10 Things NOT to do in Siem Reap, is intended to provide responsible and ethical travel advice for those visiting Cambodia. It is not aimed at local businesses, but rather simple, often innocent and naive mistakes visitors make when they are in town.
I’m a firm believer in ethical and responsible travel and tourism. However, we often naively and unknowingly break cultural rules or support unethical causes without even being aware of it. It’s understandable. With a little research and guidance, we can educate ourselves and become better tourists.
After living and working in Siem Reap for a number of years, I would like to share some of the more common mistakes tourists make when they are in town
1. Buy milk for street kids
When you first arrive in Siem Reap and take a stroll through the Pub Street & Old Market area, there’s a good chance you might see ragged-looking street youth, or a lady, carrying an exhausted child in a sling. Most people assume the infant is the person’s child or sibling.
This person will approach you very directly and say, “I don’t want money, I want milk”. The person usually has a baby bottle in her hand. Most people think, sure why not? It’s only a box of milk, what’s the harm? They will then direct you to a convenience store across the street and lead you to a section where the powdered baby formula is sold.
The powder they want you to buy is around 12 dollars, much more than the initial $1 box of milk you thought you were getting them. That said, 12 dollars to most foreigners isn’t too high a price when it is providing milk for a starving infant, so as your heart opens and you feel generous,you go to the counter and buy the milk and feel you’ve done a good deed helping some poor Cambodians.
Here’s what you don’t see after you both depart the store. The person for whom you just bought the milk goes to the back and stashes the powdered milk with all the others that were purchased that evening from unsuspecting tourists. Later on the milk is re-sold to the store and the cycle continues.
The infant doesn’t actually get the milk and in most cases the baby isn’t even a relative but rather rented from a careless mother. It’s an elaborate scam with many people involved, from the hustler, to the baby’s mother, to the street police, to the person who stashes the milk. Yes it sounds horrible and it is. So please don’t perpetuate the cycle by purchasing powdered milk from these people.
The biggest victim is the baby, so if people stop buying into the scam hopefully it will cease to exist one day.
2. Support orphanage tourism without first doing your homework
This is another mistake I made on my first trip to Cambodia as a first-time traveler. My friends and I saw a pamphlet in our guesthouse encouraging us to visit a local orphanage, so we decided to go. After living here and learning more about orphanage tourism, it’s not something that tourists should go into blindly.
Just because orphanage tourism is allowed in Cambodia, doesn’t mean it should be supported. Most foreigners would probably never be allowed to just walk in off the street in their own country and start playing with disadvantaged and vulnerable children, and for good reason, so why should people do it in Cambodia.
More and more research is being conducted on the instability caused and the negative impact this type of interaction has on the development of the children. Also, many of the centers in Cambodia that claim to be orphanages are not entirely that. Many of the children are being exploited and have parents or relatives and are used to perpetuate orphanage tourism.
By no means am I saying not to support orphanages, as there are many excellent organizations doing wonderful work in the country, but do your homework and proper research before committing to anything. This also applies to anybody interested in another growing trend, voluntourism. There are many means of supporting without visiting an orphanage, camera in hand.
Please remember to do your homework, there is plenty of information available online. Here’s a fair and constructive article written in the UK’s Telegraph on the issue. Orphanage tourism: help or hindrance?
3. Base the country on what you see at Pub Street or other major tourist areas
If you come to Siem Reap, please keep in mind that the scene at Pub Street and around the Old Market isn’t an accurate reflection of the country as a whole. These are high concentrated tourist areas, and in any culture or society, high levels of tourism change the dynamic of an area.
I am from Canada and if someone went to my country and only visited Niagara Falls, a city full of tacky wax museums, souvenir shops and casinos, they would have a misguided perception of such a beautiful country. I feel this happens when people come to Cambodia and only visit Siem Reap and the major tourist areas and attractions. These areas have a higher concentration of begging, pushy sales people, scams, noise and aren’t an accurate depiction of Cambodia as a whole.
