The Children of Cambodia

It’s nearly 1am and I am with my group of friends on Pub Street trying to carry on a conversation in spite of the ever-increasing volume of music from the competing bars. The place is buzzing as travelers drink and socialize, tuk tuk drivers buzz anxiously outside the entry of every establishment like moths to a flame, and half a dozen street kids turned salespeople run around with plastic bins filled by cheap bracelets around their necks. The kids seem to be having a good time, so it’s almost easy to forget that children shouldn’t be working the streets at one in the morning, that they are totally vulnerable to abuse, that they won’t be going to school the next morning, and that they likely have a bleak future ahead.

A few backpackers have turned down the kid’s sales pitches of flowers and bracelets and begun to dance with them instead. I smile in spite of myself, as children are the same the world over, so happy to dance and play. One pretty girl in particular catches my eye. She’s around eight and already an exhibitionist. The song coming from our bar changes to Waka Waka by Shakira. The girl immediately jumps into the famous dance from the music video, laughing and singing but all the while performing for the tourists. Two backpackers hand her dollar bills.

Suddenly my mind drifts to K, a girl I had babysat for back in my former life in New York. She had been adopted from Southeast Asia at age three. Now eight, this same Shakira song was her favorite and not a babysitting gig went by where we didn’t watch the music video and dance around her bedroom to it, just as these little girls, who looked like they could be her sisters, were doing now. The difference was it was 7pm, right before bedtime, and we were safe in her families beautiful brownstone, and soon her extremely educated and financially comfortable parents would be home, and the next morning she would go to her upscale private international school and receive a world-class education. Born in poverty, she was one of the smartest kids I’ve ever met: a voracious reader, a gifted piano player, a hard-working little tennis star in the making, and still always a silly kid.

It’s funny how life turns out. Two girls, born in neighboring countries at similar times under what I assume are similar circumstances, living in opposite worlds. Both dancing away to the same pop song.

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A lot has changed since my first visit to Siem Reap two years ago. There are dozens of children rather than seemingly hundreds spending the day at Angkor Wat selling water and the omnipresent cheap bracelets. I was only followed by children asking for money and food once a night rather than on every street. Perhaps it was only circumstantial, but I choose to believe that the hard work being done by NGO’s and the government is making a difference in the lives of kids in Cambodia. But there is still work to be done.

Children of Cambodia

Guesthouses still feel the need to post “No Child Sex Tourist” signs outside their doors, and the papers still hold stories of arrested foreigners traveling to the country solely to exploit its children. There are still an estimated 24,000 children living and working on the streets here in Cambodia.

Children of Cambodia

There are endless organizations to donate your money and perhaps your time to if you feel moved by these words. But first, live by the credo “Do No Harm.” Here’s how to avoid worsening the plight of the children of Cambodia during your visit.

Children of Cambodia

1.    Do not buy from the children or give them money

As long as there are tourists giving money to children or buying their useless goods, there will be reason for their parents to keep them out of school and on the street. You’re going to use it a lot, so practice a kind but firm “no” before you arrive: the word for ‘no‘ is pronounced ‘otDay.

Despite the fact that not to buy from the children or give them money is the number one thing you read in every piece of literature about the plight of children in Cambodia (and there are many), I still saw tourists handing over dollars and looking quite pleased with themselves. I can empathize with their instinct to do this, but it made my blood boil to see it because it told me that these mostly young backpackers were either making literally zero effort to learn anything about the country they were in or read one of the many warnings like this one and ignored them.

Children of Cambodia

2.    Do not give the children candy or other gifts

If we can’t give them money we’ll give them sweets or food, the train of thought goes. This is a particularly tough rule to follow as nothing tugs on the heart strings more than a child pulling on your arm and begging for something to eat. But candy will rot the teeth of children who might not even have a toothbrush and worse will encourage a life of begging. If you truly can’t resist the urge to hand something out in person, make it something useful such as toothbrushes or pencils for school. Even better, give it to a school or organization to avoid the jealousy bred by individual gifts.

