was in Cambodia and didn’t know for example about the water issues in Angkor Wat. If I did I would have for sure asked my hostel about this (my hostel did indeed have a pool). Everyone visiting Cambodia/South East Asia should read this.

  18. I am absolutely in love with this post. I am currently doing a seties on my webaite about my experiences in Cambodia. I was there studying abroad with a group of students and a professor who has been leading the trip with the help of locals for many years. It was seriously such a life changing experience. I was wondering if you would be okay with me adding this post to my favorites (Not yet live on my site) or if I could link it in a post or newsletter. This post really resonates with me and goes more in depth on a couple ideas that I mention briefly in my posts and would love to give my readers a source for more detailed information. Again, love this post, very good information! My site is http://www.jihielephant.com if you would like to check it out.

    1. Thank you. It’s always great to hear people reaching out to a community and learning their lifestyle, language and culture. That experience abroad must have been a very enriching and thought-provoking. The first time I travel, I felt like I came home with someone else’s eyes. Everything seems so different that I had to isolate myself for a couple of days just to reshape my thoughts and feelings. Anyways, thanks for liking this post so much. You can add it to your favourite or link it in a post. Just send me a link so I can check it out also.

      1. Absolutely! Thanks!

  19. This is beautifully written. You’ve given so much valuable information on such an important topic. Thank you for sharing! Cambodia looks like a beautiful country 🙂

  20. This is wonderfully written and highlights perfectly the changes in Cambodia. I first visited 9 years ago and it has changed so much since then. I completely relate to what you were saying about Sihanoukville, nowadays if I go that way I head straight out to one of the un-touristy Islands or a more deserted stretch of beach nearby. Travellers really do need to be more aware of how to travel without impacting the places that are hosting them.

  21. I think that is a fabulous post. So important to travel sustainably and know about how to protect the places you travel in so that we can preserve them for future generations. Oxoxo.

  22. I guess what has happened to you at Sihanoukville and the changes you find at Angor Wat can be seen around the world especially in places that are hot travel zones promoted by bloggers or World Heritage Sites.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think tourists should be definitely be conscious of their surroundings and their impact on both social and environmental areas. But I also feel that it is the responsibility of the locals there to preserve their heritage. For example, the Taj Mahal is a hot spot, yet the locals of Agra and the Indian government regulate the area so as to not allow it to be totally ruined by tourists (international or Local) alike.
    Perhaps, organizations like the World Heritage or other historical conservationists should work together with the locals

    1. It’s true, the ministry of tourism has the largest affect on tourism and their management have the largest impact, negative or positive. But in life, I think everything is interrelated, and although our efforts may be just a small piece of the pie, it’s still a piece. What we put our heart and energy into, it will eventually create an effect.

  23. Sustainable travel is SO important. I really enjoyed reading this guide, and the photos are lovely!

  24. cambodia seems like such an exotic place to visit and the tips you’ve shared are more comprehensible than any travel blog i’ve seen. thanks for an awesome post!

  25. I’m trying to be a more sustainable traveler, and this is such a helpful guide! I had no idea that Angkor Wat might be crumbling soon, thanks for bring all this important information to my attention!

  26. Sustainable travel should be applied elsewhere too. A lot of the Caribbean destinations have the same issues.

    1. I completely agree. We should practice sustainability everywhere we choose to travel.

  27. There are definitely good points made in this post. The sustainable travel should be brought up more into our attention and this article serves as a great reminder, so thank you for that!

    Sabina | I’ve Got Sunshine

  28. Thank you so much for focusing on this aspect of tourism. Sometimes, we are unaware of the damage we do when we travel, it’s good to have a reminder to be respectful and sustainable.

  29. Sustainable tourism is such an important topic that doesn’t receive enough attention. Thanks for sharing some of Cambodia’s culture and tips for traveling there. I would never have known not to give children money or to not touch others’ heads! Research is definitely a future traveler’s best friend!

  30. Great post! The photographs are STUNNING! Thank you for sharing your experiences, made me want to visit Cambodia. 🙂

  31. Pretty alarming:)..good to know..I am sure traveling is enriching your experiences…it did for me too…enjoy!

  32. Wow, great post! I have no idea where Cambodia is and frankly speaking I didn’t know anything about that country before reading your post! So it was very interesting to learn so much about this exotic country!
    https://altealeszczynska.blogspot.com

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