Sunday, January 23, 2011

Our Ethical Travel Guide

Typical Taxi in Cambodia, the Tuk Tuk
We booked a hotel room in Siem Reap advance online. Normally this is not the way that we approach our destination. We usually have a system that we have perfected over many years of travel. Patrick “guards” the backpacks; while Julane checks out the hotels in a pre-chosen area where hotels are plentiful and convenient. Usually Patrick’s place of refuge will be a café/restaurant where he enjoys a coffee, cold drink or beer depending on the time of the day and the country. Julane likes to compare hotel room and perhaps should write a travel guide after her extensive experience in bed softness inspection, cleanliness, etc. There are multiple benefits to this approach as it ensures a nicer room, and both people are not exhausted afterwards from carrying the full backpacks around; also Julane doesn’t attract touts as she appears to be “living” in the new place already.

Touts are especially numerous in the poorer countries. You’ve already heard about them in the Poipet border crossing on our recent blog entry, and also in the Jambi update from ten years ago. They try to bring you to shops, private transport, hotels, etc., for a commission. Touts come in all shapes and sizes. They can appear to befriend you to help you out or to show you something special…all the while trying to glean what you are interested in buying. Or they can be “art students” who want to show you their work in a gallery. The list is endless!

The most notorious are the transport “wallahs” who you often need when you arrive to a new place as the bus terminals are often outside of town. They will tell you that your hotel burned down, or closed, or is infested with insects, or….and then suggest another hotel. The solution is to insist to go to your burnt-down hotel. This translation of this charade is that your hotel doesn’t pay a commission! Also don’t let any straggler tout follow you into a hotel as it will make you appear to have arrived at their recommendation. Well, this said, it’s not always this way, but a bit of awareness never hurts. Knowledge is power.

So now back to our arrival in Siem Reap. We arrive at the bank of Tonle Sap Lake after a 8 hour boat trip that is truly a highlight experience. Then, as informed at our hotel, there is a driver bearing a paper with our name on it who brings us to his tuk tuk (motorbike transport with attached two wheeled passenger trolley). WOW! That was efficiency beyond expectation. When we booked this river trip through our hotel, we were informed that the transfer into town was included in the trip price. There were about a dozen tuk tuks waiting to take the entire passenger group into Siem Reap. We loaded our luggage and nestled in for our ride, when the driver says: “$4.” Humm.. The manager of our hotel explicitly told us that it was free. So I ask the Organiser, who originally shuffled all of us out of the boat and spoke good English, if there was a mistake. He said, “If you go to one of our hotels, then free transfer.” Aha…kickback. I insist that we paid already and finally tell him that the driver will get a tip but not the transport fare. (After all, I read that if you want to make this trip for a sightseeing trip it should cost about $4 round trip from Siem Reap. Now you might think this is such an insignificant amount of money to bother with; but in actuality, in Cambodia it represents 2 day’s wage. We read that a train guard in Battambang makes 27 Singapore dollars ($20USD) for a month’s work.

One of many street vendors
I often discover that tourists arrive in a country and don’t take the time to do a bit of homework in advance about the country. They often know where they want to go or where they will stay or have booked everything in advance but have not done any research about the country and its citizens. On arrival, they tend to compare everything to their own country…. “Oh, this is soooo cheap!!”  and then act accordingly tossing money about as if it were bubble gum wrappers.

It is very important to be a responsible tourist in an ethical way not just being polite and smiling but also not “disturbing” the environment that they visit. One should stop thinking in dollars or Euro when you arrive in a new country. Ask certain questions to the hotel staff, like: “How much do you pay for a haircut here?” Compare that figure, instead to your own country’s cost. Would a local pay 3 day’s salary for a haircut? Would you?
For many of us western folks it may truly be cheap. But if you pay prices 3-4 times the normal local rate, and then exclaim in disbelief to your travel partner “Everything is so cheap here”, how do you think the locals will react? They will give you a big smile and charge the next tourist double. Before you know it, we will all become a walking ATM machine (which sadly has happened to many places in the world already).

