Saturday, January 3, 2009

Slow boat to Battambang: is travel the ugliest form of voyeurism?

I've finally got the chance to update my blog. Cambodian internet connections leave a lot to be desired, its a relief to find Vietnamese guesthouses have wifi. Am going to try to break the past 10 days up a bit to stop this becoming the longest blog entry ever. First entry: Siem Riep to Battambang.

We spent one last night in Siem Riep exploring the night markets, getting massages and removing the dead skin from our feet via hundreds of little fish. That's right, fishy foot massages. See accompanying photos for details!

Thoroughly sick of buses and aware of the many more to come, we boarded the boat from Siem Riep bound for Battambang. Fighting off the banana sellers, we crammed in to a boat better described as a floating box. Despite the lack of space, nevermind a toilet, that boat ride would have to be one of the best (and worst) things I did in Cambodia.

7 hours of floating down the Mekong saw us through dozens of fishing villages and gave me a whole new perspective on Cambodian life. A strange sense of voyeurism stayed with me the whole way as we sailed through the lives of Cambodia's fishing communities. We were so obviously spectators on a world completely seperate from our own, I couldn't help feeling almost an intruder. The scenery was so stunning and the waving children so adorable, it was impossible not to take hundreds of photos yet an odd sense of guilt remained.

As Jess pointed out to me, most travel is voyeurism at heart. To make people's lives a spectacle however, to travel on a boat designed specifically for that purpose, I can't help wondering what impact it has on the lives of the Cambodian people. Were the frowning adults telling their children to stop waving to the intruding foreigners? On the whole, Cambodians were exceptionally welcoming and friendly towards us wherever we went but I can never escape the knowledge that, and I'm certain Cambodia can't forget the memory of, the extreme damage foreigners have done in the past. To then be part of a staring crowd passing through, are we not then inflicting a new form of humiliation on Cambodia? Or, as I so desperately want to believe, is tourism impacting positively on these poverty-stricken countires? Are we bringing money which local communities would otherwise never dream of or simply donating funds to a blackhole which will never reach the majority of the population?

It brought up many reoccuring thoughts I've had on travel, what is responsible travel and whether it is in fact possible. When travelling I feel so free and alive that I'd never want to believe I was doing anything but good. To learn about other cultures, to see the world from a completely different perspective, to attempt to understand lives a world apart from my own. Surely this is the stuff of goodwill. Its been said that nothing destroys ignorance faster than travel and I would be the first to wholeheartedly agree but I'm nonetheless aware that with travel comes a lot of responsibility, wanted or otherwise.

There are so many things which I'm simultaneously grateful for and ashamed of. The importance placed on speaking English, the convenience of Western commodities, the touts desperately willing to be bargained down to a pittance in exchange for transporting my lazy arse wherever I want to go, the knowledge that no matter how meagre my daily budget may be it is still more than many people will earn in a year.

My thoughts and doubts are nothing new and have undoubtedly been debated in many a travel forum over the years. I have no answers and no solutions to this world of questions. All I can do is keep going as I do and hope like hell my good intentions are indeed yielding good results.

P.s. Anyone reading this may wonder why I didn't ease some my apparent guilt by taking advantage of Cambodia's many volunteering opportunities. The long and the short of it? Don't even get me started on volunteering! That's a whole new level of doubt...

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