Voluntourism and child tourism in Cambodia

CambodiaAs a general rule I like to keep this blog on the lighter side and focus on how my experience can help you to find all the amazing things we can see and do in far off distant lands.

That said, I also think that when travelling we have an obligation to act in a way that would befit a member of a country that supposedly ‘knows better’ when we are visiting countries whose people are facing various social and economic problems.

Which is why I would like to let you know about what I learnt in Cambodia about ‘voluntourism’ and Child tourism.

Voluntourism refers holiday or travel where you volunteer for a charitable cause and child tourism is the use of children for tourist purposes or even exploitation. There are a lot of NGO’s and charities operating out of Siam Reap and these can include schools, orphanages and training facilities.

I met with Michael from locally run NGO ConCERT as my travel buddy, Kylie, had previously volunteered with the organisation and it was a massive eye opener.

The main problem lies within the Cambodian Orphanages where 3 out of 4 children actually have living families. Their families have put them in the orphanages to make money where their notoriously cute smiles attract tourists and volunteers alike.

When you consider that some Cambodian families live on 0.25 USD per day you can begin to understand the lengths people will go to survive, even when they are not beneficial for children.

That’s not to say that all orphanages are all bad, in fact there is a lot of good being done in Siam Reap and the sheer amount of NGOs coupled with the amount of local people in the city that now speak perfect English or French are a reminder of that. It is not unusual to spot volunteers amongst the tourists at local restaurants and bars and they all speak highly of their experience and find it hugely rewarding as well as beneficial for the local people.

So what can you do?

  • If you want to volunteer in Cambodia do your research. The organisation ConCERT is a great starting point as is Think Child Safe.
  • Remember that anyone can make a website and from another country a web presence can appear perfectly legitimate. Ask around your friendship/work group as people may have already volunteered in Cambodia and may be able to recommend a safe and legitimate NGO.
  • Be wary of organisations that charge a sizable fee to volunteer or who don’t offer a receipt for your fee.
  • Look for organizations that follow a model of keeping children in the family home by providing schooling rather than orphanages. Thinkchildsafe.org states that family based care is more beneficial for the child and more sustainable for the community.
  • If you have the ability to stay for longer periods of time this is preferable to a short stint because social problems arise from the attachment and separation. Obviously, this isn’t possible for everyone but it is something to consider if you were considering splitting your time over a few projects.
  • If you do volunteer with children don’t post photos of them on social media and especially don’t list their names or the orphanage’s name or location. The awful reality is that there are some sick people out there who can use your seemingly innocent posts as a resource.
  • Stay away from orphanages that encourage short day visits or display children doing Apsara (Cambodian Dancing) for tourists.
  • Do not buy trinkets from children or give them money. I know, I know! It is so hard to resist when those cute little faces look up at you but by giving them money you are enabling the poverty cycle and rewarding a behaviour that should not be occurring.
  • Try to use local businesses and hotels that support projects in the community. You can find a list of businesses that do this here. We stayed at the Golden Banana in Siam Reap on a recommendation from ConCERT, the amazing boutique hotel turned out to be my favourite stay of my trip.

And if you are not travelling but would like to donate to a worthy cause please visit the ConCERT site.

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