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There is a reason holidays in Cambodia are different to those you’d take in Western Europe, North America or Australia – holidays to places in the developed world. While it is possible to travel to Cambodia for a beach holiday in the recently added exclusive luxury five-star beach resort in Sihanoukville and entirely ignore the socio-economic problems Cambodia has been grappling with since the end of Pol Pot’s dictatorship, not doing so can have great benefits, not only for the traveller, but for the country and its people.
The umbrella term responsible tourism can cover many things and there are a fair few critics of some ‘helpful’ projects that fall under it. There are some projects offered by tour operators that direct first world people to build things or work in orphanages for short periods of time. Often, even if you haven’t signed up to take part in a project before you leave, someone will offer you the chance to visit an orphanage at some point on your way through the country. You’ll hear that this is beneficial for the children, in that you will bring cheer and entertainment for a day.
But there are many more voices saying a fleeting visit can actually be more damaging. Perhaps these children need sustained relationships with people who can nurture them the length of their young lives. There are many large charities who are responsible for the building of these orphanages in the first place and it has been suggested that perhaps orphanages are not the answer to the country’s child poverty crisis. It’s worth doing quite a bit of research that is as impartial as possible to try and establish what really is the best use of your time should you wish to help out while you’re there. Check that any project you wish to engage with is run by people with a deep knowledge of the culture and community, who are committed to helping them long term. Check that if you’re paying to get involved, you know where your money is going. Check also that you are being useful – that the project isn’t just letting you play so they can have your money – you feel like you’ve helped when really you’ve built a bench over a period of six weeks in a garden nobody uses, for example. If working with young or vulnerable people, ensure there are measures in place to protect your safety and theirs. Ask what volunteers have achieved in the past.
Perhaps the most beneficial thing you can do when in Cambodia is to teach, as English is something many people in the country wish to learn. Cambodia is a country pulling itself together, and while there are many people here who are impressively humble and wonderfully friendly in the face of everything that happened not so long ago, it is important to remember the genocide which left such a deep scar to gain a better understanding of the complex problems the country faces on its road to recovery.
Guest writer Sarah Wilkins loves to travel. Whether it’s hiking in the Scottish Highlands to exploring Australia’s Gold Coast, Sarah wants to see it all and hopes to spend a lifetime fulfilling her travel dreams.