Tourists are tourists. Be a good citizen, respect the prevailing atmosphere of an establishment (don’t get too loud), and then, quit judging what other people are there for.
As we prepared to visit Cambodia, our friend and leader Dave told stories of USAID colleagues who speak no Khmer and have never visited a rural village despite years of working in the country. This was akin to heresy to me. So was the burnout backpacker culture we encountered. Southeast Asia is a desirable destination for young Western people abroad, in no small part because it is inexpensive and nobody stops you from having a good time. You could spot them by their slinky bohemian clothes, sunburns and fresh tattoos. They lounged in hammocks or wicker sofas at a foreigner-aimed hostels or restaurants, feeding off the WiFi when they weren’t drinking or carrying on. The tourist partiers are not doing anything illegal- they’ve found a place where it’s affordable and easy to go wild in a balmy climate.
We were there to do science and take in the sights, and this somehow that felt more justified than party tourism. But then, where were the Khmer cave survey teams? Oh, right. Since the Khmer think of caves as gateways between the worlds of living and dead, it’s hard to say which tourist group’s actions would be less appropriate by local standards: ours, or the party tourists?
It’s not a moral failure to be uncomfortable.
Being uncomfortable is not the same as being ethnocentric, or other cultural no-no’s. You don’t have to love every place you visit.
In Cambodia, it was difficult to communicate, local customs were fundamentally different, and my personal standards for safety and comfort appeared to be substantially higher than the status quo. There are many unpleasant realities in a non-democratic country. Every civic problem we encountered could be traced to the actions of the corrupt government. No investment in waste management infrastructure meant piles of plastic trash everywhere. No enforced traffic laws meant continuously dangerous encounters on the motorway and scores of accidents. Construction sites were rife with occupational hazards. The unpaved roads varied between unbearably dusty and unbearably muddy.
Then there are the cultural issues that come with a populace that’s survived a genocide, foundered in poverty and have never known a truly democratic government. This, I guessed, explained the excessive displays of wealth, the non-confrontation, the refusal to acknowledge problems. Currently there’s this culture of not reacting to traffic accidents, whether you were the perpetrator, victim or bystander.
Locals would prefer safer roadways and comfortable, clean outdoor spaces to recreate. Finding commonalities made the stressful conditions more bearable, and I enjoyed watching locals enjoy the universal pleasures we encountered: a fair, a fish market, shared meals outdoors, fireworks, and a white sandy beach. I may never enjoy karaoke or bony meat the way Khmer people do, but there was plenty I could appreciate alongside them.
It’s not a moral failure to avoid being uncomfortable.
James Michener once wrote, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” If quotes like these haunt you when you find yourself tempted by some westerner-catering haven in a foreign country, just relax. Yes: definitely do some background research to avoid socially and environmentally damaging tourist experiences. Otherwise, forgive yourself for moments where you just want to drink a familiar beer instead of trying yet another new thing.
The caving was difficult, traveling logistics were stressful. In our group’s limited downtime, we had little energy for anything other than convenient and comfortable activities. We spent a lot of time relaxing by ourselves, or shopping and frequenting places that were easy for us to navigate.
One evening we went shopping in the Kampot “Old Market” – a leaky structure hastily comprised of low-hanging sheet metal roofs, concrete floors and troughs for the ever present wetness. The smell was oppressive and thick with spices, exhaust, piles of prawns stacked attractively in the seafood area and the flesh-and-blood smell of recently butchered meat. I stopped to gasp for air through a jagged hole between two corrugated steel roofs. The market was full of Khmer people and nobody spoke English. It was a great experience, but exhausting.
Several hours later we went to a bar, the sensory opposite of the Old Market, and just blocks away. We opted for an attractively decorated place that had an extensive cocktail menu and western-savvy Khmer or guest worker wait staff. It was unnatural to see no local patrons in the establishment. It was also relaxing to order familiar food with ease.
Remember why you came there.
When traveling, sometimes I conflate finding the Strangest and Most Obscure Thing with authenticity. They’re not the same thing.
I’ve been fixated on “authentic” travel since a moment in my early teens, crammed into a tour bus in London and striving for something that felt less sterile and more real, complete, and nuanced. I encourage any “authenticity” seekers to spell out exactly what they’re looking for. Is it “living the way the locals do”? On this trip, we didn’t do that at all. However, I would argue we had an extremely authentic “caving in Cambodia” experience.