Last Night in Siem Reap

Siem Reap still looks more like a village than Phnom Penh – the river winding into the old town center, the lenticular bridges and shallow gutters – and its guest houses play on the village idea – slat fences overcome by bougainvillea, trees in old terra cotta pots.  The lazy scenery is overlaid by a clutter of tourist attraction.  On the way out to the NGO at the village outskirts, I saw mini-billboards at street corners advertising a ‘rhumerie,’ a sombai (rice brandy) distillery, handicraft stores, ‘white bike raise money for charity,’ and any number of guest houses and hotels.

And the schools – village education initiatives, residential schools, orphanages.  I counted four signboards for supported schools on the way to the suburb I was visiting, which was a small village near one of the more remote temples in the complex.

There has been a backlash against residential care in the past several years – and special animus towards ‘orphanage tourism,’ which is when tourists in the developing world visit orphanages to look at the kids.  Some of the time they bring gifts – mangoes, bags of rice, toiletries, toys, books, school supplies – or money.  Sometimes they are asked for donations, including donations of food or for a particular purpose like repairs to the school building.  Sometimes tourist groups will collaborate in a larger donation, like a well for a village or a set of bicycles for a school – occasionally even a building or a bus tuk-tuk.  Sometimes the tourists will just bring a little bit of money, or no money at all, and take pictures.  Sometimes the tourists will be asked to volunteer time as ‘teachers,’ or simply to spend time with the children.  The tourists will spend a few hours or just a few minutes with the children.  Sometimes the tourists are supervised and sometimes not.

The backlash has argued on behalf of the emotional wellbeing of the children, pointing out that this system leaves them open to the worst kind of abuse.  It teaches children to trust and show casual affection towards adult strangers, even pressuring them into physical contact.  More importantly, it treats their affections as trivial – as if they were puppies to be picked up and then returned to their crate.  ‘Volunteer tourists’ are often barely introduced to the children, and disappear when the afternoon is over, never to return.  They assume that they have done good, both by sharing goods and by sharing hugs; the theory is that the children have neither food nor love and thus can do with a porridge of both.  I have heard several people say that the people here, the children in particular, ‘have nothing,’ stand in absolute need, have no parents and nothing to eat.

Institutional settings can be thin gruel – they can leave children feeling lonely and isolated, and leave them with a meagre share of attention and help.  They can also make resident children feel interchangeable, precarious, even when the adults in charge are generous with their time and responsible to their mission.

But orphanage tourism makes children into a commodity, and treats interaction with them as a souvenir.  And it is still very popular in Cambodia, maybe more than in many other countries.  I have also heard people here say that the children and the adults are more affectionate, more ready with their smiles, more ‘open.’  So maybe the children here are popular not only because of Cambodia’s reputation for poverty but also because of Cambodia’s norm of gracious kindness.

Orphanage tourism critics also argue against the idea that a plurality of Cambodia’s children are orphans, pointing out that most of the children who live in orphanages and residential schools have at least one living parent – and that most of them reside in these orphanages because their parent lacks basic income support.

Orphanage tourism extends into other symbolic loci of poverty, and one of these was the city dump in Stung Mean Chey.  The residential school where I worked was built to serve the children whose families worked on the Stung Mean Chey dump as trash pickers.  Many of these children had encountered philanthropy tourists coming in tuk-tuks to snap pictures and give rice.  My first year in Cambodia, my students performed a play called “My Life at the Dump.”  The students portraying tourists acted like paparazzi, bending and twisting around the children playing the children, fingers crooking again and again on imaginary shutters.

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