I have been in Siem Reap two days now. Today, I decided to go for a walk and explore the sleepy town on my own. Siem Reap is, in many ways, more beautiful than Phnom Penh. It’s cleaner, quieter and slower. It can be a bit more dusty, owing to the fact that there are areas of soil and grass and it’s not just concrete. The buildings in the downtown area have a French colonial style, which adds to the gentile feeling of the town. The bright colours and plant-lined streets does make it feel a little artificial, like it was built by Disney as a giant theme park. However, this is probably because I haven’t got to know Siem Reap well. I’ve only encountered it superficially and therefore the sense of lack of depth is more about my knowledge of the city than the city itself.
However, there is one element of Siem Reap I have encountered today: the drug culture. Whilst I was walking down one of the main tourist streets two tuk tuk drivers offered me marijuana. (I responded with a wide-eyed “no!”) There are also quite a few restaurants selling “happy herb pizzas”. I doesn’t take a genius to work out what the herb is.
This situation made me really angry. But it wasn’t towards the tuk tuk drivers or the Cambodian drug dealers. It was at the western world.
Developed nations say with condescending pity, “oh poor Cambodia, blighted by the drug trade and sexual trafficking.” Well, if western crack-heads or perverts stopped coming for cheap highs or underage girls then the problem would probably be less pernicious. We can blame the government corruption or lack of law enforcement found here, but often it feels like we’re washing our hands.
Our white privilege tells us it’s fine to come here and take a puff of weed or experimenting with the good stuff. What harm is it doing? Apart from the countless tourist deaths when they take heroin thinking it’s cocaine, you’re causing the problems that I mentioned. Rather than giving money to those trying to earn a legitimate living you’re pumping money into the drug trade, which is likely to be dispersed throughout the Golden Triangle rather than help the local economy. Furthermore, that government corruption we blame gets its money from the drug trade. The owner of Cambodia’s largest newspaper, who holds great political influence, is most probably a drug lord.
So, we can stop the sad, patronising glances and start admitting that the west is partly responsible for the problems. In the west we need to make it clear that South-East Asia is not there to be a young person’s experimental playground.