I’m sitting in a restaurant on a river that flows into the Tonle Sap lake eating pringles and drinking coke and I’m cross. I just opted not to pay $5 for a trip in a little boat into a mango grove in favour of waiting here for an hour. I didn’t bring my book – kindle – because it said it was going to rain, and IMO, the less damp tech the better. Hence the pringles and coke.
It is actually raining.
The ‘on’ is literal, by the way: the restaurant is on stilts in the river. I’m in the village of Kompong Pluck, one of Cambodia’s floating villages. I came with an outfit called Bluebird tours (not that they’re any better or any worse than any other tour company offering these trips). And yes, I should have known better.
There are about 28 people on my particular boat. We’re one boat of about umpteen billion, it feels like, but even without exaggeration the numbers must be heading well past 50. The village is home to around 800 families who live off the lake and make their living off the lake: from fishing and from tourism. In front of me, alongside the restaurant is a crocodile pen full of small crocs. Somewhere in another universe those crocs are a part of a revenge narrative against the tourists who come here. Especially for the ones who right now are climbing on the roof of their pen taking photos of them. There’s at least one tourist per family. Imagine if each family had a crocodile…
And yes, I should have known better.
A sizeable chunk of my group are cross because the tour company didn’t say it would be an extra $5 for the small boat through the mangoes. Some paid it and went anyway, rather than sit around. I nearly did. As giving the people my custom goes I’m not sure if boat trips or globally recognised food stuff comes out ahead. I’m dry and not hungry, though. And I’ve enabled my cross-ness about the whole trip to be funneled into self-righteousness and cross-ness about the extra charge.
And yes, I should have known better.
It’s an ‘eco-tourism project’ they say. Well that’s as may be. I have no idea what the money goes towards and far be it for me to decry villagers making money off the bajillion people who want to come and see how they live. If capitalism’s going to capitalise, you might as well try and get a bit. But I’m not sure how 50+ boats churning gasoline bringing around 1000 people a day (with their tours often giving them their own plastic water bottles) is eco. I might have felt better doing it solo, except, no I wouldn’t, I’d have had the same experience in the village plus paying a tuk-tuk driver $20. More people would have benefitted from my poor decision-making, I suppose.
I felt my desire to see something different and take some photos and allowed it to let me conveniently overlooked everything I know about how to visit people and places well. It’s like Pub Street, the heaving heart of Siem Reap’s tourism, but in people’s homes. I’m not saying there couldn’t be a way to enable people see these villages well. But this isn’t it.
I didn’t think it would be picturesque, I didn’t even really kid myself that $20 to an eco-tourism project would change a corner of the world, but I also didn’t think about how much I would hate the experience and myself for putting me through it.
Over here the past few years I’ve had the privilege of seeing places off the tourist tracks, or on the shadier side of the tracks. Of meeting the people who live their lives in these places, listening to them, learning from them, often being fed and watered by them. The difference between that joy and this is a chasm. It’s a bit like looking into the abyss, only it’s just you looking back.
So I’m cross with the tour company, cross with the system, cross with everyone else on this damn boat. But mostly, I’m cross with me.
And yes, I should have known better. Asked more questions. Chosen differently. Next time I get the choice, I promise…