Children of Cambodia

3.    Do donate to local charities instead

Practicing that endless “NO” will be much easier if you have already donated the money you would have handed over to one of the local organizations that is much more equipped to help than you are with a one dollar note.

Children of Cambodia

4.    Do not volunteer at an orphanage (with exceptions)

Here’s the exceptions: Do you have 3 months or more and qualifications that will make you an asset? Then be prepared to do thorough research to find a worthwhile placement and settle in for the long haul.

If you have a week or a day or as in many cases, an hour, don’t do it. At worst, the orphanage may be an out and out scam literally “renting” children from poverty stricken families in order to profit off of your donations. At best, the orphanage is real and is allowing unscreened strangers to come flooding in on a daily basis in and out of the lives of kids who already have abandonment and attachment issues. At the time of my visit to Cambodia Childsafe was launching a massive, eye catching campaign discouraging “orphanage tourism” which you can read more about here.

Voluntourism in general has become more and more popular and potentially more and more harmful. This is a fascinating topic I feel really passionately about, and you can (and should) read more at Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

Children of Cambodia

5.    Do be aware and willing to say something

One early morning Mark and I were walking from our guesthouse and heard the familiar but heartbreaking sound of a child’s gutwrenching scream from inside a guesthouse’s closed gate. We could see his little feet and that he was wetting himself.

I was still unsettled by it later in the day and realized it’s because this is a country where sadly you can’t assume a screaming child is simply having a tantrum or being disciplined by their parents.  Cambodia’s reputation as a destination for child sex tourism means children here are extremely vulnerable to abuse. Before your visit, program the ChildSafe’s hotline into your phone (023 997 919) and don’t hesitate to call if you suspect a child is being abused or exploited.

Children of Cambodia

Its hard to walk away when a child is so cute and smiling and in need. Its hard not to loose your temper when you are asked for the millionth time in a day whether or not you would like a cold bottle of water. It’s hard not to break “the rules” when they go against everything your heart tells you. But the best thing we can do for these children is to take the advice of the experts around us, and if possible, support their causes with donations. Above all, remember to be kind, smile generously, play freely, and let your heart and mind be open to kids of Cambodia.

32 Responses to “The Children of Cambodia”

  1. OrpingtonT says:

    Wonderful post. You are an exceptional lady, Alex.

  2. Nadia says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! I will pass it along. I think it is so very important to emphasize that everyone must do their own research. Just because the organization has a “UN” at the front of its title or is established in the western world, does not mean they always know best. Policies are written by people, not gods. Everyone should read policies, explore the place, and reach thoughtful, intelligent conclusions through research. . . its the only way to find solutions.

    • Alex says:

      That is a very good point, and one emphasized by the Good Intentions website I plug in this post. And speaking of the UN, I watched a heart wrenching but great based-on-a-true-story movie the other night, Whistleblower, which will make me hesitate before trusting those two little letters so blindly in the future. It’s always good to make up one’s own mind.

  3. Dad says:

    Alex, I hope this blog gets picked up and broadcast to as wide an audience of asian bound travelers as possible. It is an informative, well written advisory that is not preachy or whiny. Exceptional.

    • Alex says:

      Well, even though you are my Dad I take those compliments to heart and really appreciate them. I think maybe I don’t come off preachy because I am really empathetic to why people want to volunteer at orphanages and give out sweets to kids… but that doesn’t change that we shouldn’t do it. In fact I even admitted in my Biking through Angkor post that I bought some fruit from a kid. In that case they were the only vendor there and I wanted something and it was my first day back in Cambodia and I was off guard, and I just did it. I’m more careful now.

