The Heartbreaking Side of Siem Reap

The Heartbreaking Side of Siem Reap | Society of Everywhere

Photo by Josh Meister Photo.

If you do any research on traveling to Cambodia, you'll come across warnings everywhere adamantly stating not to buy anything for/from or give any food or money to the Cambodian children.

Friends traveling with us relayed an apparently popular local scam in which children ask tourists to buy baby formula for their very hungry younger brother, taking you to the nearby store, where, the second you leave feeling good about yourself for helping a hungry baby, the shop owner will put the formula back on the shelf for the next tourist and give the child a tiny bit of money for their hard work, sending them back out to do it all over again.

Children of Siem Reap have had a lot of success begging food and money off tourists in the past, resulting in not only them, but their younger siblings as well (after seeing the success their sister is having), dropping out of school to beleaguer tourists full-time. It's a terrible cycle, and it's heartbreaking to say no to a child not just asking for food, but literally full-on begging.

Out at Pub Street one night, we were enjoying the easy fun of the mobile bar carts and karaoke setups until we saw a girl who had wrapped her entire body around the leg of an Australian woman, refusing to loosen her grip, shrieking for food or money. Next a young boy walked up to a neighboring cart to watch the music video playing, and the vendor didn't even hesitate to take a swipe at him, yelling for him to get out of there as the boy scrambled away. And just after sunrise at Angkor Wat, when we threw away the containers from our guesthouse take-away breakfast, we watched a tiny and dirty little girl climb into the trash can to rescue any remnants we may not have eaten.

It was absolutely shattering, and had a huge affect on our experience of the area. As I often do when I'm unsure of something, I turned to the internet and spent a bit of time researching how travelers can help AND not feel so helpless in these circumstances. There are several organizations focused on or working with the children of Cambodia, including Cambodian Children's Fund, Children's Improvement Organization, Cambodian Schools of Hope, Helping Hands Cambodia, and UNICEF. Making donations to any of these makes an impact. If you're interested in volunteering with children, check out Child Safe Movement for tips. And if you visit Siem Reap, choose to only make purchases from adult vendors who are working for their families instead of encouraging the children by spending money with them. Hopefully, these actions will make a difference and soon the children of Siem Reap will be in a better situation.