Tara Winkler, founder and managing director of the Cambodian Children's Trust (CCT) explains why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia. Photographed at Jaan Bai restaurant, Battambang. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Why You Should Avoid Orphanage Visits in Cambodia and Everywhere

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Why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia is a no brainer as far as we’re concerned. Orphanage tourism is a thing and it’s a big corrupt business that’s fuelled by tourism and tourists who are under the misapprehension they’re doing good by visiting orphanages. They’re not and here’s why.

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 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, pictured above, on why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia — and everywhere for that matter. Orphanage tourism is not a good form of tourism. In fact, it’s horrid. Tara Winkler will explain why.

Published 17 June 2014

Why You Should Avoid Orphanage Visits in Cambodia

Q. Orphanage visits are on many travellers’ to-do lists these days, especially in Cambodia. What does orphanage tourism involve?

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 community, education 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

We can’t see how anyone can argue with those reasons as to why you should avoid orphanage visits in Cambodia. We’d love to hear if you have any more… feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

69 thoughts on “Why You Should Avoid Orphanage Visits in Cambodia and Everywhere”

  1. “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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  26. Hi,

    I agree with many of your points regarding to your article. I do not think that you should use those several examples to generalize the reality of the orphanages in Cambodia. There are children who have been receiving good education, shelter, food,..etc. from orphanages. I, myself was once living in an orphanage in Phnom Penh and because of that place I received a lot of opportunities to reach dreams. In 2009, I received a 2 year-scholarship to study in Italy and later in 2011 I was offered a 4 year-scholarship to study in the United States. Not just me, but there are several children who are currently studying abroad and working in Cambodia with good incomes. I am very thankful for the orphanages and donation from foreigners!

    I know you are quite popular in the writing field, but please remember that sometimes your mistakes and over-reacted might as well hurt other people. Don’t just blame those orphanages, but maybe also show those visitors to get to know the orphanages first before deciding to provide any support.


  27. This is an interesting article – but also blatant self promotion for her own organisation which detracts from the excellent points which are hidden in there.

    I have been an expat in Cambodia for a long period – I’ve seen good children’s homes and bad and very bad.

    “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.” – this is absolutely ridiculous thing to say. The children’s home I have in mind has a large number of its students at international schools across Cambodia and the world (USA etc) in International Universities too! If those kids hadn’t been in that children’s home they would not have had that opportunity to study. They speak several languages and their maths is better than mine. heir They would have been planting rice with their uncle instead if they hadn’t been “institutionalised”.

    I’ve visited the website of this charity – On the FAQ page it says if you sponsor a child you can arrange a meeting (but otherwise children can’t be visited) – I totally agree children are not to be viewed. However, this organisation is essentially saying you need to pay to have access to a child! if an “orphanage” did this there would be uproar. If what Tara subscribes to what she believes sponsors should not get viewings. Australian kids in foster care would not be viewed by international sponsors. Simple.

    I would be interested to know in what capacity Tara visited the orphanage in Battenbang to rescue the orphans there. Was she working with an NGO or was she also a tourist/expat passing though as well. All good organisations have to start with some form of inspiration.

    Some good (and some correct!) points but very badly made in this article. Ultimately the work she is doing is great but sweeping generalisations of other good organisations is not the way forward. There are too many expats in Cambodia who do not want other NGOs there (because it is competition for funding). A crazy world.

  28. Hi Ravuth – thanks for your comments and for sharing your experiences.

    There are certainly no “mistakes” nor over-reactions in the section that I’ve written, which includes the questions and the first three paragraphs in which I provide an anecdote and communicate my frustration with how orphanages have become tourist attractions for many tourists visiting Cambodia.

    Perhaps you did not realise this is an interview with Tara Winkler, so most of the text above is the opinion of Tara Winkler – not mine. I’m sure she would appreciate you pointing out her mistakes/over-reactions.

    It is true that there are good and bad orphanages, as Tara points out – and good orphanages, such as that which you grew up in, can provide wonderful opportunities like those you had. However, there are also many fake orphanages that exist purely as a business, which tear families apart and don’t benefit the children.

    However, for my husband and myself as travel writers and travel industry professionals, the problem is that tourists are viewing one-off visits to orphanages as tourist activities and they should not be. Major/regular donors with a greater commitment to the orphanage are a different case entirely and I’d hope orphanages have mechanisms for meaningful experiences for those people that don’t harm the orphans emotionally. It’s the tourists who think they can just drop into an orphanage and hand over a few toys and colouring books and pencils to make themselves feel good and give themselves something to brag about that we have a problem with.

    We also asked a spokesperson from Friends International to participate in a Q&A and provide advice/tips – we are not the experts in this field, that’s why we don’t provide advice, instead we go to the people who are experts, like Tara Winkler and Friends.

    Thanks again for dropping by to share your experience and opinion. We appreciate it.

  29. Hi Lara,

    Thanks for the clarification and assistance. I think a lot of people must be shocked after reading this article and knowing that many orphanages make profits by using vulnerable children to attract tourists. It is important to let them know, I totally agree with you.

