When it comes to planning my next trip, a pretty photo only inspires me half as much as a good map. I’m particularly partial to UNESCO‘s interactive World Heritage List map, which I spend more time clicking on than I’d care to admit. The map identifies the List’s 962 properties across the globe and provides information about each, including an array of photos for those who need the photographic impetus.
More than anything else, it’s a useful tool to find astonishing places beyond the Angkor Wats, Serengetis and Venices of the world. Did I know there were 100-meter-tall stone towers in northwestern Russia. Or that there’s a place called the Inaccessible Islands in the South Atlantic? I do now, and I want to go.
The map is also a great way to find less touristed sights in popular countries. The Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex in Thailand gets short shrift from most visitors, for instance, but is a completely unique environment in Southeast Asia.
Don’t know where to start? The red points are World Heritage Sites in danger of being destroyed or permanently altered by man or nature, so they may not be around forever.
Angkor Wat in northwest Cambodia is best viewed at sunrise or sunset when the golden tones sweep lavishly over the complex. Problem is, everyone else also wants to be there for sunrise so competition for that best shot is pretty high.
Not only is Cambodia still one of the poorest countries in Asia, but it is also one of the cheapest. Much of this has to do with the fact that seeing as it has only been 12 years since the country officially ended what was nearly 25 years of a brutally armed struggle against various forces, the infrastructure is still recovering and the economy is rapidly trying to play catch up.
That being said, although the value of most foreign currencies still goes a really long way in Cambodia ($.50 beer, $2 tuk-tuk ride across town, $3 entree, $5 hour-long massage), it doesn’t mean the quality of the goods necessarily suffers. Of all the cities in Cambodia currently set to make major moves in the international tourism market, none is more poised to do so than the northwestern city of Siem Reap, a city better known as the gateway to Angkor Wat.
Proof that Siem Reap is set to (or already is) blowing up? Over 2.5 million tourists visited the city in 2010, which puts the visitor numbers directly on par with the popular island of Maui. So why is Siem Reap featured here if so many people already know about it? Because on Maui a “cheap” room will run you about $100/night; in Siem Reap, it’s $10.
Though the entry fee to the Angkor Wat temple complex is somewhat steep at $20 for a one day pass, you can still get a personal driver to shuttle you around for the entire day for as low as $12. Grab a $3 plate of fish amok and a $.50 Angkor beer back in town on Pub Street, and enjoy the rejuvenated energy of the ancient Angkor Kingdom without making a temple-sized dent in your wallet.
In Cambodia, it’s not uncommon for tourists to be offered tours of local orphanages in the same way they’re offered tours of Angkor Wat.
It might be tempting to accept the opportunity to experience “the real Cambodia,” especially when you’re confronted by extreme poverty at every turn. But before you do, a new campaign backed by international NGO Friends-International and UNICEF asks you to think again.
“Travelers care for Cambodia and are often disturbed by the perceived situation of children,” said Sebastien Marot, Executive Director of Friends-International, whose headquarters are in Cambodia. “It is essential for them to understand the real situation and what positive actions they can take to effectively protect and support these children.”
A recent study of Cambodia’s residential institutions showed that the rapidly growing practice of “orphanage tourism” actually does more harm than good, violating the rights of children and contributing to the separation of families. The study revealed that 72 percent of children living in institutions labeled “orphanages” have at least one living parent, and that the number of these types of institutions has grown in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphaned and vulnerable children has shrunk. The study also showed that a number of these orphanage tourism schemes are run by unscrupulous business operators, and many aren’t regulated.Orphanages in themselves aren’t bad, but visitors must be aware of the effects of their actions. The Friends/UNICEF campaign encourages tourists to ask themselves a number of questions before they decide to visit an orphanage, including:
Are visitors allowed to just drop in and have direct access to children without supervision? Orphanages that allow strangers off the street to interact with children unsupervised, without conducting sufficient background checks, are not protecting the interests of the children.
Are children required to work or participate in securing funds for the orphanage? The songs and dances may be cute, but they can also be viewed as child labor and groom children for begging and street work that leaves them open to exploitation.
Does the orphanage have an active family reunification program? The extended family plays an important role in Cambodian culture, and efforts should be made to reunite orphaned children with family members that can care for them.
One of the most important questions, though, is one visitors should ask themselves.
“You aren’t allowed to go anywhere and hug a child in your own country,” said Marot. “Why should you be able to do it here?”
To learn more about positive ways to protect children in your travels, check out these seven tips from Friends-International.
This past weekend, more than 600 cyclists turned out at dawn for the annual Angkor Wat Bike Race and Ride at the temple complex outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. As the sun rose behind the main temple, cyclists shot off to tackle a 100 kilometer course, a 30 kilometer course, and a breezier 17 kilometer course.
I’m hard pressed to think of a more magical way to experience the temples of Angkor Wat than on a bicycle at sunrise. Throw in a group of passionate cycling companions and a great cause, and you’ve got the makings of a life-changing experience.<
Now in its sixth year, the Angkor Wat Bike Race is organized and hosted by Village Focus International, a non-profit organization that empowers local leaders to serve vulnerable communities in Cambodia and Laos. This year, the event raised more than $50,000 to support four Cambodian slum schools and a shelter for survivors of sex trafficking.
Participants included a mix of Cambodian cycling clubs, local ex-pats, and a small group of international regulars who return to Siem Reap each year just to participate in the race. From the photos in our gallery, it’s not difficult to see why they keep coming back.