36 Hours in Phnom Penh, and All You Do Is Dine?
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA- This week, the travel section of the New York Times featured 36 Hours in Phnom Penh, a city that I recently visited and wrote about. Odds are that there’s no one out there that have read both, but for anyone who has you might notice a stark difference in what we focused on. I wrote almost exclusively on Cambodia’s poverty and the tragedy that befell it in the 70’s, and the Times article focuses almost exclusively on the river cruises and dining at fancy restaurants. There is no mention whatsoever of making any effort to learn more about the Khmer Rouge regime or the devastating effects that it had on the country, which are evident everywhere you turn.
I’ve struggled at times with what to write about on this blog—should it be just personal experiences about what I’m thinking and feeling, or a day-to-day breakdown of where I’ve been and what I’ve done? Should it be for the benefit of a travel audience that wants to pursue the same kind of trip that I’m on, or should I just try to fill in friends and family back home on what I’m up to? I’ve settled on a weird middle-ground filled with long-winded essays that are probably boring to most, but which I enjoy writing even if I do need to learn to cut to the point a little bit quicker. Reading 36 Hours in Phnom Penh has made me glad that I pursued the route that I did, since “travel” writing of this kind is nothing more than a Food & Wine section on a different city. It offers the reader no insight whatsoever into what the place actually is like, and in this case if someone follows the agenda set forth by the Times for their day and a half trip to Cambodia, even the most seasoned of travelers inured to third-world destitution is going to be forcefully blindsided by naked children begging on the streets on their way to dinner at a French Bistro.
Traveling is well and good, but there are a number of layers to the experience. The first layer is the obvious aesthetic differences to a place, and your interest in this largely depends on how different it is from the environment you’re coming from. Do they drive on the other side of the road? Is the climate significantly hotter, muggier, windier, or wetter? Are there palm trees instead of maple trees? Is the ethnic composition of the populace much different from what you’re used to seeing? These are fairly basic facets of a city or place that are usually observed in the first day or night. The second layer is sampling all of the obvious cultural offerings—trying the food, walking around town on a Saturday evening and people-watching, taking a river cruise, going into a bookshop, learning how to say thank you…these are the obvious next steps when visiting a new place. Yet there is a third layer to the travel experience which is generally only applicable when you are not visiting a place for a holiday vacation, and that is making a real attempt to learn about the customs and culture of the people. Reading a book on the history or background of a country, seeking food stalls not frequented by tourists, trying to make local friends, and in general seeking to leave the place with a better understanding of how different people actually live. It’s this third layer that I’ve been fascinated by over the past year, and it’s also this third layer that the modern travel and tourism industry discourages since it’s almost impossible to package and monetize.
Walking down the streets of Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat, feels like you just stepped into Disney World. The streets are comfortably paved, well maintained, and even swept of all debris. There are fancy bars and restaurants catering to Western tourists, and clothing shops sprinkled in between. There are no poor children begging, and for once you don’t feel as if you are certainly going to be pick-pocketed. It’s comforting to be able to visit a World Heritage site and feel as if you’re safe, but in the same vein it is also a small cottage industry leeching off everyone’s desire to see Angkor Wat which completely fails to reflect in any way, shape, or form the life of an average Cambodian. I saw no evidence of paved roads within 200 miles of here. It’s a place the majority of them will never even have the opportunity to know existed, let alone visit. The tourism industry is for Westerners only, no exceptions, or at least anyone with money.
It irritates me to see that an publication as reputable as the Times is essentially promoting a weekend getaway to Phnom Penh, in order to dine at fine restaurants and drink fancy cocktails on the cheap. This completely misses the point of going to a place like Cambodia, which is to see how the other half lives. I am by no means advocating that anyone visiting should deprive themselves of first-world amenities just because the locals don’t have access to them, but it’s absurd to experience a place like Cambodia without the simple knowledge that the locals do not have access to the things that we have, and they will never have access to these things. Cambodia is not a playground for foreigners. There is a reason for this, and the evidence is wholly apparent when you drive around the country. Tourists visiting should know why.