    I am just a senior college student in the U.S and studying Sociology and International Relations. I am always curious about community works, so I hope my previous message didn’t bother you. Also, I am very interested in this issue now and I will take try to understand it more after I graduate this coming May 2015.

    Thanks again for your response and explanation.
    Ravuth Huot

  30. Hi Ravuth – thanks for your further comment – and, no, your earlier comment didn’t bother me at all :) We appreciate you reading our stories and taking the time to respond.

    The issue started to get a lot of attention a few years ago after the UNICEF and Friends Int. “children are not tourist attractions” campaign to highlight the problem, and a new campaign has just been launched also, which is why I think this post is getting so much attention.

    Best of luck with your studies!

  31. Hi Michelle – thanks for your comment, however, with all due respect, I must say that I’m bewildered as to how an interview on the subject of orphanage tourism reads as “blatant self promotion” for an NGO when the interviewee only mentions her NGO in three out of fourteen responses to my questions.

    I’ll invite Tara to respond, as she’s the best person to address the points you’ve made specifically about the NGO she manages.

    I think you’ll find the interview we will be posting shortly with a representative from Friends International interesting.

  32. Hi Michelle,

    I’d like to start by saying you’ve made some salient points in your comment. This issue, like all things in life, is not black and white. You are correct that putting down other organisations/people’s work is not the way forward – we need to work together to assist orphanages to change their model in favour of family-based care. Organisations like Friends International have already begun amazing work in facilitating this process. CCT is a member of the Friends International CYTI Alliance which means we are committed to doing all we can to assist any orphanage who is willing to adopt a family-based model of care. It isn’t correct that institutionalised care is better than remaining with family. It’s not a matter of choosing between institutionalising a child or offering no support at all – there is a better way! We can ensure children have access to the best possible education and health care, while keeping them with their families and connected to their communities – whether that be by remaining with their biological family, living in kinship care with their grandparents, aunties and uncles, or being placed in family-based foster care.

    The argument we are trying to promote is that orphanages should always be the absolute last resort because, unfortunately, research has shown that resorting to institutionalised care does impact negatively on all children. The evidence shows that children (particularly those under three years of age) are at risk of permanent developmental damage by not being cared for in a family setting. In addition, it’s been shown that children who are institutionalised find it very difficult to reintegrate back into society later in life. The need to move away from institutional care is not just my personal opinion. Here’s a link to some research papers on these issues: http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforedonating/resources

    At CCT we conduct visits to our projects (for the general public as well as donors and sponsors) because we are committed to operational transparency. We are also committed to conducting all visits in accordance with the highest degree of child protection – always with supervising staff and only to our public educational facilities, not to any private residences of any child or family. The difference between visiting CCT’s projects and visiting an orphanage is that an orphanage is a child’s home. And so any visit to an orphanage is inherently invading a child’s private space. You can view our child protection policy here – https://cambodianchildrenstrust.org/making-a-difference/impact/

    At CCT we very much welcome constructive criticism, it is one way we can continue to improve what we do. As a result of your feedback we’ve attempted to clarify some of these issues on our website. If you have further concerns, please get in touch so we can hear about them properly. Here is our email – info@cambodianchildrenstrust.org

    Before I wrap up, I really must state again – my message is, and will always be this: I have made mistakes. Done things imperfectly – partly as a result of a gross lack of public awareness about the orphanage issue and the dangers of voluntourism. I am not out to shame anyone. How hypocritical that would be!? After all, I myself have been an ‘orphanage tourist’ and then went and set up my own orphanage. But then I realised that there is a much better way – to keep kids with their families.

    To read more about CCT’s journey from the orphanage model to family-based care, see our most recent blog: https://www.cambodianchildrenstrust.org/support-families-orphanages

    Thank you for taking the time to engage in this much needed discussion.



  33. Terence and Lara,
    We’ve always respected your attention to accuracy and detail. You approach your jobs as journalists, not as travel writers. To us, that puts you two in a different class of writer: trustworthy.
    This post is a sterling example of why you two are an important part of today’s travel blogging universe. You approach a serious subject with care, turning to an expert to provide facts and insight rather than to your own opinions.
    The distinction here is that most turn to their opinions first, then, if there is time or humility, to experts.
    What you’ve managed to do here is to convince us (and everyone who reads this) that orphanage tourism is wrong, that children are not intended to be tourist attractions, and you’ve done it all without drowning us in your opinions.
    We think in our collective effort to be socially conscious travelers, we forget that though our motives are altruistic our judgement can be come clouded. So heading to Cambodia to be a responsible tourist can end up being detrimental to the culture, no matter how idealistic we are.
    And perhaps this is the great flaw of travel blogging…that we go to a place for what equates to just a moment in the grand scope of time. We give our opinions and we move on. Very few of us approach our experiences objectively. And fewer still realize the temporal nature of our globetrotting and appeal to experts to expand with wisdom on the complex nuances of a culture’s wounds.
    As always, keep up the good work. In these small ways you are changing the world.
    -The Barcelona Experience team

  34. Hi JR and team – thanks so much for you taking the time to read and to comment. Your considered, thoughtful and complimentary words are greatly appreciated. There are places on this site where you will definitely find our opinions expressed very loud and clear – but it will be on topics we are experts on – and when we’re not, yes, our first instinct is to always go to those who are specialists in their fields. Thanks again for dropping by to share your thoughts – and of course, thanks for the kind words.

