Siem reap province – Shortly after 5 pm on any working day, hundreds of workers rush down the tree-lined service road to Angkor park, pedaling as fast as they can on their bicycles to get back to their villages before nightfall.
With no electricity in most of the park, it gets very dark along the small trails leading to some of the villages, so hidden among the archeological park’s trees and temples that tourists hardly ever notice their presence.
Those young men and women work on construction sites in Siem Reap, earning 5,000 to 6,000 riel ($1.25 to $1.50) per day, said Tek Sakana Savuth, executive director of the NGO Angkor Participatory Development Organization, which helps villagers improve their living conditions in the park.
“When those farmers go to town to do construction labor work, they earn money quickly but they don’t spend time on farming,” and end up having to buy food to feed their families, he said. Lunch at a food stall on a workday may cost them 3,000 riel ($0.75), half their daily wages, he added.
Some villagers in the park have turned to basket-making and woodcarving to sell to tourists. Even when pieces take days to make, they have to keep prices low to compete with imported manufactured souvenirs available in Siem Reap, Tek Sakana Savuth said. And, with their makeshift outlets to display products in the park, it is difficult to attract the visitors who are more intent on touring temples than shopping, he said.
Approximately 200 villagers work as security guards at the temples for about $20 per month through the Apsara Authority—the government agency managing Angkor—whose policy is to hire Angkor park villagers as temple guards and maintenance crews.
In economic terms, the situation is better than three years ago for the 27,000 villagers at the core of Angkor park, Tek Sakana Savuth said.
But as for other Cambodians working in the tourism industry in Siem Reap town, the improvement remains precarious.
“In the past, if there were no tourists, it was not a problem because they relied on farming, animal grazing [to support their families],” Tek Sakana Savuth said. Now that they are neglecting their farms, he said, “if there are no tourists, they have a big problem.”
Tourism development seems to have come with promises of better wages but at a price—literally
Last year, Hen Sreymach, a cashier at l’Auberge des Temples (The Temples’ Inn) in Siem Reap, lived on about $2.50 per day. Now, living costs her $5 per day, and her salary has not increased, she said. “In Siem Reap, everything is expensive—food, house rent and everything else.”
While the price of some vegetables has doubled at the market, farmers from the surrounding areas get very little from vendors for their produce, said Bith Chan, a mother of two children. This is why young farmers tend to abandon their fields, she said. “They are working as waiters and waitresses to make money faster than by farming.”
Earning a living has become very difficult for farmers such as Bith Chan’s parents who live on the outskirt of Siem Reap town, she said. They can’t even supply hotels with their vegetables since most produce for hotels is imported, usually from Thailand, she said.
The prosperity that tourists bring to Siem Reap province and town still has to translate into better living conditions—healthcare and education, access to drinking water and sanitation.
“It costs so much for the baby’s milk and medical care that each time my baby is sick, it’s my family’s biggest expense,” Bith Chan said.
While cleaning crews keep the banks of Siem Reap river free of litter between the old market and the bridge near the Royal Residence, people living on the river banks on the other side of that bridge continue to bathe and wash dishes in what amounts to an open sewer. There are projects to clean up the river and restore the flow of water, but this remains to be done.
According to Koy Song, director of tourism for the province, approximately 55,000 people work in the tourism industry—from hotel and restaurant employees, to tourist guides and motorcycle taxi drivers
—in Siem Reap district and town whose population is estimated at 140,000.
People from the countryside flock to Siem Reap town in search of work. But unlike motorcycle taxi and touk-touk drivers who have worked in tourism for years and know the temples and speak foreign languages, farmers-turned-motorbike-taxi-drivers usually only speak Khmer and know little about the town and Angkor, which reduces their chances of working with visitors.
In Angkor park, most people also lack the language skills that would enable them to get proper jobs in the tourism industry, said Fabienne Luco, an anthropologist and researcher based in Siem Reap.
Koy Song estimates that about 700,000 visitors came to Siem Reap last year. This influx of tourists has so far not altered society—people continue to live according to Cambodian beliefs and traditions and without marked improvement in their living conditions, especially in the countryside, Luco said.
Still, as the construction of hotels, restaurants and shops keeps on transforming what was a sleepy town only a few years ago, age-old perceptions may be shifting among the new breed of tourism workers.
While people with families tend to see Angkor as a large pagoda where one goes for religious ceremonies, younger people who work in hotels and guesthouses view the temples simply as monuments, said Bess Moylan, a researcher from the University of Sydney in Australia.
“They are the ones who are quite happy to sit along the moat (at Angkor Wat), eat fried chicken, play some cards, kind of using it as a social and recreational space,” she said. These young tourism workers are content to look at the temples from the outside, unlike older people and their families who go inside to pray, Moylan said.
Efforts, however, are being made for residents of Siem Reap and Angkor park to share the benefits of tourism.
Soon, a water system geared towards residents will be inaugurated in the town, said Siem Reap provincial Governor Sim Son. Funded by Japan, the system includes about 40 km of pipes that will give people access to drinking water, he said.
A development master plan has been studied with the goal of making the Siem Reap area attractive and beneficial to the local population, according to Hiroto Mitsugi, deputy representative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which funded the study.
This plan includes looking into cost-effective sewage treatment for householders, he explained at the December meeting of the International Coordinating Committee of Angkor.
“We have this concept and want to develop a project to make Siem Reap a green belt,” said Tourism Minister Lay Prohas. With this goal in mind, the government has asked the World Tourism Organization for assistance to study the development of agro-business so that local farmers can supply hotels with produce, he said. This agro-business project will require the support of numerous ministries and donors, he said.
Inside Angkor park, “we have a program to teach people organic farming,” said Soeung Kong, the Apsara Authority deputy director general. Any farming must be done on existing farmland since the protection of the temples has required freezing development at the center of the archeological park, Luco said.
Apsara plans to set up a “Home Stay” project for tourists to visit villagers, since they are often interested in seeing how average Cambodians live, Soeung Kong said.
“We would like people at Angkor to maintain traditions in terms of culture and style of homes,” he said.
Tek Sakana Savuth would also like to have pathways to villages improved and handicrafts shops set up so that tourists can visit villages and shop where crafts are fashioned, he said.
In the meantime, “sustainable development” has yet to become a reality for most people in the Siem Reap area.