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.
|Temple on top of the hill|
|Oudong hill from the distance|
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?