  35. Lara,

    This was a very interesting and thought-provoking piece. I never knew about people organizing one-off visits to orphanages while on holiday, and I cannot imagine doing so myself. I used to run a project at a home for street and working children in Bangalore, India, and we would occasionally field requests from people wanting to visit the project. My policy was that it was not allowed unless they were long-time donors and supporters of the program and wished to see what impact, if any, their money was having. It wasn’t a perfect compromise, but it was the best we could do.

    I really appreciate what many others have already voiced: the fact that you turned to an expert in the area to provide insights rather than trying to do so yourself. It shows what an experienced traveller and writer you are, and it shows the respect you have for the places you visit and the people you meet.

    Thank you for sharing this, and I look forward to many more articles of a similar nature!


  36. Hi Veena – thanks so much for the kind words and your thoughtful response. Pleased to learn about your project in India, too, and that you had a similar policy to the more responsible organizations here in Cambodia. Thanks for dropping by!

  37. I don’t agree in its entirety with this article. HIV is a huge problem in Cambodia, the medicine is far too expensive and not within reach for those that need it. The orphanage that takes these children in are the only way these children survive, grow, live and learn. Donations and volunteers are desperately needed. Most families do not have nor will they ever have the finance to take care of these children…..research those facts first before making claims that helping or volunteering is a negative thing.

  38. I lived and worked in Cambodia for seven and a half years, returning to Australia in late 2000. In those days there was no orphanage tourism, thank goodness. One of the orphanages I supported in those days was ‘Little Friends’ in Phnom Penh – I have forgotten the Khmer name.

    Started by a young couple who were travelling, it was an amazing place. Children living on the streets, many of them prostituting their tiny young bodies in order to eat. The children were fed, housed and clothed by this small orphanage. They were given basic education – which many of Cambodia’s poverty stricken children did not have – and when they were older were taught a trade so they could earn money to support themselves when they finally left the safety of the orphanage.

    Another in the outskirts of the capital is run by fellow Australian Geraldine Cox. She had a history or working in Cambodia in the late 1960s, early 1970s – pre Khmer Rouge – and returned in the 1990s, and has remained there, setting up more than one orphanage. Some of the babies she has cared for are HIV+, but their developing immune system beats the disease. Their parents are incapable of caring for their infants as AIDS takes their lives.

    Yours is a very interesting article, well written and very true in so many ways, but there are one or two genuine orphanages (or at least there were). I hate the idea that orphanages should be a business, showing off disadvantaged children for profit. I have long been against volunteer-tourism – if you want too make a change to the world, then volunteer through one of the many NGO agencies and give two or more years of your privileged life to truly help those who are poverty stricken. Get to know the people you are helping; help them to improve their quality of life through education as well as improved infrasructure; teach them the skills to start a small-holding which can feed their family and have enough left over to sell, or a skill to manufacture items which are needed in their community.

    There is so much we can do to help – we don’t need to visit orphanages and stare at the children, orphans or just from impoverished families. They are children, they are human beings, they are NOT exhibits!

    Sorry, I cannot review what I have written, so I hope I have not repeated myself, or missed out salient points.


  39. This is an interesting discussion for me, as I work for an organization that operates non-institutional, family-style children’s homes in India, Thailand and, yes, Cambodia.

    This is a complicated issue, and I agree with much of what Lara and Tara have said here. I think, however, that they have oversimplified the role of orphanages in a way that is less-than-helpful.

    We all recoil in disgust at the notion that any child should ever be sentenced to languish — untaught and unloved — in a squalid, Dickensian, prison-like institution. This healthy aversion to the warehousing of orphaned children has led many governments and charitable organizations to emphasize family preservation and kinship adoption as alternatives to orphanages — considering these the “best-case scenario” solutions.

    It has also driven many of us who do provide permanent residential orphan care to develop healthier models of service. Asia’s Hope, the organization I work for, has spent the last 14 years investing in family-style residential care, where orphaned and abandoned children are placed with full-time moms and dads, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters. They are afforded the best possible education, counseling and life skills training available. Many of our graduates are successful university students, entrepreneurs, and professionals; their success outpaces even that of many of their non-orphaned peers.

    Unfortunately, in an attempt to avoid the tragic mistakes of the past, an increasing number of orphan advocates now consider the permanent placement of a child into any kind of residential care setting an outdated, inhumane, and inherently harmful option. Some have even called for a moratorium on the establishment of all new orphanages and the closure of existing ones. The proposed Children in Families First Act, for example, will pressure foreign nations to limit the growth of or even eliminate orphanages and group homes as a condition of U.S. aid.

