Orphanages: Cambodia’s Top Attraction
Where I come from, children are placed in institutional care as a last resort. Unless it is strictly necessary, every effort is made for a child to remain with its family, albeit immediate or extended. If a child is placed in care, his or her privacy and security is treated with the utmost respect. I have never heard of anyone in Australia jumping on a tour bus to watch foster kids perform and hear them talk about their unspeakable pasts. But in Cambodia, children in institutional care are up there with Angkor Wat as one of the country’s must-do tourist attractions.
In keeping with the booming tourism industry in Cambodia, the number of orphanages has skyrocketed in the last few years to more than 600. But its not just orphans they are housing. According to UNICEF, roughly four-fifths of children in institutionalised care have at least one parent, but they are portrayed otherwise to seas of foreign tourists so that they can be exploited in order to glean donations. While some kids may have intentionally been placed in an orphanage by their families as a legitimate response to dire poverty, others are there for more sinister reasons: they’ve been recruited in exchange for the promise of a better life, or worse, for cash.
A typical visit to some of these institutions will entail a concert by the children, usually touted as a Traditional Khmer Dance. This performance is followed by a meet and greet whereby children are encouraged to “practice their English” – aka share their history of abuse, neglect and tragedy in order to attract money from their well-meaning but misguided audience. There is also ample time for guests to indulge in what is one of the west’s favourite third-world country activities: posing for photos.
Let’s look at some five-star reviews posted on Tripadvisor for the ACODO Orphanage in Siem Reap – the first by user Randy C entitled, “Do this. Do it for yourself. Do it for the kids.”
Find out the kids stories (and bring a handkerchief – the stories are tragic)… they’ve been abandoned, often living on the streets, escaping from terrible situations of abuse, etc…. but then see the joy in the children’s eyes as they perform and you interact with them before and after the show. It’s clear the orphanage is an amazing help for them… it’s an important stepping stone, and yet they deserve so much more.
Go there for the kids, but know you’ll walk away with a gift of a great sense of compassion and empathy that will make your experience in Cambodia far more meaningful than you probably ever expected.
Onya Randy – keep on stroking that ego with your unfettered philanthropy.
Here’s another from user Tiffany T.
I was so impressed with the orphans at Acodo. They put on an entertaining show which was well produced and interpreted for foreigners. These children are gorgeous and their dancing was very good. You can see that they really enjoy the interaction with visitors and there was absolutely no pressure to donate at all.
Good value was it, Tiff?
A friend of mine was recently approached by a little girl in the street near the Cambodia/Laos border. Enchanted by her cuteness, my friend followed the child to the local orphanage and ended up having a conversation with one of the staff, who continually referred to the little girl as “he”.
“Wait a minute,” said my friend. “What do you mean he?” As it turns out, female orphans are usually more successful than males when it comes to stirring sympathy from strangers.
“He loves dressing up!” insisted the staff member. “It was his idea.”
The child was five.
As Australians, we should be exceptionally wary of supporting what is essentially another stolen generation. Even the best-intentioned tourist can err severely in their judgment and their wish to be charitable, and can end up causing more harm than good. So please – before you visit an orphanage in Cambodia, do your research, and do not rely on Tripadvisor as your primary source of information. Seek out agencies that work ethically with local communities, and if you really want to visit, go and volunteer for a few weeks so that the children actually get to know you. Otherwise, simply make a donation, and although a photo of yourself doing an online banking transfer to an orphanage may not get as many likes as a picture of you hugging a bunch of Cambodian toddlers, you can be safe in the knowledge that you are not contributing to a system that supports the separation of families.