All too often, travel is seen through somewhat rose-tinted sunglasses; backpackers and travellers (myself included!) taking to social media with tropical images of white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, showcasing their new nomadic lifestyle and latest adventures in the best possible light. But here is a small reality check, to show you the things that people aren’t so quick to broadcast. Much in the same way that the iconic ancient Egyptian pyramids are located next to a McDonalds. The brutal truth is that anyone that has travelled before, is very likely to have experienced some form of culture shock.
The resort I am living at on Koh Rong Island, Cambodia, is beautiful, well-kept and clean, but five minutes away are beaches covered in waste and pollution. Last month I took a Cambodian long boat around the island to a neighbouring town, a town colonised with backpacker resorts and hostels, described by many as the “party spot” of the island, I wonder how many of the thousands of backpackers there daily turn a blind eye to sights like this. We see a lot of rubbish everywhere, but this really struck a chord with me; a young boy, playing in filth, surrounded by stagnant water, had made a raft from an old piece of polystyrene and was pushing himself around with bits of plastic. I don’t know what upset me more, that he was enjoying himself in the waste and debris, or that no one else seemed shocked by it.
Unfortunately, Cambodia, as a developing country (much like a lot of Asia), lacks proper waste management practices and has very limited public awareness or education for waste management, pollution, biodiversity or recycling.
When I was living in Sri Lanka, myself and Ness (my fellow teacher at the local language school), were lucky enough to live in a house right on the beach, we went swimming in the sea every day, the water was clear, blue and beautiful, but so much debris and rubbish got washed up on the beach that we decided to spend an afternoon beach cleaning. We got a lot of attention from the local people, the neighbours were all staring out of their windows, people were walking past us and pointing, as if we were doing something absolutely absurd! Eventually one man came up to us and apologised, “I am sorry that you are doing this. We should do this, it is our country and Sri-Lankan people should do this, thank you very much”, another man later joined us and put some rubbish into our bin bags and we had some positive comments from a few more passers-by. We weren’t doing it for the recognition, we wanted a cleaner beach, and if our actions prompted the local people to start thinking about the environment around them then – bonus! By the time we had finished, we had filled three black bags with rubbish, just from the area around our house, we had a great sense of accomplishment, and if nothing else, we had started spreading a message in Trincomalee.
Here in Cambodia, a local man from the nearby village Prek Svay, has introduced the sale of reusable bamboo straws to the resort. It’s the beginning of an era of understanding and knowledge that I hope will lead to a healthier and cleaner life for future generations here in Koh Rong. Such a small action, a drop in the ocean in comparison to the real issue, but if we can spread the message and share the knowledge that we have with those around us, scenes like this will become more and more scarce and the planet will thank us for it!