    This kind of overcorrection is misguided and dangerous. There is no credible scenario under which the proposed alternatives can be implemented for the vast majority of our world’s orphans. According to some estimates, a child is orphaned every second of every single day, often as a result of abuse, neglect, extreme poverty or mental illness. We already lag far behind in providing even the most basic resources for these children; we can hardly afford to discard, disparage or defund improved, improving and improvable care models that are working today.

    The practical obstacles to global implementation of alternative care models aside, there will always be some cases in which residential orphan care will provide the best solution for an orphaned child.

    Due to general scarcity of resources and lack of social service structures in many impoverished countries, the vast majority of orphaned children alive today will never benefit from the kinds of care advocated by orphanages’ most vocal opponents. As Christians who care about orphans, we certainly need to fund and advocate for organizations working to keep children in their families and communities of origins. But we also need to recognize that there will always be some cases in which residential orphan care will provide the best solution for an orphaned child. In my experience, there are children for whom a placement with an aunt, uncle or grandparent or an adoption by a member of the community would provide an experience inferior to placement in a well-funded, properly organized orphanage:

    1) When a foster, adoptive or kinship care placement would separate siblings that could be kept together in a residential program.

    So often kinship care or adoption splits up a primary family relationship (brother to sister, for instance) to maintain a secondary or tertiary (uncle to nephew, grandmother to granddaughter). By placing an entire sibling group—intact—into a children’s home, we are actively preserving the most important remaining bonds an orphan child needs to be successful in life.

    2) When the child’s status as an orphan would relegate them to an inferior or subservient role within the home

    Children placed with extended family often fall prey to the “Cinderella Syndrome,” where they are permanently relegated to an underclass within the family. The family’s birth children go to school and receive a larger portion of the family’s emotional and material support, while the orphaned children are resented and/or treated as domestic servants. In an excellent residential care setting, each child can be guaranteed equal treatment, regardless of their social status or the circumstances that led them to orphanhood.

    3) When foster-care or kinship placement is likely to be temporary

    Stability and permanence plays a greater role in predicting long-term success for a child than familial proximity or even family size. We see this clearly in American children’s services structures, where kids are bounced back and forth between unsafe and unstable birth families and temporary foster families. On the other hand, when an organization like Asia’s Hope admits a child or a sibling group, we can offer permanent, uninterrupted care for the remainder of their childhood.

    4) When legal or social factors make adoption or kinship care placement illegal, unsafe or infeasible

    In China, the “one-child policy” renders the legal adoption of hundreds of thousands of “extra” children by extended family members unthinkable. To report a birth that violates the strictly enforced law would put the entire family—and the birth mother most directly—in grave danger of fines, penalties, even prison. In other parts of the world, orphaned children are believed to be cursed, the object of a powerful spirit’s wrath, and are neither worthy of nor entitled to dignity and protection.

    A significant, long-term investment is needed in these types of societies, and requires not just NGO generosity, but the commitment of local governments to support, foster and oversee competent social service mechanisms. It also requires the dismantling of deeply entrenched systems of power that lead to injustice and oppression of the poor. As Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” Until the Kingdom comes in its fullness, we will always struggle against powerful forces that orphan and exploit children.

    We need to reject both overcorrection and utopianism, recognizing that systems of injustice are inter-connected and multi-faceted. There can never be a “silver bullet” or a single solution to the world’s orphan crisis. We should support organizations and individuals doing good work across the entire spectrum of care, advocating for excellence in both new and existing models. We must commit to working together, valuing unity rather than uniformity.

  40. Tara, you say “The argument we are trying to promote is that orphanages should always be the absolute last resort because, unfortunately, research has shown that resorting to institutionalised care does impact negatively on all children. The evidence shows that children (particularly those under three years of age) are at risk of permanent developmental damage by not being cared for in a family setting. In addition, it’s been shown that children who are institutionalised find it very difficult to reintegrate back into society later in life. The need to move away from institutional care is not just my personal opinion. Here’s a link to some research papers on these issues:”

    You and the readers of this blog should be aware that the most recent, most rigorous and most relevant research doesn’t show that at all.

    Dr. Kate Whetten of Duke University conducted (and is continuing to conduct) the most comprehensive study of outcomes for orphaned children. Her research includes Cambodian orphanages.


    Her studies are so important because, unlike the oft-cited Bucharest Early Intervention Project, her team compares orphaned children living in institutions vs. ORPHANED children living in other settings including kinship and community care, whereas Bucharest compares orphaned kids living in the world’s worst orphanage system to non-orphaned kids in the general population.

    Whetten’s POFO data show that orphaned kids living in institutions actually do BETTER than orphaned kids living in the community when measured across a wide range of criteria.

    Here’s a layman’s summary of the study, along with some comments from Dr. Whetten.


    And it’s not just Dr. Whetten. Groark and McCall’s (University of Pittsburgh) study “Implementing Change in Institutions to Improve Young Children’s Development” indicates that orphanages should be improved and structured more like families, not eliminated.

