Cambodia,  Ponderings

The Ever Present Issue Of Money

The elephant trek was largely a great experience, despite me constantly wondering if I’m yet again funding the extinction of a species.

Mr. Tree had convinced us to get a guide for an additional US$20. He was supposed to speak fluent English, explain everything about the elephant and the jungle and take us to meet some local villagers, living deeper inside the jungle. Fact is, he barely spoke to us at all. Emma tried about four times to engage him in a conversation. He didn’t know how old the elephant is, how many elephants belong to his village and barely got the name of the elephant out. Suddenly he vanished and reappeared a while later. At lunch he completely disappeared.

We assumed the mahout that spoke zero English was taking the elephant back to the village, so we followed them, in silence. Back at the village, we found the guide. He said sorry and that he had a headache.

We waited in his hut as he was cowered near the fire in obvious pain and his wife was breast feeding their newborn. It was awkward. Then Mr. Tree arrived. We were wet, quite cold and obviously tired, but he seemed very determined to show us the old lady in her house. We didn’t really want to and told him we can’t help. He said we don’t need to, he just wants to show us. He didn’t let loose, so we went. He told us that she’s about 60 and a year ago she fell and that her family can’t afford relatively easy medical treatment to make her walk again. She has been laying there for a year. She was just skin and bones. We expressed our sympathy, but he was getting very passionate and we stood there for almost 20 minutes.

These kind of situations make me angry. We are told to take off our shoes, not take pictures, respect the local culture and people, yet we are seen as money bags, which I find insulting and disrespectful.

He went on to tell us there’s not enough food for her, just as a kid walks in with the newest football jersey and the thickest and juiciest cucumber I have ever seen. How is he expecting us to give money and trust her family, which we haven’t even met, to actually use the money to help her?

Finally we are in the car and now we have to bring up the fact that our guide was absent. He was surprised and as soon as I said headache, he was quick to diagnose Malaria. He said sorry and I think we understood each other, though felt I needed to say the words “we don’t think it is fair for us to pay the $20, as there was no guide.” He seemed to agree.

Checkout the next morning proved different. The receipt was a random list of things, some we had, some we didn’t and the last item was “Guide $10.”

When we confronted him about it he told us that the guide agreed that he wasn’t there and we are therefore getting a discounted rate of $5 each. We told him that we don’t want to pay anything as there was no guiding provided. It got uncomfortable and awkward, but this is what to expect and be aware of when you go with less tourist ridden options. He didn’t really agree or take it off the receipt and muddled that he would have to pay him. He told us earlier that his family survives on $10 a day. We told him that we don’t think he should pay either to which he replied that the guide will be angry and left. I was getting ready to chat to him about how it works where I come from. If you don’t deliver you don’t get paid and will lose business in the future as a result of bad communication and customer service. Then we corrected some of the other items.

His wife with their 1 year old son in her arm came over. It was harder to tell her that we won’t pay for the guide. She also said that he will have to pay him.

We must sound like horrible people now. Scuffing down our breakfast, disputing a few dollars on our bill and refusing to pay for the Malaria stricken guide to this lovely family. But with no action there is no change. I hope the guide learned to tell Mr. Tree when he is not feeling well in advance so other tourists can have a better experience and they can continue to run honest and successful treks, which will help their village.

Our change was one dollar short, but I was tired, sad and disappointed so I left it alone. The ride in the car was awkward enough. They argued in Khmer and Mr. Tree was on the phone. At the bus stop he told us that the guide agrees and they won’t have to pay him either. Mr. Tree told us he wants everyone to be happy with the outcome and they were. It was an uncomfortable situation for us, but progressive for their future trekking business. The guide won’t just expect payment and the Trees won’t feel they need to pay him should there be an issue in the future.

Just be prepared if you go with a local trek,

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