As I crossed the border to Cambodia from Thailand, I was extremely nervous. I was excited of course—my itinerary included such dream destinations as Angkor Wat—but the rumors I had heard about the massive crowds of child beggars in Siem Reap made me sick to my stomach. My friends, who had visited Angkor Wat a few weeks before, warned me of crying children who would clutch onto your clothes, as well as scam orphanages who would charge five dollars to buy the children some pencils.
Like many travelers, beggars break and confuse me like nothing else. On one hand, I am aware that the begging rings are almost always related to criminal gangs and that giving money contributes to a habit economy that isn’t easily stopped. However, it’s often hard for me to think about this when I’m staring into the lovely brown eyes of a five-year-old little boy who is asking me for money.
Despite my nervousness, I did have one weapon on my side—knowledge. Before I left for Cambodia, I scoured the internet for what the experts had to say on the subject of child begging in Angkor Wat and the surrounding Siem Reap. Positive that there must be some other answer than either contributing to the local crime scene or else giving nothing at all, I researched local charities that I could give to in the children’s stead. I hoped that with these resources, I would be able to make a positive impact on the children’s life rather a negative one or none at all.
Armed with my knowledge, I arrived in Cambodia and my first interaction with a beggar child came soon afterward. As I sat down to lunch, exhausted from fending off fake border costs and other scams, a young girl approached me selling bracelets, which I would soon learn is very common.
“Would you like to buy a lovely bracelet for the lovely lady?” she started, sounding scripted with English far more perfect than my own classmates in Thailand.
Used to being in Thailand, I replied with the polite “Mai ow, kha” meaning “No thank you.” I turned to try and eat again, and looked to see her eyes wide with wonder.
“Mai ow?’ she repeated, “Phasa Thai?” She looked shocked to see a foreigner speak her language; this soon became the usual for my interactions with beggar children.
When speaking to the children in Thai, a language that they didn’t associate with selling and tourism, the children were eager to learn my name and to see just how much Thai I could speak. I soon learned to use the same techniques I used when tutoring English to small children in Thailand. I would play-act, laughing and speaking Thai to the children as they offered me one, two, three, six, bracelets for a dollar. Eventually, they would laugh and skip away, delighted to laugh at my very awkward Thai and to forget what they were doing for just a little while.
Of course, I’m not saying that all children aren’t begging because they have to—many are. However, as adults, we must realize that our duty is not to appease the children, but to find solutions for them. We cannot simply rely on their taking our money to ease our broken hearts; we must act and be smart about our care for them. They need us more than they could ever know, and we cannot fail them just because we won’t take the time to figure out a real, sustainable solution to their horror.
We must realize that our duty is not to appease the children, but to find solutions for them.
In my research, I learned that most child beggars really are victims of some type of crime, whether it be a sophisticated crime ring or a family member who is not looking out for the child’s best interest. Children are picked out by begging rings because they’re naturally much more likely to gain attention and sympathy than adults would. Often, it is very unlikely that any money that you donate to a child will benefit them at all.
There are some children who work in begging because they find it a suitable source of income, and donating money reinforces this belief. If the situation occurs in which you see a child who you think really is in need of food, suggest buying a meal for him. While this does reinforce the pattern of begging for meals, you can at least be sure that any money wouldn’t be used against them.
So, instead, most experts suggest that you seek out a recognized, established charity within the area in which you are staying and put your money or your efforts to that. Check a charity evaluator such as Charity Navigator or the American Institute of Philanthropy to make sure that your money is going where it should. Charities are always welcoming to new volunteers and any money that you donate will allow them to help more children off of the streets that you see them. Remember, there is a valid and obtainable solution for the beggar children—you just must be willing to be a part of it.
By Brittany Edwardes