If you love travelling on a budget, then third world countries are often on the hit list, especially Asia. Incorporating responsible travel into your itinerary and seeing local communities benefit from tourism and generally improving lives is wonderful. I’m retelling my story of guilt upon discovering I may have unwittingly contributed to the exploitation of children on a trip to Cambodia. My journey commences from simply being a tourist looking at temples to delving further beneath the surface, revealing a dark side to Cambodia’s burgeoning tourism industry. In hindsight, I am providing some helpful advice on how people can make a positive difference when visiting Cambodia and avoid the orphanage tourism in Cambodia trap.
Visiting Angkor Wat was an item on my bucket list with a view of visiting an orphanage if I came across one, so Siem Reap is the destination and being an avid photographer I prearranged a four day tour with a personal guide for my mum and I. The tour focuses on visiting various temples and a boat ride on the Tonle Sap. Whilst Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom are wonderful, by the end of third day I am sick of seeing the proliferation of other temples. They all start to look the same and I remember that this may be an opportunity to go to an orphanage instead of another temple. I make a point of asking our personal tour guide whether he can take me to one. My guide is very obliging and takes us to an orphanage located near Preah Ko temple ruins, in Siem Reap’s Bakong district. Although located near a temple, Little Angel’s Orphanage looks rarely frequented by tourists. We meet Sery Rathana, the Manager of the orphanage who, as translated through our guide, explains how he is an orphan himself and wanted to help those in the same situation. We are shown where the children sleep, met the cook and watch the children make leather artwork, which they sell to help make ends meet. It is also explained how the children are educated by showing us the black board and old computers, so they can support themselves when they eventually leave. Approaching me for a hug, I pick up a beaming cherubic toddler dressed in a bright blue singlet and my heart melts instantly. Having left my own two boys behind at home, I really want to take that little boy to add to my collection. I have so many questions.
“What’s this little boy’s story?” I ask.
“Oh he has a mother but she is too poor to look after him. She lives a long way from here so he only sees her once a year”, replies Sery.
I have spotted a piece of artwork I want to buy. I has a child’s name written in Khmer on the back of the packaging.
“Which child made this one?” I ask.
“She got run over by a car and died,” replies one of the employees. By now my heart is bleeding.
Finally, the children perform a shadow puppet show of which I showed a great appreciation for being given this private audience. On the way out, there is a donation box and I eagerly place some money into it. I usually like to give needed material items rather than money, but I am caught off guard by not knowing in advance that we are going to an orphanage. Sery looks like he is doing a wonderful job and the children all look lovingly cared for. The children and staff happily pose for a picture and I felt the experience is an extremely positive one.
The Awful Truth
Back at home some time later, I saw a documentary on orphanage tourism in Cambodia and am horrified to learn what really goes on behind the scenes at most Cambodian orphanages. The startling truth is that the real number of orphaned children is decreasing, but there has been a 75% increase of ‘orphanages’ in just five years according to UNICEF and tourism seems to be the main cause for this trend. There are over 300 ‘orphanages’ in Siem Reap alone. 72% of the children in Cambodia’s orphanages have at least one living parent and many more have living grandparents. As tourists swarm into Cambodia, unscrupulous mercenaries have seized upon money making opportunities at the expense of their charges. In a modern day Oliver Twist type saga, adverts in tourist hotels or ‘friendly’ tuk tuk drivers lure well-meaning tourists to the ‘orphanages’. Many people who run these intuitions search for families who are in abject poverty in rural areas. They offer money to the desperate large family and promise that one of their children will get looked after and receive an education funded by foreigners. Often they will cherry pick the cutest child and the ‘orphan’ rarely experiences the benefits promised and are often kept in poor living conditions, work for a living and perform plays or Aspara dancing for tourists and allow tourists unhindered access in order to secure more donations from sympathetic visitors. Many of these children end up living on the streets, through abuse and neglect and never see their families again. Tourists fuel this industry and despite their good intentions, orphanage tourism in Cambodia leads to a cycle of sustained cycle of poverty.
