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 orphanage visits in Cambodia. I don’t care if they heard me groan. This has to stop.

It was a similar conversation to that I had overheard in a Battambang hotel a few months earlier, between young Asian-Australian travellers about their orphanage visits in Cambodia, that had motivated me to interview Battambang-based Tara Winkler, the co-founder of Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT).

CCT is the NGO that launched the hospitality training restaurant, Jaan Bai, with the support and technical expertise of Australian chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok (Asia’s best restaurant) and restaurateur John Fink (owner of Peter Gilmore’s Quay restaurant, Sydney), which we’ve been writing about since it opened in October 2013.

Here’s my interview with Tara Winkler about 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 27 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.

  10. Jess

    Hi Lara, thanks for the very insightful article. I had no idea that such a ‘business’ was so detrimental to the country though I would like to extend a hand to those children in need. I recently came across a mentorship program for children in Cambodia. Basically, mentors sign up in cities like Singapore (where I am from) and are paired with a child. Mentors are just required to send letters of encouragement, advice, and generally be a listening ear for the disadvantaged children there. Do you have any thoughts about such a program? Would love to hear from you! :)

  11. Lara Dunston

    Hi Jess – thanks for reading and for your kind words. The mentorship programme sounds wonderful in theory but I guess its ‘success’ depends upon both the experience/specialist skills of the mentor (how much is the child/young person really getting out of the relationship) and the commitment of the mentor (is the mentor in it for the long term?). Because one of the issues with orphanage tourism is how attached the kids can get to visitors who come and spend time with them, bestow them with affection and gifts and all the rest, and then leave. We’ve seen the tears of Cambodian children who have been touched by a visitor and their attention and then devastated when they have left. I’m no expert of course, but I know somebody who is – Sally, the operations manager at Human and Hope Association. She’s acted as a mentor to her Cambodian team and students, so I might ask her to come and share her professional opinion. Thanks for dropping by!

  12. Mandy

    Hi Lara, very insightful piece, thank you. I’d just like to add my two cents’ worth on Jess’ question regarding mentorship. Many years ago, I had such a relationship with a Filipino child via WorldVision, where we exchanged letters and even small gifts – I would send her a small notebook and she would draw me a picture, for example. When the project ended in her village, I was really sad to lose contact with her, yet at the same time, glad that it meant that her village had ‘graduated’. When I first got to know her, she was a little child of about 6 years and when we lost touch, she was in high school – I could only hope that I had given her moral support and inspired her to aim for a better life. A couple years ago, I received a message from her via my local SPCA (she had known that I was a volunteer with them and got in touch with them, hoping to find me) and it was wonderful to find out that she was now in college in Manila, that she remembered me and still kept all my letters, and also that her family was doing well back home. We keep in touch via Facebook now. So yes, if handled well, I believe that mentorship can be a positive thing for disadvantaged children, even if it cannot beat living with a loving family.

  13. Sally Hetherington

    Hi Jess,

    Lara invited me to come and give my thoughts about the mentorship program you asked about. I personally have no experience with this, however I do have some ideas about this. I firmly believe that local staff are the subject matter experts, as they are the ones who know about the culture and the community. We should be supporting the local staff to have the confidence and passion to be the ones to offer encouragement, advice, and generally be a listening ear for the disadvantaged children. Furthermore, as Lara said, when children come from vulnerable backgrounds, they can have a tendency to ‘latch on’ to people, and a mentoring system could end in tears. What is better is to support local organisations, such as Friends International, who have trained local staff who work and support these children directly.

    I commend your desire to assist children in developing countries, however I strongly recommend either financially supporting transparent, reputable organisations who do the ground work with local staff, or if you had the skills, being a long-term volunteer working with an organisation training up a staff member so your impact can be felt long after you leave.

    As an FYI, here is a blog our team wrote on why we don’t accept volunteers at our organisation: http://www.humanandhopeassociation.org/thanks-for-your-generous-offer-however/. Please feel free to contact me at sally(at)humanandhopeassociation.org if you would like to discuss anything further.

    Also, if you wanted to support the empowerment of local staff, please take a look at this fundraiser: http://www.globalgiving.org/microprojects/empower-three-cambodians-with-scholarships/

  14. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, Sally! Much appreciated. Good luck with the fundraiser – I hope you get your birthday wish and meet your fundraising girl! And HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Let me buy you a birthday drink soon x

  15. Lara Dunston

    Hi Mandy – thanks so much for sharing your story. Much appreciated. I think the example you’ve given has demonstrated how valuable these relationships can be when people like yourself are committed.

    I was an academic at UAE women’s universities for almost eight years, first in Abu Dhabi as faculty teaching film, writing and media, and later as head of the same department at the Dubai women’s campus. I mentored ‘my girls’ in ways that lecturers at the Australian universities I went to never did, spending long hours with them after class and on weekends on projects and became very close to them. At times I felt like a mother, at other times a sister, and later on when they graduated, a close friend.

