July 25, 2013

Scammed on Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap, Cambodia

One of the must visit in Cambodia is the Tonle Sap Lake. Why? Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia:
This lake is one of the most unique ecological water wonders in the world. It is the largest lake in South East Asia and changes in size and dimension every wet season. With a minimum size of 2,800 km² and about 1 m depth during the dry season, the lake is fairly small. During the wet season the water of the Mekong river becomes so powerful, that it reverses the flow of the Tonle Sap river and pushes the surplus of rain water back into the Tonle Sap lake. This transforms the lake into a huge natural water reservoir and the lake's size increases to approximately 15,000 km² with a depth of 8 m. The Tonle Sap River connects the lake with the River Mekong at Phnom Penh, in the south east. With the continuous change of the water level, the people who live on the lake have to move their houses away when the water level goes down. Whole villages including schools, shops, churches and pig farms are getting pulled away to a place where the water is still high enough to float.

Alas, we were there during the dry season and this is what we saw. Dry & dusty ground. Dirty, yellowish, brownish water.  We took a tuk-tuk there for a very cheap rate but it was the most dusty 45mins I ever been. We were shrouded in dust cloud almost the entire time. Should have rented an air-conditioned van. -_-

A trip for 3-4hrs cost us USD30 each. So total USD150 for 5 of us. Worth it? See for yourself. 

We were chugging slowly through the thick waters down the river towards the lake. Looks kinda like milky tea, but much denser and definitely unhealthier. 

We passed by a large empty floating boat and was told that its a basketball court. I got to give it to them for the ingenuity and flexibility. But I do wonder what happens it the boat hits a high wave. Do they factor in mother nature for points too? 

Anyway, after what seems like ages (close to 45 mins), we arrive at the the lake and saw small floating houses dotting the horizon. Tiny houses bobbing up and down, as far as the eyes can see.

This people live on boat houses all their lives. And it was interesting to watch daily lives on the lake as we 'drove' around in our motorboat. They even have a temple and the church. And some even have their own garden. Imagine have a garden or an animal hut that moves with you when you move. And not only that, if your neighbour gets on your nerve, you can just lift the anchor and move. Simple. 


And then the event turned. The tour guide keep asking if we want to see the school and if we do, why don't we buy a gift for them. He says we will be doing a good deed as the students need rice. They have shortage of rice and bla bla bla. He says we don't have to give money, just buy a bag of rice for the students to eat, which made it even easier. Who doesn't want to give rice to starving children. To cut the long story short. We went to this floating depot/ store, bargain for a small bag of rice which cost us 30USD and headed to the school. 

When we climb aboard, the 'students' started playing their instruments and i got to say that they are really good. Then we did usual tourist thing, distribute food, take picture, etc. Truthfully, I was against the whole idea since I've read about scams like this but there's not much I could do as the rest were not convinced by me. To me, even though its different from visiting an orphanage, its still not right. There was so many questions running through my mind. 

The 'students' are just sitting there, hanging around waiting for tourists to come before doing their performance. Isn't it like a circus or theater? 

The 'students' seems bored and they were good. Seems like they have been doing it for a long time. 

And most importantly, where are the tables and chairs and teachers and books and blackboard? 

It's too well put together. 

It's so totally a scam. The children are taken away from their parents, put in a disguise school just to gain sympathy of well-wishers and the money is pocketed by godknowswho. Children are not meant to be living away from their family and parents. Research have shown that they thrive better in an environment where there is family and parents love. The money that we paid for the bag of rice will most probably be split between the store owner and school. I don't even think the rice will reach the children. 

A lot of tourist/ foreigners will leave feeling like they had done a good deed. But you know what, its not. It's the opposite. You are destroying the children. All they will know is to wait for money from people like you. They don't get proper education. They don't have the right kind of upbringing. And that's because of us. So before you give money or even buy them gifts, stop and think. Do they really benefit? 

Got burned, but lesson learned. This trip was indeed an eye-opening, yet saddening as well. I really hope the government will work harden with NGOs to solve this issue. And everyone else, we all play a part. Spread the word. Let others know about this. 

You can read more here.


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