siem reap town – No longer able to be a soldier since a land mine blew off his right leg in 1994, Nyat Bumm now survives on the charity of tourists, begging for money at Angkor Wat.
Until a few weeks ago, he was allowed inside the temple, but now police make sure he goes no farther than the edge of the entrance.
He made more money begging inside the temple, but now he takes home only about 2000 riel a day. “It’s not enough to buy food,” Nyat Bumm says.
In an attempt to make the temples of Angkor more attractive to tourists, Apsara Authority is giving the complex a makeover, banning beggars and vendors from working in the monuments.
The next step is to replace the noise and pollution of motorbikes and taxis with battery-run electric cars that officials hope will attract even more tourists.
But as officials are touting tourism as one of the best ways to alleviate poverty, the government plan, at least in the short term, is hurting some of the people it aims to help. The plan also shows the complexity of building a tourism industry in a country still showing scars from three decades of conflict and civil war.
Bun Narith, deputy director general of Apsara Authority, says the government is trying to help the beggars. Some of the beggars were given land in nearby Banteay Srei district, but then another group of beggars showed up at the temples.
“After we solve one problem, another one occurs,” Bun Narith said. “Sometimes, there are too many beggars.”
Prat Sarom is one of the police officers who watches over the beggars and drink sellers, making sure they don’t enter the temple. He knows they are not happy with him, but there have been steady criticisms from visitors too, he says.
“The tourists complain that they bought a ticket to visit the temple and there’s no security. They’re being disturbed by the beggars,” he says. “The tourists are interested in looking at something and some beggars are pushing them.”
There has been at least one case to bolster the government’s position. Earlier this year, an amputee beat a tourist with a crutch after the man refused to give him money.
The government’s rule is that no beggars are allowed on the premise of Angkor Wat. “But the police pity some and let them stay,” Prat Sarom says. They are allowed to stand near the front entrance to the temple, while the moto taxi drivers and drink sellers must stay across the street.
Down the road at Phnom Bakheng, where beggars and vendors are not banned, the scene is much different. On top of the mountain, as tourists are trying to capture the perfect sunset picture, women selling drinks are weaving through the crowd and kids are hawking handicrafts. T-shirts are spread out everywhere.
“This takes aways some of the beauty of the temples,” says Niels Scendvik, the Swedish consul in Ho Chi Minh City. “Who wants them in a place like this? The next time I come, I’ll come in the rainy season when no one else is here.”
Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth has a simple philosophy for promoting his industry: The customer is always right. And if customers don’t like the beggars and vendors, then the beggars and vendors should go.
“I must say, it’s disturbing,” he says. “Not that you hate them or don’t like them to be there, but this is the heartland of the country, it’s a symbol of our tourism industry…. It’s not right to have them there.”
Many tourists are not familiar with Cambodia’s persistent problems and seeing an amputee can be disturbing, agrees Gilbert Madhaven, general manager of the swanky Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap.
“No one wants to go to a World Heritage site and have to face this. It’s not that they’re not sympathetic to it,” he says. “A lot of our guests, when they come back from the temples, have mixed feelings. Many of them come from privileged backgrounds, and it’s a shock to them.”
Madhaven suggests the government build a resource center where the amputees and other beggars can work, perhaps making handicrafts. Tourists could then visit them there, and leave donations.
There are vocational programs available to beggars and vendors, but right now the government has no money to implement them, Veng Sereyvuth says.
When the motorbike taxi drivers here look at the beggars and vendors being corralled away from the temples, they fear the same fate.
ABC International Cambodia, a joint venture project of Apsara Authority and a Korean company, is planning a $10 million project to bring 300 electric cars to the temple complex to ferry tourists.
Although the cars won’t arrive in time for the millennium celebration as officials had hoped, they said they still plan to move forward with the idea.
“We have a project that won’t affect the livelihoods of taxidrivers or motodops,” Bun Narith says. “Now we are studying the roads in the area to see what the electric cars need. It’s a long-term project.”
The government has maintained that the moto drivers will be able to earn enough money by transporting what is projected to be an increasing number of tourists around Siem Reap.
But motorbike drivers aren’t convinced. When the electric cars come to Siem Reap, Chen Kimyean and hundreds of other motobike drivers say they will see their earnings drop. “It’s very bad for me….If the electric cars come to Angkor, I will get less money than before.”
He knows the temples well, speaks fluent English and on a good day in the tourist season can earn $10.
Some are already talking about getting even. Chen Kimyean says other moto drivers have told him that if the electric cars come they will buy a gun and shoot out the tires.
Veng Sereyvuth sympathizes with their position. While the beggars and vendors must be removed from the temples, he says, the livelihoods of the motobike drivers should be respected.
“Whatever we do in tourism, the one important factor that must be the center of focus is the region should benefit,” he says.
“We should preserve the originality as much as we can, that’s the attraction. We should give deep consideration to these people. That’s their employment.”