Image of boy in Siem Reap courtesy of Getty Images.
I used to have a blurb about visiting a Cambodian orphanage in this article about the top ten things to do in Siem Reap; not anymore. A few weeks back, I got a message from "Antoine" (real name withheld upon request), a development professional in Cambodia, giving me the lowdown on these places.
"As a long-term resident in Cambodia (mostly Siem Reap), and somebody who works in the local development sector, this troubles me," Antoine wrote about the inclusion of the orphanage. "There are a number of ethical reasons why responsible travel guides should not be promoting the institutionalization of Cambodia's children, let alone encouraging tourists and unqualified (and unvetted) travelers to visit these institutions."
To back up his position, Antoine attached a recent UNICEF study on Cambodia's residential care sector; the data it presents is sobering.
- Almost 12,000 children were housed in residential care facilities (as of 2010), but 44 percent of such placements were made by living parents or family members
- Poor parents willingly place their children in institutional care, under the mistaken belief that these places can offer a better education or livelihood
- Foreigners fund these orphanages, not knowing that the government actually favors family and community based care, regarding institutional care as a last resort
- Institutions abuse tourism to raise funds - by selling tickets to orphan "apsara dances" or selling placements for volunteers (often without doing background checks)
- High turnover of temporary caregivers (as is the case with tourist volunteers) can be harmful to kids' emotional development
So, yeah, I got told. And I absolutely deserved it. Despite the popularity of "orphanage tourism" in Siem Reap, I will not endorse it in the future, and I've drawn on a follow-up message from Antoine and other opinions elsewhere to write this: Orphanages in Cambodia are Not Tourist Attractions. Read it and I hope you come to the same conclusions as I did.