Cambodia – 10 Lessons on Ethical Traveling

Lessons learned from my trip to Cambodia and how we can all be responsible travelers

The smiling faces that welcome tourists display the optimism and contentment of a people grateful for what they have. But Cambodia is much more complex than what we can imagine and I am here to share the 10 lessons that I learned on ethical traveling during my visit.

Cambodia is an amazing country which I always wanted to visit, mainly because of the extraordinary temples in Siem Reap.

But I knew so little about the culture, and about the dark time of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70’s and 80’s. It is hard to believe the trauma that the country endured when you see such kind and generous people with beautiful smiles on their faces. It makes me appreciate this place even more.

You may also want to read:

There is so much more to explore about this country and culture than I initially thought, and I am glad to be able to share some lessons learned about my Ethical Traveling Experience in Cambodia.


1. DO NOT Give money to kids

It is very common to see people begging in the streets of Cambodia and around the temples, or trying to sell bracelets and books. But as I always say, do not give money to kids, because they should be in school. When we give money to kids we are just encouraging them and their families to send them to the streets.

Kids leaving school in Phnom Penh Kids leaving school in Phnom Penh

2. DO NOT Ride elephants

I can’t emphasize enough how awful this tourism practice is.

These animals receive a barbaric and awful training to “break their sprit” in order to be used for tourism. Baby elephants are separated from their mothers and locked in small cages for days or even weeks. They are beaten over and over again, without food and water, and some of them end up dying.

Even Trip Advisor condemned this type of abusive tourism. While I was visiting the temples in Siem Reap I saw many elephants taking families of tourists in their backs, during the awful heat. It made me think that these parents were giving bad examples to their kids. It is a very sad thing, but we cannot give up being the voice for the voiceless and making changes to eliminate this archaic type of tourism.


3. Dress and behave accordingly in temples and genocide memorials

Cambodia is still a deeply religious society, therefore be mindful that you are in a very conservative country and culture. Anytime you are visiting temples, remember to cover your knees and shoulders.

Talk softly inside temples and museums in deference to others and the spirit of the place. Set an example of respect and recognition of the history and sanctity of these beautiful temples and somber memorials.


4. DO NOT volunteer in Orphanage

I may sound mean now, right? Cambodia is a poor country and there are an enormous number of underprivileged children, as well as a large number of orphanages. In spite of this, volunteering at an orphanage is often not only an ineffective solution – it actually makes matters worse.

Siem Reap, a town of just 100,000, has 35 orphanages. The number of orphanages has increased in line with the number of tourists, as overseas donations and volunteer fees are seen as a way for unscrupulous orphanage staff to make money.

Watch this documentary on orphanages in Cambodia

If you still want to help, you can check here for Ethical Volunteer guidelines. 

Not only does it cause further emotional damage to the children in care, it can also, ironically, create more “orphans”.


5. Talk to the locals & enjoy a meal with them

The people from Cambodia are just so sweet and polite. I can tell you that they love to talk about their culture and share stories with you.

I had many opportunities to have conversations with monks, people in the shops and workers in the temples and also have a meal at a local restaurant with them. They appreciated our attention and interest to hear from them. So why not to take this incredible opportunity to slow down and connect with locals.

But please remember: Never touch a monk, and men should always avoid touching Cambodian women.


6. Learn about Cambodian history before your trip

As a Brazilian girl, at school they do not teach us the history of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide in Cambodia. Prior to my trip, my (American) husband brought to my attention the importance of us learning as much as we could about the recent past (just over 30 years ago).

In order to understand more about the present day Cambodia, it is respectful and enlightening to learn about their past before your trip. We chose not to turn a blind eye to a horrific period that shaped modern day Cambodia.

In order for us to understand the culture, it was important to see both the beauty of the ancient past and the trauma that the people endured within our lifetime.


7. Pay your respect to their past

It may sound like a type of a dark tourism to visit places such as the Killing Fields and the S21 Torture prison. When done ethically and respectfully, visiting these places will help you to understand more about the country and their people. It will help you to appreciate each smile you see on their faces.

We cannot hide our past, so it is our choice to learn lessons from the it and pay our respect.

1 of only 7 survivors from the S21 Prison 1 of only 7 survivors from the S21 Prison

8. Use locals to help with your visit

Whenever possible, support the local community and make choices to use local services.  A good example was my tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Kree. He was an extremely nice and polite gentleman that we hired to be our driver during the whole tour in Siem Reap. He spoke good English and took care of us. Mr. Kree also helped us to understand what life is like in Cambodia.

Helping the local communities is a big part of my traveling preparation. I try to hire local drivers, stay at home stay or hotels that support the professional development of the local people and eat at small local restaurants. Cambodia is a great place for that, as you can find many options to support the local economy.


9. Respect the archaeological sites

The temples, carvings and all the history in Cambodia is so precious and fragile. Do your part to conserve Cambodia’s rich archaeological history; never touch carvings or bas reliefs, and do not purchase historical artifacts. As well as being irresponsible, it’s likely illegal.

A special moment when I was greeted by a white butterfly in the entrance of one of the temples

10. Support local artists

Cambodia has many shops, galleries and art studios that you can visit, such as the Aritsans Angkor.

It is just amazing to see a raw material transform before your eyes, since it is not something you see every day. From silk and textiles, to stone and wood work, painting and lacquer, this place has a wide range of quality, authentic products to buy.

I even got to try my hand at stone carving, which really makes you appreciate the skill and patience required.

And best off all is the human side to it. Most of these places offer a project that supports a good cause and creates a future for so many.

It is amazing to see stone becoming art in front of your eyes

Vacations are supposed to be fun and to relax, right?

But I truly believe that for anyone who is lucky enough to travel around our fascinating planet and to connect with people, we should hold the responsibility to care for the environment and for the others, respecting and also encouraging others to do the same.

While traveling is AWESOME, it also teaches us lessons, and I feel that each trip, makes me a better human being. Be an ethical and responsible traveler. Be AWESOME!!!


2 thoughts on “Cambodia – 10 Lessons on Ethical Traveling”

  1. #1 is so key Paula. You see them all over Cambodia. Do not reward begging, much of the money goes to the mafia. Inspire kids to go to school.

    • Things that we learn as we travel. Most of the time we don’t think we are creating any harm to the local culture, but that is so important that we keep our eyes open and pay attention, in order to educate ourselves on how to be ethical and responsible. Thanks Ryan


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.