    I was committed, like you were, not only because of my professional capacity, but because I genuinely cared for them, and I remained a mentor long after they entered the workplace and I hope I influenced them in positive ways. Many went on to have very successful careers as independent women if that’s evidence of my impact.

    But what I often hear happens here in Cambodia with tourists is that they visit the orphanage, teach a few songs, hand out some books and toys, and then go, not to return for another year, breaking the little kids’ hearts in the process. When that happens over and over again every week – or every day in some cases – it can be very stressful and damaging emotionally and psychologically for the kids.

    However, if people can stay the course and maintain that commitment to that little person over time, as you did, I’m sure mentoring can be very valuable.

  16. Annette

    My son and his wife are missionaries in Cambodia. My son is teaching his religion and my daughter-in-law works with disabled children my worry when they told me they going to live in Cambodia was that was that they have their own cultural beliefs plus taking employment from local people. Five years on I am still none the wiser.

  17. Lara Dunston

    Hello Annette – we personally don’t believe anybody should impose their religion (or politics or philosophy) on anybody else, especially people who are vulnerable due to their economic circumstances. The issue of taking employment from locals is one that concerns us. We are very careful, for instance, about which travel companies we recommend people use and always refer them to local companies that mostly employ locals. We won’t recommend a company that uses foreign guides to lead tours, for example, unless that guide has highly specialised skills and knowledge, such as an archaeologist who has been researching a particular temple for years or a historian with a PhD. There is no reason for a foreigner to lead a street food tour or teach a cooking class, for instance, unless they have the 25 years experience like, say, David Thompson. What they should be doing is training locals to do those things and giving them a leg-up.

  18. chhunlong

    I don’t know well about all the orphans business in Cambodia. but one day I’ve been visited one orphan and I figure out to know that all the children are not the orphanage their just sent to that place by their parents. Their parents need to pay for that place very month for taking care of their kids. and never support orphanage and their look better than me

  19. Stephen Jenner

    Great post, lets hope more tourists read this and become educated about the impact of all forms of tourism in poor countries. I just returned from a volunteer trip to Siem Reap in December 2014. I went with a Singapore organisation called Soconomist and spent three days teaching in a rural primary school. I think Soconomist is a good example of voluntourism because the aim is to teach skills rather than just give money. Also, both Cambodians and volunteers benefit from this kind of cultural exchange and exposure. Soconomist runs similar trips to China, Philippines and Myanmar. Find out more at http://www.soconomist.com. Anyone interested can read more about my Cambodia trip on my blog https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-i-spent-my-new-year-cambodian-village-school-stephen-jenner?trk=mp-reader-card

  20. Lara Dunston

    Thanks for your comment, Stephen. Much appreciated. The kind of voluntourism you did where you were teaching skills to Cambodians rather than simply doing the job a Cambodian teacher could be doing is exactly the sort of voluntourism we prefer to encourage our readers to do.

  21. Lara Dunston

    Hello Chhunlong – in most cases the orphanage actually pays the parents – in a way they are renting the children – to attract foreigners and encourage them to sponsor a child or the orphanage itself. It’s a very sad situation.

  22. Scott

    An even worse scenario is where swindlers guide wealthy foreigners to ‘one day orphanages’. That’s where they pay all the kids in the neighborhood a dollar to come to a building that gets rented out for the day. They put up a sign that says orphanage. Boom. Here today, while the foreigners visit–gone tomorrow. The swindler’s organization pockets the cash with a smile.

  23. Lara Dunston

    Hi Scott – yes, we’ve heard those stories here in Cambodia. Appalling, isn’t it? Do you know if they happen anywhere else? Thanks for dropping by to share your experience.

  24. Matt

    Hi Lara, I just came across your article. Great post. I naively volunteered at such a place in 2010 in Siem Reap. After a few weeks there, it became obvious to me that the children were mostly there just to be exploited for money by the “Orphanage”‘s director. Keep up the work please so that we can educate more people about this very sad situation, so that more money ends up in the correct places to do good rather than lining pockets. Sadly I see the man who duped me is still working as an Orphanage director, albeit with a renamed NGO.

  25. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, Matt! The kind words are much appreciated though it’s Tara who has so articulately communicated the reality. I don’t think you should feel you were “naive” – you just had a good heart and wanted to do some good and the true situation wasn’t covered as widely then as it is now. Sadly, these people are duping so many – volunteers, donors, but worst of all, the parents, many of whom have no idea why they’re ‘borrowing’ their children; some are told they’re taking them to a special school to teach them so they don’t know that there’s anything wrong going on. What’s sad to hear is that the guy you volunteered with is still heading an NGO. Do drop by again (or subscribe) – we’ve got a few more Q&As coming up on related topics that I think you’ll be interested in.

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