Tourism creates thorny ethical dilemmas. Isn’t that the point?

A moment frozen in time.
A moment frozen in time.
Image: Akshat Rathi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On a recent holiday in Cambodia, as I marveled at the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex, a commotion broke my reverie.

I had already noticed the other tourist involved: a white woman wearing an Asian conical hat. I had snapped a photo of the mesmerizing Baphuon temple with her in the foreground, walking toward it (above). But when she got to the entrance, she was blocked by a guard.

“In Cambodia, the Vietnamese hat is not allowed,” the guard told her.

Known in Vietnam as the nón lá, or “leaf hat,” the conical hat is used in various Asian countries as protection from the tropical sun and rain. It’s mostly worn by farmers or people of the working class, though ornate versions have been worn by nobles in the Philippines.

For the guard, however, the hat is connected to a deep strain of resentment against Vietnam. Under a complex set of circumstances after the US retreat from Saigon, a reunified Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and stopped the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, the communist party of Cambodia, who had already killed an estimated 1.5 million people. Though the invasion eventually brought an end to a brutal regime, the Cambodians feared the Vietnamese desire for territorial expansion, having suffered other Vietnamese invasions centuries earlier.

To make matters worse, the Cambodian government, which is headed by a former Khmer Rouge member, Hun Sen, has done nothing to allay his people’s fears of Vietnam. Rather, under a nationalist garb, it has undermined the lives of the few Vietnamese living in Cambodia and encouraged anti-immigrant sentiment.

At Angkor Wat, I watched the tourist engage in a few minutes of back and forth. Then she stormed past the helpless guard, hat still on her head.

The confrontation lasted barely a minute, but it sparked a much longer discussion with my wife. The conical style of hat was not officially banned, as the tourist pointed out. Arguably, she had every right to wear whatever form of headdress she preferred.

But was it the moment to exercise those rights? I’m not so sure.

It’s the kind of dilemma that travel raises on a daily basis—and as difficult as these questions are, it is arguably one of the great benefits of getting outside one’s cultural comfort zone to engage with the world. I never got a chance to ask the tourist why she chose to assert herself the way she did, but the “what if” questions that the incident raised gave us lots of food for thought.

What if she were visiting a church, synagogue, or mosque?

Originally built as a Hindu temple, and converted to a Buddhist one, the Angkor Wat complex is the world’s largest religious monument. So it’s no surprise that tourists are required to follow certain rules: Wear decent clothes that cover shoulders and knees; don’t be loud; don’t touch the monks. The tourist was complying with all these baseline conventions, and it’s possible she knew nothing of the complicated cultural connotations of the Vietnamese hat. Still, when visiting another culture’s sacred space, it’s generally best to comply with the requests of its guardians.

What if she were Vietnamese?

People of Vietnamese origin in Cambodia live marginalized lives. My guess is that, if she were Vietnamese, she would have had to follow the guard’s order to remove her conical hat. The immigrant mantra (I know, as an immigrant myself) is to always play it safe, and she wouldn’t have wanted any trouble. In that case, I probably would have seen the guard as wrongfully oppressing her out of cultural prejudice.

What if she were a man?

Women’s clothing, and how they cover their bodies, is policed around the world, and it is a pernicious form of gender subjugation. Male dominance remains deeply entrenched in Cambodian culture, as in many other cultures. In this case, the guard was also a woman, but it’s likely that she wouldn’t have felt as confident asking a man to take off his hat as she did asking another woman.

What if she were not white?

Non-white tourists are treated with less deference and respect in much of the world, and we tend to be more fearful and acquiescent to authority. For brown tourists like me (I’m Indian), this can start even before we get to a foreign country: Many of us have had to go through a rigorous procedure to secure a visa because our passports are not as powerful as those of Western, wealthy countries. As a result, we are less likely to carry around the sense of privilege required to ignore the orders of an authority figure like a guard.

What if this had happened in the West?

Police and quasi-police in the West tend to be better trained, better equipped, and better paid. They have the power to enforce rules (official or cultural), and they are not afraid to wield it. The guard in the Angkor incident was a slight woman, wearing an old, faded uniform, and she seemed frustrated by her lack of authority over the situation. After the tourist defied her and walked up the steps wearing her hat, the guard just sighed and sat back down in her chair.

What if she wore a hijab and was asked to take remove that?

Muslim women around the world have been forced or asked remove their head coverings, usually out of cultural prejudice or outright racism. Cambodia is home to a small but robust Muslim population of more than 150,000 people, and women freely wear the hijab there. If the guard had asked a Muslim woman to remove her covering, she would clearly have been in the wrong.

But is that a fair comparison with the Vietnamese hat? Probably not. Ultimately my sense is that, more than prejudice against the Vietnamese, the guard’s intention was to enforce decorum, prevent rudeness, and perhaps to educate a tourist about the culture she had come, purportedly, to admire.

In my view, both the guard and the tourist were wrong. Their wrongs were relatively minor, and they probably both had forgotten the run-in within hours. But for me the incident was a demonstration of how an encounter can be weighted with cultural, historical, and personal significance. Weeks later, I’m still mulling over it.