Orphanage Tourism in Cambodia

Posted on by Sralang Apsara


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The Phnom Penh Post* recently came up with an interesting phrase for a new and growing phenomenon: ‘orphanage tourism’. It’s something I’ve been getting increasingly aware of and irritated with and it was interesting to read about the wider picture.

Starting with my own selfish perspective, whilst I’m still working hard to drum up funding and support for ‘my’ orphanage, I’d become fed up with them to the point of rarely visiting. Such was the crush of tour parties coming to see the kids perform their bi-weekly dancing that I realised that I was guaranteed a table in the street where I couldn’t see them no matter how early I booked up, and then every Sunday when I was scheduled to teach them most of them were out on a jaunt courtesy of a tourist.

I felt somewhat taken for granted but it is all understandable and good for the kids. The report however highlighted a problem I’d heard from other volunteer colleagues – in many other poorly-run orphanages the traffic of tourists wishing to see kids dance or treat them to trips to the water park results in kids being extracted from school far too often (the kids from the orphanage I support never lose out on their regular schooling).

This is tricky; with many visitors coming to Phnom Penh purely for silly hedonism , it’s great that tourists are being encouraged to do something worthy (some combine both), and I’m one of those who encourage them. However, whilst the tourists are well-meaning and no doubt driven by images and notions of heart-rending intensity, the cumulative effect is detrimental to the children’s long-term interests.

On the other hand, if we’re being generous to the more honest operators of such institutions, they are hard-pressed to pass up the prospect of a donation even at the expense of their children’s education. The article homed in on the first orphanage project I got involved in and from which I distanced myself quickly – the reporter confirmed my awareness of the director routinely asking tourists for money to buy bags of rice, convincing them that the cost was twice the true price. I know the guy – it’s not like he’s driving a SUV (insert your choice of ironic comparison here), and he claims the ruse allows him to take in and keep off the streets more orphans. The article goes on to discuss the dangers of paedophiles infiltrating orphanages.

This is an issue that concerns me but to my limited knowledge doesn’t occur on the scale that some media and NGOs imply (indeed, you be forgiven for thinking the entire newspaper had been sponsored by APLE). That there is a lack of regulation and staff training won’t surprise anybody who knows Cambodia. What I would like to raise, however, is a claim made that I often hear from tourists and expatriates alike – that some of the ‘orphans’ aren’t actually orphans at all. In the strict, western definition of the term both parents of an orphan are dead. Some Cambodian ‘orphans’ have one or even both parents still living. This is indeed true. Most of ‘my’ orphans lost both parents to AIDS, unknown illnesses or other fatalities, but some have a living parent. That parent may be a father who lost his limbs to a landmine or more likely a widowed mother rearing five or six kids on a farm labouring income of $15 per month. To my mind you’d have to be pretty mean-minded and churlish to object to such children being taken care of in an orphanage. Please don’t sneer when you learn of an ‘orphan’ going home to see a parent in Khmer New Year of Pchum Ben – no one from the kid’s family is rolling in clover here.

Sralang Apsara

* Phnom Penh Post, March 9-22, ‘Orphanage tourism: a questionable industry’ by Tracey Shelton and Sam Rith

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