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The Authenticity Dilemma

Written by Bobby Murphy, OG Program Leader

What do we mean when we say we want an authentic experience abroad?

Prak’s Story

It’s my first night in Cambodia and I find myself on the rooftop patio at a hostel in Battambang eating dinner with a few other travelers. We are sharing stories about our latest adventures, describing our favorite meals, and talking about our future destinations — the typical backpacker stuff. One guy says that he had gone in search of an ancient form of Cambodian kickboxing, which led him to spend the afternoon with a group of men practicing in the middle of a field somewhere outside of town. The girls mention that they ended up in someone’s home singing karaoke the previous night after the bar closed. Throughout the conversation, there is a clear demand for exchanging stories about these unique, not-in-the-guide-book, “authentic” experiences. We wonder aloud about what is written in the guide book, how it got there, and how it has changed since its exposure to the backpacker community.

And then Prak, a local tuk-tuk driver, sits down, and I ask him where he has traveled in Cambodia. He says he has never left Battambang.

At this point I turn to face him, offering him my full attention while the others continue talking amongst themselves. Cambodians don’t travel much, he tells me, only the rich ones do, and they are only rich because they take advantage of the poor. A decade ago there was no work. People would work all day in the fields for $1, or go to Thailand illegally and work all day in the fields for $3. Passports cost well over a hundred dollars, enough to prevent a majority of the population from affording one. So thousands of people would sneak into Thailand through the jungle, far from any legitimate border-crossing, just to find some work. Drivers would meet them there and transport a few people at a time to far-flung reaches of Thailand where they knew of jobs. Sometimes people would wait two weeks in the jungle with no food, eating the fruit or leaves they could find growing in the trees. Then, if a driver came for them, they might travel in the back of a truck full of pigs, covered in manure, in order to get past the military checkpoints en route to their new destination on the opposite side of the country. All this for only $2 a day more than they were earning back home.

Read the rest of Bobby’s exploration of what “authenticity” means in travel on Medium!

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