    Research shows that the quality and the level of permanency of a child’s care is far more important than the specific setting. A family-style orphanage may (and in our experience often does) provide better outcomes for a child than a lousy kinship or foster care arrangement. We should be focused on providing excellent, family-like care in ALL settings, not demonizing one or the other.

  41. John, thanks for dropping by to participate in what is obviously a much-needed discussion.

    However, what you’re describing – “… family-style residential care, where orphaned and abandoned children are placed with full-time moms and dads, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters” – is more similar in style to what countless individuals like Tara and organizations like CCT and others here in Cambodia are encouraging than the older orphanage model that you describe as “a squalid, Dickensian, prison-like institution”.

    Perhaps you need to discard the term ‘orphanage’?

    It appears we all favor the same model and agree that residential care with family or foster family is far more desirable and has more positive outcomes.

  42. John, thanks also for your further thoughts and references.
    “And it’s not just Dr. Whetten. Groark and McCall’s (University of Pittsburgh) study “Implementing Change in Institutions to Improve Young Children’s Development” indicates that orphanages should be improved and structured more like families, not eliminated.”

    Once again, it sounds like what you’re describing isn’t an orphanage at all then, but is more akin to the kind of family-style accommodation that CCT and others provide. Again, maybe it’s time to simply abandon the use of ‘orphanage’.

    I’ll draw Tara’s attention to this and ask her to comment when she has time.

  43. Hi Julia – thanks for your thoughtful comment. Geraldine Cox is a name familiar to many here in Cambodia and it’s heartening that she herself no longer uses the term ‘orphanage’, and so I would assume no longer favours the orphanage model – some years ago her Australia Cambodia Foundation Orphanage evolved into Sunrise Children’s Village with children living in residences with ‘house parents’ who create a family-like environment. However, I understand that some of the differences that sets Sunrise and other ‘village’ models apart from those like CCT is that visitors are welcomed, which goes against a lot of the current “children are not tourist attractions” thinking, and child sponsors can also visit at any time.

    You’ve probably read these, but there’s an interesting collection of articles on Cox, some quite old now, at http://andybrouwer.co.uk/cox.html

  44. Hi Lara,

    Thank you for your interesting article on a complex topic. I am sharing with you a brief overview of my volunteer experience in Cambodia.

    I am a medical doctor who founded a humanitarian aid organization that provides free medical care to poor Cambodians who have no access to affordable medical care.

    Cambodia has a severe shortage in medical professionals. According to WHO (World Health Organization) data, there are 2.3 physicians per 10,000 inhabitants in Cambodia. (The regional average is 14.5, and in the USA there are 36 physicians per 10,000 inhabitants).

    Most of our patients live in remote villages which are three hours by car from the nearest medical facility. The vast majority of the patients lives on US$0.50 per day.

    Cambodia has one of the highest child mortality rates in Asia. According to WHO (World Health Organization) data, 111 children (under 5 years of age) die, out of 1000 live births.

    Our patients ages range from 24 months to 92 years old. We treat children in orphanages, abandoned street children, and children in the remote villages.

    Over the past three years we provided medical care to more than 5000 vulnerable children.

    We provide our medical services as volunteers. Nobody in our organization gets paid a salary or is renumerated in any other way.

    Here are our volunteer rules for Cambodia:

    1) We never pay any money for the privilege of providing our free medical services. (We have been asked many times and we have met numerous volunteers who have been asked to pay/make a donation to be a medical volunteer).

    2) We only cooperate with local organizations that we have researched thoroughly.

    Here are some general comments about orphanage tourism:

    1) In our experience the vast majority of Cambodian orphanages, or organizations that care for vulnerable children, are for-profit organizations (even when they have a non-profit status).

    2) The are a few extremely well run orphanages in Cambodia. (It takes a lot of research to find them).

    3) Do not pay a third-party to provide you with a volunteer position. (Do your research and arrange the the trip yourself. In this way you can save a lot of money and at the same time improve the quality of your overall experience).

    In summary, being a medical volunteer in Cambodia can be extremely rewarding. On one side, the patients get access to a level of care that they would never be able to afford (or is plainly non-existent). On the other side, it is extremely rewarding for the medical professional to being able to help patients who may have never encountered a medical professional in their life.

    Best regards,
    Dr. Michael Wenz
    Founder & President
    Cambodia Acupuncture Project

  45. Hi Tiziana
    HIV is a massive problem here in Cambodia with the prevalence of AIDS being one of the highest in Asia, however, there are good NGOs dedicated 100% to HIV. I know of one called Khana, which has local community-based partners in all provinces of the country, including organizations dedicated to children, from other NGOs and community-based organizations to religious associations, so it’s not only orphanages who are taking care of children with HIV. We’ve met children with HIV in poor villages outside Siem Reap and it’s terribly sad. They were in the lowest category of the poor, however, fortunately they were living with their families and they were receiving treatment.
    Thanks for dropping by!

