Tuesday, March 1, 2011

worlds apart

Photography by Michéle M.  
A Farming-Microfinance NGO worker looks up, past a non-irrigated rice field, at an international airplane full of tourists making their way to the Siem Reap airport.  

With 1.7 million visitors expected to come to Siem Reap this year(1), they come with the hopes of discovering "the real Cambodia" .  Yet, chances are that most--if not all of those tourists--will never see what this girl is looking at, and will neither interact with her.  The two worlds will never collide.  

At the same time, she might never see the inside of that plane either.    

Monday, December 27, 2010


Photoby Mark Z.                
Attribution Some rights reserved                   
Angkor Wat: 
Considered by many as the eighth wonder of the world.

Eight people in one motor bike:  
A new record!

Photo courtesy of @Insolly

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tour Company

Photography by Ed-meister  

I’m very skeptical of tour companies that work as middle-men; who create tour itineraries and then hire outside vendors to actually produce the tours.  They scare me in their ability to (1) shield travelers from seeing the actual location they came to see and (2) bastardize the local community into a tourist trap—diluting local customs and way of life.  

I got a text message late on Tuesday night: Hi Andres and Michele, how are you doing so far?  We hope you are doing well. Anyways, we have something would like to discuss with you.  If you don’t mind please let us know when we could meet.  Thanks.

They wanted to start a tour company in a town where supply of tourism services is far greater than the current demand—and they wanted our advice.  Our fist question: well, how are you going to be different than all of the other companies?  As the night went on and we continued to throw ideas around I was jealous of the great opportunity they have.  Two twenty-something men from the country side, who came to Siem Reap for a university education, and now having a day job wanted to start their own business from the corner of their desk.  Not only that, but they have the scale, and local knowledge to actually provide meaningful, locally sensitive, and interesting experiences to travelers.  

By the end of the night, they were suggesting different ways to bring authenticity of experience in a culturally sustainable manner—and allowing travelers to interact with the location and its beautiful people, as opposed to just observe them through a tour bus window.  Tour operators aren’t all bad.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Photo by: antwerpenR

After almost 7 months in Cambodia, Bangkok was a breath of fresh air when we first visited in April.  The live music, malls, cafes, restaurants, sky train, the food, it all seemed as the perfect blend of modernization and true localized flavor.  This was an astonishing contrast to our current home of Siem Reap, a mere 5 hours away by car.

People say that borders are imaginary lines.  That could be true; however, seeing the contrast between these 2 neighboring countries reminded me of how, through history and development, humans have made these borders real, and clearly visible.  In a few steps, as you cross the border from Thailand to Cambodia, you are faced with the differences.

About a month later we returned to Bangkok—2 weeks after the Red Shirts began their protests.  We continued to discover and enjoy the city; from Chinatown to the glitzy Thonglor—and its Belgium beer houses.  One day before leaving, grenades were fired at the Sala Daeng Station, the same day we were going to take that station to a sushi restaurant.  

Last Saturday we returned as political tensions rose.  Taking some common sense precautions (read: avoiding the protest zone as tempting as it was to get a photo op with the soldiers in the barricades) it was an enjoyable trip.  This time we left Wednesday early afternoon as a cloud of smoke erupted from the city—the result of the Army entering the Red-Shirts’ encampment and the looting/burning that ensued as protesters (and surely others) cased havoc throughout the city.  This conflict highlights the toll of this country’s development, where it seems no side is completely in the right, nor the wrong.  

Travel allowed me to see this, to try to make sense—and not so much—of history.  Today the city awakens in need of rebuilding in more than its burned buildings—thousands injured, many more out of a job as a result of the many hotel, bank, and shop closures.

I am looking forward to returning soon, hopefully in two weeks.  Please don’t avoid places in this or similar situations.  Take common sense with you, stay safe, but stay traveling.  

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wat Bo

I've officially been in Siem Reap for about a week now and set out on a walk around the apartment.  Walking down the street I go into Wat Bo, a  beautiful pagoda established in the 18th century, but there's a problem, the pagoda's main building is closed.  I don't ask too many questions, since there is no one around despite the sound of activity in the area, and am happy looking at the exterior of the building and all of the structures around.

 All of a sudden I begin to hear the words "Hello, Hello", I have no idea where this is all coming from.   After looking around, it seems to be coming from behind a bunch of bushes, from where 3 orange-clad monks carrying notebooks emerge.  Always happy to practice their English, they ask me my name and where I am from, when I ask them about the pagoda, they point to a forth monk and say, "He speaks better English".  The fourth monk comes out to say Hello and tells me a little bit about the closed building behind us, before saying, "Would you like to see it?"  He opens the wooden doors and windows, letting the light unveil a large room where most of the walls are covered in wall paintings of the Reamker.  He tells me of the many uses the Pagoda has gone through over the years and explains how he has taught himself English, even though it gives him a headache.  We laugh and he finishes his sentence with, "but I come here to do meditation and headache goes away." 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Authenticity of Experience

Alarm rings, snooze on, alarm rings, and I’m up.  I walk out of my East Village, 400 sq foot apartment, and walk for 15 minutes to Union Square Station.  After a 35 minute commute I arrive at one of New York’s landmark luxury hotels on the southern tip of Central Park—worlds apart from where I woke up in Alphabet City.

As Marketing Manager, my job was to know the luxury customer better than anyone in the city, yet I was far from being one of them.  Yet this separation from my target market, presented me with the insight to bring forth something different, to bring forth innovation.  Just like innovation does not come from focus groups—they will only tell you what they already know and what is already on market—I was an outsider looking in for new big ideas.

Authenticity of Experience

My travel pattern was also not up to “Luxury Standards,” where I would opt for the off-the-beaten-path $20 or less guest house as opposed to the 5-diamond setting. In fact, in the 2+ years I had this position, the only times I stayed at comparable properties to the one I represented was on business or when redeeming points. Why?  I was seeking for an Authenticity of Experience that, I figured, could only be gained by keeping yourself outside of a hotel compound.  This was never done on purpose, it was just the type of traveler I am, but it finally hit me on a 3 day hike near the town of Lares in Peru.

On the second day of hike, after spending most of the first day sick and half way through a 9 hour trek that took us from 3,000 to 4,600 meters above sea level, we ran into 2 kids who were in the middle of the mountain herding their llamas. The kids came over to say “Hola”, one of the few words they knew in Spanish outside of their native Quechua.   I looked around and thought to myself, this is why we came camping and didn’t stay at a hotel, this is why we chose this trail and not the famous Inca trail, this is why I travel.

As opposed to the Inca trail, the Lares trail is not yet a tourist attraction.  The trial is mostly used by the communities living in the mountains to get to the town of Lares to trade.  In the entire time of hiking we only saw 2 other groups of external travelers.  The Authenticity of Experience came from the fact that I did not meet the people native to the land I was visiting at a hotel lobby, I did not learn about their culture and their traditional clothes from a buffet dinner show.  I met those two kids, and the many others along the hike, in their homes, in the middle of an awe inspiring mountain landscape.  There was nothing commercial or staged about the encounters, it felt real, it felt like an true interaction.

I by no means seek to devalue the efforts many hotels go through to bring a slice of the local culture into their properties for the guests to experience and the way these exchanges have in many instances been able to maintain some local cultural identity in an ever more globalized world.  I only mean to point out the type of experiences that have inspired and propelled people to travel to far lands for years. My real goal is to find a way for the tourism industry to capitalize on this Authenticity of Experience in a way that is both sustainable and respectful. 

In that same spirit, I have packed up and moved on to Siem Reap, Cambodia, from where I wish to continue working, traveling, and living for the Authenticity of Experience.