  4. Audrey says:

    It breaks my heart that so many children are exploited and abused, especially when it comes to sex-tourism. AIM Cambodia is a group that I really admire because they are working to prevent, rescue and restore these children. You’re right, people need to inform themselves about the places they are visiting and be aware of what is going on around them. I know it’s a sensitive topic, but I’m glad you wrote about it.
    Audrey recently posted..The Markets of India

    • Alex says:

      Hi Audrey, thanks for the recommendation for a group that readers can support if they are interested! A personal recommendation goes a long way with this sort of thing.

  5. Exceptional post. I’ve really learned a lot about what to do and what NOT to do through this post. Thank you for posting it. It has really cleared up some of my questions. I know now to be aware of these things before I head to Laos at the end of this year.

    Keep more posts coming like this one!
    globalcitizensam recently posted..Ponyfish Island, Melbourne

    • Alex says:

      Sam, thank you. I’ve never been to Laos, but I assume you will encounter similar situations. I’ve been reading that I can expect more of the same when I head to Vietnam today. It can be a bit exhausting and I’m sure I will breathe a sigh of relief a bit when I head back to Thailand, where this is less prevalent (but still exists!)

  6. Lauri says:

    Great post!! I’ve spent some time volunteering in South America and during my research I came across every single one of these points. You’re right – it’s very tough but if we all practice a little tough love we can hopefully start seeing some changes in our lifetime. I will definitely re-tweet to spread the message! And great photos by the way :)

    • Alex says:

      Hi Lauri, thanks so much for commenting, because I didn’t realize that so many of these problems also existed in South America as well (though I’m not surprised if I think about it). I like the way you put it as “tough love…” I’m going to tell myself that next time my heart is aching.

  7. Our tour guide actually told us that we were “killing the children in Cambodia” by buying things from them at the temples, but when they follow you for 20 minutes straight with a pity routine, it feels even meaner to say no. Plus, our thinking was, “well, they’re going to get in trouble, too, if they come back home without making any sales.” But yes, I know it was wrong of us.

    • Alex says:

      I know how you feel. Our last night in Phnom Penh I had a horrible experience. I was looking for a Vietnam guidebook and absentmindedly looked over when I saw a kid selling books. I caught myself and tried to walk away but just a glance was enough for him to follow me for a block! Later I bought a copy from an adult seller and the kid popped out of nowhere, and immediately started going crazy, shouting why I didn’t buy from him and looking near tears. He sounded so anguished, he truly was hurt. What am I going to say, “Sorry… I’m hoping that I deprive you of sales eventually your parents will not longer see you are no longer an income stream and instead send you to school for an education and brighter future!” Yeah. It was a rough night. I was really fighting back tears.

      • Absolutely heartbreaking! Thank you for this post, Alex. I’m sure it will help people to say no when necessary. It’s not easy though – what a sad story about the little guy with the guidebook!

        • Alex says:

          Thanks Angie. It is a tough part of travel but a daily reality in South East Asia. I’m sure you are experiencing some similar situations in Africa. I just try to live the “do no harm” credo, but unfortunately it’s not always as easy as it should be.

  8. [...] living parent. For more information, Lost Girl editor Alex Baackes recently wrote a blog post on children in Cambodia. Source: [...]

  9. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for this valuable info. We just arrived in Siem Reap and this will help us.

    Larissa and Michael

    • Alex says:

      Thanks, guys! I’m glad to help spread this information to travelers in Cambodia. Siem Reap holds a special place in my heart, along with most of Cambodia…

  10. Fantastic, insightful post!!! Thank you so much. I am heading to Cambodia soon and I feel like I really needed to read this, as I support a Cambodian children’s charity and was hoping to visit. Your post reminds me that if I want to help, I have to go about it the right way, as it is about the lives of disadvantaged young people, not mine.

    • Alex says:

      Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment! I really love what you said here: “It is about the lives of disadvantaged young people, not mine.” I hope other people will be inspired by that!