Often, we will get questions from locals like: “How much costs your watch or shoes or wife? (Joking, about the wife part…with the exception of North Africa, when Julane was much younger then!!!) A good reply is, “to buy my watch, I need to work one week; or my hiking boots take ½ week of work.”

Cambodia is very poor (one of poorest countries in Asia), and many western people never see beyond the fancy hotels, restaurants and VIP tour buses that surround Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. If you read our previous Blog entry you could see some pictures of a more typical Cambodian lifestyle. This is why it’s so important to look beyond the facades of the tourist world.
Since Siem Reap is such a tourist mecca, there is a lot of ignorant tourists floating about. Most people want to do the right thing and help the locals that they encounter. Let us try and make another comparison: to rent a bicycle for a day, costs $1 USD. 
"Sales Lady" with Postcards,
Shouldn't She be School Instead
So when a cute little girl spends her entire day hanging around a temple selling simple wooden-bead bracelets for a dollar instead of going to school, who is responsible for this? $2 is an average day’s salary (gross national income per capita from 2008 is $660 USD) for a family breadwinner. So if this young girl goes to school, then she is no longer supporting her family. Should a little girl be “working” instead of going to school? Wouldn’t it be better to give a school child the money instead so they can continue attending class?

Found a Buyer!
For every baseball cap or t-shirt that a tourist buys from a child, they create a lifetime of child labor employment. This job is not like the young apprentice learning the boat trade from his dad on our river boat trip. Instead, it ensures that the child will grow up without an education.

That said, leaving a tip for someone who has done an excellent job for you or provided some kind of service is appropriate. Buying from people who seem to give a fair price as opposed to bargaining with someone who starts with some ludicrous amount will reward honesty and support people who deserve it. We also like to patronize local family-run establishments whenever possible. The money then goes directly into their pockets as opposed to enriching an already wealthy family or corporation. And these family run business owners are working in their establishment each and every night for long hours.

Generation of Sales Women
Another point that is often not realized by tourists, which thankfully the film “Slumdog Millionaire” made viewers aware of, is that there are “pimps” who run horrible mafias with child beggars or maimed victims or even women holding young infants. They collect the money afterward from their people (indentured servants) and watch and inspect them carefully throughout their work day. The handicapped beggars are often maimed as a child to ensure their lifetime participation and dependency to the pimp supporter. The money “donated” to them ensures this system continues. The best solution is to give food.
Rewarding workers is one of our staunch beliefs. It values effort. We try to give our clothes away as we travel along. On shorter trips to third world countries, we bring extra clothing items with us. In the Philippines, we brought men’s clothing and shoes with us. I asked the Western owner of our dive shop if he could find any villagers who might be able to use the items. He happily said that one young man was getting married soon and could really use them. (Little did he know that we included a pair of Bally dress shoes inside our bundle which only needed some minor heel work. They can fix everything in these countries. Alter. tailor, restore, copy…)

Sweeper at Angkor Wat,
Could she have been selling
Postcards when she was a
cute little girl?
In Siem Reap, I noticed people collecting carton/cardboard and plastic bottles. We consumed so much water during our stay, that we were buying the 6 liter jugs of mineral water every couple of days. So, once I had a nice bag full, I would give it to the first person that saw along the way. I discovered later that they make 400 riel (10 cents) for a kilo. These are also the people that we look for our donate clothes especially the porters carrying loads of goods who are wearing old and tattered clothes.

In Cambodia, we also like to go to cafés that are setup by the numerous NGO’s to support the disadvantaged. We found blind massage parlors everywhere (which tonight we intend to utilize!!!). There are shops that sell goods made by handicapped locals (often land mine victims). Or boutiques helping women in remote villages to sell their traditional hand woven silk as an income earning source so that families don’t need to move to cities to find work. There are also NGO’s that train the youth or impaired in various practical skills such as food service, or teach them to make sellable handicrafts (often made from clever recyclable materials!) and offering them employment to utilize their newly acquired skills afterward. Right now we are at a café run by mostly deaf people which also supports the theatre arts for the physically impaired:

I can’t measure what our “ethical footprint” is, as we travel about, but we try to be aware and conscientious. It’s our small effort to be good travelers.