Cambodia can be considered a traveler’s dream destination with ancient temples, a tropical climate, and a beautiful Buddhist culture. But less than forty years ago, more than a third of the Cambodian population was lost to violence, starvation, and torture under the Khmer Rouge regime. The country’s doctors, teachers, and educated citizens were all targeted in the genocide, which has made rebuilding the nation a slow and painful process.

These days, the Cambodian economy now depends heavily on tourism dollars to keep their economy moving forward, the relationship isn’t always a healthy one. Tourists’ sympathies are sometimes exploited, and tourist actions can have consequences they didn’t intend. If you’re a well-meaning tourist visiting the country, here are five ways your actions may be harming Cambodian children without you even knowing.

1. Supporting child vendors

It’s hard to say no to an adorable child who wants to sell you something cute, but that’s exactly why children are so popular as vendors in Cambodia. In general, it’s best view child vendors as an example of child labor. Child street vendors in Cambodia have usually been pulled out of school to do their work.  They usually work 7 days a week and can earn less than $3 per day. Worse, once they’re on the streets, Cambodian children often wind up being victimized by sex traffickers, either within the country or across the border in Thailand.

If we all collect fair-trade crafts produced by adults instead of cheap trinkets sold by child vendors, parents would still be able to support their families, while children could be safe from harm and free to go to school.

2. Visiting orphanages

Privately owned orphanages in the country often court tourists, offering dance performances and the chance to cuddle with cute children. Visitors are then moved to make generous donations.

The problem? All the dollars flowing into orphanages creates pressure to keep filling homes with orphans. The number of children living in orphanages in Cambodia has doubled in recent years, and as many as 80% of these children have at least one living living parent. Poor families are often convinced that their child will have a better future if they give him up for adoption.

Friends International, an organization that supports child safety in Cambodia, has put together this haunting video that explains how well-meaning tourists create a tragic situation for children when they donate to Cambodian orphanages.

3. Buying milk for children

In Cambodia, when walking down the street, you can often spot a girl with baby on her hip, saying “I don’t want money. Just milk for the baby.” and then lead you to the nearest convenience store where you can buy a can of powdered milk.

You’ll walk away feeling great about yourself, and she’ll walk back into the store and return the can to the clerk, who will add a mark on his tally sheet. At the end of the day, the girl’s employer will collect the cash and the girl will get paid a paltry sum for her long day of scamming.

This is a lucrative scam in a country where tourists are deeply touched by the poverty around them and are desperate to help. But as long as soft-hearted tourists make this hustle profitable, the cycle will continue.

4. Taking photos of children

Sally Heatherington, an Australian who has been in Cambodia working with the Human And Hope Association, told me, “Every day, an increasing number of tourists have been visiting Anlong Pi, a rubbish dump about 30km from Siem Reap. There, they take photos of the men, women and children who spend day upon day sorting through filthy rubbish just to make a couple of dollars. Not only does this intrude on the lives of these people who are just trying to make a living, it also encourages the children to stay out of school so they can perhaps make a few dollars from the tourists who are turning their lives into a tourist attraction.

In an article for BBC, Paul Berger of the Washington University School of Art gives this advice: “Err on the side of being overly sensitive to people’s feelings.” Berger suggests following “common-sense rules of social interaction” and says that “consensual types of exchanges are ideal and usually more rewarding to both parties.

Never take photos of children without asking a parent’s permission. Also, it’s important to engage people in conversation and relate to them as people before you photograph them. Travel photographer Matt Kadey offers similar advice in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, saying, “It’s important that I demonstrate that I am actually interested in [locals] and not just grabbing a great photo of them.

5. Volunteering to teach

Though you may be a gifted natural educator, your willingness to volunteer can create a system that exposes kids to a constant stream of unskilled teachers. According to  ChildSafe.org, short-term international volunteers often have no previous experience of teaching and so lack the skills to teach English as a foreign language. Most volunteers only stay for a short period of time before moving on and being replaced by new volunteers, and the lack of adequate background checks on volunteers contributes to a situation in which child sexual exploitation can occur.

Cambodian children often don’t have stability in their lives to begin with. The extended families who would have protected them in better times are often missing or sometimes suffering from PTSD as a results of the long-term damage done by previous wars. Thus, it’s even more important that these children have the stability of long-term, well-trained mentors — preferably from their own culture, so they can grow up with positive, stable role-models and create positive images of themselves as Cambodians.

If you’re a skilled, experienced teacher, offer a workshop for Cambodian educators, rather than working directly with children.

How To Do It Right

Your desire to help is admirable, but it’s even more admirable to put the children of Cambodia ahead of your desire to feel good about yourself. Here are some sustainable ways to help.

Shop Fair Trade: Buying from local artisans (and paying fair market prices) provides jobs for parents, which is the best way to help children.
Use the Sharing Economy: If you’re comfortable with sites like Airbnb.comVayable.com, and WithLocals.com, you’ll find it easy to hook up with locally owned lodging and local tour guides.
Donate to a solid charity: Human And Hope Association, for instance, is run by Cambodians, employs Cambodian teachers, and offers sustainable programs outside Siem Reap.
Eat in training restaurants: These restaurants offer excellent food and service, support worthwhile NGOs, and help train local people for well-paying jobs.
Connect with Concert Cambodia: This organization will hook you up with local charities that will use your donations or volunteer help in sustainable ways.
Learn more through Friends International’s ChildSafe campaign.

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