Yesterday Drew and I visited the ancient temples here in Siem Riep: Angkor Wat and the temples of Angkor Thom. My legs are sore from the constant climbing of stone stairs that have worn down to barely the length of my foot. Scramble may be a more appropriate word than climb. Ladders of rock.
The temples are fascinating. Tourists can meander around the old structures and wander in and out of corridors carved with the figures of Khmer women and men, dancing or yielding swords. We looked into the massive stone faces of the ancient figures of Cambodia’s inter-mingled Buddhist and Hindu past, staring blankly as they have for up to 900 years, keeping watch over the jungle that creeps ever closer. At one of the temples, the trees have made themselves part of the collapsing city walls, winding their roots over walls and doorways. The whole place feels time-less and I forget that Cambodia is no longer a network of massive stone temples, built up by wealthy kings. Though there are people who still come to the temple to worship, placing incense and gold-aluminum flowers in front of Buddha. The corridors are dark except for the unexpected glitter of Buddha’s fabric robes, sparkling in the low light of candles.
There was something haunting about Angkor Wat too, but it was not ancient like the faces in stone or the carvings of the “Churning Sea of Milk.” It was alive and as young as the stones were old. As we rounded a corner in Angkor Wat’s inner wall, a young Cambodian boy of about 7 or 8 asked us for our water, using mostly gestures. We gave him the water and went on our way. When his water was finished, the boy lingered shyly behind us, following a few feet back for awhile. After awhile, we sat down to rest and he came by our side.
“A dollar for school sir?” he said quietly, looking at the ground and then at Drew.
Just a day earlier I had encountered a brochure advertised in Siem Riep to educate tourists on the effects of their good intentions. The brochure, funded by FriendsInternational and backed by UNICEF, informed tourists of the harmfulness of “Poverty Tourism” and “Voluntourism,” stating that short-term visits or volunteer stays are not good for the psychological development of children, and encroach on a child’s right to a private home-life. In addition to this, the number of orphanages has grown significantly as tourism continues to grow, and some orphanages have even separated children from loving homes so that the successful business of orphanage tours can be continued. While there are existing orphanages with a child’s safety and health at its highest priority, there are also many orphanages who have made this a lesser priority, “employing” children in a sense to do little performances and dances for tourists, then encouraging them to donate. In addition to this problem, there are also some parents who do not have their child’s best interest in mind, or who are not educated as to how harmful certain practices can be. For instance, many parents “employ” their children as beggars, knowing that tourists are more likely to give to children than to adults.
The brochure shared 7 tips for tourists, including strict advise to refrain from buying things from or giving donations to children. This encourages their continued begging. They beg instead of going to school.
But when a little boy is asking you for a dollar for school, and you can tell how uncomfortable he is asking, there is nothing to do but be heart-broken.
“A dollar for school?” he repeated this again and again, quietly and with eyes that darted from our faces to the ground. He sang it almost like a song, simply doing his “job” and going through the motions. Following instructions. He played with his fingers nervously and my heart broke for him. “What is your name?” I asked. “How old are you? Do you like school?” He answered these questions, but his eyes still looked shy. “Will you go to school tomorrow?” he did not understand this. “You come to Angkor Wat every day?” He nodded though I’m not sure he understood, and he began to return to his soft and sad song. “A dollar for school?” The word school was drawn out and was beginning to melt a permanent indention into my brain. “I want you to go to school, but I’m afraid my dollar will keep you out of school.” I said, but I said these things in vain and they offered neither of us any comfort.
“What if he will get in trouble with his parents if he doesn’t return with a dollar?” I thought. “What if he will get in trouble either way?” At this point I wanted so badly to give him a dollar, but nothing seemed right anymore. Giving a dollar would bring him right back to these dark temple corridors tomorrow. No school. Not giving him a dollar may get him in trouble, or may go unnoticed by his mother or whoever employed him as their beggar.
Nothing seemed right and indeed nothing was. At the edge of the temple grounds we continued walking and he stayed, as though imprisoned by the place. He did not follow.
My heart broke, as it should when one turns away from a child in need. That boy didn’t need my dollar though. He needs so much more than I know how to respond to. But I will spend my whole life learning.
How can I help?
visit these sites and learn with me.