Tonlé Sap Tipping Tragedy


Copyright Michael Bencik

So we arrived into Siem Reap late in the evening, after a long bus ride from Phnom Penh. We grabbed a tuk tuk and even made a deal with the driver to be our guide for the next three days, after some serious negotiation. We were in the heart of peak season, and not having very much luck finding accommodation. We went to 4 or 5 different hotels, and then back again. We finally found a room for one night, but had to move the next day. But at least we were settled in for the night. The town seemed incredibly dead, for all the hotels being booked, but we headed out to wrangle up some food. Not far from us we found a nice place that had great grilled seafood, nice atmosphere, swanky even. It very well could have been some New York City restaurant it was so fancy.

The next day the hunt for a hotel continued, and we finally succeeded in relocating. Sadly this took half a day, so we were not hot to trot out to see the temples yet. It was probably close to 100 degrees out, and our hotel had a small pool. Plus, we wanted to be fresh for the temples. Instead we headed to the Angkor Wat museum, to help better understand all the amazing architecture and culture we were about to experience and enjoy the air conditioning. The museum had a lot of the original stonework from various sites, and explanations about them. All in all, the museum was impressive and a great way to beat the heat.

Our driver picked us up and suggested we take a boat on the Tonlé Sap Lake to the floating markets. I had heard these were a bit touristy, but with the limited time Jeff had, thought it would be a good idea. The Tonlé Sap Lake is a massive lake/river system which actually reverses flow every year. It will go from one meter deep, and 2,000 km square to more than 9 meters, and 16,000 km square. This floods all the nearby areas, making an excellent breeding ground for fish. Also the flooding enriches all the soil, making great farming when it recedes.

We took a forty-minute ride out the boat dock, and what a cluster f**k it was. There was some serious earth-moving going on, and the whole area felt more like a massive construction project more than anything else. The tickets were outrageously priced, considering our bus ride up cost 14 dollars a person, and the boat ride was 20 dollars a person, for only two hours. But we were here already, so we sucked it up and paid the twenty bucks. We walked down a large staircase to the boats, which were whipping in and out. We were accosted by a slew of young men hollering at us to follow them, no me, no not him, etc. In the confusion we were ushered on to a boat by a young man with excellent English. The boat was about 25 feet long, with an awning over the sitting area. As soon as we sat down the boat reversed from the peer out in to a muddy stream.  There was a long train of boats going up and down the sludgy canal. People were standing waist deep in the water throwing large nets trying to catch fish. Others were dragging nets that were weighted down, I assume hunting for mussels. We passed many boats that were in the process of being built by hand, the carpenters running their lathes down the sides.

We puttered up the river with the captain and his young mate. The young guy, will call him Pho for now, waved Yvonne up to the front deck of the boat to chat her up. After a while, she came back and told me he was telling her to give money to him to buy food for the floating school.  He was going to have the driver take us to a floating market to buy some food. Well, I was not buying into this at all.  We would be buying food from an overpriced market, to give to a school that would just give the food back to the market, while the kids who were “supposedly be learning” were just going to ask for more tips to pay for books or something. This whole tour was really just a set up for more money. We turned the school trip down, and asked just to be driven around the floating village, so that we could get a feel for life out here. Well, that was not part of the plan, after all, we needed to go to the fish farm and alligator farm, to watch the sunset and see how people really lived on the water. We were not given a choice on this one, so we arrived at a large floating platform, with multiple layers, a restaurant, drinks for sale, souvenirs, and other junk. The alligator farm was just a square cut out in the deck with netting underneath with 10 alligators all laying on each other. The fish farm was equally as bad, filled with carp of some sort. But hey, you could feed the animals, just by paying for the over priced food. This really was a sick perverted Disney Park ride, with paid actors begging for any dollar they could get.

But all of this did not even begin to compare with the children, the ones who were only going to school to learn how to beg in six different languages. The handlers, who probably were not even their parents, would send kids from 3 years on up to sit in oversized dog food pans, which they would use as boats. Now, there are large tourist boats pulling in and out all the time, and they do it with a speed that would impress even a Nascar driver. The kids are paddling their dog bowls with spoons, dodging large boats as they begged for money.  In the half hour we were there I saw at least two kids get hit by a boat. But that was not the worst of it, each of the kids had pythons or boa constrictors hanging from their necks like living necklaces. These snakes could easily choke the kids to death.

