Visiting a developing country tempered my cultural-immersion idealism

So, I just made my first adult visit to a developing country.

Most Americans my age privileged enough to travel the world have been trained to respect other cultures. Avoid being the “ugly American” at all costs. Being a conscientious, woke little do-gooder, I took quickly to the concept. It was easy, from my home in the US and in other developed countries, to assert that virtually every place in the world is more “worthy” than America, that the grass is greener on every side of the fence. As I prepared to visit Cambodia, our friend and leader Dave told horror 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 under my principles. True: we weren’t going to Cambodia specifically to “help” or to spread cultural understanding… but I was determined to be the absolute model of my ideals and be the most immersed person I could, and have the most authentic experience. I’ve been fixated on “authentic” during travel since my early teens. I’d been packed onto a tour bus in London and striving for something that felt more real, less sterile, more complete and nuanced. After all, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” – James Michener

These ideals were challenged, soundly, in my first adult foray into a place where it was difficult to communicate, local customs were fundamentally different, and where my personal standards for safety and comfort appeared to be substantially different from the status quo.

For one, we hadn’t set ourselves up for a primarily cross-cultural experience.

I was surprised to encounter so many burnout backpackers in Cambodia. There’s a certain “Southeast Asia party tourism circuit” that I was first made aware of by my cousin’s Peace Corps experiences in Thailand. Southeast Asia is a desirable destination for traveling young people largely because it is inexpensive and there are few rules. You could spot these folks by their slinky bohemian clothes, sunburns and fresh tattoos. They lounged in hammocks or wicker sofas at a foreigner-catering 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 do wild stuff in a balmy climate. Despite this I was skeptical of them and found my hackles rising when I’d spot one – look at this tourist who’s not making an effort to assimilate!

Our group was not there to party – but we were also doing something that none of the locals were willing to do. If Khmer people explored and surveyed caves themselves, there would have been no reason for us to come over. It dawned on me that we were just as unlike the Khmer as the party tourists. 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 made me rethink the meaning of “authentic”. Had I actually meant “living the way the locals do”? In that case, we weren’t set up for an “authentic” experience at all, but we sure had a fulfilling “caving in Cambodia” experience.

So, the majority of our time and energy was being spent doing something that Khmer people did not. The caving was difficult, and that encouraged us to opt for convenient and comfortable activities in our downtime. This meant we mainly were just relaxing by ourselves, or shopping and frequenting places that were easy for us to navigate.

There was little overlap between Khmer and Western patronage in many of the places we visited. One day early in our trip perfectly encapsulated these differences in my mind: we went to the Kampot “old market” – a cobbled together leaky structure of low-hanging sheet metal roofs, concrete floors and troughs for the ever present wetness. The smell was oppressive and thick, from the piles of prawns stacked attractively in the seafood area to the recently butchered meat, fish and flesh and blood, spices and exhaust. I stopped to gasp for air out a jagged hole between two corrugated steel roofs. The market was full of Khmer people and nobody spoke English.

Several hours later we went on a bar tour. We opted for several attractively decorated places that had extensive menus of cocktails and western-savvy Khmer or foreigners waiting on us. It was the sensory opposite of the old market, and just blocks away. It spoke of our privilege that we could access both places. These were places that were designed to lure in folks with western sensibilities – menus, signage out front, clear indicators of any kind that this was an inviting commercial space and not somebody’s garage or home. It made me wonder about the places in America that are invisible to me but not to foreigners. I realized that I couldn’t tell you what a Khmer bar looks like, or what it serves.  Do Khmer women go to bars? I don’t know. Probably not respectable ones.

When I visited foreigner-catering bars and restaurants, I thought frequently about my cousin’s experiences in Sudan. There she felt uncomfortable with certain privileges she had such as alcohol, which is illegal for all Sudanese citizens but is served regularly at Embassy parties. True, we were not operating in flagrant disregard of the law in Cambodia, but we could afford restaurants and alcohol in quantities that Khmer could not.

This became another uncomfortable truth of the trip: even when there were opportunities for me to frequent the shops and restaurants that Khmer people did, I usually opted for the ones that made it easy for me, even when that convenience came with the establishment outpricing local patrons or culturally alienating them.  I’d forgotten that negotiating an unfamiliar culture in an unfamiliar language takes a lot of energy, and we frequently didn’t have enough after a long day in the field and a scary ride on the roads. It is unnatural to see no local patrons at a bar or club – in Cambodia, in anywhere. That unnaturalness was perpetually a part of the experience when we’d opt for a familiar venue over another adventure in our long days.

