Jared Cahners, 39, was born in Boston but has lived all over the world, from Philadelphia and Florida to Beijing and Hanoi, where he worked as an editor for a travel website. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in Southeast Asian studies, he began a PhD in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, with a research focus on Cambodia. He lived here for three and a half years before dropping out to start a travel company, Cambodia Alive, which provides tours to Ratanakkiri, Siem Reap, Kratie and Kampong Cham. He is also the head of the Phnom Penh Ultimate Frisbee Association. He talked to Emily Wight about how he has married his love of travel in the region with his expertise in anthropology to form Cambodia Alive.
Why did you decide to move from academia into the travel industry?
I moved to Ratanakkiri to do research for my dissertation and lived there for a couple of years, originally looking at the effects of road construction in the area, then at the effects on tourism. Eventually, though, the prospect of translating Cambodian life into abstract anthropological terms for academics who would never come here lost its attraction for me. Meeting with travellers who went up there and helping them understand the lives of Khmer people and other ethnic groups became more attractive.
What did you discover in your research about the effects of tourism on the local community?
The thing with Ratanakkiri is that tourism just isn’t that developed up there yet. Although there’s Khmers going there for holidays – it gets crowded around New Year and Pchum Ben – it’s not that widespread, so in terms of politics it’s not that exciting. I did find that using guides up there means there’s a real opportunity for some voices in ethnic minority communities to be heard, and for people to show their communities off.
How did you meet the guides you work with?
I’ve got an interesting story about a guide in Banlung. It was about 2005 or 2006, and I was up in Ratanakkiri doing preliminary research for my PhD, and I was visiting a lake up there called Yak Lom Lake. I was sitting there chatting with a guy and he was telling me stories of how that lake came to be, and I found him really interesting. We were just sitting in the water chatting, and then he took me on a tour, I honestly don’t remember where. A couple of days later his little brother took me on another tour. A number of years later, when I moved there, I couldn’t remember their names, but I asked around and I vaguely remembered where the village was. Eventually someone said, “Oh, you’re talking about Khieng!” So I found the little brother again, and we became friends. He now works as one of my guides.
What makes Cambodia Alive so different from other tourist companies?
The common Cambodian tour includes a day or two visiting historical sites from the Pol Pot era and then a few days visiting the Angkorian remains in Siem Reap. In my opinion, though, the greatest thing Cambodia has to offer tourists is its living people. I started Cambodia Alive to give tourists a taste of the best of what Cambodia has to offer. Having quality local guides who are respected by the local community and are adept at translating both language and culture for travellers is vital. Cambodia Alive tours are based on quality local experiences, not “getting away from tourists” or finding a mythical “real Cambodia”.
What makes the homestays of your tours different from the voyeurism of “hill tribe tours” and similar phenomenons?
A lot of homestay experiences depend on your guide or host. A bad homestay can make you feel alone and can make the people around you feel like visitors in their own community. In the homestays I offer, you will rarely be without a guide or a respected local who can translate for you. While you can wander and try to communicate on your own a bit, most of the time you will be with someone trusted by the community. This makes interacting with those you meet more comfortable, enjoyable and educational for all parties.
How would you say your background in anthropology influences the ethos of Cambodia Alive?
First of all, I’m a people person – I would much rather meet interesting people than take pictures of sites. Secondly, studying anthropology has showed me to understand the diversity within cultures. I try to help travellers understand the different ways Cambodians can be Cambodian as opposed to pretending to show them “Cambodian Culture” as a single entity.
On your website you refer to many tourists engaging with “dead Cambodians”. What do you mean by this?
Cambodians have been through a lot. But they are still here. They are working, playing, performing, and worshipping. If travellers come to Cambodia thinking that it is only a place of past glory and recent misery, they’re missing a lot of what is around them.