Rhys has touched on this theme a little bit, but I want to expound on it a little more and use it to explain our next destination.
Siem Reap is, at its heart, a tourist city. It knows the vast majority of foreigners here have travelled from far and wide to view the majesty of the Angkor complexes, which Rhys did a good job of describing in the last few posts. Really, it’s very difficult to describe them; even the pictures don’t come close to doing them justice. They’re like manmade Grand Canyons; they defy explanation. Siem Reap knows this, and is proud of this – and is determined to make the money made available by tourists. This is simply human nature, and I have nothing against it. I would do the same thing in their shoes, those that have shoes. See, it’s not just that cokes cost $1 USD, or that tuk-tuk drivers won’t bargain in riel (technically the local currency), etc. It’s the beggars. Because there is a glut of foreign money here, and hearts and eyes of foreigners unaccustomed to the human damage that marks a lot of Cambodia, landmine victims and damaged children flock here. They line the streets. Those with two missing legs (or whose legs are atrophied and shriveled) power themselves around with a hand-cranked, tall tricycle – actually a neat invention. Those who are only missing one leg wait on crutches. All of them have signs, neatly printed in English. If you sit on the streetside tables in a restaurant, you will be accosted by dozens of them. Dozens. One after another.
Even if I were rich, and I suppose I very much am in comparison, I could not give to all of them.
And that’s not even counting the children. Herds of them, all bearing wrapped books, or cheap bamboo “bracelets,” or sometimes nothing at all – just begging for a dollar. What’s a dollar to me? Their faces are precious. If we answer their constant questions of “Where you from? Where you from?”, then they will tell me all about America, things I didn’t even necessarily know. A flood of memorized facts spill from their tiny lips. How many people are in America (“350 million”), who the President and First Lady are (“Barack and Michelle Obama”), who the Vice President is, what countries America is between, and who the presidents of each of those countries are. What the capital city is. How many states there are. Some of the states, as examples. On and on. (The two girls pictured here are two of these memorizers selling bracelets; we didn’t want their bracelets, but we did break and give them a dollar) I don’t know how five year olds memorize this stuff – especially considering how few Americans visit here. They must know these facts about every conceivable foreigner’s home, just in case. It’s almost impossible to say no to them.
Unfortunately, all of the websites and tour books tell you to do just that. Say no. They say it teaches them that begging is a lucrative lifestyle, and they never end up seeing the money anyway – it all goes to their “handlers.” They say that donating time or money to legitimate organizations is by far the better option. It’s really hard to keep saying no. I don’t always succeed. It hurts, averting your eyes from the mangled people – these people don’t have governmental assistance, they don’t have social security. They had a run-in with a landmine, many of which our country deposited, and now their livelihood is ruined. Or their parents had run-ins with landmines or poverty or the Khmer Rouge and now they are orphans on the street. But you have to avert your eyes – if they see the softness in your eyes, they stick around until you have given them money. If you try to talk to them, they will not really talk except to ask for money. It sucks.
(The girl pictured here is one we bought postcards from at one of the Angkor temples) A few travellers we ran into in Thailand and Malaysia had mentioned working with orphanages – legitimate ones – during their time in Cambodia. Some for a week, a few weeks, a few days, whatever, just teaching English to the kids or helping with chores around the buildings. Problem is, it’s hard to find “legitimate” orphanages – again, many of them are scams. Many of them charge exorbitant amounts of money for you to “volunteer,” and little of it goes to the orphanage itself, if any. If there was an orphanage to begin with.
We have found one that appears to be 100% legitimate – we’ve read reviews of it, heard from people who have actually gone. It’s called New Futures Orphanage, and it’s in tiny Takeo province, 2 hours past Phnom Penh (so 7 hours away from here). We head there tomorrow to hopefully do some good. They’re not pushy about monetary donations, they mostly appreciate the time (although you can donate $20 bags of rice – 50 lb bags – to help feed the children if you are unable to visit them – check out there site here). We don’t necessarily know what they need, beyond help with the sixty orphans (age 6 through 17) and English practice, but we’ll find out when we get there.