With the best intentions

I first visited Cambodia in 2008, travelling overland from Thailand through to Vietnam. The road from the Thai border was, quite literally, being built as I was travelling along it.

Road to Siem Reap

I'd been travelling to Asia for a number of years, but an experience on this particular trip struck me quite profoundly and has stayed with me.

The group I was travelling with were taken by our guide to visit an orphanage in Siem Reap. It was a pre-arranged visit and we were accompanied at all times, so I had no initial concerns about the children's welfare. The children were living in very basic conditions, based on my western sensibilities, but seemed well cared for.

Through our translator we were informed that the lady running the orphanage was looking after 42 children, ranging from 2 to 18 years, with the help of a couple of assistants. The orphanage itself was funded by a Japanese company, who donated $500 dollars a month. This equated to $0.40 or £0.25 a day to feed, clothe and educate each child.

The atmosphere in the orphanage was very friendly and we were under no pressure to donate; although we had chosen, of our own accord, to bring a sack of rice with us, as a polite gesture.

Whilst the younger children and even a few of the older ones seemed to enjoy our company, I was aware that there were others, who were not so enamoured by our presence. One particular teenage boy caught my eye. He sat on a wall reading a book, totally disinterested in the frivolities going on around him. The visit left me with mixed feelings and a whole host of unanswered questions.

Upon my return to England, I started to look into the situation in Cambodia in more detail. In 2012 I came across a report from a study into the attitudes towards residential care in Cambodia, which had been produced in 2011 by Cambodia’s government, with support from UNICEF. The findings and recommendations of this report influenced my decision to return to Cambodia in December 2012.

My intention on this trip was to revisit Siem Reap and experience the delights this province has to offer, from a more informed perspective. This resulted in a body of work, ‘With the Best Intentions’, which was exhibited in Collective Collaborations Gallery, Northampton, England during 2013. The aim of the exhibition was to raise awareness of the issues surrounding orphanage tourism and promote responsible tourism.

Responsible Tourism is primarily about ensuring, when you visit a country, that your visit has a positive impact rather than a negative one. The choices you make, on where to spend your time, how you behave and where you spend your money, all contribute.

Roots, Ruins & Relics

Siem Reap is home to one of the ‘Wonders of the World – The Temples of Angkor Wat’.


Despite being the 'Tourist Town' of Cambodia, Siem Reap province is actually one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia. Walk just a couple of streets away from the main tourist area and you'll discover a town of extreme poverty.

Siem Reap

Tourism brings many benefits to Cambodia and its people. There are also, however, negative impacts and some of these are very easily avoided.

Tourists play a significant role in funding orphanages in Cambodia. They do this, for the most part, with the best intentions. However, contributions can, unfortunately, often add to existing problems or create an environment where children are placed in vulnerable situations.

Did you know?
  • 44% of children in Cambodian orphanages have parents or extended family*
  • 45% of children have primarily been placed there because of poverty*
  • With the best intentions families choose to place their children in orphanages, in the hope that it will offer a path out of poverty to a better life*
  • When families in need found community-based support, they expressed their happiness at being able to keep their children at home*
* Source: A Study of Attitudes Towards Residential Care in Cambodia 2011

What can you do?
  • Advocate against orphanage tourism
  • Promote and practise responsible tourism
  • Support community-based tourism enterprises; ethically run local businesses and sustainable programmes.

Want to know more?

Artisans Angkor is a company dedicated to the preservation of traditional Khmer skills in silk-making, stone and wood carving, lacquering and painting. The company is committed to education, training and welfare. It provides young people with professional skills, an interesting occupation and the ability to work close to their homes. Apprentices receive a living allowance during their vocational training, which is free of charge. After completing their training, apprentices are given the opportunity to work at the Artisans Angkor, if they wish. The artisans hold a 20% share in the company, receive a fair income, as well as social and medical benefits. Tourists to Siem Reap are welcome to visit their workshop and silk farm. They offer a free guided tour, and there is a boutique where you can purchase high quality souvenirs. The atmosphere is extremely friendly and relaxed. You are free to look around at your leisure and there is no pressure to purchase anything.

