Responsible travel and suggestions for Siem Reap

I visited Siem Reap in Cambodia with my family in December last year, which makes this post a little overdue (as with my blogging in general), but the experience made me think more about the way I consume products, something I’d like to consider regularly on this blog. As such, I thought I’d start with looking at responsible tourism in light of my trip to Cambodia.

Responsible tourism means tourism that, ideally, benefits the environment, economy and people of the place you are visiting, as well as raises awareness of local issues and improves the quality of travel for those visiting, such as through engaging with local cultures or providing better access to services, for example wheelchair accessibility. Thus, there are a lot of different components to responsible tourism. (Read the definition created during the World Summit on Sustainable Development here.) A community might focus on sustaining the local ecosystems, creating jobs for local artists, or it might not be a focus at all. Travelling responsibly can be complex and depends on your destination and, as is too common with ethical consumerism, finances, but there are things you can do as a traveller to reduce your footprint and improve your appreciation of your destination, wherever that may be.

Most people I know go to Cambodia for mission or volunteer trips, but my family had chosen it as a holiday destination as my parents had long wanted to have a family Christmas overseas but, on a budget and all having been to Bali (except me), we decided to explore other locations. My sister took on the travel planning and eventually settled on Cambodia after finding a good deal on accommodation. Aware of the significant number of people I knew who went there to help with teaching, building and other projects, but wanting to spend the time holidaying with my family, I decided to pay attention to being a responsible traveller.

Tourism is an increasing contributor to income in Cambodia, particularly in Siem Reap and other major cities, and I would recommend a holiday there. Siem Reap is also a busy city full of tourists and locals zigzagging through the markets and the streets, so while there were opportunities for responsible tourism, in the moment it could be overwhelming to stop and think about how you were affecting the local economy, a characteristic shared by many a city. Therefore, I’m going to give you a few suggestions for how to tackle what can be a daunting prospect when you just want to hit your holiday town and relax, or have a million things planned already.

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Above: Pub Street in Siem Reap decorated for Christmas

5 tips for responsible tourism:

1- Don’t assume that being a tourist will do more harm than good.

If you’re planning to four wheel drive through protected rainforest and dump the left over petrol then, yeah, probably, but if you’re questioning whether tourists might be more of a burden on a developing country, have a look into the local tourism opportunities. As with Siem Reap, tourism is important to many local economies and a bit of forethought could mean you put you support a developing economy and learn about the local culture.

2- Do your research.

Not a glamorous part of holidaying, but if you’re looking up hotel prices, why not also check out how eco friendly they are? If you want to do some shopping, find out where the local markets are. I know it’s not always possible to choose the best, most ethically responsible organisations, especially on a budget, but a few choices ahead of time could make a difference. Look up travel blogs and local organisations to get recommendations. For instance, Grantourismo’s guide to ethical travel in Cambodia.

3- Ask for recommendations.

You might not be going to a well-travelled location, but there’s a chance someone you know went there, so it’s worth asking around for ideas. Most of the suggestions I got were from people who had visited Siem Reap, plus the hotel reception had recommended companies.

4- Engage with the local culture.

I find small tour companies best for that. Travelling Europe with a large tour company meant I got to experience the local culture in terms of popular food and tourist sights, but not what life was actually like for locals, an aim of responsible tourism. Likewise, it can be hard to know where to start on your own, so a bit of guidance is always helpful.

5- Don’t stress.

It can be hard to find the balance between having your dream holiday and travelling ethically. While I like to think I could do both completely, responsible travel does involve a lot of choices, so do what you can and consider how to be respectful of the local culture; that will influence your decision making and at least show consideration for the people you interact with.

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Above: Angkor Wat at sunrise

Some Siem Reap suggestions:

  • Use a local guide for Angkor Wat- it’s a beautiful place you could just wander around, but there’s so much history it would be a shame to miss out.
  • Don’t try elephant riding, unless maybe you are at a zoo or somewhere you are assured that the animals are well treated (even then, there is a question of whether they should be ridden).
  • Visit the local markets. For a less hectic version of the markets in the centre of Siem Reap, I recommend the Art Centre Night Markets.
  • Don’t visit an orphanage. Again, up for debate, but I agree with the opinion that you shouldn’t volunteer for only a day or two, as it’s pretty disruptive for children, especially if they get attached to you.
  • Do go to the circus- a somewhat unexpected activity in Siem Reap, but Phare Circus was fun and supports local youth.
  • Dine at ethical eateries- I liked Sister Srey for a café- good food and a nice vibe with expats visiting who all seemed to know each other; Marum for dinner- also good food, and if you can have a cocktail while dining responsibly, win-win; and a number of people recommended Blossom to me, which was closed for Christmas but based on reviews must be pretty good.
  • Find out about the local culture- take a Khmer cooking class (I recommend Champey Cooking Class) or go on a tour of Tonle Sap.

There you are, not comprehensive lists but hopefully some thoughts for your next adventure, in Siem Reap or elsewhere.