The people we met and the things we learnt in Cambodia really touched my heart. In particular I’ll never forget our visit to the spectacular Angkor Wat or how it felt to walk through the Killing Fields, haunted by the thousands of people who died there. I found visiting Cambodia a deeply emotional experience and despite the scars of poverty and genocide my lasting memories of the country are of the peace, kindness and resilience of the Khmer people.
When you travel in Cambodia you’ll see that the country is struggling to recover from the recent genocide and you’ll likely feel the urge to offer help. As we found out though, sometimes this can cause more harm than good; for instance, giving money to children who beg or visiting an orphanage may actually trap people in poverty and leave them vulnerable to abuse. There are plenty of other ways you can make a small difference during your time in Cambodia though; here are a few of them.
Good Cause Dining
The great thing about Cambodia is that there’s a strong charity and Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) presence across the country. In all the cities and towns we visited there were a variety of restaurants set up to support Cambodian people; we ate as many meals as we could at these restaurants to help local people and communities. All of the restaurants we ate in offered delicious food but you can read about our top five good cause dining experiences in this post.
In any part of the world I think it’s best to give donations for people, animals or causes through charities you trust. For instance, back in London I avoided giving money directly to people begging on the streets and donated money to the charity Shelter instead, as I knew they’d use the money in the most effective way. The same is true in Asia; rather than give money directly to people begging in the street I think it’s a better idea to give to a local charity, community project or microfinance scheme. To help children in Cambodia you can give directly to ChildSafe International, for example or support a local business through microfinance via Kiva.
Watch a Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus Performance
One of the most amazing evenings we had in Cambodia was watching a performance by the Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) Circus in Battambang. The PPS is a non-profit organisation which provides education, arts programmes and social support for vulnerable kids and young people in Cambodia, some of whom were former street kids or were born in refugee camps under the Khmer Rouge rule. Some of the students from their performing arts school become part of the circus, which holds performances most nights in both Battambang and Siem Reap.The performance we saw cost £6.10 per person and was full of energy, music, dance, acrobatics and more besides. There was an incredible energy and the crowd was fully engrossed – we loved it.
Everywhere we went in Cambodia we were confronted by cute, smart kids who often spoke brilliant English, either begging us for money or trying to sell us postcards or bracelets. After reading Child Safe’s advice on not giving money to children as it merely keeps them out on the streets where they’re vulnerable to abuse, we decided to give blood to the Angkor Hospital for Children to help instead. I was nervous as I’d never donated blood before and Andrew has reacted badly to needles in the past, but the hospital was very clean and the nurses were friendly and put us at ease.
Although there was some difficulty getting the needle into my small veins and Andrew had a funny turn, the process of giving blood was fairly simple. A small sample of our blood was tested first to make sure we were healthy enough to donate. Next another needle was inserted to extract the blood; it took about quarter of an hour to fill a bag with my blood while Andrew’s gushed out in just a couple of minutes. Afterwards we were given a drink and snack to recover before being sent on our way with the knowledge that each of our donations could potentially save the lives of two Cambodian children.
Have a Seeing Hands Massage
We didn’t try this, but if you love being pampered check out Seeing Hands Massage, which employs blind Cambodians who are fully trained to give professional massages. Branches of Seeing Hands Massage can be found in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang and Sihanoukville.
Don’t Visit Orphanages
As I mentioned in my post about volunteering at the Dog Rescue Project in Thailand, not all volunteering projects actually benefit local people and communities. In Cambodia there is currently a huge problem with ‘Orphanage Tourism’, whereby companies offer tourists the chance to go and visit orphanages and volunteer with them. Having strangers constantly coming in, bonding with them and then leaving can be extremely harmful for children and leave them vulnerable to abuse; in addition to this, there are some disturbing stories about kids from poor families being rented out to orphanages to make money from tour groups. I think it’s best to stay clear of any orphanage tourism in Cambodia completely.
Do you know of any other ways to responsibly offer help in Cambodia or other Asian countries?