Last week Chris and I travelled to Oudong, which is Cambodia’s former capital (1618-1866). Once again we asked our trusted tuk tuk driver Phea to take us and an hour later we arrived, not a single other Western tourist in sight. I love finding these little hidden gems that are not yet overrun by camera-wielding tourists (because obviously I am not one myself). However, the trip also made me think about how to deal with poverty during travels.

Oudong was extensively damaged by the Khmer Rouge, so these days only a few temples and stupas are left of this once glorious city. After a 10 minute sweaty climb to the top of Oudong hill we were rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

OudongView from the top

Temple on top of the hill
Oudong hill from the distance

The dilemma

Whilst I very much enjoyed this little outing I was also reminded again how poor some parts of Cambodia are. Travel will not just open your eyes to some amazing sights, but also to pressing social issues around the world. How do you deal with poverty during travels though? Living in a country like Cambodia where a third of the population still lives below the national poverty line of US$0.61 per day, and working for a local NGO, I am regularly exposed to these social issues and have seen first hand how poverty affects people.

At Oudong beggars lined the steps leading up to Oudong hill and as soon as we entered the park we noticed some youths following us on their bikes. Since not a lot of Westerners visit Oudong, I thought this was just the usual excitement of kids seeing some ‘barangs” (foreigners) and that they wanted to practise their English with us. As expected they greeted us excitedly when we stepped out of our tuk tuk and asked us where we were from.

We chatted with them whilst walking towards Oudong. But when they started telling us about the history of Oudong, my alarm bells went off and we knew they were going to ask us to pay them for their guided tour. I should really have said immediately is that we don’t need guides (I don’t think it is helpful to encourage child labour by funding it), but honestly I just didn’t have the heart to tell them. I am normally very strict and never give money to begging children, as they often get taken out of school to beg for money. These children were a bit older than is often the case, probably in their early – mid teens. The older one was working as an unofficial ‘guide’ full time and the other other one was still at school. I knew that a tip could mean a big difference to them, so I decided to follow my heart and go against my normally level-headed principles. I couldn’t just turn a blind eye on their obvious need, and it has be to said, their very persuasive and charming sales technique.

They seemed very happy with the dollar or so I gave them, but I couldn’t help but think about all the other people around Oudong that I haven’t given any money to, nor the fact that I had forgotten my principle of not encouraging what was effectively child labour, however you dress it up.

I think it’s what English people call being on the horns of a dilemma. How do you deal with poverty during travels?


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About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

7 Thoughts on “Dealing with poverty during travels

  1. I had the same conflict in Cambodia. It’s so hard not to give to children you meet on the street selling books or touting trinkets at temples. Especially when you make a connection with them but don’t want what they’re selling. I decided that I’d either have to give to everyone or give to no one. A few times I bought an extra plate of food and gave away left overs but generally stuck to the rule. I gave a $20 donation to the landmine museum in Siem Reap but that was a worth cause.

  2. It’s such a tough one, it really is. At home, my husband Ted is in social work, and from experience living alongside some of America’s poorest families, we’ve learned and grown through interacting with poverty on an organizational and a person-to-person level.

    The same lessons have helped me process overseas. I believe it’s really important to support organized efforts carried out by people with appropriate resources. Systemic issues related to poverty, trafficking, health, education, etc. are big and complex and messy.

    But in that moment of being in the presence of another human being, I desire more of a way to help. It’s a tension I never fully escaped. We chose to rarely give money to or buy from children, but whenever we could engage them with laughter and compassion, we did. Playing games, sharing food…

    I commend you for wrestling with it. One thing that Ted shared me that I’ve never forgotten, with regards to beggars, was the value of giving them the dignity of looking them truly in the eyes. My heart breaks when I do, but I feel like the momentary encounter becomes honest. Even if I cannot give money or food, I can give a piece of myself in that silent exchange.

  3. So very true Bethaney and Bethany. Looking someone in the eye is immensely difficult when you say no to their request, especially when you know that the cost of the glass of beer you’re drinking would equal about two days salary for them. And funding formal institutions (including governments, in case Google, Starbucks, or Amazon are reading!) is definitely the way ahead.

    But before I start ranting, I wanted to share a couple of stories as you both mentioned giving food and drink. We often do the same, especially as it’s so roasting hot under the Cambodian sun for the poor little fellas.

    Once we offered a boy who was around ten some crisps and fruit from our table. He shook his head, but instead took that as an invitation to grab a seat at our table so he could watch the football on the big screen TV. He stayed happily for the whole game, completely ignoring us when we tried to chat.

    Another time we did the same and the even younger boy happily took the food, joined us at the table, and then promptly asked Chris if his iPad had any good games. We showed him what we had but he wasn’t impressed, so we ended up downloading Angry Birds for him. After about half an hour Chris asked if he could borrow his ipad back to check his emails as we were meeting someone. To which the boy responded, ‘yes, when I’ve finished playing’. That told him!

  4. Nice post. I tend to have the same principles when it comes to begging. Too many people to help them all, and normally too difficult to tell if a particular beggar is truly more deserving than another. Better leaving it to the charities. But sometimes you just feel compelled.

  5. Thanks Sam! Giving to charities is definitely a good idea. But as you said, sometimes it is really hard to say no.

  6. I recognize a few of those little faces! 🙂 My photographer husband and I fell in love with Cambodians and the Khmer people – so much so that after 8 years on the road we settled down here in Siem Reap last year to make Cambodia our base for bouncing around Asia on assignment. So, as you did, now I get to see it every day and it’s heartbreaking.

    We all know we shouldn’t give money to beggars because it encourages begging, which can effectively become child labour (in Bangkok, it’s an industry organized by a begging mafia), but, as you point out, in Cambodia, many live below the poverty line and families can’t ever afford to pay the bribes or buy school uniforms or materials to send their kids to school. Many can’t afford to put a meal on the table that day. So while we might be tempted to buy the kid a steamed bun instead, they really need the hard cash to buy some rice to feed the whole family.

    We all know we should be giving money to an official charity/NGO instead, but charities/NGOs don’t reach everyone, they can’t be everywhere, and they probably aren’t there in Oudong. I know the feeling all too well: “if I just give them a dollar, then they won’t go hungry tonight…” It’s hard and I don’t have an answer. I apply the rule most of the time, but occasionally I’ll give in. Is that so terrible?
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    • Tammyonthemove on February 16, 2014 at 12:39 pm said:

      It is a tricky one, isn’t it? Sometimes you know that children are working for the mafia (i.e. those who sell books in Phnom Penh). But in places like Oudong, where you hardly get any tourists it is a different matter. Sometimes you just know that a dollar will make a big difference. I always follow my heart.

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