By Lori Carlson

Before there was the Ponheary Ly Foundation, there was only Ponheary Ly, a school teacher-turned tour guide who witnessed first hand the harmful impact of tourism on the children in her country and took it in her hands to try and do something about it. She did her best to steer children away from selling things at temples and get them back in school. She did her best to steer her tourists away from “helping children by buying things from them” and let them truly help by supporting the schools they should be attending and the teachers who teach in them.

I was one of those tourists, in 2005 who she kept from being part of the problem and gently steered toward being part of the answer. Nine years later, together we are still struggling inside the vortex of what tourism has brought to Cambodia. Our presence, our programs, our results, are bigger and better than they’ve ever been, so it seems we are winning the battle in our little corners of Cambodia, but the war…well my friends, the war is lost.

child sellerWhen I met Ponheary, there was less than 1 million tourists a year coming to see Angkor Wat. This year it’s expected to be well over 3 million. The deluge of people is good for local businesses, good for job creation (albeit mostly service work, fueling a monsoon of urban poverty) but it is devastating for children who will be sent to sell, made to sing and dance, exploited for their labor, trafficked and abused in order to entertain/do business with those millions of visitors.

Already in and around Siem Reap there are literally hundreds of NGO’s “serving poor children”. With the number of charities in Siem Reap, every man woman and child should by now be well educated, healthy and fed. But they are far from it. I would say I don’t get it, but I do. By my estimation, a full 75% of the charities I see operating here are in the business of creating big salaries for the principals, hard at work exploiting children in the process of selling “feel-good” experiences for visitors. Those experiences = money, and loads of it. No one is being “helped” indeed, the whole process is situating the country further and further into despair.

It’s a big, big business here.

“Poverty Porn” is what it’s called in certain circles. Tour guides sliding in a couple of hours during a tour to “go and see the poor kids”;  give them things they don’t really need and then go home, feeling even luckier than they already are. Going to orphanages and schools is especially high on the list of experiences, I guess because children don’t yet have a voice and mostly do what they are told. And, in some ways are more “pathetic” and “pitiful” and provide an even bigger emotional crowbar to separate people from their money.

We struggle with this phenomenon every day.  There is a line between “exposing potential donors to the project” and “exposing the children to voyeurs” who come to snap a few photos, remind their own children who are in tow, just how lucky they are, and then be on their way. The line is difficult to find at times. I think that when we are in doubt, we err on the side that makes some people angry with us and maybe some of those people had money to give us, we don’t know. It’s a tough call sometimes.

We want people to see our project, want potential supporters to see the schools, understand the goals, see the programs at work, meet the students and their teachers. At the same time, we don’t want our schools to become a tourist attraction. Requests come in on a daily basis to let busloads of tourists come to “see the school”.

Our first step in tackling this problem was to deny all requests for anyone who just wants to add  a “stop at school” to their touring itinerary. If visitors want to visit the school, there needs to be a clear reason for their presence. So, people come and fix lunch, do food distributions to the kids who don’t get breakfast, take students and their teachers on field trips or, if they have time, lead a workshop in the library on anything from science to art to yoga to bike repair. The people we take to school I find worry about their presence there; they ask if photos are appropriate, they are respectful of the students and the teachers and what is going on there. They get it. We like those people and generally, after their visit, they like us, what we’re doing and the way we’re doing it. They donate, they participate. They are a natural fit to the PLF team.

Those who would be angry with us for not allowing the school to become a zoo probably aren’t going to understand Ponheary’s vision and are, I’m certain, the same people who think buying bracelets from children at Angkor Wat is a helpful thing to do. We don’t have any problem just saying “no” and have come under fire for it from tourists, from touring agencies, from all the people who stand to make a couple of bucks from “offering an experience”. Frankly, we don’t care.

child seller 2

Both Knar and Koh Ker School are very near to popular temples. Even though PLF is strict about who visits these schools and why, every other tour guide and tuktuk driver is not necessarily so conscientious, thinking more about a big tip than the welfare of cambodian children. At least 3-4 times a week, a van, a car, a tuktuk or even a bus will pull up in the school yard and the visitors will stalk around the classrooms, poking cameras through the windows, interrupting class to give candy to children who don’t have access to dental care. Once at Knar School I watched a bus with about 20 tourists in it pull up in the yard, blare the horns until the kids came running out of class, then some of them pitched candy out the windows of the bus while others of them clicked photos of the kids scrambling in the dirt for it. Then they just drove away.

I can’t make this stuff up. It happens. I can’t get inside the head of someone who would think that’s okay.

Knar school has always been a problem, being right on the road to Banteay Srei, a temple on everyone’s itinerary. Koh Ker School, once remote and totally off the radar is now 100% on the circuit as more and more tourist buses ply the road to Koh Ker temple. The school is a pleasant 10 minute walk away from the temples and more and more, camera-toting, well-meaning tourists make that trek to pass out pencils to children who already have them interrupting class to do so and teaching our students that “hey foreigners give us stuff, let’s forget about school and go to the temples where they are and see what else we can get”.

It’s depressing, thinking about all our hard work at Koh Ker going down the tubes because of the senseless behaviour of tourists. About a month ago, I saw for the first time some 5-6 year olds, who should have been in school, at Prasat Thom being given a couple of dollars by a well intentioned tourist. Those two dollars are what that child’s father makes in a day. What are the chances that when that child turns up at home with her father’s wages in her hand that the father will send her to school the next day? None. Nada. That child will be sent back out to Prasat Thom tomorrow and soon all her friends with her. Soon, the school will be empty during high season.

hang sign_koh ker

We’ve spent almost A YEAR working with principals and Ministry officials at these two schools trying to get permission to hang a sign at the entrance of the school asking people to think about what they are doing while at school, unaccompanied and uninvited. It needs to be in every language in the world, but that would be quite a sign, so it’s in English and Khmer, and we hope that the tour guides will at least read it and share it with their tourists, so they can think about what they are doing by barging in on school uninvited. We hope the stamps from government officials will mean something to them, but we’ll see about that.

If a busload of Cambodian (or any other) tourists showed up at a primary school in the US and interrupted a classroom to pass out pencils to students who already had pencils, while someone snapped photos of them doing it, the police would be summoned. I don’t understand why the children here are not held in the same regard.

I’m proud of the Ministry of Education and our principals and teachers for supporting us in this notion (finally) that Cambodian Public Schools are not tourist attractions and that random tourists have no business trolling through them. It takes quite a turn of head for teachers and principals to get on board with the idea that focusing on their students is a better investment that hoping some random tourist might hand them $5.

Ok that’s the end of my rant about this. Here is the sign. I am dang proud of it although in my deepest heart, I know it will not make a bit of difference to the vast majority of tourists, who will not notice it at all, or if they do, hold their own agenda higher than that of our students.

Signs don’t change people, people do that by themselves and my wildest hope is that all of us, wherever we travel, will do so with a gentler step.

Koh Ker Sign

Further reading:

Cambodia Fears Rise in Child Sexual Exploitation with Influx of Tourists

Cambodia: Child Protection Workers call for end to “Orphanage Tourism”

Cambodia tourism: Children “for rent” by the hour?