Children are Still Being Institutionalised
I am at odds with this new information as I truly felt the orphanage I visited was doing ‘the right thing’. The thought that I was conned and the children possibly exploited, was my sending my moral compass into a spin. My experience still seemed innocent enough, but when I read this information, it seemed to tick enough of the boxes to raise my suspicion. Yes, some of the children did have parents, the kids were very cute, they did perform a shadow puppet play for us and yes, they were making artwork to sell.
However, there were many normal signs that maybe this place wasn’t so bad after all. My own children need to perform chores if they want an allowance so I would hardly call that child labour. An employee who accompanied us the whole time we were there. No one suggested I come to this orphanage as I asked to visit on an adhoc basis and no one forced the donation box under my nose. Sery’s affection for these children was very genuine and I believe this is hard to fake. To alleviate my conscience, I made it my mission to find out whether Little Angel’s was being managed with the best interests of the children being their priority. I managed to find an article ‘Carving a Future for Orphans’ published in the Phnom Penh Post in 2011. Here is a summary:
“Sery Rathana was orphaned at the age of nine when both his parents were shot down by the Khmer Rouge. He sold cans and sand from the river, and cut wood so his three brothers could attend school. Rathana later had the opportunity to learn the craft of leather carving and became so talented that he became a trainer. With his own savings, Rathana opened the Little Angels Orphanage in 2002. The shelter educates and trains 50 orphans and 30 children from impoverished families the leather carving art. Families approach Rathana for assistance and he interviews them to see if the child qualifies to be part of his program because there is room for 80 children. The “angels,” aged from toddlers to mid twenties, have a structured life like any other child. After they shower and eat breakfast, the older children attend school at the premises. The students are on a rotating schedule so approximately half the children are learning to leather carve whilst the others are in school. The students receive 20% of the proceeds from the sale of their art and as a result, some choose to go to private schools. When the children return from class, they can play sports, work on one of the five computers that Rathana saved up for, have free time or do their homework. English classes are also held by a former “angel” who is now a university graduate. A proud Sery explains, “one student has just finished his first year of university and another four are expected to start in the new school year.” 150 students from neighbouring villages also receive and education at the orphanage. Sery, who receives little aid, relies on tourists to support his orphanage, and 45 per cent of the profits from the sold art are used to buy supplies, sourced from a local fresh cowhide supplier, to make more art.”
I also found this video on Little Angel’s Orphanage at vimeo.com. While this news report might leave you with some warm and fuzzy feelings and helped make your mind up that Sery is definitely genuine, it still doesn’t disguise the fact the children are being institutionalised in these places and that community based help is the better option.
5 Things You Can Do to Make a Positive Difference
1) Resist offers to visit orphanages
The negative impact on a child removed from families and communities far outweighs any perceived benefit that orphanage care can provide. Moving away from a process of institutionalised care and investing time and money into maintaining the family also has a ripple effect and positively impacts on siblings, parents, wider family, and community rather than on the individual child alone. By continuing to support institutions that reinforce separation of families no long-term solutions are reached and ultimately render Cambodian children, families and communities even more vulnerable by maintaining a negative cycle of vulnerability and poverty.
2) Do some research before you volunteer
The concept of volunteering is becoming an increasingly popular holiday past time as travellers are looking for more rewarding forms of travel. However, even a real orphanage can still leave children vulnerable by not having child protection policies in place. Having unknown people come in from outside is leaving these children open to abuse. It pays to do your homework before setting out to volunteer. In 2005 the ChildSafe Network was launched in Cambodia by Friends International and offers some useful tips for travellers who are considering making a financial or physical commitment to an organisation. If people seek to give something back to the communities that they visit then it is their responsibility to make informed decisions about where they contribute. All volunteer projects should be based on a real local need and work in partnership with local people in order to transfers skills and ensure the project’s longevity. For instance, donating time and/or money to programmes that support and promote family and community-based care, reintegration of children into family and community-based care, and provision of social services to vulnerable children and their families within a community setting and programmes that work to prevent family separation. It’s also important that volunteers are not replacing care workers or doing the work that would replace experienced, local labour. The organisation you choose to volunteer for should also explain how the money is spent. In Cambodia, there is no legal requirement for orphanages to account for funds raised through donations. Ongoing challenges with corruption and lack of transparency means there is no guarantee that donated money is reaching the intended recipients. You should ask to see an independent report on the benefits of the project to local people and/or environment. Ask many questions, talk to previous volunteers about their experience, and ensure you choose a programme that matches your skills and interests. Many Australian volunteering companies now ban volunteer programmes at orphanages.