When I’m out in the countryside, or a
way from the tourist areas of Siem Reap, very rarely does anybody ask me for anything other than to offer me their help and assistance. I spend most of my days touring the countryside and back roads, and people are always so kind and assist me if I’m lost or out of gasoline. With the tours we operate at Sabai Adventures this is the Cambodia I want people to see. We aim to show people another aspect of the country away from tourist zones. This is the Cambodia that I have come to know and love to share with others.
4. Buy rice for the school at the floating village, they just keep re-selling it
You might find yourself visiting a local floating village and as you cruise around the village, the boat driver or your guide might try and persuade you to stop and buy a bag of rice for the floating school or orphanage. This is another one of those situations, where the overpriced bag of rice you buy is re-sold over and over instead of going to the people you bought it for.
5. Come to Cambodia with a closed mind
As the saying goes, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” The culture and customs are most likely very different from where you call home. Embrace this, it is why we travel in the first place, to experience new places and open our eyes to the world. Remember, Cambodia is a very old culture with many traditional beliefs and customs that are still being practiced today.
The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge may have put Cambodia on the world stage, but their culture is thousands of years old. Just over 20 years ago there were very few visitors to the small Kingdom, and indeed, Cambodia was closed for many years due to fighting and instability. Pub Street only had a few shops and a single bar, but now, people are travelling from all over the world to visit Siem Reap .
Tourism is a relatively new concept here and many Cambodians have never been to other parts of Asia, America or Europe, so don’t expect things to be like home. Try not to get upset over minor inconveniences, because when you hear some of the incredible stories of the Cambodian people and their struggle and perseverance , you will appreciate even more the country and its citizens.
6. Enter a pagoda or a home wearing shoes or a hat
If you decide you want to check out the inside of a pagoda, please remember to take your hat and shoes off. Theraveda Buddhist monasteries are everywhere in Cambodia, especially in and around Siem Reap.
What I love about the monasteries in Siem Reap is how open and welcoming they are for people of all faiths. If you want to go inside and have a look, unless there is a special event going on at the time, you can ask permission and they will let you have a look around. Sometimes the monks can speak English well, especially those who live in city monasteries.
Most of the pagodas in Cambodia are wonderfully decorated with intricate paintings telling the stories of the Buddha’s life. Although not as old as the ancient temples, many of the pagodas can be quite old. The oldest one I know of has been in existence for over 600 years. I encourage you to visit a pagoda during your trip to Cambodia as they are a very important aspect of the culture, people and customs, please just remember to take off yourhat and shoes when entering the holy sites.
If you’d like to learn more about Buddhism in Cambodia and life in the monastery, we do this through the Sabai Culture tours.
7. Purchase wildlife or take artifacts from sacred sites
Please don’t purchase exotic animals from any market, or take stones or any artifacts from any of the archaeological sites. For more information regarding wildlife in Cambodia, visit the Angkor Center for Conservation and Biodiversity. They do great work in Cambodia protecting local wildlife and can provide expert knowledge on the matter.
8. Visit temples topless
You would think this is common sense and would not have to be included on this list, but there’s always someone every now and then who decides to go topless while visiting the temples. This usually applies to guys, but you never know. Please, don’t visit any of the temples or sacred sites topless.
Yes it does get very hot in Cambodia, especially during dry season, but remember it’s not the beach. You are visiting thousand year old holy Hindu and Buddhist sites, many of which are still used today for certain ceremonies and blessings. Please be respectful and keep a top on at the sites.
9. Lose your cool
Please keep your cool when you’re in Cambodia. Generally, in Cambodia when arguments arise and someone loses his/her temper, it’s a big losing face situation. Many locals will become embarrassed and uncomfortable if you get upset, as this is not socially acceptable in Cambodia. They may even smile out of awkwardness, which can make the situation more confusing.
10. Show too much public affection
Public displays of affection might be acceptable in other countries, but not in Cambodia. Cambodian people are very conservative and modest when it comes to public affection, so please restrain yourself when you are with your significant other.