The Murky Waters of Cultural Tourism: Visiting Kompong Phluk Floating Village

House boat near Siem Reap

A house Boat in the floating village of Kompong Phluk

When I went to Siem Reap to visit the famous Angkor Wat temples, I booked a guide for my two days at the temples. However, I had no plans for the afternoon before and when I arrived, my Hostel recommend an excursion to see the nearby Floating Village of Kompong Phluk. Thinking of my visit to the Floating Markets in Thailand I agreed – I assumed it would be touristy but fun.  

Boats in the Floating Village of Kompong Phluk

Cultural Tourism can sometimes walk a fine line between the careful study of another country and a total invasion of privacy. If you were at home, eating your dinner, walking your dog, doing your job, you wouldn’t like it if a bunch of Cambodian tourists cruised by on a bus and took photos of you or (even worse) your children as if you were some display. And yet, this can be pretty typical behavoir for the world traveler.

After we boarded a small boat and began our journey through the back rivers of the village, I had the sinking feeling that this tour had crossed that line.  The first inkling was when we started to pass other boats filled with tourists in bright clothing and expensive cameras eagerly snapping away.  My feelings were confirmed when I noticed  a woman in a small boat shielding her face from the passing cameras.

A woman hiding her face from a camera

A woman hides her face to avoid being photographed

Obviously, the photos in this post prove how initially complicit I was in this photos snapping – but after seeing this photo on my screen I put away my camera and began to feel embarrassed. This wasn’t some area set up for tourism – this was a community. Homes. People. Lives that we were interrupting in the name of entertainment. I wanted to leave.

Thankfully I wasn’t in one of the huge modern boats filled with dozens of tourists. My boat was small and wooden with just two girls and our guide – as close to inconspicuous as we could possibly be with our light skin and western clothing.

I questioned our guide about the economics of this tourism venture. I had paid for admission on this boat – who was getting this money? Were the people who lived here benefiting in any way? The sad answer was No. The money went to those who owned the boats and no from tourism money made its way into the community.

“They don’t like the tourists,” he admitted, “Many of the boats have left, but the people who are still here cannot afford to move their homes.”

As I looked around, I realized that what I was seeing was what many people sought on their trips. Traditional Cambodian housing, not a facade set up for the amusement of visitors. Sure there were a few boats of tourists, but for the most part they were sparse compared to the throngs at Angkor Wat and other tourists sites. Here I was in unspoiled Cambodia…but now I was the one spoiling it.  It would seem that the same urge to explore the world and deepen our cultural knowledge could actually lead to huge viloations of cultural sensativity. It was a hard notion to reconcile. 

 I felt confused – what experiences should I be seeking out on trips? On one hand, tourists attractions can be shallow and misleading – set ups to give visitors what they want to see. On the other hand, venturing off to see the “real” people can be detrimental to the lives of the people living there.

At the end of the boat ride, I found myself eager to return to the temple crowds. To be in a place where staring at the main attraction was allowed. I was pretty sure that the faces of Banyon had no objections to photographs, that the trees at Ta Prohm don’t mind their admirers.

Have you ever had this feeling when visiting a small town or local village? How do you get away from the tourist centers without invading the privacy of the local people?

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8 Responses to The Murky Waters of Cultural Tourism: Visiting Kompong Phluk Floating Village

  1. John says:

    Interesting and well thought out, thanks for sharing. It is certainly a complex question – if you want to see unspoiled life as it is, you ARE the one spoiling it, so to speak. Ideally, you find a way to contribute to the community in some way so that way you’re not taking without giving something back, but it sounds like unfortunately this tour didn’t compensate the communities at all. I think this is something that we should all at least be thinking about when we travel. It may not be easy, but it’s probably necessary. Thank you for sharing.

  2. What I encountered when travelling around Peru was that in the villages located along the tourist trail, locals would dress up in their traditional clothing and then charge a fee for those who wanted to have their photo taken alongside them. It’s kind of ironic, because it’s really just a show for people looking for an ‘authentic’ experience but what they’re getting is an imagined authenticity.

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      I totally remember that from my trip to peru! So strange – but at least the people participating are getting compensated…

  3. That’s a really interesting question you’ve brought up – you start to wonder why people want to travel in the first place if what they see and experience is put on for their benefit and isn’t authentic – travelling is a moral dilemma in many ways!

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      Thanks Anna. I agree – its hard to know what is the “right” way to travel (and what is the “wrong” way). I think its just good to sit back and analyze what you are doing every once in a while….

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