by : RJ Fisher last update: May 2020
There’s trouble in paradise and my intention is to warn all travelers so they won’t fall for this outrageous Cambodia scam.
I love Cambodia, I really do. After almost 2 years of living in this wonderful country I have come to love the people, the landscape and the culture. However, truth be told, there’s also a dark side to Cambodia. Nothing different from any other country in South East Asia I should add, but nevertheless shocking.
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We were thrilled to be in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our longtime wish of seeing Angkor Wat had finally come true. The temple was fantastic! Or should I say “temples” in plural, because the Angkor National Park is a vast area with many interesting and beautiful temples.
Mind you, one day at the temples was enough. We started early morning to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Next, we visited 4 other temples before ending the day with beautiful sunset views from the Phnom Bakheng hilltop temple. All temples were wonderful, but after a whole day of sightseeing we were also completely templed out!
As we had two more days in our Siem Reap itinerary we decided to look for other things to do. We thought we had found the perfect excursion, but little did we know.
Siem Reap has a full service, international airport with regular flights from all over South East Asia. Check the Skyscanner website for the schedule of incoming and outgoing flights.
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Tonle Sap Floating Villages
Meet the locals, learn about the culture! Isn’t that a travelers dream? So, we opted for a visit to Chong Khneas, a floating village about 15 km South of Siem Reap on the Tonle Sap lake. It’s the largest lake in South East Asia and absolutely crucial to Cambodia for its fish and fresh water supply.
Out of five villages, Chong Khneas is the only real floating village. The others are actually more like “stilted” villages above the water or a mix. We chose Chong Khneas, because it is nearest to Siem Reap. Looking back, I can safely say that it wasn’t the best choice. We were nowhere near prepared for what we would encounter.
In dry season the port of Chong Khneas is easily reached by tuk-tuk. During the wet season however, the rising water levels of the lake displaces the shore by miles. Halfway to the village we had to change the tuk-tuk for a boat.
Considering the short distance, the boat fare was really expensive at $20 per person. Upon reaching the Chong Khneas port we looked at each other, both thinking the same: “Uhoh….tourist trap!”
“The port area is dirty and messy with plastic garbage everywhere. The crowd of tourists is large enough to make even Angkor Wat jealous. We see a monkey with a rope around its neck and tied to a pole. Tourists with cameras and phones are jostling each other for a prime position to get the best shot.
Every 10 meters or so we are harassed by annoying souvenir vendors. More cameras are surrounding a girl with a python around her shoulders.
Most shocking however, is the pit with at least a hundred crocodiles packed on top of each other in muddy, garbage infested water, waiting to be slaughtered for their skins.“
We couldn’t wait to get away and hurried to the ticket office. As it turned out, we have to change boats again since the first one is too large to navigate the floating village. We complain about having to pay another $20 per person. The ticket seller tries to justify: “But it’s not just a boat ticket, it’s a tour with a guide and it includes the entrance fee and tourist tax”.
Entrance fee? The attraction of Chong Khneas are the boat houses and a peek into village life. The villagers however, see nothing of the ticket sales. I did some research afterwards and learned that the boat company is a private enterprise. It pockets the entrance fees without giving one penny back to the population it puts on display.
On top of that the Cambodian government exploits the villagers by raking in the tourist tax, leaving the villagers empty handed.
Chong Khneas Villagers
Similar to the other floating villages, Chong Khneas is inhabited by descendants of Vietnamese immigrants. 90% of them have no official status in Cambodia and they are treated as second rate citizens.
They are stateless and denied citizenship documents. As a result they have no access to public healthcare, education, employment and they are not allowed to own real estate. Their disadvantaged position leaves the majority impoverished, with zero outlook on improving their position.
The villagers’ miserable circumstances are painfully visible. Dilapidated boat houses, grey-brown polluted water and plastic garbage everywhere. The stench of rot and decay is choking me. Small kids in shabby clothes with snakes draped around their necks are paddling tiny tin tubs from one tourist boat to another: “One photooh, one dollaa”.
As we navigate between the boat houses we can observe the women going about their daily routines while doing their best to ignore us. Basket weaving, repairing fish nets and washing clothes in the murky waters. Their faces are sad and tired. Not a lot of smiles going on in Chong Khneas.
Tourists are snapping away with their cameras and phones. Slowly, but very surely I start to feel ashamed of my being there as I realize that we are “slumming”. Moreover, we are there without the locals’ consent.
Our assigned tour guide is making sure to rub our noses in the poverty around us.
