For the million Western tourists who visit Cambodia each year, one of the small confrontations with the local culture occurs every time you make eye contact with a beggar. there is an inner conflict between our desire to help, and also our rational appraisal of whether a dollar gifted to a child is really going to make a difference, or whether it is going to reinforce an undesirable system.
In 2004, Savong recently reminded me, we were walking down Pub Street in Siem Reap where I attracted the attention of a series of small children each asking me for a dollar. I politely declined, one boy – who was quite crippled – somehow managed to follow me, despite his dreadful disabilities. He had a winning smile, and in the end my sentimentality and guilt, I suppose, outweighed any rational thoughts I might have had. I handed over a dollar.
Immediately a flock of children appeared. It was as if I had thrown bread to a family of competing sparrows. “A dollar,” they call, “mister, please, a dollar!”
Hard as it may seem, it is best to ignore the pleas of begging children in Cambodia. They are the unfortunate victims of a system which keeps them out of school, untrained, and more or less shackled to the life of poverty. If you want to make a real difference, then find a charitable organisation you can support. It was the next day after the pubs Street sparrow incident that I committed to Savong to support a school. Education is the best way I can think of to assist children toward a better future.
Not everyone in Cambodia who has their hand out should be ignored. In many tourists spots for example, you will see blind musicians playing traditional Khmer music. Yes, they have a bowl out in front, and they are hoping for a donation. In this case, these are adults who with the absence of any social welfare safety net, are working for a living – and boy do they have talent! By all means support them – and buy their CD as well.
in discouraging or turning away beggars, my heart is a lot harder than it used to be. In Italy recently, visiting the Vatican, I was singularly scathing towards the professional beggars – elderly women, dressed in black and adopting a kind of Mother Theresa saintliness as they worked the crowd, their hands curled as if begging for rice. I’m sorry, but they got no sympathy from me.
But occasionally I get suckered. One day in Cambodia a child came up to me, and she was selling postcards.
“No thankyou very much.”
“You have postcards, you can send to friends!”
“Oh,” I frowned, “I have no friends.”
She eyeballed me and came up with a solution: “That’s because you no have postcards!”
She had a point. I bought two packets and thanked her profusely. You had to respect anyone with that much sass.