Cambodia: Responsible Tourism: Part 3 | Beth's Blog

Cambodia: Responsible Tourism: Part 3

Personal Reflections

This is the third of a three-part post about what I learned about social media, NGOs, and Social Change in Cambodia during my “homecoming trip.”      Part 1 was about NGOs in Cambodia, focusing on the work of the Sharing Foundation.  Part 2 was about the Cambodian social media community.   This post is about It’s about responsible tourism in an age of social media.

No trip to Cambodia would not be complete with a visit to the sacred temples, including Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap, a tourism center in Cambodia.   But to get the most out of the experience,  you need to hire a guide.   Via Twitter, Daniela Papi, who co-founded a NGO called Pepy that supports children in Siem Reap area, introduced me to Yut who was “the best guide in Siem Reap.”    The NGO also runs a social enterprise called “Pepy Tours” that provides “responsible tourism” where tourists are encouraged to live, give, and travel with a social mission.    The enterprise also helps bring in revenue for the sister nonprofit that focuses on education.

Yut spoke fluent English, was a geek, and had in-depth knowledge of the Temples and other places visit in the area that matched our interests.   He put together a customized tour so we could visit the Temples, local NGOs, take a boat ride on the Tonle Sap,  visit a wild life refuge, a hike, and we  hit the sites when the light for photography was best.     His combination of wit and buddhist wisdom (“If you have one foot in the future and one foot in the past, you pee on the present.”) combined with expert knowledge made this a fantastic experience.   He was engaging and also connected really well with our children.  He is also a social media geek and presented at the TedX Phnom Penh.

You can review Yut’s presentation on responsible tourism, but as a guide he was constantly educating us on these issues as we learned about the wonders of Angkor Wat.

With more travelers visiting Cambodia and the extreme poverty that puts many children on the streets,  child abuse  is a problem.    More and more moto taxi and taxi drivers, hotels and guesthouses, restaurants and internet café owners are collaborating with our ChildSafe network in all tourist areas to learn how to recognize this and report – and prevent the problem.

We had many teachable moments – particularly about giving money to children who were begging.      This young girl only spoke a few words of English – and they were $1 dollar for a photo.    This upset me.   Yut told me that it is better to give the NGOs that support the children versus giving money to children which encourages them.   Rather than give her a dollar, I purchased a bunch of bananas from floating store and gave it to her.   This way I knew how how the money was being used.    Later I made a small donation to Pepy which works with children in the Siem Reap area.

If ever visit Siem Reap and are looking for a guide, I highly recommend Yut.

Have you heard the term “responsible tourism.?”   What are some ways you see nonprofits and the tourism industry collaborating on initiatives for social change in your community?

9 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    None of the following is meant to put people off helping out, but I think it’s best to do your homework before becoming involved with an NGO:

    Some of the better NGOs are doing a great job, but I still see many that operate more like for-profit businesses than charities. I don’t like the way some NGOs parade kids around and write sensationalist stories about how it is only they who stand between the children and child abusers. Others say the children they help come from dysfunctional families and they are saving them. Sometimes that’s the case, but sometimes not. When someone I know set up a home for children from the Sihanoukville dumpsite, some local villagers asked him how much he would pay them to take in their children. Apparently, some NGOs do that to boost their numbers and get more donation money (pay the family $50 a month and get $100 from sponsors). While the real problems Cambodia faces should be addressed, they should not be exploited. In my opinion, the best NGOs are the ones that do most of their work behind the scenes.

  2. Beth Kanter says:

    Hi Rob: Thanks so much for your comment and pointing out these issues about NGOs in Cambodia in general and I agree. I think Pepy does a great job as well as the NGO that I’m on the board of, the Sharing Foundation. What NGOs in Siem Reap and other areas of Cambodia do you think are doing the best work to take care of children in Cambodia?

  3. Robin says:

    Beth, for more on responsible tourism AND good work being done in Cambodia you will probably also find ConCERT interesting. See:

  4. Daniela Papi says:

    Hi Beth –

    Thanks so much for visiting with the PEPY team in Cambodia, posting this, supporting PEPY, and of course supporting the blogging/social media community in Cambodia as well – everyone that I talked to loved your visit!

