When imagining a vacation, I think about going some place luxurious. Even an “average” vacation can be deemed “luxurious” when compared to how the majority of the world lives and the fact that some can’t even take vacations.
So, when I announced to some of my family and friends that I would be travelling to Vietnam and Cambodia, both third world countries, I was attacked with variations of the question “why would you want to go there?” I honestly couldn’t answer that question except to say that I love to travel and it would be a great educational experience.
It surprises me that I am one of few who is willing and excited to travel to these places, finances aside. It also surprises me how much people in this country take for granted.
The sad, eye-opening facts about travelling are often left out of the stories, and that bothers me. I think that it is important to talk about those who live in poverty because by not talking about them we don’t respect them as people and we treat their situation like it is something to be ashamed of instead of something that we can change.
What people don’t mention about these amazing tourist attractions is the mass of people that are waiting after the tour to sell you “one-of-a-kind” magnets, scarves and a variety of other souvenirs for the best price they can get you to agree to.
Most people treat these salesmen with contempt because, yes, they are pushy, and yes, after being swarmed by thirty of them it can be overwhelming, irritating and uncomfortable, but I think that it is often forgotten that they are just people trying to make a living.
This is how I see it: how humiliating do you think it is to serve tourists (through hotels or selling souvenirs) who have the world at their feet when you have nothing? I’m not saying that these people deserve pity per se, I’m saying that they deserve respect and help.
Unfortunately, people are willing to visit these countries, but not help the people, and what these people probably need most is education and better opportunities.
The argument can be made that there are great financial benefits from tourism. However, when these jobs in tourism are most likely the best paying jobs that these people can get, there is an issue. Yet, at the same time, the introduction of tourism to these countries is hopefully the start of economic reform, which can further lead to decrease in poverty levels.
Despite the level of poverty in Vietnam and Cambodia, most of the people seemed happy and content because the less you have, the more you appreciate what you do have. Though, this thought doesn’t remove the guilt from the equation. While in my hotel with cushy slippers, robes, and a pool it was hard not to think about how many of these people were living in huts with dirt floors and no running water.
I think I was most aware of this in Cambodia because of the living conditions. Though Saigon and Hanoi were relatively dirty, I could tell they were also affected by poverty, it wasn’t as prevalent because they are large cities with modern conveniences.
In Cambodia, we didn’t get much of a chance to see the city of Siem Reap. The parts of Cambodia we did visit were much more rural and less-developed, therefore the poverty was significantly more noticeable.
Farming and agriculture are still a major source of income for the citizens of Vietnam and Cambodia. When driving through the countryside, we were surrounded by hundreds maybe even thousands, of rice paddies and small-scale farms.
Unlike America, mechanized farming is a rarity partly because the equipment is expensive and hand labor is cheaper and partly because the farms are so small. Additionally, the weather in Vietnam is so rainy that the use of modern farming technology, such as tractors, is made difficult and is not profitable.
Though the word primitive is often used to describe their farming techniques, I dislike the connotation of this word because it gives off the impression that it is less civilized. This is not true. Vietnam is, hands down, one of the largest rice producers in the world, so they are by no means less productive just because they use hand labor.
Although Vietnam and Cambodia are increasing their exports and both countries are increasing in tourism rates, they both remain very poor countries.
Throughout my travels of Vietnam, I was constantly reminded of the disparities between the luxuries of Western civilization and the, sometimes, abject poverty of these countries. I think, for many, this is the reason they choose not to travel to impoverished regions of the world because they do not wish to see poverty and be reminded of world issues while on vacation, relaxing.
In hindsight, this might explain the reaction of my friends and family. However, I think it is important for people to visit these places for several reasons. Visiting third world areas discourages narrow-minded thinking, increases your appreciation for what you have, and keeps the world from being egocentric. I also think visiting these places is important because, by increasing tourism, it could increase the money flowing into their economy and drastically help the population.