Angkor Wat, Prejudice, and Perspectives

On Monday, June 3, our group woke up early for a group trip to Angkor Wat. This mammoth temple was built in the 11th and 12th centuries by the indigenous Angkor people of Cambodia. The largest religious structure in the world, this sprawling collection of ruins was built for a revered king whose ashes would have been buried under the central spire. Although the kingdom practiced Hinduism when the temple was first built, and one can see Hindu influences within the architecture, the final king of Angkor converted the kingdom to Buddhism. Today, one can find both Buddha and Vishnu statues at Angkor Wat, and millions of people come from around the world to visit the temple every year.

With the complex multi-century history of Angkor Wat in mind, our group consulted with our hotel in Siem Reap to find a tour guide for the day. On Monday at 8 in the morning, we met our lively guide in the lobby before boarding our rental bus. Within minutes of the ride, our guide turned around from the passenger seat and welcomed us to the city. He began telling us about tourism in the area, and how he became a tour guide after taking a $2,000 exam on the history of the region. I was most interested in the busy streets and shops that we were seeing for the first time, so I listened to him haphazardly for a bit. Then, he began talking about how Chinese people have been visiting Siem Reap in large numbers over the past few years. He passionately described their unruly behavior in the temples. “The Chinese, they’re fucking animals,” he stated. I see Dr. Datta raise his eyebrows from the seat next to me. “So, you really don’t like the Chinese?” he asks. Our guide confirms his judgements and goes on to talk about investment in the region. “If you want to donate money, don’t give it to the Red Cross. The money doesn’t go anywhere here,” he tells us before we arrive at the ticketing office.

After purchasing passes for the temples, our group drives to the entrance of Angkor Wat and unloads from the bus. Our guide leads us to the back entrance of the temple, where there will be more shade and less people. He stands before a centuries-old moat and talks briefly about the history of the temple: who built it, when, how, why. Mostly, however, he complains about the Cambodian government. “People don’t even vote here; it’s a waste of time. We know who will win. It’s all corrupt.” A moment after his passionate claims against the government, our guide asks if anyone wants a picture by the water. “That’s fucking ludacris,” he says, looking at the photo on his phone.

Our guide’s frustration was woven throughout his tour and discourse. Although we didn’t ask about the Cambodian government, he made a point of touching on the topic. Although we didn’t think to question his opinion on Chinese tourists, he made his thoughts known. After a long and hot tour, which was now mainly centered on the history of the temples, our group stops for lunch. Without our guide present, Dr. Datta asks if we want a new guide for tomorrow. My classmates express their interest in our guide’s blunt nature and cynical views. Given the control nature of the Thai and Cambodian governments, no local has been so critical and forthcoming of politics until this point in the trip. I can see where my classmates are coming from, but I can’t help feeling angry at our guide’s racist comments.

In the past few decades, China’s middle class has boomed, generating wealth for previously impoverished portions of the population and allowing people to travel for the first time. Many people have expressed anti-Chinese sentiments through the media in recent years. As large groups of Chinese tourists alter the tourism industry in places like Thailand and Cambodia, racism and prejudices have emerged. In Hong Kong, people refer to visitors from mainland China as “locusts” who swarm upon the island and take jobs and opportunities. From a defensive position, people criticize others rather than viewing them as people seeking a better life or new experiences.

In the end, we decided to politely decline our tour guide’s company on the second day of temple visits. Mindful of our power as foreigners and guests at the hotel, our professors did not criticize our guide in any way and instead gave him a glowing review. In the hierarchy of society in Thailand and Cambodia, foreigners are often viewed as powerful and important. Whether this is due to colonial history, wealth dynamics, or race I’m not sure, but this conception does mean that visitors should be careful of critiquing local people and employees. While a one-star Yelp review back in the US might not hold much weight, a negative comment about a bartender, maid, or tour guide can cost someone their livelihood and lead to huge consequences for their family. So, although my stomach turned at our tour guide’s racist comments about Chinese tourists, I had to take a step off of my soap box and reflect on the statements from a rational and understanding perspective. Dr. Datta mentioned that he thought our guide was a highly intelligent person suffering from a form of PTSD and processing past trauma. Perhaps this is trauma from his childhood or a past career. Regardless of the source, Dr. Datta made an important point.

I believe each person is a collection of their past experiences. As an educated American, I’m fortunate to have exposure to a wealth of opinions and scholarship about culture, politics, and religion. It’s important to recognize that the experiences of our tour guide were likely vastly different from my own. I know there is no excuse for racism, and I would hope that people around the world, regardless of what society tells them, are drawn to love over hate. That’s the optimist in me. My realist side argues that people are easily influenced, and that someone who is taught to judge a certain group of people will be drawn to judge those people. Someone who has only had negative encounters with Chinese tourists and has not read about the history of China’s economy might view tourists as “animals” instead of seeing them as people from a different cultural context who might be experiencing a new place and a new culture for the first time. Although I do not agree with the opinions of our guide, and I hope he adopts a kinder and more informed view of Chinese tourists in the future, I must try to understand his perspective before complaining to the hotel and ultimately costing him his job.

I do not have to accept racism by any means, but I believe I should search for understanding before jumping to my own judgements about people who harbor anger. Our tour guide, like everyone, is a collection of his own experiences. I believe it’s more valuable to try to understand those experiences before judging him myself. What good does it do to meet anger with more anger?

At home, I will try to pursue this line of thought when reading about white supremacy, neo-Nazis, the border wall, or abortion laws. I do not have to support or accept hatred, racism, and sexism, but I can try to understand the people who propose and support such policies. Then, maybe I will be better equipped to have a dialogue with people with opposite views from my own. Then, maybe I can begin to promote positive change through understanding.

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