“I want people to see Cambodia in a different way, in a way where they see we have an enriched culture and very friendly people who always welcome others.”
I’m sitting in a restaurant in Phnom Penh with Yut, Claire and Seavyi, from Ayana Journeys, having a delicious Cambodian dinner talking about the gap in how people view Cambodia before they arrive and how young Cambodians would like their country to be seen.
Seavyi has said the above and when I meet him again the next day I ask him what he believes western tourists think of Cambodia before they arrive. He tells me, “From the many foreigners I met they would tell me that they know Cambodia from modern history like the war and Khmer Rouge and they know us through NGOs, because they are volunteering, and they know the attractions. But when they get to read about Cambodia they only see about corruption or darkness in modern history.”
So people arriving in Cambodia know about the attractions, such as Angkor Wat, the terrible parts of the country’s history and that Cambodia is full of NGOs. But how do travellers go from this starting point to getting a proper understanding of the society they are visiting and all the nuances that are part of it? One way is to book a tour through Ayana Journeys who offer educational experiences all over Cambodia.
I’ve been following Ayana Journeys from the UK due to their role in promoting best practice in overseas volunteering and campaigning to end orphanage volunteering and I was keen to hear why they are different and what they’re hoping to achieve from their tours.
In Siem Reap I sat down with Amy, one of the organisation’s co-founders, and a responsible tourism expert. It was clear after just a few minutes of talking that selling tours and making money isn’t the be-all of this organisation; they’re genuine in their ambitions to make a world a better place through the power of tourism and experiential learning. Their philosophy is that each person that comes on one of their experiences should go home with not only a better understanding of Cambodia, but their place in the world and how they can create positive change in causes they are passionate about. In short they’re looking to create global citizens who can engage with issues, big and small, in an empathetic manner.
We all come with internal prejudices; they recognise this and that’s why they create immersive experiences to challenge these. As they state on their website, “We reject the conventional model of ‘observing’ new places and cultures, which ultimately encourages us to feel distanced from them. Instead we craft engaging, ethical learning journeys that support open-minded travellers.” The idea is that you will connect with and learn from people that you wouldn’t normally meet if you just stay in and around the main tourism hubs.
They are also strong proponents of the idea that people must learn before they can help and, for this reason, they’re sceptical of international volunteering from organisations that bring in inexperienced people for short periods of time, especially when working with young and/or vulnerable children. That’s why their trips are so different; they give context to problems that people might imagine they need to try and solve. This compares much more favourably than jumping in with a volunteering trip to Cambodia when you have little understanding of the issues the communities there are facing, never mind the arrogance that goes with thinking you know how to solve them.
Ayana, although they welcome bookings from anyone, do aim their tours at the young/university traveller. This is the same group that many of the voluntourism organisations try to recruit from as well and Amy recognises that one of their problems is that it’s difficult to compete in a marketing environment where competitors use ‘poverty porn’ and ‘save the world’ language to attract travellers/volunteers. Ayana have a strict photo policy and looking through their website it’s clear that they want to show the people they work with in a dignified manner and not promote the idea of the ‘white saviour’. Looking to campaign to promote responsible travel and end unethical volunteering is an important way for them to convince young people that touring with them is a much better way to improve the world.
Having been involved in the overseas volunteering sector for over a decade it’s clear that this type of trip is growing in popularity and it’s importance is being more widely recognised as well. Challenging the idea that those from the west automatically have the answers to problems communities are facing on the other-side of the world is important. Looking to understand communities that are new to you, make genuine connections and learn about your potential role in creating change with trips, led by local experts, similar to the ones that Ayana provide looks like the ethical future of voluntourism. And judging by the laughter and relaxed attitude of the people I’ve met at Ayana, it looks like a fun way to do it too.
In relation to this Claire has just finished co-writing a book on this topic, Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, and it’s currently available to pre-order. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.