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Here is the sad part, not the people who are so poor that they need to sink to these levels to do it, but all the tourists who are dishing out the bucks to them. Taking pictures with the kids, holding the snakes, making sordid jokes that you would never do to your own kids. We the tourists are who are facilitating this madness. By giving them money, which more than likely does not go to them at all, we are allowing this child abuse to go on right in front of our faces. By tipping them you might as well kiss their childhoods away, as they are forced into slavery and begging.

So the food poisoning did not make me half as sick to my stomach as these boat parties did. We found our driver and got out of there as soon as we could, not even waiting for the sunset. Now I really pushed the driver to show us more of the actual village, where people lived. So he did a roundabout way back, which was better than any part of the trip before. Here we did see the true floating villages; people cooking, cleaning, chasing kids, and sleeping. All the normal things that people do at home, but on the water. This is what I wanted to see. There were cats sitting on roof tops, dogs walking up and down the walkways, little toddlers playing chase: it was the real life here.

I could have spent all afternoon in the floating community, talking to people, having a drink at the local boat, but alas, it was not meant to be. Apparently we could have stayed on the party boat for hours, but now that we were not feeding the system, they just zipped us past the real part of the village. Now it was time for Pho to really work his angle. You see, Pho, came from a family of 7, and he had to pay his own way to school, and he did this by working the docks. He hopes to be a doctor one day, and give back to the community. But now he does not have enough money to go to school, so could you give me a big tip, so that I could pay for my education. It really pulls your heart strings let me tell you, and we just spent the last hour and half with him, mind you, so you feel like you should do something. But hell, we just paid 60 bucks for this crap. And sure, that’s not much to American standards, but when you are traveling for a year, it’s a hell of a lot. And who really is getting the money, that’s the real question. Most people here make less than a dollar a day. Well, like I said, we put some money together to help the kid out, even though I called Bullshit. And you know what he says next, “You see, the driver here, he also does not get paid, so can you give him a tip too.” Who the hell does get paid from that $60 bucks? That was it, what you got was for you and the driver, and I made sure the driver knew it too. What a scam!


Copyright Mike Bencik

This generated something my brother and I are pretty famous for, mind you, a nice heated debate. Which was “Do you tip in foreign countries.” Now no debate is really good unless you have some beers in you, so we had our tuk tuk driver pull into a local beer shop, and purchase some beers for you. Three for a dollar, compared to one for three dollars on the Party Boat. His stance is that it’s important to tip everywhere, because that is how our system is. Yvonne backs this up with the fact that she hates the American system of tipping, which is not present in her native Ireland, and thus, why should it be wrong to be used in Cambodia, it’s MY system after all. But what I have read it that tipping out here is not the norm, and creates a lot of problems for the locals. It also pushes various forms of child endangerment, because everyone tips better to little kids. SO they used to be in school, but now they are in the heat all day, begging for money. Worst yet, it does not go to the kids, but to their handler. So how is this really helping the country?  It’s not like our system, which I strongly dislike also, where someone gets paid two bucks and hour, and then tips pay the rest. Not sure who started this system, nor do I even care, but I do find it annoying. I have had people bitch that 15% percent is not enough? But this is worked in to our economical system, where in Cambodia it is not. It actually causes more problems, because people are flocking to tourist sites for easy money.

Well, we got a bit loud in this argument, screaming various examples of why I was right, and he was wrong. In the end, we had to stop to get more beer. I think the only thing that was resolved in the end was that the tuk tuk driver knew he was not getting a tip in the end. (He did, 4 days later, and he did an amazing job too. But that’s another story).


Copyright Yvonne Nolan

2 responses to “Tonlé Sap Tipping Tragedy

  1. Poor Yvonne had to sit through you and your bro arguing. Haha. Very interesting stuff. Kids and pythons are not a recipe for success. The pic of you two in here with the red shorts on the dock is nice.

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