“People here are very poor, they have nothing. There is no NGO, nor government that supports this village. Their food comes from fishing and some vegetables they grow on the banks of the lake. It’s illegal though, it’s not their land, so every once in a while their crops are destroyed by government officials.”
“Above all there are many orphans that no one takes care of. They rely completely on gifts from good tourists like you. All the tourists that come here buy food for the orphans. If tourists don’t buy food for the children they will die.”
It starts to dawn on us where this is leading to.
Next, our boat sets course to what turns out to be a school for orphans. “Their parents died at sea. Can you see the tourists giving food?” Indeed, there are more tourist boats and they carry large bags of rice. The bags are swiftly whisked away by the deckhands to the back of the school. Without any guidance from the school they seem to know exactly where to store the rice.
A group of children is gathered to wave the good Samaritans goodbye. They routinely do as they’re told, waving with small gestures and without smiles.
Our boat leaves as well and our next stop is a local shop. “Please, buy the rice to feed the poor children here” the guide says. A 50kg bag of rice is $60, which is triple the normal price in Cambodia. “Not so expensive” the guide says, “the school can eat for more than a week from 1 bag”.
After paying for all the boat tickets we don’t even have $60 left in our pockets. Our guide is not even trying to hide his disappointment. “Oh….oh, are you sure? Ok, how much do you have?” Between the two of us we only have $30 left, not even enough for a 25kg bag costing an outrageous $35.
Maybe we can buy some pencils and notebooks, surely the school could use that? “No, no, no, that’s not helping the children, you let the children die. You buy noodles” and he points to a 5-pack of instant noodles costing a ridiculous $21.
That’s it, I’ve had enough, I don’t want to be part of this anymore. I tell the guide to give it a rest and bring us back to the port. “But the children…” he mutters, but he doesn’t finish his sentence as he can see from my eyes that I mean it. All the way back to the port he didn’t speak one more word to us and upon leaving the boat he didn’t even say goodbye.
Afterwards, we learned from befriended locals in Siem Reap that there’s a whole organization behind this scam. The donated bags of rice are returned to the shop to be sold again and the profits are shared. Something I had suspected all along. Whether the school is in on the scam, or if it even is a real school, I still don’t know. Apparently, there are more than 400 fake orphanages in Cambodia trying to attract “voluntourism” dollars
Looking back, I feel so bad having supported a company that puts the villagers on display without giving anything back. Also, I’m glad we didn’t purchase any rice, since the children would have gained nothing from it.
The worst part is that the villagers have nowhere to turn to. They are stripped of all their rights leaving them vulnerable to exploiters. In Cambodia there are strong sentiments against the Vietnamese communities that stem from historical events and are fueled by opportunist politicians. Hence, the authorities are not receptive to their complaints to say the least. And what about the children, who can they turn to?
If you would like to visit a floating village, there’s a perfectly good alternative that I learned about later. Prek Toal floating village offers community based ecotourism into their village and to the nearby bird sanctuary. The local population profits from tourism through guiding and because the boats are operated by the community itself.
A full day tour to Prek Toal might be more expensive, but it will beat the Chong Khneas experience by far and no-one will try to scam you. Also, you know that most of the money truly ends up with the locals.
Check out this tour that includes a visit to the floating village, the bird sanctuary and the biosphere reserve.
Pricey yes, but hotel pick-up and drop-off, air conditioned transport, all entrance fees/permits, boats, guides and meal are included.
Unfortunately, scams are nothing new in South East Asia and Cambodia has its fair share.
A young girl asks tourists for milk powder to feed her wee baby brother or sister that she is carrying. Many tourists cannot resist and the child directs them to the store to buy the expensive milk. Afterwards, she returns the milk to the store and collects her cut, which she has to hand over to whomever is running the show.
I’m sure you already know that it’s never a good idea to give to child beggars for multiple reasons. However, it’s hard to stay tough when cute little babies are used to appeal to your compassion. But that, my friends, is exactly the plan.
I’m definitely not saying you should have a constant mistrust on your mind. That would take the fun out of travel and it wouldn’t be fair to the good willing locals either. Fact is that the scammers are a minority, always remember that. Common sense is key here. If the child insists on you buying from a particular store, alarm bells should go off.
No, no, no, don’t skip this chapter, even if you think that travel insurance is boring.
Being a victim of a serious scam could potentially interfere with your travel plans. Worst case scenario, you could be stranded in a strange country without documents and/or money.
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Did you ever encounter a scam in South East Asia? Share your experience in the comments below so we all can learn what to watch out for.
I tried to be respectful with regards to the villagers’ privacy and not taking any photos. Therefore, some of the images used in this article are stock photos and might not be from the actual location(s) mentioned.