Archive for June, 2011

Doing something useful

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Yesterday I wondered about ethical tourism. On the way back from Chong Kneas I cycled past the Acodo orphanage on the edge of Siem Reap. They do a nightly folk dance show. It’s free to watch but they’d appreciate a donation.

After dinner I cycled back for the show and it was very good. The orphanage houses 65 underprivileged/abandoned/vulnerable children aged from four years and upwards. It provides accommodation and food, sends the children to school and teaches them English language and traditional Khmer dance. The children plainly love to dance.

The paid staff are all Khmer but they are always in need of volunteers to help with teaching English and assisting with practical projects. I’ve arranged to do a photography workshop this weekend but there are three days before then for which I had no plans. So I offered to go and help for a few days.

One of the long term volunteers has a plan for the orphanage to make their own recycled paper and card. The children will write thank-you cards and letters to sponsors on their home made paper. Today I made some of the paper-making frames they’ll use. Half of the children go to an outside school in the morning, the other half go in the afternoon. During breaks between lessons some of them came and “helped” with the carpentry. While the younger ones were happy just hammering wood chips flat a couple of the older ones showed promise as future carpenters.

This evening a group of us staying at Happy Guesthouse decided to go out for dinner together. Shortly before we planned to leave the heavens opened. The rain was so heavy it soon overwhelmed the capacity of the drains and the driveway, dining and reception areas started to flood. The staff started trying to bail out the water with buckets and bowls, and pump it out with a petrol driven pump. The water level kept rising. Within about ten minutes there were three inches of water in the dining area, more in the driveway. So the guests joined in too. With over a dozen people helping out we managed to keep up with the rain. As it eased off after another quarter of an hour we got the upper hand and by the time it stopped there was only an inch of water left which the drains were able to cope with.

Useful twice in one day. Good stuff!

A few more guests decided to join the dinner expedition and the guesthouse provided free tuk-tuks to take us into town. We ate in the best value street cafe with the smiliest waitress on Pub Street. I’ll be eating there again tomorrow and I probably won’t be the only one.

And now, after the rain – the frog chorus. It’s hard to believe how noisy they are!

On yer bike

Monday, June 6th, 2011

I’ve been lazing around in Siem Reap for a couple of days. This morning before my bum put down roots again in a comfy chair I hopped on a bicycle, picked a direction and started cycling. The direction was south and after an hour or so I reached Chong Kneas at Tonle Sap lake. It’s a village of houses on stilts on the edge of the lake. At this time of year the lake is very low and the houses clear the water by a few metres. There are several floating school buildings which are currently below the level of the road. There’s no obvious explanation for why the schools are floating and the houses are built on stilts.

On the road past the schools there is a new construction which looks like a toll plaza or the entrance gates to a private community. It looks rather incongruous with the poor houses so I stopped to take another photo. A guy wearing a uniform proclaiming him to be a security guard appeared and launched into the usual pre-scam spiel.

“Hello. Where you going? Where you from? How long you in Cambodia?”

After exchanging a few pleasantries he told me I could buy a ticket there to take a boat to one of the floating villages. I wasn’t interested in a boat ride, I planned just to cycle down the road a bit further and see what I found. So I said goodbye and continued on my way – for about 50 metres until another “security guard” jumped into the road and tried to charge me an “admission fee”. He wanted two dollars. For cycling down the road? On yer bike! He had about as much chance of getting it as the monk who wanted me to donate him my Kindle or the guy who wanted 20,000 kip to cross the bridge between Don Dhet and Don Khong.

I dodged round him and carried on down the road. But it got me thinking again about ethical tourism. In my previous life two dollars was neither here nor there. Now it’s about five percent of my daily budget. Five percent here, five percent there quickly adds up. It’s probably  as much as his daily wage. But would he spend it in the village? He was the best dressed person I saw all morning and didn’t look like he would. Spending the money myself in the village would surely be more beneficial.

The road quickly turned from tarmac to dirt and the houses became much poorer, simple one room wooden or bamboo and straw shacks. No mains electricity. A generator charges car batteries during the day. Water is pumped from wells by hand. At least they’re not (all) drinking directly from the lake. The water looks a long way from clean although they take 400,000 tonnes of fish from the lake annually. My thoughts turned to photography. This is where the ethics really kicks in. Photos with people are often more interesting than those without. But how exploitative is it when I shoot photos of the locals? I’m not planning to sell the photos. More interesting photos might persuade more people to click through to my albums on Flickr or on facebook though. Is that exploitation? Is it more or less so if I ask their permission first (there go the candids, hello portraits)? I want to share the places and things I’m seeing with friends and anyone else who’s interested and I want mementos for myself. Should I offer everyone a dollar for taking their photo? I’d be broke before lunchtime.

What about photos of children versus adults? The kids running around in the street remind me of those in Laos; smiley and happy and so innocent. Cute and inquisitive. These ones are not out on the streets of Phnom Penh in the evening, or around the Angkor Wat temples, sent out by their parents to sell books or bracelets or tat for a dollar. Lots of them are running around naked. Now there’s another complication. Especially in a part of the world where middle aged men often are, or are often seen as sex tourists.

I mostly avoid the issues and don’t take people shots. If you want to see and know the people come here yourself. If you’re happy to just see some of the places my photos are at Flickr.

A slightly chilled coke and a bag of crisps cost two dollars at one of the shack-front stalls. After a couple hundred more metres the dirt road shrunk to a very bumpy footpath. Seven kilometres to the next village. On a bike with no gel saddle and no suspension? No thanks. It was time to head home.