  46. Hi Michael

    Thanks for sharing the stats with our readers and congratulations on the great work you’re doing. People like yourself a much appreciated here in Cambodia.

    However, we should have clarified above: Voluntourism and Volunteering are two very different things.

    The much-needed work that qualified specialists such as yourself are doing falls under Volunteering and this need is obviously very real in a number of areas.

    Voluntourism is when tourists pay big $ to an organization, often spending more than they would on a package holiday, to volunteer at an organization. Generally, they don’t have specialist skills (otherwise they’d be doing the sort of thing you’re doing) and their contribution is often at a superficial level. They’re on holidays after all and nobody wants to work too hard on holidays.

    For the organization it represents income and perhaps a helping hand where none are available, for instance, in a remote village where most of the younger residents have gone to work in the city.

    These experiences can be terribly disappointing for the volunteer (we’ve seen people who have paid a lot of money doing little more than collecting rubbish and digging holes), but they can also be extremely rewarding (when the volunteer gets to build a house for a poor family or teach in a school). The social and cultural exchanges for both the volunteer and beneficiaries can also be valuable.

    Generally, where we object to using unqualified volunteers is when funds raised through donors could be used to employ locals to do those jobs. However, as I pointed out above, that labour isn’t always available.

    Volunteering in orphanages has its own set of problems, as children can become very emotionally attached to people who might only be in their lives for two weeks and it can be hard on the child to have to continually make new friends only have to continually say goodbye to them.

    Thanks for visiting!


  47. For the organization it represents income

    We made the hard decision early-on to not charge fees or accept donations in exchange for opportunities to visit our projects. When an organization relies on visits or “mission trips” for its operating expenses, it becomes impossible for them to say “no” when the potential visitors serve no practical purpose, are inconveniencing staff or are likely to have a detrimental effect on the kids.

    I spoke to an administrator of another organization who admitted confidentially that the frequent trips were stressful and emotionally taxing for his staff and kids, “But more than 60% of our operating expenses come from visitors. We have to pay the bills, and so we must accept all of the teams that want to visit.”

    Because we have de-linked operating expenses from trips, we are able to limit visitors to a number and a frequency that puts the kids’ needs first. It’s hard to do, but organizations really need to make philosophical and strategic changes that will allow them to raise the funds they need without putting kids’ emotional and social wellbeing at risk.

  48. Interesting, but I do feel like the article is not giving the full picture. If the ‘orphanages’ (I prefer the term children’s home than orphanage) are exploiting children that is an issue of child protection laws, not a weakness of children homes. Of course a child is better served growing in a family but the reality that I have seen us that the biological home can be toxic for a child. I myself have volunteered in a children’s home, I did it for nearly 2 years. I cared for babies that had been abandoned and left for starvation and some had been thrown into long drops, assuming that that child would be better of at home is too simplistic. Even in the west children get taken into care all the time if home situations are toxic. The home that I worked for also served as an adoption and foster agency, but the truth is some children never got fostered and the home needed aid to bring up the kids. The issue of visitors being a bad thing is very strange to me. In African setting visitors are always a good thing, they bring blessing to the home. Growing up in a biological family did we not get visitors in our homes? So why would it be acceptable to lock away children in a home and not let them experience a benevolent visitor? I find it suspect that the person being interviewed in the article is actually someone who us offering an alternative way to aid-tourism. Of course he is going to trash all other models and promote his own. Would it not have been better to have the opinions of the children themselves? I think the issue is much larger and requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders but surely we cannot be so naive as to think that one model fits all. Of course empowering communities to be sustainable is excellent but this does not negate the need for help that some places may have. The only thing I agree with the article is that one should do some research in order to help the real people in need. Aid is not bad, and children’s homes do not have to be horrible places. I have a dear friend who grew up in a home, for her the place was her home and the tourist visitors were her friends and her sponsors.

  49. As someone who helped launch a child protection organization in a developing country, THANK YOU.

    We need more people speaking up and calling out harmful practices in the development/humanitarian/missions sector. Too often, good intentions are applauded or at least overlooked as “good enough”. Good intentions are, however, not good enough. We can do better.

  50. Also, wanted to comment on Dr. Michael’s post and your response.


    Volunteerism and Volunteerism are very different. One actually has the potential to serve a purpose. Anyone who lives in the developing world for long enough experiences the gaps in medical care and other specialized fields. When someone can respectfully enter another culture and offer training or the direct practice of a skill that national folks do not have adequate access to, I would welcome and even often encourage it.

  51. Thanks again, Kelsey. Agree. From our perspective as travel writers, it’s frustrating hearing travellers rave about the ‘good’ work they’ve seen on a visit to an orphanage, where they’ve taken a bag of old clothes or some exercise books and pencils, and then continue to rave to other travellers online and back home. There are ‘better’ organisations deserving of support. There are also better ways to support. But that’s a topic for another blog post.

  52. Hi Cindy – the post was never about “giving the full picture”. It’s an interview with one expert on her perspective on the subject.

