Arts and Culture

Tourists' millions elude the poor locals' nets

Ben Doherty

Boa is 19, the sixth of 11 children. With all of his family, he lives in a small thatched two-room house on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

Boa is 19, the sixth of 11 children. With all of his family, he lives in a small thatched two-room house on the outskirts of Siem Reap.

Three mornings a week, he and his siblings, with a gaggle of children from his ramshackle suburb, walk to the neighbouring forest carrying makeshift nets fashioned from long branches, wire and plastic bags. They go to catch butterflies.

“We have to catch butterflies to sell because we are a poor family. We have no money. The money we make is to help the family, for food and to go to school. Without this, we cannot go to school,” Boa said through an interpreter.

The butterflies they catch—usually between 60 and 100 between them—are taken to the Butterflies Garden restaurant in Siem Reap town.

They are released inside the restaurant’s massive net, to flutter around the diners sitting in the garden café. For their toil, the children are paid about 5 000 riel (about R8) each.

Despite the annual flood of international tourists to the Angkor temples and the estimated £380-million they are predicted to bring this year, Siem Reap remains one of the poorest parts of Cambodia.

More than half of all families live below the poverty line, surviving on less than R8 a day. Four villages in 10 have no access to safe drinking water and 53% of all children are malnourished.

Literacy rates are some of the lowest in the country, at 64%, and just 10% of children finish high school.

“Siem Reap is one of the poorest provinces of Cambodia, which is a bit weird seeing the number of tourists going there,” said Philippe Delanghe, the head of the United Nations’s cultural unit in Cambodia.

The majority of tourists’ money is spent with foreign-owned hotels, tour companies and restaurants. Suko Om, the manager of the Butterflies Garden restaurant, says it spends between £250 and £315 a month buying butterflies from about 25 local children.

The business also offers jobs to older children, as well as access to a local school, food and even a place to sleep.

But he still feels the restaurant is only working at the margin of a larger systemic problem.

“There is revenue coming into Siem Reap because of the tourists, but most of the businesses are foreign-owned. Almost all of the money just goes straight back out.”—Guardian News & Media 2010

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