One time I turned down a neighbor who offered me something mysterious to drink. Was close-guarding my intestinal health a lost opportunity for an authentic experience, or a necessary sacrifice so that we can keep functioning over here for our relatively short stay?

My idealism kept urging me that the Most Authentic Experiences would be beyond my comfort zone, and I should force myself off the beaten path to find it. After a while I realized I was assuming that the most culturally “real” thing would be the thing most unfamiliar to me. Yes – Cambodian people will eat bats and dogs, but mostly they liked rice and fish dishes.  My notion about how “things ought to be” in Cambodia was extremely dated. I expected the world of Southeast Asia to be as uncontacted as the NatGeo articles I read in my youth, all bamboo and rustic, pre-4G. Even the most remote parts of Cambodia we visited were no longer the magazine-article level of remote, unplugged, uncontacted. On some level I was disappointed by this, and resented the things that are a necessary reality in a less-developed country. I lamented the ubiquity of sweatshop-made products identical to what you’d find in an American dollar store, the lack of attention to roadside aesthetics in all but the wealthiest/most tourism-lucrative places, fashion by Western standards and garish McMansion architecture.

I eventually came around to remember that no culture (or ecosystem, for that matter) is ever static, and that many of modern Cambodia’s standards are similar to those of America. The longer we spent in Cambodia, the more I realized there were overlapping interests in recreation between Khmer and Westerners. There were throngs of locals wandering the vendors’ rows at the Festival of the Sea, same as us – taking in the sights and foods, looking for deals.

When I first saw the town of Kep, my first instinct was a sort of guilty relief. The town is greener than its surroundings. I thought the attention to aesthetics – nice roads, green plants (albeit hastily planted), trash sweepers, even a totally fabricated white sand beach along the oceanside – was just for attracting foreign tourists.  New Year’s Eve Day showed me a different picture: Khmer families had staked out every one of the hammock picnic huts along the white sand beach. They were blanket to blanket along the sidewalk, purchasing from the street vendors and picnicking with their families. The water and beach were full of frolicking locals. This was just as much a local destination for Khmer people as it was for us. This relieved me, somewhat – finding common ground with the Khmer people, when some of their other recreational activities just didn’t seem to translate. On this beach, my white skin and bikini top were a glaring deviation from the norm and I amiably covered up.

And finally, there were the unpleasant realities of a developing country. The corrupt government, their clown faces plastered on every billboard, exacerbated the civic problems: No waste management infrastructure meant piles of plastic trash everywhere. No enforceable 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. There was this cultural trait of not reacting to traffic accidents, whether you were the perpetrator, victim or bystander. This bothered me more than any of the other dangers and unpleasantries in the country. I’d shake off my frustrations by saying “this is normal for them, they don’t see this as unusual, it’s terrible but it’s true”.

Even this uneasy coping mantra eased by our last road trip. We were the only foreigners in a 10-person minibus taxi that day, a welcome change from riding motos. The road to the capitol was filled with standard-level unpredictability and danger – a truck stacked 15 feet high fishtailed after swerving hard to avoid another motorist, people and dogs crossed the road willy-nilly, motos aggressively passed larger vehicles wherever there was a breath of space. For the first time since arriving in the country, I could watch the uncensored reactions of Khmer passengers to these near-misses. In the privacy of this bus, they were reacting to the traffic, and with obvious fear and exasperation. It was a relief to witness: the locals do fear for their lives in traffic, they do want to stay safe on the roads, they do recognize that these conditions are insanity.

So this trip edged me toward a new, more nuanced set of “traveling ideals”. It pushed my comfort zones, albeit in unexpected ways. We experienced lots of culture shock while in Cambodia. Our living accommodations were spare, the roads were dangerous and our daily activities put us in contact with many new and unexpected hazards.  Our schedule, the one I’d agreed to, precluded the time and energy necessary for intentional cultural immersion, but we wound up doing a good bit of that just getting around. Like it or not, I do have personal limits for discomfort. That sometimes I really just wanted to drink a familiar beer in a familiar setting instead of trying yet another new thing. My ambitions to find the Strangest and Most Obscure Thing were not the same as finding cultural authenticity – there was plenty of easy-to-find authentic places and spectacles that I’d been overlooking in search of something that fit my imagination of an authentic spectacle. I found that, although currently rare in Cambodia, locals would prefer safer roadways and comfortable, clean outdoor spaces to recreate. I saw them enjoy the spectacle of 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.



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