    I am so glad you got to meet up with Yut – he is indeed fabulous! And yes, as you said, the question of which came first, the beggar or the traveler, is a stressful conundrum when traveling in Cambodia, and many other places. I imagine that the photo you took of that girl was at the floating villages. I find that area too be over touristed with a lot of poverty voyerism tours – and a VERY difficult place to visit indeed. It’s the gateway to such a beautiful part of the country though – so it is a shame that most boat trips have to leave out of that area. It is similar to the problems at the garbage dump in Phnom Penh.
    1 – People lived there and picked through the garbage for recyclable material to sell as a way of making an income.
    2 – Tourists heard about it, came to visit, and gave money to kids working on the dump.
    3 – More people moved their families from their homes to the dump to live because now it would be even more profitable to live there.
    I wrote a post about our transition from going there ourselves back in 2007 to realizing it was causing harm – plus a recent TEDx talk I gave on the lessons we learned through starting PEPY/PEPY Tours

    Thanks for your comments as well, Rob. I hear what you are saying, and I have seen a lot of the same things happen in Cambodia via fake, corrupt, or ineffective organizations. In Siem Reap, we saw this problem with orphanages and the growing harmful practice of orphanage tourism, which there are also a number of posts/videos about:

    Beth – thanks again for this post & discussion!

  5. Rob says:

    Thanks, Beth. I really don’t like to name names, especially since I’m not in the loop anymore. The incident I mentioned occurred almost 5 years ago. While I was involved in the project, I got an inside look at how some NGOs operate and some of the things they did infuriated me. One was a startup and has cleaned up its act quite a bit since then. Another did nothing of real substance for the dumpsite kids, but took “happy snaps” and used them for PR purposes.

    Okay, I’ll mention one NGO in Sihanoukville I do like: Starfish Foundation. They handle things on a case-by-case basis and do it very professionally.

    A non-NGO I like is the Dutch family that pays our local school directly and puts about a dozen kids through school. They come over a couple of times a year to check up on the kids and make sure everything’s okay. They throw a big street party while they’re here.

    A little advice for newbies: NEVER, EVER, send money to families directly for schooling or health care. It’s almost certain to be used for something else.

  6. Anna McKeon says:

    Beth – I’m one of the PEPY NGO team in Cambodia. We’re delighted that you enjoyed your visit and had such a great time with Yut. Thank you for your interest and support.

    Rob – I agree with you completely. The NGO landscape is tricky to navigate – especially in Cambodia where there are so many. It can be difficult to see whether money is being used honestly and effectively. We also advocate doing as much research as possible into any organization that you might be thinking of contributing to. It’s easy to be swept up by the issues in Cambodia – there are plenty of reasons for why communities may need support, but not enough emphasis is placed on HOW that support should be delivered.

    At PEPY, our focus is on fostering youth leadership and supporting education for young people within the rural community where we work. Through our successes and lessons learned we realized that to have a positive impact our work must be developed and championed by those who will continue to work towards these goals long after we leave. In fact, we think this is so important that we made it one of our core values (“Work with, not for”). The communities we work with need to be partners in development rather than recipients of aid – so yes, direct cash is often not the best choice as it propagates a culture of dependency rather than development, regardless of whether it is used for the intended purpose.

  7. Beth Kanter says:

    Rob: Your last point is very spot on! I’m supporting two young people for college, but I do it through a reliable NGO that does work in Cambodia – The Sharing Foundation. I’m on the board. The NGO does not have any paid staff in the US – so the overhead is low. Money goes to programs and for the intent.

    Also, you always have to do your do diligence. I was in rural India and helped an NGO purchase raincoats for kids in their care. I wrote about it here: But after I got a quote for the raincoats, I went around the village shops and checked the prices to make sure it was accurate. As a donor, even small amounts, you have to do your due dilligence.

  8. Beth says:

    Daniela: Thanks for sharing your views — I think someone once termed those types of photographs as “poverty porn.”

    I struggled not only with seeing the young girl with the snake and wanting to help (purchased bannas) but with even writing about this and using the photo. I didn’t want it be taken the wrong way – but more educate. Thanks again for your thoughts and comments

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