      • Jo says:

        Yes I was inspired by that too (thank you sarah) :) and I’m leaving for Cambodia in a week so thank you Alex your post is wonderful :)

  11. Suzanne Grey says:

    If you want to see rich culture and history, visit Cambodia.
    Suzanne Grey recently posted..How Can Hydrocodone Abuse Effect You?

  12. [...] kaufen, oder Geld, Essen oder Süßigkeiten geben! So schwer es auch fällt, hier in diesem tollen Bericht von Alex, einer Reisenden wird sehr gut beschrieben, dass genau dieses Verhalten dazu beiträgt die [...]

  13. [...] kaufen, oder Geld, Essen oder Süßigkeiten geben! So schwer es auch fällt, hier in diesem tollen Bericht von Alex, einer Reisenden wird sehr gut beschrieben, dass genau dieses Verhalten dazu beiträgt die [...]

  14. Vicky says:

    Very interesting post. Just checked out the links you provided in the “don’t volunteer at an orphanage” section — really crazy — never knew about any of that.
    Vicky recently posted..Daring Bakers March 2012 – Dutch Crunch Bread and Prosciutto Sandwiches

  15. [...] don’t want to end up doing more harm than good! For instance, there is a lot of talk about volunteering in orphanages that makes me believe that it is something you should avoid unless you are well qualified and have [...]

  16. SAO Dona says:

    Unbelievable news! I am proud for you who are not Cambodian, but your compassion and pitiful intention is tremendously Cambodian. Your willingness and generosity make so proud for you and I profoundly appreciate you on behalf of Cambodian children.

    Currently, I am also working in NGO who working toward to acceleration situation of children in Cambodia. I hope that you will run your activities continuously to help Cambodia children. I can say that today I HAVE GOOD LUCK that I come across your blog and understand your willingness.

    Helping Cambodia Children!!!

  17. [...] Breaking Strike and Broken Hearts, The Odd Sensation of Returning Home, War Tourism in Vietnam, The Children of Cambodia Most Beautiful: Santorini Sunsets, Southwest and Shark Island, Mui Ne Sand Dunes Most Useful: [...]

  18. [...] fretting over what to wear in a conservative country like Egypt. Maybe you’re wondering how to help poverty-striken children in Cambodia without doing more harm than good. As a perpetual traveler, I deal with these issues on [...]

  19. Nancy says:

    Very thoughtful post. Thank you. Amazing pictures as well.

  20. mivec says:

    A very interesting and informative read. It’s a rather uncomfortable but important issue and I thank you for addressing it. I’m an overly-protective mother myself, heading to Laos later this year and I’m already dreading this part of the trip.

    …Did you and Mark find out why that boy was crying?

    • Alex says:

      Hi mivec, thanks for reading. Personally I experienced a lot less of this kind of in-your-face discomfort with children in Laos than in Cambodia, so you might not see as much of it as you expect. Still, just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, which is heartbreaking. No, we never found out why he was crying…

  21. Hi Alex,

    I wish you hadn’t started your list with two what not to do’s. When I moved to and lived in Brazil, they told me the same thing: don’t give to the kids. But you know what? I should have given to the kids. I lived in Sao Paulo, and the situation has only become worse since then (14 years later). There might have been better alternatives, but frankly every Lonely Planet, tourist guide, etc tells you not to give to the kids, but they don’t tell you what you should do instead, and how to help these kids. As that is really truly what these tourists want to do: help the kids. I am glad you have posted alternatives as frankly most pieces of literature are lacking that. But I do hope we can encourage people to keep helping, just in a way that helps them most, instead of not helping at all. You can read more about my perspective on that on my latest blog post I wrote on this.
    Marieke Hensel recently posted..Who’s picking you up when you are down?

    • Alex says:

      Hey Marieke, thanks for your comment! But we may have to agree to disagree. I stand by what I wrote here, and while I am happy I was able to provide some alternatives, I think the “What Not To Do” are in fact the most important ones. Good intentions are simply not enough, and we can do damage even when it is in our hearts to do the opposite.

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