Tuesday 4 February 2014

Banteay Srei and being a responsible tourist

Our final full day in Siem Reap, we decided to go out of the way a bit and visit the beautiful red sandstone temple of Banteay Srei. We had bought a 3 day pass which was $40 and could be used at any of the Angkor complexes for 3 days, but you don't have to use them in succession, also kids under 12 go free but you need to show the child's passport to prove their age.

We didn't visit this temple in 2003 but we did go way back in 1999 and we had a bit of a shock arriving this time. As I said in previous posts, most of the roads were dirt road before, and getting out to this temple was a very dusty, long ride, taking about an hour on our last visit. This time we zipped along in about 40 minutes on the smooth surfaced road! If you hire a driver, expect to pay extra to come out here to cover the extra petrol costs.

As we drew up we could hardly believe our eyes, before we had been the only people at the site and the driver stopped the car literally outside the gate of the temple, now there is a complex with shops, cafe, information station and toilets and it is a 5 minute walk to get to the actual temple. So much for trying to get away from the crowds!

What makes this temple so special, is the absolute amazing cravings in the red sandstone. It was built in the 10th century and is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the temple is often referred to as "The jewel Of Khemer Art"

Patience was needed as we walked around, reduced to the tourist shuffle! And again, parts of the temple was inaccessible due to restoration work or they had stopped the tourists getting nearby to protect the carvings.

Like the other temples, you need a good guide or book so that the carvings come to life, with the stories and little things to look out for such as Kala or Garuda plus the fun of trying to find the most beautiful carved Aspara or the only one that shows her teeth when she smiles.

This little girl wasn't begging, I think her mom was working in the grounds, she was just hanging out but it does remind me of an important thing regarding orphanages. Like in any poor country, Cambodia suffers from scams and one of them involves tourists being taken to visit orphanages. The kids in these places are kept in awful conditions, which of course makes you feel terrible and so you open you wallet and make a donations. The trouble is, the kids are kept in that condition EXACTLY for that reason, they don't benefit from the money you donate, it is a sick money making scheme. 

If you visit Cambodia, please don't visit any of the orphanages, instead donate your money to a recognised charity where you know it will be put to proper use.

In fact, this visit, we saw very few beggars, I wonder whether the situation has improved or whether the government has swept these people in need under the carpet as it were and has them hidden out of view to save face?

We did see bands like theses at all the temples. The men are all disabled, either from birth or maimed during the war or by land mines. They have been trained as musicians and so instead of begging, they sit and play music at the temples, you can donate money as they play or buy their CDs. 

One place we didn't vista this time was Tonle Sap Lake and the fishing villages. Originally the villagers were Vietnamese fishing villages that live and work on the lake but the main village has become a tourist trap. The operation has been taken over by a Korean company, they own the boats and set up 'authentic' shops and cafes which you get taken to on the tour. Many of the villages have lost jobs because of this and non of the money gets pumped back into the local community.

We believe in responsible tourism and yes, we would have loved to show Ebi-kun the village, the amazing house boats and the houses on stilts, we don't want to contribute to the way things are being run. 

Our driver was lovely and wasn't afraid of sharing his views of what was going on with the country! One thing he told us was that the company that sells the tickets for the Angkor complex was Vietnamese and all the money made from the ticket sales went back to Vietnam. Well, I did a bit of googling about this and it sounds like some mis-information was going on there!
The company that does all the ticketing is called Sokimex, it was founded in in 1990 which is an ethnic Vietnamese Cambodian. The company originally had a deal with the Cambodian government that they would pay the government one million dollars a year for the ticketing rights and the rest of the profits they get to keep. This caused a bit of a hoo-haa and a new deal was brokered 15 months later. The money now gets split between the government, the Apsara Authority which deals with the restoration and up keep of the ruins and Sokimex. I couldn't find details of the percentage of who gets what.

Sokimex did make some changes such as banning the souvenir sellers from the grounds which was not good for the locals but they also put an end to the reselling/stealing and scamming of entrance tickets. The lesson here is, if you want to be a responsible tourist, don't take everything your moto/tut-tuk driver tells you as gospel!

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