05 October 2009 ~ 54 Comments

A Protest Against Orphanage Tourism

I try to avoid spending much time on “bar street”, a place in Siem Reap which is full of, yep, bars.  The main reasons I avoid it now are no longer just the noise, the embarrassing displays of lack-of-clothing on gap-year tourists, the drunken fools, nor the begging, though those reasons alone should be enough…. the  biggest reason I can’t stand to be there is now the orphanage tourism exploitation which is fed by this crowd with lubricated pockets, melted hearts, and lack of knowledge about responsible giving or responsible travel.  I came home one night after dinner a few months ago, furious from watching an “orphanage” roadside display: poor-looking children dragged  through the street by an adult carrying a sign saying “visit our orphanage”.  The children play songs, the tourists clap and throw money, and I want to scream some sense into the irresponsible supporters of this behavior.

That night I sent out an email to friends who work in Siem Reap and others who I thought would agree that this issue was an important one, asking for help to come up with a plan for how to curb this behavior.  My initial suggestion was a very abrasive and probably too condescending cartoon aimed at asking tourists to reconsider the effects of their “good” behaviors. A lot of us who work in Cambodia feel the same way about exploitative orphanage tourism, so we have gotten together a few times to try to discuss how we can help educate the traveling population who feed these irresponsible and often fake orphanages.  It’s clear that, for most of these travelers, their hearts are in their right places, and they want to do good by what they see as these “poor helpless looking kids” they think they are helping.  What’s not clear is how to slap them upside the head with a dose of reality that let’s them know they are supporting a movement towards harmful child rights violations, without making then too afraid to trust anyone in the future.  We have a few ideas we are working on.  (Something to note: Go to the police or start a “responsible orphanage practices” training course, are not viable solutions.  Corruption and a clear understanding of the child rights violations being committed by those using children to make money for themselves are two of the reasons why.)

In the meantime, I had been meaning to write about this, but I hadn’t found the time to get these thoughts on “paper”.  Saundra’s  Good Intentions Are Not Enough blog on “Hug-an-orphan vacations” inspired me to write some of this down.  Below is what I wrote on her post.

I would love to hear other people’s experiences in regards to this issue.  Those who have joined our discussions, please add additional thoughts which you think should be shared in the comments section or pass this on.


Thank you for putting this up, Saundra. I think another thing to note is that “orphanages” might not actually have “orphans”! Of all of the orphanages I have come across in Cambodia, there is only one that I know of which exclusively only takes in orphans (as in, children with no parents). Others still use the name orphanage, but act more like a boarding school for underprivileged children or a safe haven for children whose parents have been deemed unfit to raise them. The worst ones, and this is unfortunately more common than people would like to think, RENT kids from their parents. Yes, indeed, it is sick but true.

I have often commented that I would not want to be reincarnated as a cute Cambodian kid. If I was reincarnated as an ugly one, I might have a chance to go to school, but a cute one living near a tourist area might not have the chance to go to school as they would be the most successful beggars. They might be rented by some entrepreneurial person who sees how much money visiting foreigners give to orphanages, so they would be kept looking as poor as possible to attract more funds. The orphanage might outright buy the kids from their family or pay the family a small fee per month to keep their child there as a tourist attraction and fundraising tool.

To so many people, this sounds too inhumane to be true, but often times those are the same people funding these issues. Some of these “orphanages” parade their children around the outdoor bar areas in Siem Reap at night, playing music and handing out fliers asking people to visit their orphanage. It’s 11pm at night, and this “orphanage” is traipsing their children, who they are meant to be looking after, around on a street full of drunk foreigners. Doesn’t this just seem wrong, period? Well us foreigners seem to forget our wits at home when we travel, thinking what would be wrong for our kids might be ok for others, and there are countless travelers clapping for the little performers, handing $20 bills to their “caretakers” and promising to visit their orphanage during the week.

A note to travelers: THINK AGAIN before you give money to “poor” looking orphanages or before you go visit one which allows any old foreigner in off the street to pet their kids. Would you want this for your kid? If you want to know if a place is legit, ask other people in the community and others working in the education or child-protection fields in the area. They will be able to tell you which places are legitimate.

As a note: any orphanage where all of the employees are from the same family, especially ones which have only men working there, is a place you might want to reconsider. At least in the Cambodia context, this usually means there is very little outside oversight and the family can then run the place like a family business. Support the protection of children by NOT supporting these places.

For more information about protecting children, I recommend visiting http://www.childsafe-international.org/

Go here for Saundra’s full post on “Hug-an-orphan vacations“.

  • Anonymous

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  • Anonymous

    I must say, you have got one of the best blogs, I have seen in a long time What I wouldn’t give to be able to create a blog thats as interesting as this. I guess I’ll just have to keep reading yours and hope that one day I can write on green tea dieting pills with as much knowledge as you’ve got on this one.n

  • Krete_luca

    Please can you let me know which is the ‘only’ genuine orphanage you mentioned above so that I can volunteer there? krete_luca@yahoo.co.uk many thanks