Angkor Artisan

Beyond Unique Escapes is a local tour company, offering holiday packages, small group and private tours in Siem Reap and across Cambodia. The company is jointly owned by an Australian couple and their Cambodian partners – a husband and wife team, Lim and Sreah Leak. Lim, (pictured right), is a keen photographer himself and was extremely accommodating as my personal guide, during a private tour of the Angkor Temples. The company uses local guides, who are paid a fair wage, and they try to avoid local corruption schemes, as much as possible. In addition to the usual tourist attractions, they offer tours to local villages, which allow the visitor to witness and even experience local life, first hand. The villagers benefit from these tours as 50% of the tour fee goes into a fund, which is spent on helping the village with specific projects, approved by the villagers themselves.

Generation in Training

ConCERT - ‘Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism’ - is a ‘not-for-profit’ social enterprise, based in Siem Reap, offering practical advice and support to visitors, who, like myself, having witnessed the harsh realities of poverty in Cambodia at first hand, want to help, but are unsure of the best way to do this. They have information on a range of projects which support and help develop the local community. All the projects they support have to meet strict criteria covering how the projects are operated, including their management and financial systems, how they deploy and support volunteers, and how they ensure they are delivering what the communities need. In addition, if the project deals with children, robust child protection policies & practices have to be in place.

Haven is a restaurant located in the heart of Siem Reap. It is owned and run by a Swiss couple, Sara & Paul Wallimann. The Haven offers vocational training in hospitality and cooking, along with practical life skills and emotional support to young orphans, half orphans and abandoned children, who have aged out of orphanages and have nowhere to go. The training runs for a year and upon completion, Sara and Paul help the students to find permanent positions, either at the Haven, or with other ethically run local business. Their aim is to support these young people, giving them a real chance to create a future for themselves. It is based on an underlying principle of helping others to help themselves.

Chhao, (pictured right), is one of Haven's first trainees to graduate and become a fully-fledged employee at the restaurant.

Having dined at the restaurant I can vouch, whole heartedly, for the food, service and friendly ambiance of the place. I would strongly recommend you book a table in advance to avoid disappointment, if you are thinking of going.

Husk is a ‘not-for-profit’ NGO working to improve the lives of families in Siem Reap. The organisation's goals focus on providing access to safe water, livelihood opportunities, health and education, whilst also supporting the environment.

During my visit I saw the successful result of one of their projects - The Treak Village Medical Centre had needed a new building to accommodate women arriving in labour with no place to wait. With the support of the local community, Husk helped to build a 5m x 9m building and an additional bathroom. The building is made from old plastic water bottles which are filled with clean landfill rubbish. These have proved to be an ideal eco alternative to brick, with the added benefit of reducing waste going to landfill. Anything from noodle wrappers, broken up polystyrene trays, straws, bags, plastic wrappers and crisp packets, are used to fill the bottles. At one end of the building a section has been left unrendered, in the shape of a tree trunk, allowing visitors to see how it has been constructed from the bottles.

Bottle Building

HUSK's bottle project continues. Filled bottles can be exchanged for a range of items including school materials, rice, cooking oil or even a bike! Over 10,000 bottles have been collected to date and an estimated 1.5 tonnes of landfill reused in a sustainable way. On a weekly basis Husk deliver empty waterbottles and collect the filled bottles, exchanging rewards to the participating villagers.

Boy In the Bowl
ChildSafe is a proactive child-protection network. The site offers information around the dangers children face and practical suggestions to travellers, on how they can make a positive difference. Here are a couple of their top tips for tourists:

Avoid buying souvenirs from children. Buying directly from young children encourages their parents to keep them on the streets. Instead, purchase products from adults or young people in training. Quoting Lim, my guide around Angkor, "Children should learn, parents should earn!"

Avoid orphanage tours, as some of these exploit children for financial gain. If you want to visit an orphanage, ensure the orphanage is officially registered, has a child protection policy in place, children receive sufficient nutrition and an education. Before donating any of your hard earned cash, it's also worth checking they can prove donations are being used as intended.

Even if donations are used as intended, it's worth questioning if the money is being spent where it's really needed most and if these projects are sustainable. Why donate to the build of a new classroom, if there are insufficient funds to furnish it or hire a teacher?

Empty Orphanage Building, Siem Reap

Cambodia is a country of stark contrasts. It has stunning natural beauty, awe-inspiring temples and unique ecosystems, whilst poverty remains a fact of life for many of its people.

Riverside Row

Flooded Forest

On both of my visits, I was moved by what I saw and encouraged by what I found. There are many people doing marvelous things: both locals and visitors, are trying hard to improve lives and make a lasting difference, often in difficult conditions and for little financial reward.

Lady on the Lake


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