Tara Winkler, founder and managing director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT). Photographed at Jaan Bai restaurant, Battambang. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Why You Should Avoid Orphanage Visits in Cambodia

As we waited at Siem Reap airport for our flight to Bangkok a few days ago, I overheard American tourists on their phones telling friends back home about their Asian adventures. A highlight of their trip, they said, had been visits to orphanages in Cambodia. I don’t care if they heard me groan. These have to stop.

It was another similar conversation I overheard between young Asian-Australian travellers in a Battambang hotel a few months ago that motivated me to interview Battambang-based Tara Winkler, the co-founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust. CCT is the NGO that launched the hospitality training restaurant, Jaan Bai, which we’ve been writing about since it opened last October. Here’s why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia…

Grantourismo: Q. Orphanage visits are on many travellers’ to-do lists these days, especially in Cambodia. What does orphanage tourism involve?
Tara Winkler: A. Orphanage tourism is becoming increasingly popular in developing countries like Cambodia. It simply means tourists visiting orphanages as part of their travel itineraries.

Q. Orphanage tourism is closely linked to voluntourism — they both come from a desire to give back to the places visited.
A. While voluntourism is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry, it can cause serious problems for developing countries like Cambodia — problems that most people are not aware of. Orphanage tourism is the best (or worst!) example of the kinds of problems that voluntourism can create. We need to think before visiting an orphanage. Children are not tourist attractions.

Q. So orphanage tourism is big business?
A. Absolutely. Because there are so many tourists who want to come visit orphanages, it has become very lucrative for orphanages to exist and to be open to tourist visits. This has led to a dramatic rise in the number of orphanages and the number of children being institutionalised unnecessarily. The number of orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphans has declined. It’s shocking to realise that the laws of supply and demand apply to the business of orphanages, where children are the commodities and well-meaning foreigners are the customers.

Q. What’s wrong with orphanage tourism exactly?
A. The majority of the children in these orphanages are not orphans. They are children from poor families. Struggling parents entrust their children into the care of orphanages in the hope that they will find a path out of poverty to a better life. Yet these families do not fully understand the negative impact that living in an orphanage can have on their children. At best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.

Q. Why is that?
A. Part of the reason for this is the rotating roster of carers and visitors to orphanages. It is important for children’s development and mental health to have long-term, stable relationships, rather that short-term periods of bonding followed by separation. So to answer your question, because orphanage tourism provides an incentive for these orphanages to exist, it is not a good thing at all. With the best of intentions, people who visit orphanages are being more harmful than helpful to children.

Q. Are there any legitimate orphanage visits that can be made by tourists?
A. I would say ‘no’. Certainly, there are ‘good’ orphanages that have the children’s best interests at heart, but having people enter a child’s private space is inherently disruptive and does not benefit children. You wouldn’t visit a group home for vulnerable children in Australia or the US, so why do it in Cambodia?

Q. What are the alternatives to orphanages in a country like Cambodia where UNICEF estimated there were 600,000 orphans? Are residential care centres and children’s villages better?
A. Residential care centres, children’s villages, and orphanages are all types of institutionalised care. The best place for a child to grow up is in a family environment, not in an institution. That’s why all the children that CCT works with live in a family, whether it is with their biological parents, aunties and uncles, grandparents, or foster parents. Cambodia has a long tradition of caring for vulnerable children within kinship care, and to this day, the majority of Cambodia’s orphans live within the extended family. The rapid increase in residential care facilities threatens to erode these existing systems and places children at risk.

Q. If altruistic travellers want to help to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, what are some better to do this?
A. A great way is to support social enterprises run by charities that support children. In Battambang, we run Jaan Bai, a restaurant that trains youth from our programs, with all the profits coming back to CCT to support our programs. There are similar social enterprises throughout Cambodia, like Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh and Marum restaurant in Siem Reap, which support Friends International’s work with children living on the street. In Kampot, Epic Arts Café supports Epic Arts’ work with people with disabilities.

Q. Why was CCT established and what does it do exactly?
A. CCT was established in 2007 when Jedtha Pon and I, with the support of the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation, rescued 14 children from a corrupt and abusive orphanage in Battambang. Since then, we’ve grown to support more than 300 children and their families through our communityeducation and social enterprise programs. These programs work together to ensure children and their families have the comprehensive support they need to thrive. We enable children in Battambang to break free from the cycle of poverty and become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia.

Q. How does the CCT differ from an orphanage?
A. All children supported through our programs live in a family. We believe strongly that families are the best place for children. There have been a few cases where we have reunited siblings and parents and children who have been separated when the children were living in orphanages, and it is incredible to see the difference this makes in their lives. They are doing so well.

Q. What about travellers considering a volunteer program?
A. Think before volunteering overseas. When travelling to a developing country to help build a house, for example, you might inadvertently be taking the job of a local builder. It is, however, very helpful to use your relevant skills to train and empower local people. Then, instead of taking jobs from local people, you’ll be empowering them and helping them to become more employable.

Q. Any tips for travellers who wish to donate money or gifts?
A. Think before donating to charities that institutionalise children and exploit them to get your sympathy. Support organisations that promote family based care and empower the people they are working to help. Think before sending donations of goods to developing countries. Instead, encourage goods to be bought locally to support the local economy.

Q. In other words, do some thorough research first.
A. It is the responsibility of each of us to do the required research and become educated and informed givers to ensure the ways in which we are helping are not inadvertently causing more harm than good.

Q. Are there any specific organizations, projects or businesses you recommend travellers visiting Cambodia donate to or support?
A. In addition to those I mentioned already, PEPY Tours in Siem Reap is a great organisation that runs culturally immersive learning tours and does a lot of education around responsible tourism.

