September 2015 marked the launch of our pioneering Buddhism tour, in collaboration with World Weavers under their brand “Monk for a Month”. This tour was established to engage international travellers with a deeper connection to Cambodia’s culture and practices, offer an insight into Buddhism according to Khmer conventions, and showcase locations outside of the usual tourism hot-spots.
Delivering Cambodian travel experiences with a Buddhism focus has been a dream of Ayana co-founder Yut – himself and ex-monk – for many years, and the whole team has shared his excitement in designing this adventure. However we are also aware that the notion of ‘spiritual tourism’ may be controversial for some, and have thus been very careful to create this experience in a way that we feel is both responsible and respectful.
Our responsible tourism vision for Buddhism travel experiences in Cambodia:
- Donations – Traditionally monks should not handle money, and obviously this raises a tricky question for us; we want to be able to show our gratitude to them for sharing their time with us. One of the ways we have done this is by making donations to pagodas based on their needs and recommendations, such as hard-to-get foods in rural areas, or restricted donations for a specific project that a pagoda is currently collecting for, such as (re)construction of places of worship and/or community initiatives.
- Cambodian culture can teach you a thing or two – Many tourism experiences in Cambodia are built around the idea of foreigners bringing improvements to the country (such as aid and voluntourism), but we truly believe Cambodian culture can teach visitors a lot too. These include Buddhist values adopted in daily life, such as living in the present – don’t focus too much on the past or the future, but clear your mind to focus on being a better person today.
- Decision making – We’ve invested time in building relationships with elders and leaders at different projects and sites, and believe in the need to continuously strengthen these relationships. One way we aim to do that is providing decision-making rights to these people about what level of visit is appropriate, and follow their lead. This includes whether we can attend ceremonies at their discretion, stay a night in a pagoda, or even how much of their time and knowledge they’re willing to share.
- Cultural conservation– Like many places across the globe, modernization threatens ancient culture and traditions. By raising awareness of traditional beliefs, we hope to encourage local people to take pride in their culture and contribute to the conservation of these traditions, either through practice or storytelling. We also feel privileged to play even a minor role in helping share these stories and traditions with visitors.
- ‘Real’ life interactions– Tourism often creates inauthentic experiences by turning culture into a commodity. This can be seen through things such as dances or staged rituals, and many other performances of this kind. We believe in showing things as they are, and that might mean at times guests are ‘disappointed’ (“But the monk has a mobile phone! I didn’t expect that!”), but we’re dealing with real people and encourage our guests to embrace the authentic, even if it doesn’t always match expectations.
- Spreading economic benefits of tourism– There is so much more to Cambodia than the Killing Fields and Angkor Wat. To benefit tourism service providers (such as guesthouses and restaurants) off the well-trodden tourist path, we’re excited to connect intrepid travellers to locations often over-looked by tour providers. We support locally owned businesses and services to contribute to local economies in locations we visit.
- Education value – Learning through travel is at the core of our vision. Spiritual tourism focuses on the traveller taking time to become more self-aware, and learning from and about different faiths. We believe that learning about other cultures can encourage people to become more open-minded about differences, and contribute to a more peaceful world by enhancing your sense of compassion and empathy for others. To that end, we believe that at the very least our guests will have a clearer understanding of how to be a responsible traveller at religious sites in Cambodia, and locations all over the world.
We have taken inspiration from The Ninh Binh Declaration on Spiritual Tourism for Sustainable Development guidelines on delivering spiritual tourism in an ethical manner.