Out of all the activities I had planned for myself on my 5 day adventure in Cambodia, one that I was especially looking forward to was visiting a floating village along Tonle Sap Lake. In my head I envisioned weather-worn bamboo huts skirting the edges of the water, boats that have seen better days sputtering by from time to time, and people living in tune with nature. That’s what I was expecting, and it’s pretty close to what I found. But what I wasn’t prepared for was to feel like the biggest, guiltiest voyeur ever.
After settling into the longtail boat and heading downstream towards the big lake on a sunny afternoon, I sat patiently with my camera hanging around my neck, excitedly anticipating that “perfect shot.” I wanted to capture the character and environment of this exotic way of life. And alright, I admit, maybe get a few “likes” on Facebook while I was at it. But when the much awaited floating houses started coming into view and I raised my camera with my finger at the ready, I paused. It occurred to me: this isn’t some cheesy new section of Epcot at Disney World. It’s not a museum exhibit. And it’s not some live theatre performance where thespian norms prevent the actors from returning your stares. This is a person’s home. It’s the place where they live and work. It’s one of the most private, intimate physical representations of their life…and I was about to exploit it for all it was worth in exchange for a lousy ego boost on social media.
The guide noticed my hesitation and reassured me it was okay. “Cambodians love tourists,” he said with a smile. “They understand you like to take pictures. It’s alright. Go ahead.” …So I did. Despite the sinking feeling that deep down these villagers were far from okay with it, that in their eyes I was now no different than any of the other thousands of people that peer into their windows and doorways year after year. And now that I think about it, I set that perception for myself the moment I got on the boat. Snapping pictures of someone’s private life without their permission may have been the ultimate act of intrusion, but putting away my camera and simply looking wouldn’t have made me much more innocent. Camera or not, I was still on the boat.
Following a beautiful sunset and short ride back to the dock, I left the tour with this pang of guilt for having contributed to the collective treatment of these impoverished people as some kind of sideshow. But a part of me was still glad I went. However, it was NOT because I got that “perfect shot,” but because of an important lesson that I learned and all the new questions I was asking myself: Where is the line between being a tourist and an invader? Why do we allow ourselves to intrude on other people’s personal lives when, if our roles were reversed, we’d probably tell them to go to hell and slam the door in their faces? And when first-world professional photographers sell pictures of underprivileged men, women and children to the likes of National Geographic and TIME for thousands of dollars, what are the chances that the pockets of the people in those photos ever see any of that money?
These sinking feelings and questions continued to float through my mind for the rest of the trip. And when I say that, you might think I had a miserable time filled with self-loathing and cynicism because of it. But that’s far from true. If all we ever did was ponder the hardships of life and stew over the injustices of the world, we’d all probably end up taking ourselves on a much more permanent vacation, if you know what I mean. So we move on. We tune out the ugliness and the sadness, and crank up the volume of the awesomeness. And that’s what I eventually did. As a result, I had an absolute blast crawling through ancient ruins and zipping down the street on the back of a motorbike. I treated myself to an 8-minute helicopter ride over Angkor Wat and tried my hand at a rare style of local art. And whenever those sinking feelings crept back to the surface, I viewed their presence not as a threat to my own enjoyment of the trip, but as opportunity to grow a little more mindful and stay a little more humble in the future, whether I’m abroad or not.