3) Visit a local temple or recognised real orphanage and donate toys or stationery supplies instead of cash
Of course, there are many simple ways you can help the kids without being fearful of doing ‘the wrong thing’. When I wasn’t looking at ancient temples, I wandered about the streets near my guest house looking for photo opportunities when I came across one of the many gleaming Buddhist temples or ‘Wats’ scattered around Siem Reap. Upon seeing a foreigner, not often seen in the back streets, I was quickly befriended by a monk who wanted to show me around the complex. After showing me inside the temple, I was shown to a crude schoolroom.
There was a group of children sitting at their ancient wooden desks looking at a black board. None of them had books or pencils. That evening I asked a tuk-tuk driver to stop off at a road side shop selling stationery on the way to a restaurant. It was ridiculously cheap so I bought a pile of exercise books, pencils, sharpeners and erasers. I wished I had some toys as well, but they were hard to find and I was beating myself up over the head for not bringing anything from home. The next day I returned with the stationery for the children and the monks were so gracious.
4) Donate money or blood at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital
Visiting the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap was an unforgettable experience. It was here that I learned about the wonderful work of Dr Beat Richner. After receiving his degree specialising in paediatrics at the Zurich Children’s Hospital in 1973, Dr Richner was sent to work at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Cambodia by the Swiss Red Cross in 1974. His posting came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge invaded the country and the doctor was forced to return to Switzerland and opened his own practice in Zurich. In 1991 Dr. Richner was asked by the Cambodian government to rebuild and manage the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital, which had been destroyed during the war. During March 1992 he created a foundation in Zurich and then moved to Phnom Penh to begin overseeing the actual reconstruction work. On 2 November 1992 Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital was back in operation.
Over the years, he has been instrumental in the setting of four additional hospitals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to meet the ever increasing demand of its patients. Dr Richner’s talents are not limited to his medical endeavours. He is also an accomplished cellist and holds concerts each Saturday night at the Kantha Bopha children’s hospital in Siem Reap. Unfortunately, we missed his performance but in the video we saw him interviewed and it showcased all the work he does for the children. Kantha Bopha has become a highly respected model of assisting thousands of young patients on a shoe string budget for the entire Southeast Asian region. It shows how efficient direct medical and humanitarian aid, unhampered by corruption, combined with targeted long term training can be in curative and preventive medicine as well as in research. The free concert runs for an hour, includes a film about his work in Cambodia and speaks on the medical issues affecting children in Cambodia. Afterwards, everyone is encouraged to make donations or at least to give blood. The hospital’s administrators can only make plans six months in advance as they never know if they will have the funds to keep operating after that period. Most of the hospital’s funding comes from tourists visiting Siem Reap who donate to the doctor’s Swiss based charity. Staff are paid on par with any Western hospital so that corruption is not a temptation. The hospital is on the same road leading to Angkor Wat and open every day. If you approach the front gate, tell the guard you want to give blood and someone will direct you to the right place. There is nothing to fear about getting AIDS or hepatitis by giving blood as all practices adhere to strict Western standards. I am a healthy testament to this and was also given a T-shirt and a week’s supply of iron tablets.
5) Donate to a registered charity upon your return home
There are plenty of registered not for profit organisations in your home country that you can donate to back in your home country and in Australia, donations over $2 are tax deductable. A couple of reputable charities are the Child Fund Cambodia and Yes Cambodia.