Cambodian Children’s Trust

You can also donate to Cambodian Children’s Trust here

There are 11 comments

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  1. Peggy

    “GT: Are there any legitimate orphanage visits that can be made by tourists?
    TW: I would say ‘no’. Certainly, there are ‘good’ orphanages that have the children’s best interests at heart, but having people enter a child’s private space is inherently disruptive and does not benefit children. You wouldn’t visit a group home for vulnerable children in Australia or the US, so why do it in Cambodia?”

    This is such a great article! I totally agree and think that this type of tourism must stop! It’s similar to the visits to the long neck women of northern Thailand/ Myanmar. The official party line is that the practice is part of their culture and they submit themselves to it voluntarily – despite the health risks and issues. And people go and gawk at another human being like it’s a zoo. The suffering of other people should never be a tourist attraction.

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hi Peggy

    Thanks so much for your feedback. We completely agree that people like the ‘long-neck’ women in Thailand/Myanmar, like children, shouldn’t be considered to be tourist attractions. We had to visit the women when we were doing a guidebook update in Thailand years ago and while some women were engaging with visitors – I had one cute old lady that took a liking to me – others simply weren’t enjoying the experience and looked miserable.

    It’s important to do these sorts of activities with a responsible, ethical travel company that has a relationship with the village so that the experience is a two-way exchange and not simply a matter of going and looking and taking photos.

    We’ve done a few experiences with a company in Siem Reap that we love that does really enriching village tours, called Beyond Unique Escapes, where the villagers asked as many questions of us about our lives as we did of them. It’s low impact and interactive and a percentage of the tour price goes into a village fund for vital improvements. It’s a wonderful model.

    We will be posting a Q&A soon on village visits/tours which you might also find interesting. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Olivia @ Olivia Explores

    This is such an important point and confirms for me the decision I made a few months ago- I was considering going to volunteer in SE Asia and Cambodia seemed like the best place for it. But as soon as I did my research, I realised that I would probably be doing more bad than good and I figured the best thing to do was go to countries and help by simply spending money and stimulating the local economy.
    It’s such a tough subject because people usually have the hearts in the right place when they set out to volunteer but it’s just not helpful. And frankly, I think it just perpetuates the view the West have of ourselves as ‘saviours’ of poorer regions.
    Thanks for the great article, we need more like this!

  4. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, Olivia! I think, as Tara points out, there can be good volunteer experiences – those where you’re actually teaching some skills that can be learnt that can then be passed on. Rather than simply working for free and perhaps taking away jobs from locals. But, yes, the economy can always do with some stimulation, so come for a holiday. Let us know if you need tips. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Lara Dunston

    It is indeed, Peter. I think the hotels need to take a bit more responsibility to educate guests too. I know of some here in Siem Reap who have even hosted visits by orphanage directors and the children in an attempt to secure donations and sponsorship of children from wealthy guests.

  6. Roy

    Don’t think my previous comment went through due to internet problems so let me say:

    The interview has many decent points, and the basic idea of not visiting orphanages for a one off tour is very valid. To visit kids in that way makes them an attraction, makes them an exhibition, and so it’s got more in common with a zoo by that logic.

    However there is a very limited use for orphanages and children’s homes and the issue is more complex than the demonising of them here.

    For example here:
    “At best, even children growing up in ‘good’ orphanages will be at high risk of developing clinical personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and an impaired ability to re-enter society later in life.” I’d first be interested to note the studies and experience this is based on, as that is almost certainly not the best case scenario. The best case scenario is an orphange of children’s home is a loving environment similar to family.

    There are so many kids, for example, who may get looked after by extended family and get abused physically, sexually, emotionally, etc. Aside from the personal cases I’ve seen, statistically many street kids ended up on the streets precisely because they ran away from an abusive home (and many do run away from orphanages for the same reasons in the badly run ones).

    The best case scenario orphanages/children’s homes, though, are the first step to caring for the kids, hopefully backed up by finding a foster family – though that’s exceptionally difficult in developing countries given the numbers involved (again a case of supply bigger than demand, there are more kids needing a foster family than willing foster families, therefore orphanages filling the gap). And the best way would be to use them as a half-way step (with proper government/NGO support and regulations to get rid of the need for the funds from voluntourism and avoid the apparent systematic exploitation in that system).

    So it’s a lot more complicated than it’s been presented here…

    The general idea of not visiting orphanages is a good one. But the generalised statements and extension of demonising all kinds of orphanages don’t do the topic justice.

  7. Tracy Stettler

    Lara and Olivia,

    I have a small village school here in Kep, Cambodia and have also been a volunteer teacher for the past two years in Cambodian secondary school. Many of my students were either living at the orphanage or supported by the orphanage monetarily and I can confirm that the majority of children are indeed very poor, but not necessarily orphans. Anther point to consider is that when tourists come to the orphanage, the children often do not attend school. Sometimes several days at a time. Being available to meet with visitors takes precedence over attending school. It’s inherently better for the children when you donate financially to a reputable non-profit or volunteer your time teaching (a skill) at a school. Olivia, if you ever come to Cambodia and want to volunteer, we have a perfect place for you to help out! http://salamonkeyschool.tumblr.com/

  8. Lara Dunston

    Hi Roy

    Just to clarify that Tara is speaking about orphanages in Cambodia specifically, not orphanages in general.

    Do your questions (eg. regarding studies related to kids’ development) and comments relate specifically to Cambodia? If so, I’ll email Tara and ask her to come over and respond.

    Thanks for dropping by!


  9. Lara Dunston

    Hi Roy – just an update: I did invite Tara to come back and respond to your feedback, but no response from her yet, I’m sorry. I’ll see if I can find another expert on orphanage tourism who might comment. Thanks for being patient.

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