    “I find it suspect that the person being interviewed in the article is actually someone who us offering an alternative way to aid-tourism. Of course he (sic) is going to trash all other models and promote his own. Would it not have been better to have the opinions of the children themselves?”

    Cindy, you may want to re-read the article, particularly my introduction to find out why we chose to interview Tara and also click through to read her story and that of CCT, which began life as an orphanage.

    As for interviewing children, I think any child psychologist would tell you that’s not a very responsible thing to do. While as a journalist I am happy to interview kids about craft classes or sports or a children’s festival, I am not going to interview them about a potentially very traumatic subject. That would be completely irresponsible.

    “So why would it be acceptable to lock away children in a home and not let them experience a benevolent visitor?”

    Nobody is advocating locking kids away in childrens homes. The model that CCT and increasingly many other organizations are favouring in Cambodia is keeping the child in a family environment, whether that’s the home of relations or a foster home. In either situation it wouldn’t be normal for strange visitors to continually be trooping through. The issue is with the ‘benevolent’ visitor. I’m guessing that because far fewer people visit African countries as tourists, it is a very different situation there compared to Cambodia and Siem Reap in particular. Siem Reap is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist destinations and increasingly tourists have orphanage visits on their itineraries. I’ve been told by the experts and, as I describe above, seen with my own eyes, the emotional impact of continually forming relationships with people who leave as quickly as they come. Cambodia also has a very high incidence of pedophilia. Pedophiles take advantage of disadvantaged children and visits place vulnerable children in dangerous situations.

    Thanks for dropping by to share your views.

  53. Hi John

    “I spoke to an administrator of another organization who admitted confidentially that the frequent trips were stressful and emotionally taxing for his staff and kids, “But more than 60% of our operating expenses come from visitors. We have to pay the bills, and so we must accept all of the teams that want to visit.””

    And that’s exactly how and why this interview came about. We have seen the emotional strain on the faces of kids in Siem Reap who have had to say goodbye to people they’ve formed a strong attachment to.

  54. I had never really heard of visiting orphanages in Cambodia, and I wouldn’t be interested in it. I know there are people out there who might think they’re doing good, so I admire your interview for showing the harsh reality behind it. As I’ve become interested in assisting sustainable and ethical companies in developing worlds, I do my research on the company to learn more about how they empower artisans and share their knowledge to show artisans how to market and sell their products to the world marketplace. Some companies claim to assist people in the community, but learning about how they empower artisans will show you if their methods are honest and effective.

  55. Great points, Brooke – research is really key, isn’t it? And the same can be said for individuals who are thinking about volunteering, that it’s important to volunteer in a role where they’re teaching skills and empowering others to do their job rather than just taking a job. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  56. hi Lara,
    interesting article.
    I stumbled across this while conducting research about volunteering. it has definitely made me open my eyes a little more.
    I understand what you are saying. next year I am taking a gap year, and I really do want to help out in Cambodia or another developing country. I was just wondering if there is any places that you suggest to volunteer at, not just for two weeks, that will have a positive impact rather than a negative.
    and what type of volunteering is most effective (teaching, medical etc)

    are independent orphanages the same in relation to negative impacts on the children? I was looking into an independent small orphanage that is not accessed through any large organizations or packages, I do not wish to visit on holiday, I wish to make a different as I have a passion for it.

    thanks for your time, Selby

  57. Hi Selby
    First on the issue of orphanages, I think most experts in Cambodia would advise not working at all orphanages at all, but instead volunteering at the kind of NGOs that are keeping families together.
    In relation to the issue of volunteering, what you need to look for are experiences where you can teach skills that empower locals, so in future they won’t need volunteers, because locals are now able to perform those functions.
    I’m trying to identify an expect on volunteering to interview, so perhaps sign up to a blog so you can keep an eye out for that post. You could also sign up to our newsletter as I’ll give people a heads-up there when the post is up.
    Thanks for dropping by!

  58. Check out Nepal, local people are settling up shonky programmes, where they register as an ‘NGO’, then advertise themselves as an ‘Orphanage where you can teach the children your skills, or English etc’, they are also set up by big international student travel organisations in UK and USA, and try to capture the random backpacker or student on gap year.
    When you contact them, you find out YOU have to PAY up to USD50 per day to ‘board’ in terrible conditions, sharing room with others, and really basic set up, then the participation in ‘an orphange’ is all a scam, as you are actually a glorified western ‘nanny’ just getting children ready each day and walking to school, picking up from school, play time, then bed time!! Outrageous. That is a scam. Also very dodgy where they ‘get the children from’, as it is all a very strange experience I had.

  59. Hi Mary – that sounds awful. Yes, I’ve read about the situation in Nepal, which from what I understand shares a lot in common with Cambodia. How horrible. Thanks for sharing your experience. We appreciate you dropping by.

  60. First of all – sorry. Sorry for not reading the intire thread, there are so many – and great – comments. Sorry for me being such a selfish privateer that went on an Asian adventure almost nine years ago and had many great experienses with the locals; families, rich, poor, homeless people, children inprisoned, children on the streetm children at orphanages. Sorry for bying many of them food, proviant supplies, gifts for use at school, gifts for play, ice cream and sorry even money for beggars. Sorry I bourgt prints, paintings, fabrics, carvings and many other things for less money as I would have paid back in Europe – I guess that most ordinary people in S.E Asia are underpaid.
    Sorry for making friendships that have lasted for years, sorry for telling my friends and family about the poverty and undemocratic and corrupted authorities. Sorry for sponsering privately and through well known organizations to secure education, health, nutrision and hope!

    That – not only – but just because – I was invited into some institutions (that are no zoos) but gave me a tiny glince into a world I have not experienced prior to that trip.

    So bottom line: (copy paste from L.D on July 14th 2014)
    ;even hosted visits by orphanage directors and the children in an attempt to secure donations and sponsorship of children from wealthy guests.

  61. Mikael,

    Terence and I did the same for many years. Our first backpacking trip in Mexico in the 1980s we were continually giving money to cute kids who were begging but would stop to chat. We became completely smitten with one charming little sweetie called Maria who talked to us for what seemed like hours at our table outside a bar, teaching us Spanish one night, when she should have been home in bed.

    When I was travelling alone in South America I spent a few days at the beach in Northern Brazil and this little urchin of a boy, around 8-10 years old, who was selling things on the beach, came to hang out with me. I bought him cold drinks and hot cheese on the stick every day for a few days, though I didn’t buy his trinkets I guess. I was making up for lost sales. But he should have been at school.

    Those were still wonderful encounters and I have fond memories of them, even though I now know, based on current thinking, that we were doing the wrong thing because we were encouraging them to keep doing what they were doing instead of being normal little children.

    While I no longer give kids in Siem Reap (our home) money because I know how the begging gangs operate here, I still can’t help myself when I see a crippled old lady on the ground begging for money or a landmine victim selling books in the streets. Is that wrong? If they have no other form of income, I don’t think so.

    I don’t think you should ever be sorry for “making friendships that have lasted for years, sorry for telling my friends and family about the poverty and undemocratic and corrupted authorities. Sorry for sponsering privately and through well known organizations to secure education, health, nutrision and hope!”

    What are the alternatives?

    • Supporting legitimate registered NGOs/charities/foundations that run programmes to help keep kids off the streets and support impoverished, disadvantaged communities. (In Australia, there is an online data-base which anyone can access to check that a charity is registered. If they’re not on there and then they’re dodgy. I’m sure other countries must have the same. I’ll have to investigate).
    • Using social enterprises cafes and restaurants that also operate as hospitality training schools, run programmes that give a percentage of their profits back to the community or an NGO/charity that runs programmes.

    • Buying locally made products produced by NGOs, who are supporting impoverished people in the community making those products, paying them fairly, allowing them to work from home to support their family, and educating those families so they don’t allow the kids to go on the street.

    There’s lots of great advice in Tara’s interview above about why we shouldn’t visit orphanages, but this story focuses specifically on child beggars and street kids and some excellent programmes that exist to keep them off the streets: https://grantourismotravels.com/2015/03/01/why-you-should-avoid-giving-money-to-child-beggars/

    Thanks for dropping by!

  62. Hi Lara and Terry. Firstly I have to say that while I had a superficial understanding of the ‘voluntourism’ occurring within the orphanages, I didn’t realise exactly how detrimental such an activity was until I read this article. So thank you for opening my eyes and providing wonderful, educational information.

    As a parent and a Nurse(both human and vet !), child protection, health and education, along with animal protection, health and training, is a subject very close to my heart. CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER BE EXPLOITED! I am shocked at the extent to which this exploitation happens in these ‘Orphanages’ and can’t agree more that a family model care system is far more suitable and less emotionally and psychologically damaging to the children.

    I feel quite helpless when I see the adds on TV for Orphanage visits and wonder, ‘How could I get there or what could I do to help when I don’t have the financial resources to donate ?’
    I now realise, even more so after reading this, that when the time is right, It will be more appropriate and beneficial for me to Volunteer my skills instead of voluntouring with them and hopefully I will be able to not only provide quality health care to both people and animals, but to also educate and teach these skills to local Cambodians to further enable them to provide a better quality of life for themselves and their children.

    Education and Research is Key. Thank you for the time and effort you put into your education and research so that your readers are then educated and informed! Keep up the Great Work!

  63. Hi Felicia – thanks so much for your thoughtful comment and kind words! I could never have envisaged when we first published this post how much attention it would get and how much discussion it would provoke but I’m proud that it’s touched a nerve and got people thinking and talking.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head: the best voluntourism, wherever it is (but not in orphanages of course!), is the volunteering of skills and expertise, not simply of labour, time or even companionship — which Cambodians are perfectly capable of giving. As a qualified nurse and vet nurse, you’d have so much to contribute here in Cambodia. I’d love to see the day when you get that opportunity.

    Thanks so much for dropping by! Appreciated :)

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